I had to travel for my day job last week, and had the absolute worst experience ever with an airline. While I’m going to rant a bit, it’s more for context than it is to trash the airline, so I will leave the airline name out of this. I had a ticket for a 1:30 flight on Thursday. It’s a flight I take with some frequency, as I’ve made this trip 9 times in the last six months. We take off and 20 minutes into the flight, we’re told we must return to our departure city because of engine problems. We get safely back on the ground and get off the plane and wait four hours. At about 6:30, we’re told the plane is all fixed and it’s time to go again. We take off, get to about the same spot 20 minutes out, and are again told the plane is having engine issues and we must return again. Back on the ground, we receive updates until about 9pm, at which time we’re told the flight has been cancelled. We’re told a new plane is being flown in, and we’ll all be booked on a new flight at 9am the next day. So far, just a bad day traveling.

The next day, I arrive at the airport at 7:30am and make my way to the gate. There’s no plane there; odd since they said they were flying a new one in overnight. By 9:30am, there’s still no plane. About this time, an announcement is made that the pilot is going to give an update. The pilot takes over the mic at the counter and begins to tell a story about the mechanics of the engine and what was found to be broken so far. He also says they decided not to fly a new plane down because they didn’t have one big enough by about 20 people (odd because they moved many people off out flight that would miss connections the night before). So they were continuing to work on the old plane and would leave as soon as possible. Every 45-60 minutes, we’d get a new departure time. This went on until about 3pm at which time it was announced that the flight would be permanently cancelled. The next available flight was 6am the next day, but there were only a handful of seats left and the gate agents would help people find other flights. With no other real options that night, I quickly got online and was able to move my reservation myself to the 6am flight on Saturday.

Late Friday night, I receive a notice from the airline that my 6am flight is delayed 6 hours. I immediately call the frequent flier number to talk to someone about options. There are two flights leaving before my now 12 noon flight. I’m told the flight was delayed because the crew flying the plane would be flying in early in the morning, and needs an FAA required rest period before they can fly again. I’m also told that I’m priority waitlisted for the two flights before noon.

Saturday morning comes and I pull up the waitlists for both earlier flights, only to see I’m not on either of the lists. I immediately call and ask questions about why I’m not on the waitlists for either flight. At first I’m told that “you can’t see this waitlist… it’s only visible to internal employees” to which I ask, “what is the waitlist I see in the mobile app then?” The person on the phone cannot explain to me the waitlist I am looking at in the mobile app and the “secret” waitlist she’s insisting I am on. I decide to go to the airport as I’m not getting anywhere with the person on the phone.

I get to the airport and speak with an agent at the check-in counter. He’s able to explain to me that what I see on the phone is the standby list which is different than the waitlist which is only visible to airline employees. The standby list in the mobile app is for people already at the airport the day of the flight while the waitlist is for people that aren’t at the airport. He says he’ll put me on the standby list for the first flight, but I have to wait until the first flight leaves to be put on the standby list for the second flight. I ask him how the waitlist on the app was populated last night with a number of names the night before. We’re all those people sleeping in the airport? I also point out that most of the people on the standby list for the first flight have the same first initial and first 3 letters of the last name as the people on the standby list of the second flight. What a crazy coincidence since he told me you couldn’t be on both lists at the same time! He had no explanation and realizing that asking more questions wasn’t going to get me any real answers, I proceeded to the gate.

At the gate, I take a seat near the counter. As I’m sitting there, I overhear an agent at the counter explain to another passenger that the delay is due to mechanical problems with the plane, not a crew time delay. I go up to the counter and ask, “did I hear you correctly that the plane is delayed for a mechanical problem?” She responded in the affirmative. I asked her if it was the same plane from the last two days that they have been unable to fix to which she replied, “they are bringing in a new plane.” I about lost it at that point. Realizing that this agent didn’t have any reliable information either, I proceeded to book a flight home on another airline which left 50 minutes later. Fortunately, this one got me home, albeit 48 hours late. The 6am turned 12pm flight eventually left too, after one final delay and a departure time of 12:30pm.

I share this story because there are so many lessons that I saw for a company to take away from this experience, and having startups top of mind these days, I am constantly looking at where I can learn lessons from how other companies operate to emulate the good and avoid the bad.

First, there was so much misinformation provided throughout this whole experience. Being told “we’re bringing down a new plane” and then being told “we decided not to bring down a new plane” was catastrophic to my level of trust for this company. I received 17 different departure times for my single flight over ~18 hours sitting at the airport. After each new departure time, trust eroded more and more. After 5-6 of these, the departure time became meaningless, even damaging as each buzz of my phone was a reminder that this company has no idea what’s going on. The company seemed to put no value in keeping its word and earning the trust of its customers. This makes me think about how I want to treat my customers when things aren’t going well – certainly not like this.

Second, related to the misinformation, nobody had the right information to accurately communicate with customers. Everyone at the airline was communicating what information they had, which usually turned out to be incorrect. Because the right information was not getting to people, this made customers more upset. It wasn’t just me that was upset, but with nothing else to do but sit at the gate and wait for another update, many customers began discussions with one another about how bad the airline was performing.

Third, some really poor decisions were made. When our initial flight didn’t take off, anybody with a connection that was going to be missed was booked on other flights. That means a number of seats opened up on my flight. Instead of focusing on getting the problem fixed and getting affected customers on their way, the airline sold all those empty seats to new customers. Because of that, the customers that were stuck already weren’t given a new plane because the airline said the only extra plane they had was too small by 20 people. If this was true, and the airline didn’t book more people, the stuck customers would have been able to fit on this plane and the airline could have flown it down and taken care of the problem. To me, this was very much a decision of prioritizing revenue over helping customers that were having a really bad experience with the company.

In the end, I got home 48 hours after I was supposed to get home. The world isn’t ending, but this company has lost all my trust in a single event. I have no confidence they can handle a problem, and I don’t believe anyone working for them is telling me the truth because they’re either lying or don’t have real information. I’m not going to stop flying with them after one bad incident; everybody has those and stuff breaks, but I have no loyalty to their brand anymore, they have years to go before that lost trust comes back, and they have zero chances left. Another problem that is not handled properly and I can no longer trust that the company is competent enough to get me where I need to go. Despite this, it was a good experience for me to get me thinking about how I want to operate and what importance does the customer have in my startup.

What experiences do you have with other companies that is impacting your thoughts on how to run a company?

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