In telling a colleague about my trip home from the SAS Global Forum conference yesterday, I ended with the thought that a traveler's experience can often come down to whoever the traveler encountered behind the airline counter.
My colleague's response: "I guess analytics and standardized processes will put an end to that at some point."
I hope not, based on my experience yesterday. I've certainly had worse -- winter travel can be so tricky. But it did serve as an example of how the good or bad of a travel experience can hinge on the humans involved.
Somehow or another, I'd managed to book myself on a two-leg hop home from the SAS Global Forum -- from DC to Philadelphia to Chicago. I know my original choice was direct, so I was irritated but pretty sure I could blame only my own malfunction and not some big-data failure. My best guess is that our corporate travel app automatically popped up an alternative to my selected flight -- maybe due to price or because of alliance partnership -- and I clicked "OK" without realizing the change I initiated.
So I was headed into a potential winter storm… and then deeper into it with that Philadelphia stopover. I would have 25 minutes between my scheduled landing and my scheduled departure. Really? Even in the best of conditions, scheduling a single passenger to land and take off in such short order absolutely qualifies as a big-data failure, to my way of thinking. Again, I know I should have been paying closer attention, but I think the travel app needs some better rules for its automated decision making.
Hoping to get ahead of the bad weather, I arrived at the airport with enough time to catch an earlier flight, or so I thought. However, the ticket counter was a mess -- a jumbled confusion of people trying to get to the self-service kiosks and passengers trying to get to the agents themselves to change flights or rebook cancelled flights. By the time I made it to the counter, the flight I was eyeing had closed.
The thing is, the line for talking to a live agent really wasn't all that long, but the discussion with each passenger seemed to take an unusually long time. From watching and listening, I had to wonder whether the agents simply weren't used to working with the system in general, let alone in chaos, perhaps because of the airlines' reliance on self-service ticketing. They all seemed rather perturbed, to be honest.
Certainly, the agent who talked with me wasn't willing to toy around in the system for me. I knew a partner airline had a direct flight from DC to Chicago ahead of my scheduled roundabout trip. "Would it be possible for me to rebook on that flight?" I asked. "Given the weather, it seems likely that I'm going to run into trouble making a tight connection in Philly."
The response was rather terse: "No. We have no flights for rebooking." I was hoping she'd be more helpful and accommodating, but she clearly wasn't going to do a workaround for me.
My hopes for the next best outcome were dashed as I watched the departure time for my first leg get pushed back. I got in line immediately to talk this over with the gate agent. Maybe my flight out of Philadelphia would end up being delayed, too, and I wouldn't have anything to worry about. Unlike the earlier ticket agent, this rep was very friendly, helpful and, best yet, willing to work the system the best she knew how.
First, she looked to see where our plane was, so she could figure out a more realistic departure time than the one the airline had currently posted. Second, she looked up the gate at which my Philadelphia flight would be arriving -- Concourse A -- and the gate from which the Chicago flight was departing -- Concourse C. "Oh, that's not good," she said.
Next, she looked at other flights and found no other way on the airline to get me to Chicago. She then turned to partner flights. (Hello! That's just what I'd asked the other agent to do hours earlier.) Another airline was currently boarding a direct flight to Chicago. "Look," she told me, "I really shouldn't do this, one, because it's too close to flight time, and, two, because our alliance is pretty much over, but there's no other way you're going to get home tonight. Let's see what I can do. I've got to work fast."
With her fingers flying over the keyboard, she whipped through the ticket change and then gave me explicit directions for what I needed to do: "Go straight, take the elevator up, get to the ticket counter, go back down the escalator, go through security, look for the Dunkin' Donuts -- that's where the gate is."
The only hiccup was when I handed the change order to the other airline's agent. He looked at it with a bit of disbelief, and the next thing I knew, he had taken off on a run to go to a back office and return with somebody who had the authority to reopen the closed flight, so I could be put on it. I'm sure he was tempted to say, "Sorry, no way." But he didn't.
Certainly, many of you have your own good and bad travel experiences to share. And there are times when the algorithms and automated decision making and rigid processes will go unnoticed, because they make things happen like clockwork. But when those fail -- scheduling near-impossible turnaround times, for example -- the way the traveler perceives the experience will be through the airline employees, not its systems. People are going to make a bad experience good or a good experience better.
On my trip, one agent looked at a bare minimum of data and made a decision on what she should do. Another dug deeper and decided what she should do. So I hope that service agents don't turn into mere automatons, as my colleague suggested they might one day, and that they can retain some personal discretion.
Share your own travel stories and experiences with us. Has data helped or hurt? Have people made a good experience better or a bad experience worse? Let's talk.
— Beth Schultz, , Editor in Chief, AllAnalytics.com