Flying Home Lands Customer Experience Lesson

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 stormů 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, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Editor in Chief,

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Value of the human factor
  • 4/1/2014 11:30:56 AM

Lyndon, I have the good fortune of being able to work from home, so don't routinely take public transportation. Back in the day when I did take the "L" to and from work daily, I do recall often feeling like I was in auto-pilot mode. So maybe that is exactly the future public transportation envisions. ;-)


Value of the human factor
  • 4/1/2014 10:45:03 AM


Beth writes


...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.


Well put. But the relevance of human interaction seems to be valued less and less by airlines and transportation providers. I've commented before on the ways that being able to interact with bus drivers and train motomen or ticket agents has quickly and efficiently solved problems for me, and for other pasengers. But the public transportation industry persists in its dedication to trying to "robotize" everything and eliminate all involvement by humans. Maybe they think that future passengers will themselves be robots?


Re: Data didn't help
  • 4/1/2014 8:28:19 AM

@Maryam, I wonder what our atuomated travel reservation system would happen if I passed on a flight with a 30-minute layover time that was priced substantially less than the next best alternative. I would guess I'd be kicked into a manual process, and have to plead my case with the company's travel approver. I'll let you know if that ever happens!

Re: Data didn't help
  • 3/31/2014 7:29:03 PM

Beth I have never heard of them factoring distance between gates. In fact in my road warrior days I had maps of the airports that I would reference when travelling with connected flights. There were some airports that were just impossible to connect in less than two hours because flight was often in other terminals. DFW and Hartsfield were both famous for arduous delays. I don't think I have ever left either airport on time! I don't think the software used to book travel takes connections in mind. I just booked a flight and it was offering me a 30 minute transfer in a large spread out airport. Luckily, I passed on that one.


Re: Data didn't help
  • 3/31/2014 3:06:49 PM

Eeesh! That is a nightmare if ever I heard one! I would love to know if airline recommendation algorithms factor in distance of arrival and departure gates for the flights they serve up. I know gates often change, but I don't think substantially. In other words, this flight at this time between Chicago and LA is this type of plane departing from this set of gates. Given the usual sense of panic of people on flights trying to get off planes and over to their next gate, I'm guessing the engines don't take gate potential as a variable (or if they do, not very effectively!)

Data didn't help
  • 3/31/2014 2:53:24 PM

Beth yes I too have been burned on business and personal trips by data gone wrong. Last year after the crash at San Francisco airport I was stuck trying to get back t the East coast a well meaning agent booked  me on  flight with a razor thin connection they gave away my seats because they thought I was a no show when my plane hadn't actually arrived yet. Then they forced me to travel between two terminals at LAX on foot 3 times to get mean a partner flight to an alternative airport. It was a long and harrowing day. Sadly the airlines did very little to address the problem.


In your case the app should have not allowed a connection time of less than an hour.

Re: Best thing about living in Chicago
  • 3/31/2014 1:09:28 PM

ChapAnjou, it comes down to who has the upper hand or clout between the cost controllers in operations and the customer service promoters in the organization at that point in time. Sadly, the cost guys have an easier path to argue their point because residual gains from random perks is nearly impossible to quantify. Especially at times of esterity and budget pressures.

Re: Best thing about living in Chicago
  • 3/31/2014 12:58:48 PM



I'm sure they have some kind of official policy that comps those little things.  At the end of the day, they money they're "giving away" in free tiny bottles of cheap booze will easily be offset by repeat customers.

Re: Best thing about living in Chicago
  • 3/31/2014 12:57:08 PM


Wow your story is terrible.  Good job on Lufthansa to get their customer's back, though! Hopefully that kind of stuff isn't still going on, though.

Re: Best thing about living in Chicago
  • 3/31/2014 12:53:35 PM


Unfortunately I have to agree with you on this one.  A lot of times an employee doing someone a favor is done at the expense of the company they're doing it for (giving a discount, comping a room, etc.).  I just wish companies would look past the short term effect and focus on the fact that these kinds of gestures are what make people choose one indistinguishable company from another.

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