When It Really Matters

When something goes wrong you really get to find out the quality of an airline. Even when you’re the one who got it wrong.

I have always regarded the true test of any airline as how they handle it when something goes wrong. Decades of flying with Thai Airways has reconfirmed this principle again and again, going to extraordinary lengths to make good when a flight gets cancelled, or countless times to move me to an earlier connection. They deal with the person, not just a passenger.

For the most part the same cannot be said of my experiences with Australian run airlines. I stopped flying with Qantas because I got sick of being bumped to a later flight when it suited them. That time Alan Joyce shut down the global Qantas network and stranded tens of thousands of passengers because he wanted to play hard ball with unions has done little to encourage a rethink. I also avoid Jetstar because they’re owned by Qantas anyway, and usually when I fly I actually need to get there. Cancellations or an 18 hour delay can cost me a job.

One Australian airline surprised me however. And when I least expected it.

Several years ago I was attending a product launch in Sydney and was flown up from Melbourne for the event. I spent the night with a friend and got to meet his recently adopted baby girl, a toddler barely bigger than a basket of laundry but with enough joy to fill a room. At the end of my Sydney trip I went through the usual mindless procedure of checking in, loitering around the food hall and taking up the zombie position at the departure gate. That was when my phone rang.

The next hour or so remains fuzzy in my head. That little toddler, aged somewhere close to three years old, had passed away in the hours since I left my friends house. I wont go into details out of respect for the family. Following that phone call my awareness of anything around me dissolved, as I slowly absorbed the situation, and even though I was standing at the departure gate I still missed boarding my flight. I wasn’t chatting on the phone to people, I wasn’t checking my Twitter feed and I wasn’t distracted by Angry Birds on my phone. I just wasn’t present in my body, and the plane took off without me.

When I finally regained a sense of awareness I went to the gate desk, and was told by the Virgin staff that I had to go back to ticketing to try and get onto a later flight. They couldn’t do anything at departures.

A little desk opposite the check-in counters was manned by two ladies, and a short queue of people were waiting to change their flights. I listened to several people try to talk their way out of paying a fee to swap tickets, and the various modes of aggression they employed to belittle the Virgin staff. When it was my turn I simply said I missed my flight, how soon can they get me back to Melbourne? She was professional and polite, with a touch of bright. She informed me that in all likelihood it would be the last flight tonight, not the next one, and the fee to change is $100. I put my credit card on the desk and said thankyou.

Her fingers clacked away on the keyboard, she stood facing her screen. Without looking away from the computer she casually she asked if I had gotten caught in traffic? Suddenly I was dragged back into the fog, immersed in the reality of why I missed my flight in the first place. I had not prepared myself for the difficulty of trying to explain my situation. I have no idea what I told her. It would have been very few words, spoken very softly. Just the bare facts. Something like, “We got some bad news today, anything to get home quickly would be a big help.”

The clacking of the keyboard paused. I didn’t have a long ranting story, I didn’t put on a show and there I made no attempt to wangle the system. She simply worked out that whatever kept me from making the flight was something better left unspoken. The clacking on the keyboard started again. A boarding pass was handed to me along with my un-swiped credit card. “You’re on the next flight, leaving in 30 mins. No charge for the change today.”

It was difficult to thank her without losing my emotional state. It was a gift of kindness that effected me deeply. She made it as easy as possible for me move forward and complete my homeward journey. It’s not a moment I will easily forget. I never got a chance to properly thank her or the airline for that gift. How do you do that?

If Alan Joyce and Oscar Munoz have taught us anything, it’s that corporate cultures can become so toxic that they forget why people are buying their product in the first place. When we buy an airline ticket we are not making a business transaction. It’s not just a purchase. It’s not just business. People board aircraft for the most personal of reasons. There are always emotions connected to a journey, be they a desire to get home and hug your family or the relief of leaving your world behind.

United Airlines has gotten into the habit of operating with a rule book. They used those rules to the point of physically assaulting a 69 year old man so that United Airlines employees could be given his seat. A company that puts their rules before respect for human dignity does not deserve your custom. Pick an airline that treats you like a person, not a product.

Post Script

In 2013 I wrote a blog piece about my experience with Chine Southern, and a crazy “Amazing Race” style escapade through Guangzhou airport. It was a great example of seeing how far a company will go to put things right.