There is a school of thought that says when you’re in a hole the first step out is to stop digging. Yet, in spite of this, everyone from politicians to airline CEOs seem committed to the idea that if bad communication can create a problem, it can also make it worse.

Take the recent kerfuffle over the doctor thrown off the plane by United Airlines. Airlines, particularly legacy airline operations that have taken it in the shorts the last dozen years or so, have strugged for profit margins, and they have tried diligently to improve their images and their bottom line while at the same time reducing their costs (by cramming more seats in small planes). Whereas you used to get a meal fit for a toothless nursing home resident on aircraft, now, if you get a meal at all, you pay for it and it comes with plastic utensils that usually won’t cut the plastic housing your 100% inorganic protein source. Meals are gone, comfortable seats are gone, and attractive flight attendants are gone. Now we have so loosened the rules as to who can be a flight attendant that 60 year old 60 pound overweight males serve something resembling coffee on aircraft that used to be considered the Friendly Skies.

Flight Attendant:  Whatchu want?

Me:  Uh, Coke please.

F.A.   You too fat, boy, here’s a Diet Coke.

Dumbing down the personnel requirements, however, has not done much for improving the IQ of the people operating the airlines. United had to get its affiliated aircrew of four people to Louisville. Instead of putting them on the next flight, or using a different airline, they decided to bump passengers that had already boarded. In other words, it created the need to deplane the passengers, and then acted as though the aircraft had been oversold. Instead of ratcheting up the money offered to get someone off the aircraft it instead resorted to throwing the passengers off the aircraft that had already boarded.

One guy didn’t want to go. He’d been seated. He had a reasonable expectation of getting to where he was going. But instead, he was forcibly deplaned using techniques usually reserved for getting feces-slinging prisoners out of prison cells. And in the age of “everyone has an Iphone” the entire debacle was captured in living color for all the world to see.  Apparently the Chicago Aviation cops thought this would be a good time to go Rodney King on the poor guy.  This has spawned so many funny memes that you can hardly keep up!

Now, at this point, if the CEO had simply gone on TV and said “we really screwed this up,” they would be in better shape. Instead, he reveals the crew-routing rationale and tries to reassure not his customers but his employees. This is the really stupid.  Do CEOs get screened for their ability to communicate?

But even more stupid is the idea that you can’t empower employees to create a solution to this kind of mess. I recognize that it might have been easier to just say “well, no one took the $1000, so we had to kick someone off,” but until you’ve offered up to the maximum (roughly $1400) you don’t know. There are very few people who would not have taken the $1400 and a later flight. You can’t tell me the entire airplane was filled with people who wouldn’t have snapped up that deal like a hungry alligator. And even if you had to offer $2,000 to get people off, that’s a lot cheaper than the cost of this public relations debacle which at present is almost $1,000,000,000 in lost shareholder value. If I owned United stock right now, I’d be gunning for the CEO’s head on a platter.

Most people in business have a really dumb idea of what good customer service looks like. They look at the absence of complaints as the presence of satisfaction, when the two are not even close to the same thing.  There is one airline, however, that understands customer service perfectly.  They do their best everyday, but they don’t take any shit from people who simply refuse to be pleased either.  I like that!  You know who this is, right?

I hate flying Southwest. I hate not having an assigned seat. I hate the way the great unwashed use Southwest as the Greyhound Bus of the Air.  This is not SWA’s fault; their prices are the lowest going.  But still there is no more odious experience than being seated next to someone who is unfamiliar with soap and has no experience washing their nasty body odor off.  Or my other favorite, sandwiched between two Sumo wrestlers (or people who could BE Sumo wrestlers).

But the fact is, I fly SWA in large measure for these reasons: (1) if you have a boarding pass, you’re flying; (2) they get where they’re going; (3) usually they’re on time; and (4) they have great customer service.

Go to any airline in Atlanta to check a firearm and you immediately get crap about why you’re flying with a gun. For heaven’s sake don’t try to soft-pedal it and call it a firearm. They just look at you. Then they practically yell “You’ve got a GUN?” Yeah, thanks for that sweetheart now the TSA think I’m freaking Abdul the Butcher.

Go to the SWA counter, declare your firearm, sign their little form, take your bag to TSA, all in a days work. The SWA people are friendly, helpful, and they move you along. They do not act like they’ve never seen a firearm before. In short, they know what they’re doing. You can’t say that about many of the other airlines. In fact, some go to great lengths to suggest you can never travel with a firearm (Frontier, I’m talking to you!).

So even though I don’t much like the on-aircraft experience, I fly SWA because they offer good value and they get where they’re going. That’s a lesson that the legacy airlines need to learn. Because right now, SWA is kicking their ass, while they’re busy kicking the customers.

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