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Internal Communications Lessons from a Flight That Never Was

I am penning this blog note to share internal communications lessons I learn from a recent travel ordeal. This isn’t an attempt to grind my axe with Air France which gave me grief although my dissatisfaction with how I was treated led me to vent with many more people than I thought I would.

 After an exciting internal communication strategy meeting with my team I looked forward to getting back and rolling out campaigns and initiatives. I was seated in the plane for about four hours at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport before the pilot announced that we needed to get off since he detected an engine oil leak but couldn’t figure how to fix it! I thanked my stars that the pilot didn’t discover this leak mid-air! After alighting from flight that never was (AF 667) we were asked to collect our bags and stay overnight at a hotel provided by the airline. It was around 5pm.

Chicago

 That’s when the ordeal began. Collecting the bags meant accessing multiple floors to reach the baggage claim section. All passengers had to wait close to an hour to get to the ticketing counter and be told their next steps. We were provided a toll-free number to call back the next day and figure out the next flight. Some passengers were given a different number!

I got wind of the new number when I cross verified with another passenger the next day. By then I lost a couple of hours trying to get a response from an interactive voice mailbox.

 Transparency and consistency in your actions are of primary importance. If you share information that is meant for all audiences ensure everyone hears the same tune.

 To complicate matters, getting a room in the hotel took close to 3 hours since we had to be transported – the transfer vehicles weren’t suited to accommodate such a large cargo of luggage and there were just 3 counters. We weren’t provided food or water yet. To top it all, some passengers were treated differently due to their nationalities.

 Be inclusive in your communication and interactions. People are bound to notice and begin ‘water-cooler’ conversations.

 However calling the second number wasn’t of much help either since the message indicated two flights – the regular evening flight and another one an hour before. Were we on the latter? No idea. Not being able to interact with a ‘human’ worried me the most.

 In this age of automation and touch screen engagement this was one time I would have appreciated knowing someone who could genuinely assist. Would putting a helpdesk at the hotel have helped? Maybe.

 I met a fellow passenger from India and we decided to get to the airport early the next day to avoid any last minute concerns, especially with so much ambiguity.

 We got there by 12noon having a buffer of over 3 hours to make it comfortably for the 4pm flight. We were asked to wait again in the ticketing counter line and informed that an announcement will be made at 3.30pm. With passengers getting fidgety the airline staff seemed unequipped to provide any clear answers. When confronted each one gave inconsistent responses and pointed to their higher officer who seemed to know it all but wasn’t around.

 Having a clear process of communication and chain of command gets messages delivered consistently. If your managers have as much information as the rest you are exposing them to ridicule and it is bad for their morale. Your audiences don’t care about your internal hierarchy – they need precise information they can use. All the great work related to in-flight service, entertainment and cuisine are forgotten when other issues become top-of-mind.

After over four hours of waiting I noticed the number of passengers dwindling in the line. Word had it that some were given preferential treatment and sent on other flights. What about the rest? No word still about our fate.

 Only when I insisted that I needed to be put on a direct flight to India on another airline did they take interest. Agin, as a customer service firm until I told them to search for flights to Delhi (they were only trying for a direct one to Bangalore which never existed did they attempt that route. So we were always told there were no flights and we had to stay another day.

 Thankfully there was one to Delhi in about an hour and a half away. We were informed that the team’s Delhi office will take up our accommodation and airport transfers as soon as we land.

 With no connecting flight from Delhi to Bangalore after 9pm it was clear we had to halt a night at the city. But where were the airline officials? Despite numerous attempts to make contact no one showed up. After an hour we were told to make it to the airline office and check on our next steps. Guess what? No fax – no accommodation yet!

 Now began a different adventure. After figuring out our accommodation and with a flight early in the morning we were asked to go to the suburbs of the city and come back again. We discovered (courtesy the cab driver) that we were being short changed since the airline usually keeps stranded passengers in the city’s luxury hotel near the airport. Then to make matters worse they insisted that we share a room! And the cab unable to hold the luggage of two passengers in the boot has to accommodate it on the roof! This was adding insult to injury. After much distress we were given separate rooms and took up the suburban hotel with much reluctance considering we had only 3 hours to catch some rest.

 When you scale as an organization remember not to lose the ‘human’ touch. I remembered also the ‘Say-Do’ Matrix (coined by D’prix) which indicates that consistency in what you say and do makes a difference to your audience’s experience.

 One of the first things I did after I got home was to inform my travel desk of the incident and to take it up with the airline directly.

 I also browsed the Air France website (I found usability issues with it but that is a different topic altogether) to check for key leaders whom I could write to but I found none.  There isn’t a single e-mail ID for customer complaints! And the online form times out with an error.

 I am still awaiting a response from the airline and the travel desk on what went wrong.

  So here is my final observation.

 I penned 1100 words on a single case which upset me. If an organization is truly interested in growing as a global brand – be accessible, make your leaders available and ready to confront bad news.

 I plan to –   

a) Teach this episode as a case study when I talk to students at the B-schools I visit

b) Delve deeper into what internal communicators can gain from the incident

c) Pursue this case and offer my services to Air France in improving their customer experience and internal communications.

I am not a frequent traveler and maybe my expectations of travel are a bit removed from reality. I am interested to know your viewpoints.

2 thoughts on “Internal Communications Lessons from a Flight That Never Was

  1. A very good note with valid communication lessons. I read all your notes and take note of all the intersting thought processes.

    This expereince of yours is unbelievable as the whole world harp about India being the worst in cusotmer service. Last week, I overheard a US returned Indian speaking on phone (at Bannerghatta National Park) about how pathetic is the service in India wherever he goes. I felt a little bad hearing that. So this note comes as a surprise.

  2. Your observations are indeed very interesting. Lots of lessons to be learnt there. This also goes to show how Internal Communication can impact business – a question that continuously lurks on the minds of Internal Communication professionals. Would certainly like to know your views on this.

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