You may have read the story of Annie and Perry Klebahn, the parents whose daughter went missing in Chicago’s O’Hare airport after a series of grievous mishaps by United, the airline flying the young girl to camp. I won’t rehash the entire story; you can read it here or see the video here. Suffice it to say, this truly was every parent’s nightmare, exacerbated by the incompetence and complete lack of a moral compass by every United Employee who came in contact with Phoebe and her parents throughout the girl’s journey.
Contrast that with a recent experience my family had with JetBlue, an airline which is known not only for its eccentric “personality” and free inflight entertainment, but also for its exceptional customer service. Yes, the airline makes mistakes. And yes, unaccompanied minors on JetBlue end up in unexpected situations because of mechanical issues, weather and the like. But here’s where the real difference between the two airlines becomes apparent: JetBlue demonstrates a passion for customer service and a need to do the right thing all of the time.
My cousin’s daughter flew up to Boston to stay with us for a week. As an unaccompanied minor, she was escorted to the gate in Dallas by her mother and met by me at the other end in Boston. When the fun-filled week was up and it was time for Kaela to leave, we followed the procedure in reverse: I put her on the plane in Boston and Kaela’s mother went to the assigned gate at DFW and waited for her plane to arrive. But it didn’t. Weather in the Dallas area forced Kaela’s plane to land in Austin, TX, a four-hour drive. The plane was grounded and all passengers were allowed to deplane for a while…all except the four unaccompanied minors on the flight. Instead, a wonderful flight attendant – who was responsible for their well-being during the flight – gave them food and beverages and let them look into the cockpit and run around for a bit. Never did they leave his sight as they waited for the weather to clear.
But when it did many hours later, the pilot had reached his maximum flying time and couldn’t pilot the plane up to Dallas until the next morning. The airlines offered to put the children up in a suite with a flight attendant as a chaperone, but the parents weren’t keen on the idea. So JetBlue listened and chartered a bus up to Dallas to take the kids home. And then they offered the families an apology and a credit for their next JetBlue flight because of the inconvenience. Yes, the evening was chaotic and nerve-wracking. But real people at the airline kept parents and guardians informed and updated…and did their best to entertain the four children.
I think the moral of the story is rather apparent, but certainly bears repeating because clearly, United could learn a lot from JetBlue:
- You have an obligation to do the right thing by your customers, especially if children are involved. Not because of the potential for negative PR if you don’t, but because no one should be made to suffer the way the Klebahns did. You hear me, United?
- Social media can be your greatest ally, but also your mortal enemy. The Klebahn story went viral as stories like this are bound to do. Only then, apparently, did United step up and offer a tepid apology. With a petition on Change.org to drastically overhaul United’s unaccompanied minor program, a damning video overview on msnbc.com and hundreds of seething comments on story-related blogs, it’s amazing that United hasn’t done more. Ideally, United would have gotten in front of the story; even as appalling as the details are, the airline could have mea culpa-ed, provided a sincere apology and offered the Klebhans some serious remuneration.
- Empower your employees and reward them when they step up. Employees who go above and beyond to provide exceptional service will be emulated by others in the organization; it’s that “pay it forward” mentality that companies need to encourage. Let them know it is okay to stretch boundaries when it’s in the customer’s best interest. And stand up and shout when they do something exceptional. The last thing a desperate parent wants to hear is “I am going off shift and cannot help.” Don’t tolerate indifference.
JetBlue, my hat’s off to you for your exceptional service and support during a difficult time (although, apparently, the children had a blast!). Continue to lead the industry in customer experience and you’ll always have my business.