Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, is a heavy piece of melodramatic fiction. Or so I thought. Then I was stranded two weeks ago in O’Hare Airport. I realized about six hours into my 18-hour ordeal that one of the themes of the book — the decline of the railroad industry — was coming to life before my very eyes. Only this time, it was an airline.
The day was truly a lesson in management, customer relations and operating performance. The lost opportunities as well as the outright mistakes. So for much of my time there, I was absorbed by the circus. Buffeted by fellow passengers and their sanity, I actually was able to relax and observe just how much the ability to think has been devalued in the airline industry, except when it comes to the elite — the executive platinum flyers. [Once, I was a platinum flyer. Don’t fly enough on any one airline anymore. In fact, I was flying on the last of my points, which explains why I was at the airport so long.] For the rest of us, if anyone took the risk of reflecting on the whole experience, it was demeaning and debasing.
- The gate agent who, once he got his hands on the microphone, would not stop talking. Or lecturing. Or threatening. He was attempting to entertain but came up patronizing and controlling.
- The passenger who told me how she had approached the same gate agent and offered to give up her seat. This was around 6 pm. She lived near O’Hare and when she arrived and saw the scene, she figured she could just go home and give her seat to someone who had been there all day. Well, she approached Mr Standup and offered just that — as long as they could get her a seat later that night or the next morning. Guess what he said to her: "you’ll have to pay the $100 change fee." Here was someone offering to inconvenience herself to help another human being, and this guy could not find a way to make that happen. Think of the story Mr Standup could have told from that podium: how a fellow passenger was making it possible for someone to get home that night. No, he couldn’t think off-script or off-computer screen unless it was to pontificate about how we were crowding his desk. So the airline lost a goodwill building opportunity. Not to mention a nice story that would have been told and re-told.
- At another gate, sitting next to a guy who had logged five years in the hotel business. Here’s how I knew that. We were all sitting there in the waiting "pen," when all of a sudden, an experienced airline employee [with his badge turned around so that you couldn’t read his name] started screaming at a distraught woman about how he was going to "call the police because you touched me." Now, none of us had heard or seen anything until this guy started yelling. Of course, this only got the woman more riled. So now there was a real scene, with dozens of eyes trained on it. My fellow traveler, the ex-hotel guy, just sighed and explained that there were a million ways the guy could have diffused the situation. Instead, he chose a power trip and added tension to a stressful situation.
- The pilot who growled at a weary passenger that he was blocking a thruway near the men’s room. I understand the pilot got the appropriate response.
- The equipment tango. At one of my standby gates, the equipment for a flight to New York and the passengers had been waiting and waiting. Then all of a sudden they had an "equipment problem." That one caused a near riot.
- The gate changes. This was the biggest mystery of the day. If they’re flying less equipment in general right now, and fewer planes were landing that day because of the weather, what is so difficult about assigning a gate, putting it up on the monitors and on the agents’ screens and notifying the 800 number that many of us were using in frustration because the lines were interminable? Or, when you must change gates, making some general announcements? They were forcing everyone to go to the fancy new plasma screen monitors to keep updated — which would have been fine, but I guess because they’re more expensive than the old TV screens, there are not as many of them. Which only created crowds in the middle of the concourse. This is apparently the airline’s only intersection with today’s new technology. If I were a large systems integrator, I would be chasing some business right now in this industry. But first, get yourself to an airport on the day of a big storm — the research value would be immeasurable.
This was my first, and I hope last, experience of the kind. Despite all my travel over the years, I felt like one of the Clampetts arriving in Beverly Hills, filled with wonder at everything I beheld. Or Dante descending into the Inferno, circle by circle. Since then, friends and colleagues have shared some tips for how to maneuver through this kind of a situation. One of them: if you choose to gamble with the standby game, do so only if you’ve paid a lot for your ticket and/or you’re an elite flyer. Otherwise, just get yourself confirmed on a flight the next day and get the heck out of Dodge. The airline will string you along just to make sure they pack the plane. In contradiction to the teachings of the late Professor Theodore Levitt, it’s not about helping you get to your destination, it’s about putting a derriere in every seat.
I believe the true test of a company’s performance is not when the going is good but when the system is under duress from unforeseen circumstances. As one traveler said that day, the whole experience just showed him that the system is a house of cards. Or as another one asserted, "it’s easier to get out of Beirut." If the airline is trying to streamline operations and improve employee relations to put forth true ambassadors, the only evidence I see is the article in THE NEW YORK TIMES from July 23. The competent, patient, respectful employees were few and far between that day. It was the passengers [except for the line jumpers, of course] who made it bearable. And the slapstick surrounding equipment and scheduling was unfathomable. Good businesses keep enough slack in their systems to accommodate more demand. Then they charge for it. And they don’t reward you with free gifts — like air travel — if they’re going to punish you for using for them. And I felt punished, even though I had earned every point I used back when I was flying this airline on a biweekly basis.
Yesterday, also in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Joe Sharkey explained what’s really going on this summer in the airports. He invites travelers to share their stories with him this week. This should be fun. And illuminating, if the powers-that-be choose to read the papers. Of course, they could just pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged to read on their beach vacations. If they can get there.