By Joe Wheeler, President CX Workout

1:11 AM, May 26, 2017, the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend onboard American Airlines Flight 1876 from Philadelphia to Boston waiting to leave the gate, about 5 hours past the scheduled departure time.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is the captain. I am sorry to report that this flight has been canceled.”

You are probably thinking that the rest of this blog is going to be about me critiquing how American Airlines handled this situation, given that basically every available flight the next day was booked and virtually every local hotel was sold out. There is a story here about that, but it isn’t the one I want to tell,  the story that is more compelling, I believe, is the way perfect strangers fill in the void when the service provider lets go of the wheel.

Rewind back to 10:00 PM when I arrived at the gate to board this delayed flight. I asked a young woman who had just spoken to a gate agent, if she had any information about our departure status. She shrugged and indicated she had not learned anything from the agent. A minute later, this same agent barked over the PA that they were handling a San Francisco flight and that passengers waiting to board the Boston flight should just sit and wait for further information. Hey, we are all human; the agent was trying to help an endless stream of anxious passengers get to San Francisco, it was understandable her patience was wearing thin.

I sat next to an older gentleman who was on his very first flight to visit his son in Boston. He was nervous about the delay and if he would make it so, when it finally came time to board at about midnight, I had him board with me and made sure he found his seat and let the flight attendant know it was his first flight.

A couple of minutes before the captain’s fateful announcement, the passenger across the aisle from me, a man about my age, looked up from his phone and said, “they just canceled this flight.”

This is when it got interesting.

“Mayhem” is a word I seldom use but it qualifies here. As the over 140+ angry or upset passengers de-boarded the plane, an American Airlines agent with a solemn demeanor and little eye contact, handed out cards with a phone number to call to re-booked.

The gentleman I helped board didn’t wait for me to get off the plane. He made his way down the aisle to find me with a look of complete panic. He didn’t have a phone. He had no money. He had no idea what to do.

After talking with the airline, we were advised there were no flights with available seats to Boston for two days . I saw the young lady who I had talked to prevously and it turned out she had to be on a flight leaving Boston for South America at 9 AM. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so she was hoping to find some other passengers willing to rent a car to drive to Boston so she could make her flight.

What happened over the next 6 hours would take another 1,000 words to explain but safe to say that we three weary travelers banded together to embark on our own hero’s journey and secured a rental car from AVIS. I drove through 6 hours of rain storms to deliver the young lady to meet her boyfriend at Logan airport at precisely 7:45 AM and my new friend into the welcoming arms of his son.

Here is the punchline: After I returned the rental car, I was getting onto the shuttle to go back to the airport and who did I run into but the passenger who was across the aisle from me. It turned out he had done the very same thing and had just dropped off of two college students who were returning home for the long weekend.

Now, how many passengers from flight 1876 had turned to each other to transcend the emotional and logistical challenges that our shared circumstance presented to us all and developed solutions, I will never know. I do know this: That moment, when the captain announced the cancellation of that flight, provided the airline with an opportunity to create a world of loyal, powerful brand advocates or the exact opposite.
Like I said at the outset, my goal here was not to offer comment on how well the airline rose to the occasion or not. That lives in the opinions of their 140+ customers that had to find another way to Boston that morning. For me, what is interesting is the opportunity that exists when situations like this arise. To see the range of reactions and emotions and the “kindness of strangers” that emerges to help each other rather than assigning blame and venting on social media about the offending institution.

As I drove home from the airport that morning, tired but pleased all three of us got to our destination, this single question kept rolling around my mind: When did we lose sight of the fact that customers are more than persona’s or segment profiles? That we are all a rich mixture of attitudes and feelings and that when presented with challenges, find ways to solve them through whatever means are available.

The airline that recognizes this basic truth, and as a result, engages customers as co-creators of the experience rather than just serving passengers on a journey, will achieve customer advocacy that will set a new standard for their industry.

Joe Wheeler is the President of CX Workout. A firm dedicated to the mission of revolutionizing customer co-creation.

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