An inaudible hiss escaped from between my curled lips while waiting on my uber ride; the start of my 23-hour journey back home from Dallas, via San Fran, to Singapore …all the way with United Airlines (UA). I had done this sector a countless number of times, so why the sigh? Was it the connecting time of 45 minutes between flights ? Not really, as I had navigated that before, albeit in good weather.
Delay. I received an advisory mail warning me of a potential delay in flight timings due to a freak storm rolling in on the west coast. Just my luck.
I reached the Dallas airport, checked in and boarded up … 07.43 pm. Bingo! Just enough time to nestle into my seat and set myself up with a little shut-eye. It wouldn’t be long before our pilot’s announcement startled me awake with news of bad weather that had rolled into San Fran, causing a possible 2 hour delay. We were still at the gate!
And so the adrenalin flow kicks in. The UA ground staff confirmed that I had been rebooked from San Fran on the same flight 24 hours later!
I called my favourite Singapore Airlines (SQ), a star alliance partner to UA, to ask if earlier flights were available, earlier than the 24 hour wait with UA. Yes! A full 12 hours earlier! The Customer service agent went from no seats available to some and when I pleaded as a new traveller buying a new ticket – “Yes, seats are available sir.” said Peter.
That’s the quarter of a chance, I needed for my pitch what
Finally our flight takes off a full two hours late. Upon landing in San Fran I roll into the UA Customer Service desk, where I’m told that there are.. wait.. NO SEATS on SQ in their system? After a bit of to and fro with my stern agent John, I convinced him to place a call with SQ service reps. This while I was holding onto a call myself with an SQ service agent. No harm with a parallel approach and he may have a better chance than me given UA+SQ partnership, than me a whining Customer. Meanwhile on my call, a woman’s voice finally crackles through the other side of the line. My saviour! I spoke too soon as she explained that there were no seats available. Darn…
But wait, luck was on my side…
Meanwhile John (now my good friend) from UA had managed to get his counterpart on the line with SQ and managed to reserve a new ticket for me. Only one problem though – his system still showed 0 availability. It was 1am so I was guided by John to go to the UA service desk at 8am. My quarter chance now at a solid half.
4 hours of sleep in a nearby hotel and I was back to the counter. I spent 15 minutes telling Sumy (my avion angel) my story from the night before only to listen to the same response, “Sorry Mr Rao, my system shows no seats on SQ and I cannot ticket it.” Another exchange and, interestingly, another dissection to the conversation. “Mr Rao, as this delay is attributed to ATC (air traffic controller) we are not liable to transfer. Transfers are only done when it’s a fault of UA. I could get you an option on UA via Tokyo which incidentally also leaves same time as SQ. You should decide now lest this option gets full and SQ counter hasn’t opened.” I wasn’t having any of it; another stop after booking a non-stop flight? However, my chances diminished to a not-so-solid 40%… So the fight for flight continues…
“Not possible,” she retorted. Yet, I pleaded to her one last time to talk to her supervisor and she somehow managed a polite yet terse OK (there’s your experience) as she walked away squinting into her phone. Meanwhile, I mentally started preparing for the 1-stop UA via Tokyo.
After what seemed like ages, a smart young lady walks up – “Hello Mr Rao, I’m Sara and I heard about your situation.” I interrupted very quickly so I didn’t have to hear the story of ATC and their liabilities all over again. “Sara , a pleasure to have you tend to my case, and before you tell me anything, I want to assure you I understand your process. You and your staff are doing their job I get it. Allow me 2 minutes for my plea.” She smiled, “Go ahead …I am listening”. Sumy showed her the system error as I continued my pitch.
“I get it… about your systems, restrictions for liabilities and transfer as this was due to ATC not your aircraft problem, etc. For a moment, forget the systems, liabilities, and your regulations, all of which are 100% valid,” I clambered on. “Your staff are doing their job. Fine people but for a moment think about me, a PPS club member with 20+ years’ worth of loyalty towards SQ and UA (Star Alliance). With a situation like this and me having to get back for meetings Friday morning. When you and I both know there is a seat on SQ, why can’t we make this happen? Someone on your side needs to approve or if you send me off to SQ I will go, or both of us go there ?”
Sara hesitated for a moment and then went on to call SQ, only to get a confirmation of my story and the availability of the seat. She then took a deep breath before calling UA personnel and after what seemed eternity and yes/no exchanges she powered her thru logic and reason/emotion to get it done. It was fascinating to watch here amidst the small group of curious UA personnel gathered around. Seemed they never worked such a strange ask, after all their system did not allow it.
She ended the call with a smile, paused and turned to me, gesturing to her phone – “Mr Rao, you can go look for Joe, from SQ. He’ll issue the boarding pass and ticket.” Calmer minds coming together never failed. She also proceeded to remind me that this was an exception and that they would like to see me fly with United in the future. I had a new respect for her and United.
As I boarded my wonderful SQ flight, I counted 9 vacant business class seats and smiled. Now, was that a business opportunity lost in the quagmire of processes and systems? I would wear my consulting hat on here for SQ, perhaps UA as well.
• Persistence pays. All you need is belief and passion. Just a logical thread to start from but emotion tides it over.
• When in “crisis mode,” think calmly and clearly. Mull over the situation and options. Emotions, when harnessed correctly, can work wonders.
• Don’t point fingers or blame the system. You will never win. They are doing their job. Make you and your situation the problem that they can emotionally connect to instead. It’s not they or their system that is a problem. That one has to dawn on them.
• Ensure a win-win situation as far as possible. In this case, I am truly writing a strong recommendation for Sara and her crew. (Update: I did and also received a $300/- voucher and trust Sara got some accolades/recognition within.)
• Above ALL, People and actions are threads of a culture. A fabric that is built. Sara was it! In the years ahead robots are indeed predicted to take many frontline jobs, but I believe people like Sara will prevail. I have seen many companies ruled by systems and processes, usually disparate at many points and at the cost of lost business and lost customer mind share; the start of a downward spiral.
Culture a big topic, many experts on this, tonnes of definition and books etc., For me I am still learning. Still learning…probably half way thru. It’s what is tangible, and what I experience on the ground. Sara’s story is one such. Above all – people on the ground who make things happen. The very thread of an intense cultural fabric. When many such threads blend seamlessly, the fabric stands out among a million others.