Monday, October 15, 2007

How NOT to run an airline 

For those of us living in the upper Midwest, encounters with service difficulties from Northwest Airlines are relatively common. Sometimes weather plays a role, but most often it's just an airline not paying attention to details because it figures it has a captured audience. Last night was one of those cases.

There has been runway construction this summer, which is scheduled to end this week. There are four runways at MSP, and taking one of the major ones out has put some strain on the remainder. So it came as little surprise to me, when flying into the airport last night after a trip to the West Coast over the weekend -- the reason for no posting Friday -- that I got hung up circling the airport for thirty minutes. Given I had a short connect to the commuter flight to St. Cloud, that was stressful enough.

Running out of the plane after it landed, I noticed the sign that said the plane was delayed by seven minutes. Good, I thought, I might make it after all. I have experience running through airports, but my PRs for getting from concourse C to B are now ten year old records.

I hit Concourse B at fifteen minutes before the flight is to leave, and as I approach I see people milling around the gate area. As I approach, the sign on the monitor behind the desk says the plan is not leaving for another 90 minutes. I tell the person at the desk that the monitors of departures indicated this flight leaving in fifteen minutes? She was nonplussed; "oh, they should fix that." Yes, you would think they would. "It might be longer; we're still waiting for the flight to get in."

So I watch the end of the Pats-Cowboys game -- deliciously ended with that extra touchdown to tell the world they are running up the score on everyone -- go back to the gate with 50 minutes to go and call my brother to talk about the day's games. While we talk, they back-up the departure time by ten minutes. OK, I'm getting home soon, this is fine.

I hang up, two guys who heard me talking strike up a conversation about football. A second guy approaches the gate podium. This, remember, is a commuter flight on a plane with 34 seats. There are never two people at this podium. Hmmm.

Next, they change the monitor for a flight to Eau Claire. Still say nothing.

Five more minutes pass, and they cancel the flight. "Weather related," they say, so no help with hotel. There's a late flight to St. Cloud but it's full, and so is the first flight the next morning. We are booked on the second flight. When people want their bags, they are told they cannot get them unless they wait for someone to get them and bring them to a carousel, and that this will take 2-3 hours. "But they are right there outside." Answer: Podium guy isn't the bag guy. What about a refund for that ticket? What about a bus to St. Cloud? No and no. We are left to fend for ourselves, or sleep wherever and wait for the 11am flight.

As you can tell from this post, I didn't wait. I found someone to share a $159 car rental (!) to get to the St. Cloud airport, where I picked up my car and went home. My checked bag is still probably in Minneapolis. And while we drove, there was very little rain. Indeed, MSP reported 0.13 inches yesterday.

Weather related? Or runway-closure related? And if it's the latter, where are the contingencies? What is the purpose of the second podium guy -- who said he was the decision-maker -- other than crowd control? This fellow was not very helpful and in fact quite rude. The people at the front desk would not issue a refund or any help, just giving me a book with a phone number to call today to request a ticket refund. What are they there for? To sell, only.

Is it unreasonable for me to think the airline did not have more information than I did about the probability of canceling the flight at the first moment I arrived at the gate? What would it take for me to get them to reveal that information? What is their interest in hiding it from me?

Any business that faces competition would not behave this way because if so they would lose customers. Failure to provide a service is one thing. Failure to provide anything more than a "tough luck, sorry" is unacceptable. NWA, I'm going to start encouraging people to do all that is possible to increase competition in that airport. I don't want you to fail; I want you to do better. But that means I have to act fickled.

So can I get you to believe me? Maybe I should learn a little game theory.

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