Friday, April 4, 2008

Northwest Airlines

There’s all sorts of aviation news these days. ATA and Aloha going belly-up, others raising fares and fees, Southwest too chummy with inspectors, and all sorts of recalls being implemented.

But I’ve just completed a rather intimate encounter with Northworst and I can testify that they have miserably failed Jan Carlsson’s (SAS) “moment of truth.”

The moment of truth is a customer service concept. Essentially it states that when you have contact with a customer you have a chance to impress them or turn them off. The CEO rarely has that opportunity; it is usually the task of the lowest-paid employees.

Companies nowadays have been convinced by the MBAs that you save money by having someone in India take your phone calls or that the lady on the other end of the drive-up window speaker doesn’t need to speak English. They just don’t get the “moment of truth” concept at all.

Back to the story…Did you know that it can take over an hour to de-ice an Airbus 320? You have to work at it, but it is possible. I witnessed it myself. You can’t really blame Northworst for that I suppose.

So, that extra care in de-icing wiped out my connection time in Minneapolis. Sooooo…Northworst was kind enough to book me on a United flight leaving in 30 minutes. Off we rushed to the United gate in the E terminal. For those of you who haven’t been to Minneapolis, allow extra time to run to gates in adjacent terminals because you have to dodge all the golf carts they have using up pedestrian space!

But we made it to the United gate with ten minutes to spare (30 actually, because United was running late as well). Lo and behold, the “reservation” Northworst made wasn’t valid! The flight was over-booked, there was no seat assignment, and the gate agent explained that it was reserved through a code share with US Air which somehow made it void.

I found another Northworst gate and began to explain the problem when they told me I would have to go back out to ticketing. I did that twice more before I said my final goodbye to Minneapolis screening. (See my Homeland Security blog entry).

I discovered that for re-booking it is OK to go to a First Class ticket agent. They don’t like it but they will talk to you. A very nice Asian woman looked at my ticket, then at her screen, and explained to me that there was nothing wrong with my reservation (as though I walked away from the United gate just for entertainment).

I’m not sure she believed me until another passenger told the same story to the ticket agent next to her. Sooooo…she finally booked me for the next open flight, TEN HOURS LATER. She didn’t suggest that I get on a wait list for any of the other flights; she just printed me some boarding passes.
OK, I thought. I still get home in time to get some sleep before work the next day.

So, we went back through security and looked for a quiet gate where they had seats without armrests to allow us to stretch out for the long wait. We had lunch, did some reading, took a nap, read some more, took a nap, had dinner…the time had come to see if we could get on an earlier flight.

So we went to the gate for the 7:30 flight. We were there plenty early and got on the wait list. The flight was going to be a half-hour late but that was OK. We thought we had a stroke of good luck when they called our names and gave us boarding passes.

This was at 6:45. At 7:00 no plane. They moved the departure time to 8:00. At 7:15 they announced that they were going to put us on a different plane, this one coming from San Diego. At 7:30 they announced that the San Diego plane was on the ground and headed for the gate. Five minutes, ten, fifteen…still no plane.

It was snowing and the plows were out but planes were landing and taking off. What happened to the flight from San Diego that had landed and got lost on the way to the gate?

Finally at 7:50 the gate agent announced that our flight had been cancelled due to weather conditions. We were instructed to go back out to the ticket counter to re-book. (I still don’t know what happened to those San Diego passengers. Even if they cancelled the outbound flight, don’t they still need to let the inbound passengers off the plane?)

But I still had an ace to play; I had a seat on the 10:15 pm flight and it was still showing as “on time”. I went down to that gate but the agents wouldn’t talk to me. They had just finished loading another flight and were doing paperwork. And they were talking about their break schedule.

I interrupted them enough to learn that I would need to go back to ticketing just to check. So I called Northworst from my cell phone, sacrificing precious battery power in the process. The automated system told me all about the original itinerary, all of which had passed long ago.

I hit “0” and was told it would be EIGHT MINUTES to get a live person. I learned from the de-icing experience that you multiply by FIVE to get the real airline wait time as opposed to the estimated time.

So off we went to the ticket agent on the other side of TSA screening. I approached the agent, showed her my boarding pass, and was told that my seat assignments for 10:15 were given to someone else the moment they assigned me seats on the 7:30 flight.

She at least realized what they had done to me and made a couple of phone calls to try to get me back on that flight. No such luck; too many stand-by passengers already.

The best she could do was book me on the 7:30 flight the next EVENING. She also said I could come to the airport and go stand-by on earlier flights. (Already I was thinking, “Fool me once…”)

And she gave me a card with a phone number on it to book a room at a discount rate, not a free room, but a discounted one.

I checked the rental cars to see how much it would cost me to DRIVE to Chicago but the cost ($160) plus the weather, the late night, and the six hour drive convinced me to stay the night in Minneapolis.

So I called the discount hotel number and they were actually very efficient. It was 9:00 at night and they picked up right away. They started at the bottom with $65 a night and moved up to $99. I told her the $65 was just fine. She gave me a confirmation number and the phone number of the hotel. The hotel answered the phone right away and we were on the shuttle bus within 15 minutes.

In hindsight, a $65 rate for a Holiday Inn Express isn’t a real bargain. What else are they going to do with a vacant room at 10:00 at night in the winter? I’m thinking it is about the same as

We slept, we went to Mall of America for the day, we ate, and we got on our 7:30 flight. We were only about 30 hours off our original itinerary.

A couple of observations:
1) Northworst had cancelled the 5:00 flight on the first day. I think some of these cancellations are nothing more than accountants deciding it is cheaper not to fly that plane and move people around to other flights. They aren’t comping meals or rooms, so the cancellations cost them nothing. And a certain number of passengers will simply pay for some other way home, either on another carrier or with Hertz. They actually MAKE money when that happens.
2) The most stressful job in aviation is NOT in the control tower; it is the gate agent who must hem and haw and stall and lie to the passengers, then take the brunt of the cursing. They are the ones with ulcers!
3) When using Northworst, always pack your phone charger in your carry-on.

My real regret from the trip was that I wasn’t prepared to locate the Larry Craig bathroom stall. Now that is a piece of history. I learned later that I was in the area several times during our ordeal.

But it just isn’t the same now. They have changed the walls to minimize the space underneath and maximize privacy, probably using federal aviation dollars;)

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