A Product Manager Endures the Airport During a Pilot Strike

It's the holiday season, and unfortunately for all of us, Elon hasn't perfected teleporting yet, so we have to stick with planes to get around the country - and the world. 

I'd rather be at dinner with Roy Moore than stuck in an airport dealing with airlines. (I'll save the subject of airport security for another time - it deserves an entire post of its own.)

 This is a happy family looking carefree at an airport. This image is a lie, and something that has never happened in the entire history of airports.

This is a happy family looking carefree at an airport. This image is a lie, and something that has never happened in the entire history of airports.

User Experience Problems for Airlines:

  • Airlines are partnered with so many other airlines that it's impossible to discern which airline to blame for operating your particular delayed or overbooked flight.
  • Even if you book a flight through Delta.com, they will defer to the operating airline if there's a problem.
  • Even if I do prefer a particular airline, there is no way to purchase a ticket for that airline, because it may unknowingly be operated by some other airline.
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From a user perspective, all of this airline partnering is invisible when we buy a plane ticket online. In this particular case, I went to Delta.com and bought a plane ticket to Medellin, Colombia. Simple, right? How was I supposed to know the flight was operated by AeroMexico?

And yet, this small detail became extremely important when all AeroMexico pilots decided to strike in Mexico City on the exact day I had a connection through that airport.

My experience was not the “happy path” user experience, being that the pilot strike was an edge case. However, as product managers know, edge cases occur 1% of the time and cause 99% of the problems.

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Here's what happened: I had a connection through Mexico City. I was supposed to fly from Mexico City to LA on Delta. But the flight was actually operated by AeroMexico. And AeroMexico pilots decided to strike. So no AeroMexico flights were leaving Mexico City, including mine.

It gets worse: AeroMexico had 10,000 passengers grounded in Mexico City, with no flights to put them on. There were so many angry passengers in line at customer service, that AeroMexico barricaded the customer service counters and would not help any more customers.

Since I booked my ticket through Delta, I went to the Delta counter. Would they help me? No. Because the flight is operated by AeroMexico. So I settled into a bar at the airport until I was tipsy enough to demand customer service from the Delta first class lounge.

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Let's look at airlines from a product perspective: 

  • As a user, if I book a plane ticket on Delta.com and then have a problem with the flight, I expect Delta to fix it. If I buy a blender on Amazon and it breaks, Amazon doesn't direct me to KitchenAid; I return it to Amazon and get a full refund from Amazon. Similarly, if I buy a jacket at Nordstrom and the zipper breaks, Nordstrom doesn't say, 'Here's the phone number for Levi's customer service." No, no. Internet retailers have figured this sh*t out. Airlines haven't.
  • As a user, I expect an efficient method of customer service, regardless of where I am in the world. Airlines sell international travel. If I'm American, and I'm stuck in Mexico, don't tell me to call customer service. I do not have phone service in Mexico - how am I supposed to call customer service? The solution doesn't match the customer need.
  • As a user, I expect my preferred airline to have standards for airlines they choose as partners. I understand that partnering with other airlines provides the user with an increased number of destination options and thus more flexibility. However, those partner airlines should be held to some sort of QA validation. Otherwise, my preferred airline should take responsibility when their partners don't meet my standards. 
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How Airlines Must to Improve Their Product

I mean, I could write an entire book on this subject. But let's start with these three points:

  • Take responsibility for all purchases on your website, regardless of which partner operates the flight.
  • Provide non-ridiculous means of customer service that fit the situation of the customer. I'm not paying $10/ minute to call the 1-800 number from my cell phone if I'm stuck in Tokyo.
  • The airline should provide me with free internet to chat online or use Skype, or provide a local phone for me to call, or an agent.
  • Stop the scapegoating. Hold your partners to your high standards, or take responsibility when they aren't up to snuff. Period. 

After calling US Delta customer service from the Delta airport lounge and waiting on hold for 1.5 hours, they were able to find me a flight operated by Delta to get me out of Mexico. Many other passengers weren’t so lucky and paid cash for new flights. This is just not an acceptable user experience, and airlines need to get it together.