In the last 24 hours, I had two very contrasting experiences with air travel, which, I believe, illustrate how to (and not to) compete globally.
The first event happened around yesterday afternoon. My Sister and Brother-in-Law, along with their 5 year old daughter, turned up at the Delhi airport for their 530pm flight to Kolkata. Indigo, an Indian airline whose principal claim of differentiation is based on their punctuality and professionalism, informed them that the flight is late, delayed by an hour or so. As they checked in, though, the flight continued to be delayed. By the time my sister started talking about this in WhatsApp, it was already around 9pm. I, with many experiences with delayed flights, almost casually commented that the airline must have been taking good care of them! To my surprise, it turned out that not only the airline has not been able to confirm when the flight would leave, they did not offer food, any place to stay, and their ground staff has simply disappeared. When some people enquired whether they can get a refund, they were told they can not, unless the flight was cancelled.
I was surprised to hear this, and was forced to look up passenger rights in India. I did find it - the Ministry of Civil Aviation (see here) clearly mandates the airlines to provide food in case of a delay and accommodation if the delay is too long - and sent it to my sister over WhatsApp. They had to then go into a wild goose chase around the airport trying to find a person to talk to, and once they found someone, the answer they got was surreal: Because Indigo is a budget airline and do not serve dinner, they would not offer food even if the flight is delayed. This was late in Delhi - already 10pm by then - and clearly, the Indigo staff was bluffing, evading and mostly staying away.
At this point, I took on Twitter. My few messages brought stock replies - sorry for the inconvenience and we are doing our best - but it did connect me to many other people reporting horror stories from Jaipur and Delhi. The experience was similar: Indigo flights are delayed, 6 hours and more, and the staff has run away, the phones are not being answered, social media messages are being stonewalled with stock statements, and if a stray staff could be confronted, they are trying to bluff or bully.
The flight ultimately left at 3am, with a 10 hour delay, and some food was offered at around midnight. If the whole thing was not so painful, it would have been a hilarious spectacle of incompetence - aborted boardings, confusions about baggage loading, mistakes about boarding passes, everything at the same time! There might have been a real reason - weather and airport congestion were mentioned (though neither explains the extent of the delay) - but the whole storied Indigo punctuality seemed to have fallen away at the first sight of trouble. The airline clearly was not accountable - it treated the inconvenienced passengers with contempt and bureaucratic indifference - and its staff spun stories, regardless of their obligations by law, to mislead and to bully.
However, if my faith on the whole Airline business was about to be lost, I was pleasantly surprised this morning. I am also going to India and when I tried to book the Emirates Chauffeur Drive service, I was told it was too late. So I called the Emirates Call Centre, and a helpful agent booked the service for me. She was so helpful and forthcoming that I thought of making a request: Few days ago, I made an upgrade for my wife and my son, but made a mistake so that only a segment of the journey, and not the whole journey, was upgraded. It was clearly my mistake, and the only way to rectify it is to pay a $1000 fee and upgrade the bookings in a different way. However, I requested, could she possibly look into it and help me rectify the booking? If she said no - and I was expecting her to say no - I had nothing to say. For all commercial reasons, I was expecting, she would ask me to pay the additional $1000, which is an option I could see on my booking screen. Instead, however, she listens to me and then explains why this is very difficult, as my previous upgrade has to be cancelled without a penalty and a re booking has to be made - not a straightforward thing that the system allows! She said she would try - and call me back if she managed to do this.
At this point, my faith in humanity was almost restored. That she called me back in an hour, apologised for the delay as the process was complicated and she needed her manager to approve a few things, and then informed me that she had done the necessary upgrades, made me write this post. The person I spoke to is a Customer Service Agent, possibly lower in status and pay than the Managers of Ground Staff in Indigo Airlines in Delhi. Irrespective of the situation, both were non-standard contexts: In the earlier, the airline had an obligation; in the latter, it was I who made the mistake. One set of people, in Delhi, go into hiding and mislead the passengers; the other person goes out of her way to help me.
So, as I write this, my head is filled with the Why question. Why do people behave so differently? Is it because the people are so different? Can Indigo really rectify the situation, if they wanted to, by singling out who was at fault in Delhi and firing that person (which is what they would possibly do when the brand damage from yesterday night becomes clear, or complaints of DGCA come to bear)?
The obvious answer is that this is a culture question. Indigo, enjoying the boom in Indian passenger numbers, have forgotten the future. Though its success depends a lot on people's disaffection with India's state-owned Air India, infamous for its indifference to passengers, it has adopted the same bureaucratic indifference to people who fly them. In contrast, Emirates, which came from behind and built the world's largest airline, still faces the pinch of global competition, and has built a culture of treating its passengers as people, who need some respect and little indulgences, just as I did this morning. My sister felt powerless and humiliated by Indigo yesterday; I felt respected and loved by Emirates today, but both those emotions stemmed from essential strategic assumptions that these companies built their businesses on.
One of my objective is to build the World's Friendliest Business, something that would treat people who work for it and who do business with it with respect, love and humility. This puts me at odds with many businesses, which would rather define everything by a process and leave little for human discretion: My point is that even if I want to build a process for 'friendliness', processes always bureaucratize and process-owners would always aim to accumulate power - in the end, dumbing down in a zombie form like Indigo in my example. My thesis is that one needs to build it around people - and make everyone empowered like the person in Emirates who made my day today!
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