This Must Be Purgatory

Ideas April 25, 2011 7:00 pm

As I sit here waiting on yet another delayed flight, I imagine this is similar to what purgatory must feel like.  Endless waiting. No answers to your questions. A room filled with crying babies and self-important businessmen.  Mostly bad, overpriced food. And a crappy Wi-Fi connection.  Yep, this may just be purgatory.

Our flight is delayed due to mechanical issues- the plane hasn’t even made its first flight of the day yet (it is late-afternoon now).  Needless to say, we’re going to be waiting for quite some time considering the backup from this morning.  And when I start to think about who could solve this problem, I’m at a loss. The poor counter agent doesn’t have much power- he may be able to rebook people on different flights, but if other flights are sold out, there isn’t much he can do to help.  Special services can’t offer much help- they can’t fix the plane…or the weather or a late flight attendant or about 99% of the reasons why a flight may be late.  Airport officials can’t change the weather or predict when a plane will break down—shoot, even pilots themselves don’t have control over most delayed planes.  So like I said, airport waiting must be purgatory- endless waiting with little answers and little hope for help.

What to do?  In the majority of incidents, the airline/airport can’t really do that much about a delayed flight- and passengers just have to begrudgingly wait it out… or are these instances largely missed opportunities for the airline, airport, or brands in the airport to make that wait time a more enjoyable experience?  Seems to me like a perfect opportunity to convert the waiting, often unpleasant customers into brand advocates: by providing waiting customers with something to make their wait time more enjoyable than if they were waiting with any other airline or at any other airport.  I think there is always the chance for a brand to gain/retain loyal customers and create brand advocates- even during a not so pleasant time.

Here are a few of my suggestions for airlines, airports, and brands in airports to make these wait times just a bit more bearable:

Airlines:

What would happen if all passengers delayed over an hour were given complimentary access to the airline club lounge?  Giving waiting passengers access into a previously off-limits club could give them a sense of inclusion and a feeling like they matter to the airline.  They are important and the airline knows they have inconvenienced them.  And not that I’ve ever been in a club lounge (I’m a good ol’ coach flying girl who is always trying to save a few extra pennies), but I imagine the club area is just a tad bit nicer and more relaxing than the general waiting area.  Plus, clubs offer free Wi-Fi and complimentary drinks/snacks—I know there is an extra cost associated with giving away a few more soft drinks and cookies, but the incremental dollars per passenger is surely still less than losing an unhappy passenger all together.  Or just throwing it out there- what if a competing airline offered waiting passengers complimentary access to their club lounges.  Say socially savvy Virgin Airlines created a campaign centered around their great customer service- customer service that was so good that they offered anyone who tweeted things like ‘stuck at the airport’ or ‘delayed at the airport’ free access to their lounges.  A campaign like this could resonate with customers who are frustrated with their current airline, and put Virgin Airlines at the top of their consideration set for their next flight.

Airports:

Seems like most airports today resemble large shopping malls- numerous restaurants, coffee shops, book stores, and even specialty shops meant to help a passenger while away the time.  And most airports offer Wi-Fi or a business center- for a cost. But what do all of these amenities have in common?  You have to pay to enjoy them.  What if airports offered ‘free’ activities for passengers? Built in play areas for young children to burn off some extra energy, a library like room where passengers could leave books/magazines/newspapers they are finished with and pick up new reading material left by other passengers.  Locker rooms for storing carry on luggage that you don’t want to haul around for the 3+ hours you’ll be waiting.  Free Wi-Fi for all passengers and more plugs in waiting areas- seriously, why hasn’t this been done yet?  Almost everyone travels with at least a cell phone, and yet plugs are few and far between in most airports.  Would building a play area or offering free Wi-Fi incur costs/mean losing a revenue stream? Yes.  But adding ‘extra’ amenities for passengers may just help airports gain loyal customers— for example, I have three choices for my flights in and out of New York- La Guardia, JFK, and Newark.  I always try to fly in and out of JFK because I can very easily take the subway there.  But if the other airports were to offer extra amenities, I would probably change my loyalty—getting to the airport quickly may be nice, but let’s be honest, the majority of flights out the New York area airports are going to be delayed, so I would much rather enjoy my time there as opposed to getting there.

Brands in airports:

Continuing with the shopping mall-esque nature of airports, there are countless brands to be found in airports.  From where I sit, I can see a Wendy’s, Cinnabon, Starbucks, and Jamba Juice.  What if these brands offered special discounts or incentives to passengers who are waiting?  These brands have a captive audience- passengers can’t exactly go anywhere else and are often looking for something to do to pass the time.  What a perfect opportunity for a brand to gain brand advocates!  For example— a Starbucks branded coffee lounge that offers a free small coffee to passengers who ‘like’ the brand on Facebook or tweet that drinking Starbucks coffee makes the wait time more enjoyable.  Or how about focus groups?  If brands know people are going to be waiting multiple hours in airports, why not take advantage of this random sample of America and create a focus group– what do customers really think of Wendy’s new fries or a new flavor at Jamba Juice?  Participants could then be rewarded for participating in these focus groups with a free meal or cash—if you’re a delayed passenger and you have the opportunity to sit and wait and spend money at the airport mall (on travel incidentals and food) or sit and wait and make money (cash payment or food from focus group), I’d think that at least a few people would choose the 2nd option.

As I approach a 5 hour wait time (with no end in sight), these are just a few ideas for airlines/airports/brands to make the long waits a tad more bearable; these ideas also create the opportunity for an airline/airport/brand to gain and retain brand advocates.

If delays largely can’t be controlled, I see two possible ways to address wait time: make passengers wait and make them frustrated and angry, ready to tell friends and families how awful their experience was, or, make passengers wait but make the experience as pleasant as possible so they’re ready to tell friends and families just how great their waiting and overall experience was with your airline/airport/brand.

And if any of these ideas already exist, please let me know— and if you can tell me where to buy an adult beverage for less than $10, feel free to pass that information along, too.  You know where you can find me, waiting in purgatory gate A12.

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