JULY 15, 2022
If you’ve flown much lately, you know it’s been a bit, well, chaotic. Some of that is due to the fact that a lot of people have started traveling again. At the same time, airlines and airports are experiencing staff shortages and flight cancellations for a variety of reasons.
London’s Heathrow Airport is a prime example. It’s already one of the busiest international airports in the world, and it’s experiencing both a surge of travelers, as well as a shortage of workers. As a result, thousands of people are leaving the airport while their bags stay behind. There just aren’t enough workers to keep up with the volume of luggage passing through the airport.
On Monday, Heathrow attempted to manage the chaos by limiting airline capacity. That resulted in canceled flights. In one case, Delta said it led to roughly 1,000 pieces of luggage being left behind. The passengers were able to be rebooked on other flights, but their luggage stayed behind. That is, until Delta came up with a brilliant idea.
The canceled flight couldn’t transport any passengers, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t carry their baggage back to the U.S. So Delta loaded up the Airbus A330 with 1,000 pieces of luggage and flew them to Detroit where they could be transported to wherever the passengers ended up.
Obviously, airlines have had a rough go. First, the pandemic brought air travel to a virtual halt. Then, as people started getting on planes, it has been hard to manage the balance between a surge in passengers and a shortage of staff.
Airlines have tried to manage. For example, most U.S. airlines have trimmed their schedules, but it hasn’t stopped a wave of canceled flights. That leads to overbooked flights, where there are more passengers than there are seats.
Just a few weeks ago, our family was on a flight from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis, where Delta was offering passengers $10,000 to give up their seats because the flight was overbooked. At the time, I wrote about the experience and suggested that if your job is to take care of customers, it’s on you to do what it takes to live up to the promise you made.
Flying 1,000 pieces of luggage across the ocean on an otherwise empty plane so they can be reunited with their owners seems like the same sort of thing. To be fair, the plane had to get back to Detroit regardless. Just because you cancel a flight when the airport won’t let you fly any more passengers doesn’t mean that plane isn’t needed to fly other passengers to other cities.
Loading that flight with luggage that had been left behind due to the operational chaos at Heathrow is a pretty “creative solution” to a miserable problem. On the company’s recent earnings call, CEO Ed Bastian described it this way:
We had a separate charter just to repatriate bags back to customers that have been stranded because of some of the operational issues that European airports were having. We did that on our own nickel just to reunite our Delta customers with their bags as quickly as possible.
I guess the only thing I take issue with is that, while it’s great that Delta flew the bags back on its “own nickel,” to be honest, that’s exactly what the airline should do. Passengers paid for a ticket from London to wherever, and it’s a pretty reasonable expectation that their baggage would make the same trip. If it doesn’t, that’s a poor experience.
If you show up in Detroit, or San Francisco, or Miami, or Chicago for an important meeting, only to discover all of your clothes are still sitting in the baggage area at Heathrow, you don’t care what caused it, you just know you’re having to buy a new suit. At that point, you’re not worried about how the airline gets you your bag, you just care that it shows up.
I think that’s the lesson for every business: If your customers have a poor experience, it might not be your fault, but it’s still your problem. You have a choice: You can pass the blame to whoever might have caused the problem, or you can just solve it. I promise your customers aren’t all that interested in why things went wrong, they’re just counting on you to do the next thing to make it right.