Richard Turen
Richard Turen

It has been my long-held belief that air travel is best handled in a self-induced state of tranquility. I always want to be relaxed when I fly, and I consciously work to place myself in a kind of Zen state. Whatever that is.

So last week, I had planned to arrive at Chicago O'Hare at about 12:30 p.m. for my 3 p.m. flight to Fort Myers, Fla.

I planned on getting lost in the process of returning my Hertz rental car, but that didn't happen, and the entire process from stepping out of the car in the return lane to my drop-off at American took seven minutes. Now I had three hours and 45 minutes until departure. No problem, security at O'Hare was good for an hour at least, and then I could check my email.

On this Thursday, however, I got through O'Hare security in nine minutes and even received a nice compliment from a flirtatious TSA agent. I quickly found myself spun out into O'Hare's Terminal 3, just narrowly avoiding a cop on a Segway whom I had somehow failed to hear behind me.

I stopped at a bookstore just to see all of the exciting new books I would never, as a full-time travel consultant, have time to read. Then coffee, then a sandwich at Starbucks, because somehow I imagine that the hidden prep crew that prepares the sandwiches at Starbucks is more likely to be wearing proper food-handling gloves.

So now it was just two hours before my flight, and I headed to the gate. There were still some seats available, and I started working on my email. An hour later, my phone started to buzz. American was notifying me that the flight had been pushed back an hour and 15 minutes. Then, in the space of 15 minutes, it trembled three more times, alerting me that it had been delayed again and that the gate had changed.

I wandered over to the new gate and noticed a crowd forming. The Florida-bound guests needing wheelchair assistance had already taken their place in line, each with an attendant standing by ready to assist with boarding. But that was not to happen just yet.

I called my wife to say I wouldn't make it home for dinner.

Then there were two announcements over the public-address system for the substantial throng. As American does not require spoken-language skills from its counter personnel, no one standing in the gate area waiting to board understood a word. I watched as groups of men wearing golf apparel approached the gate agents for a working translation. They brought back the news that there was another delay because the flight was late coming in from Detroit. We all waited, and we were polite.

Then came another announcement, this one explaining that our plane had landed but that one of its three restrooms was inoperable. We stood for another hour until the plane had disgorged its Chicago-bound guests. No one sat down, because surely we would be boarding at any moment.

No one was paying any attention to the folks lined up in their wheelchairs. Interaction with the "guest" is not a prerequisite for those who assist those who need assistance. It should be.

Finally, about three hours after our originally scheduled departure, a new, actually honest announcement: "Crews are working to fix the toilet." We all pressed closer to the gate. It wouldn't be long. I was now beginning my third hour of standing at the gate. This bothered me only because I was the only gentleman in the immediate area who did not have perfectly coiffured, white "retirement hair."

Finally, another announcement. Would we be boarding? Not yet. We were informed that the toilet "cannot be fixed" and that a decision would have to be made on whether the plane was still "usable."

About 45 minutes later, another gate announcement: "It has been determined that we will be using this aircraft with only two toilets. We recommend that you use the restrooms in the terminal before boarding."

Fifteen minutes later, we boarded. Then something interesting happened. We were all beaten down and exhausted, but there was one flight attendant who seemed to be in charge, and she was smiling and speaking to everyone she passed. Then she stood in the middle of the section and, in a rather loud but comforting voice, this is what she said to the assembled passengers:

"Look everyone, I know you all had a really difficult time in the terminal. I know that many of your plans were disrupted, and you are not happy. But I want you to know that is all behind you, because you're in my house now, and in my house, I am gonna personally make sure that I do everything humanly possible to make this the best flight to Florida you've ever taken."

She then took over and actually started turning things around. She made everyone smile and, along with her crew, was doing all she could to get everyone extra cookies, extra pillows and the kind of loving attention that harks back to the good old flying days some of us remember.

I am a fan of American, and I have a bit of low-end status with the airline. I've noticed that our president seems to be a fan, as well. I've seen him and his supporters wearing these red baseball caps, and I think the writing says, "Make American Airlines Great Again." I want to support our president in that regard, so I now have a "Make American Airlines Great Again" sticker on my bumper. I think it's great that he is a fan of American. I didn't even realize he flew commercial.

The leader of the free world wants to make American great again, but it seems to me there are some folks up in the sky and on the ground who are already making those efforts.

The experience I've recounted, which is not unlike those our clients go through from time to time, might have ended there.

But it didn't. Yesterday, I received a letter from American's customer relations department referencing my flight. It was a form letter, to be sure, but it began with the words "We are so sorry." It then went on to explain that American recognized the inconvenience caused by the departure delay. The airline apologized again and asked me to give them another chance to serve me better.

That won't be an issue, American. Your flight attendant had me at "You're in my house now."

The letter closed with a link that would show me that American had added several thousand frequent flyer miles to my account by way of apology.

I missed dinner at home, so I ate on the plane. I arrived in Florida already feeling that my flight delay was, somehow, less important than it had originally seemed.

Driving back to the house, I thought about how many opportunities we have at the agency level to turn things around when service goes south. I thought about backup plans, creative gifting programs and profiles for each guest that make it readily apparent how we might take corrective action that would be impactful.

It all revolves around a mindset that having the chance to improve a bad travel service situation is really an incredible opportunity.

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