You've probably taken a bit of flak so far, and when the systems are down, there's nothing worse than a whole bunch of irate customers demanding to get in. Believe me, I know- and my management has made me come up with a strict 20 minute SLA for many years now to make sure we don't get hit similarly on the systems I'm responsible for. That's not why I'm writing.
You see, I'm not so absorbed in my first world problems and entitlement to fail to realize that plus or minus a day or two, there's nowhere I absolutely need to be, in the scheme of the global economy. Yeah, instead of being home on time I missed out on this or that, blah blah, but you know what- I can see Sheryl Crow anytime, really. She's probably more fun on itunes anyway.
But in the spirit of positive, empowering feedback, I thought i'd give you a few tips.
First off, no one likes to hear bad news, but as Margaret Atwood has said, when you tell people they can't do anything, they will do worse than nothing. Clearly audible announcements, widely available, audible in the bathroom, for example, and given periodically, even if it's just a no news update, would have been much more calming than completely empty podiums and dark signage for stretches exceeding one hour. "Is my flight still at this gate?" "Did I miss an announcement?" You cannot believe what my idle mind gets up to, but that's my damage, not yours. I realize that not every gate is going to be staffed by your 'A' game people, either- but the person you had making announcements at the gate could speak less loud with the microphone than most irate customers unamplified. When people in the back start yelling "speak up!", train your people to up their communication game. And test your gate systems once and awhile- when there are other flights disgorging passengers, crying babies, and general chaos at play, your ability to queue people in an orderly fashion and provide clear messages will help calm us.
Also, don't knock the calming effect of a well placed bottle of water. Dehydration probably doesn't improve people's mood, so doling out little bottled waters at the gates says, "here, I'm doing something", and cool water can calm nerves. Rather than looking dumb, the gate attendants should be handing out bottles. Branded ones, if you want- but I'll have more to say about your misguided marketing later.
You know, i probably should just be thankful that I had gotten to the airport mere minutes before your system went down, which meant I got a printed paper ticket. But when your team stepped up and told us we were boarding, they told us that only people who printed their tickets at home could board. "Do I get to board, or not?" Now, I'm a freak, I like to be at the airport early, but it just added to my confusion and required we have a personal interaction, when a well timed, thought out overhead command would have sufficed. It was a good thing, because as I rushed the podium with my question, it became clear to me that your staff had passed out all manner of handwritten tickets, which people could not board with. Half had stepped into the boarding line, with ensuing chaos.
Now, I don't know what your policy is, but letting anyone without a matched ticket from your system through security seems unwise. As it turned out, you weren't going to let them board anyway, despite there being plenty of open seats. And to compensate, you brought a couple of TSA burly bodies to guard the ramp. It would seem wise, from a security standpoint, if you are going to have irate customers, that they be outside main security, rather than inside. As far as those TSA agents, I don't know if you didn't get their 'A' game people, either, but them joking and horsing around prior to boarding didn't send a very good impression.
But we boarded. And that's when I began to get really annoyed.
Now, I know your staff has had to take paycut after paycut, with each bankruptcy and merger, and that's no fun for them. My dad was a union man, and it would be a betrayal of the values I was raised with to lay the blame for their behavior entirely on their own actions when I know that management has probably been not very nice to the rank and file, and that frustration is ultimately what is getting telegraphed to your passengers. Now, some airlines cut right to the safety video, after fifteen seconds or less of announcing what the brand is. I know i'm flying United- I don't need an instruction on the value of your brand. But go watch your safety video right now, and come back and tell me what you think people were saying that day.
It's okay, I can wait.
Watched it? Good, you probably realize immediately that having the CEO say "we're the best airline in the universe" after having to put up with the previous four hours of clusterfuck was not what we wanted to hear. Okay, but when the other passengers start getting rowdy and openly insulting the film, we are losing attention and distracting from the point of the film, to give us the safety message we might need in an emergency. I'm not here to tell you how to run your airline, but I would suggest if you want to brag, save it until after the spiel, because unlike most passengers, I take that message pretty seriously, despite maybe tens, hundreds of thousands of air miles under my belt. This is practice, for that time when it might really matter. I'm thinking inside, what better time when the systems are vulnerable, is a time to strike. So, I'm getting upset, because i want to be in mantra mode- where are my exits, where are my lighted aisles- and all I can do is see red and hear jaws flapping.
Your flight attendants probably have pretty stressful jobs. I'd hate to have them punished, but their attitude was less than helpful. One even said during the preflight safety check, "I know I'm the face of United Airlines, but you can bet I won't be wearing this uniform to the supermarket anytime soon!" It's got to be frustrating to be paid less and less, and not have the basic tools to reduce their stress and be better at their jobs such that they can *feel*, not just be called, the best airline in the universe or whatever.
I blame this on your management- plain and simple. You aren't giving your people the public speaking training, the emotional control training, the basic lowering my stress and centering training that they seem to so desperately need. You choose silence and ignorance that day. Shame on you.
You need to know and own your problems. You need to open the kimono, and say, here's what we did wrong that day with our computer systems, so that none of the rest of you have to suffer through a day like ours. You need to take a good hard look at your intercoms, and see if the volume needs adjustment. You need to let your staff air their worries genuinely to you, and do something about it, because they *are* your face, and you don't want that to look like ass. You need to move the marketing off your safety videos- it's okay to be cute or funny, memorable- that's good, it keeps people engaged with your message. It's not a time for executive hubris. You need to have a plan 'B' that still works when your 'A' team, your 'A' game, is sick in bed.
best regards, good luck with your layoffs, restructuring and whatnot. Adding Continental is going to double your game- make sure the stress doesn't eat your lunch. Your employees and your customers are counting on you.