Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Information, Please

As Snowgate - the winter disruption of air and rail travel in Britian and continental Europe - cascades into its fifth day Wednesday, media reports from Europe make clear that one of the worst aspects of distrupted travel continues, too: The lack of timely, reliable information from airports, airlines and train operators to their customers.

Some of this can't be helped. Sometimes operators don't know when service will get back to normal. A decision on a particular flight hasn't been made pending a review of weather-related conditions. But that is cold comfort to stranded travelers, whose misery is often compounded by a seeming indifference to their need for information.

I know this situation well and as such my sympathies go out to my fellow travelers camping out in airport terminals and shuffling in queues outside icy train stations. It does typically snow in Europe in December, so the insufficent planing and allocation of things like snowplows and de-icying equipment is hard to understand.

Back in 2006, I was returning to California from Berlin by way of Frankfurt. I blithely assumed all would be well, in spite of the snow swirling around the airport. Wrong! We boarded a United Airlines plane at the terminal gate and sat there waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Liquid blue de-icying was sprayed on parked planes, as flight attendants served a meal and United even showed an entire movie. No one knew when or if we would be departing. Finally, the airport shut down as the snow intensified, and we deplaned. The flight was cancelled.

Inside the terminal, I joined a long line waiting to book a hotel room for the night. About midway to the help desk, the public address system crackled with a call for United customers to meet an airline representative on another floor of the terminal for important news of tomorrow's remedial plan. Several dozens of us pulled ourselves out of the queue and went to the appointed spot.

No one from United ever showed up.

I and the other strapped passengers drifted back to the hotel desk - at the end of a now-longer line, as the clock approached midnight. Eventually, I spent the night at a no-frills hotel aptly called the Terminal Hotel across the street from the main Frankfurt rail station. I caught a flight home the next morning.

United Airlines and Frankfurt airport did not cause the snow emergency, but the lack of timely and useful information to stressed travelers like myself made a bad situation even worse.

Travel-industry companies, please copy: You can give a big boost to your customer relations by striving to come up with good information and sharing it as soon as possible with your customers. It will make them feel a bit better and make you look better in the eyes of the traveling public.

Otherwise, everyone is stuck with a dreadful situation like Snowgate 2010.

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