When does a four-hour delay not feel that bad? When you have a pilot who takes control of the situation and owns it! I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another airline story about delays and personnel inefficiencies! Last Friday night, flying out of Chicago was no party. After a tough week of work, two of my friends accompanied me to the airport. There was a hopeful feeling as we showed up, looked on the departure board, and saw “On Time” next to our 4:00 pm flight. When we showed up at the gate at 3:30 pm, there was no airplane there. “Lie #1 – Your flight is NOT on time.”
When I asked where our plane was, I was told the plane was going through a “maintenance delay” but would be departing at 4:20 pm. I asked what the maintenance issue was, and I was told that they had no idea. “Lie #2 – Your flight is NOT leaving at 4:20 pm when there is an unknown maintenance issue… and no plane.”
Then came the rumor. This was the mother of all rumors, and spread among the passengers and through the terminal like wildfire. It involved severe weather on the East Coast, and a lightning strike on a tower. Airline personnel were huddled all over, but when we asked about our flight, they said that they could not talk about it. “Lie #3 – Airline personnel may not want to give out details about particular lightning strikes, but they are allowed to provide information on ground holds.”
The entire East Coast was on a ground hold and that was information that could not be kept secret from everyone for long. After a torturous full hour of no information, we were finally given the bad news: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is a ground hold on all flights to the East Coast… but the good news is we are getting a new plane because this one can’t be fixed.” With flights cancelling left and right, at least we had a plane, kind of!
At 5:30 pm, our new plane, which had no doubt been given to us from another flight that had cancelled, arrived at our gate. Despite the ground hold, we were loaded aboard, but then something happened that changed the entire experience. After nothing but lies and deception from airline personnel, our pilot grabbed a mike and spoke to us. When I say the pilot grabbed a mike, I mean this pilot left the cockpit, grabbed the microphone the flight attendants normally use, stood in the aisle in front of us, and made the following announcement:
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you all exactly what’s going on. Storms have created a ground hold for most of the East Coast and we won’t get another update until 6:00 pm. I can’t tell you if the ground hold will be lifted at that time, but when it is lifted, I can tell you this: If we move to the tarmac, we’ll be in a much better position to get routed to D.C. than if we are parked at our gate in the terminal. So we’ll get out there now, let you work on your computers if you’d like, put on some entertainment, and wait.
For the first time in two hours, the mood lifted in the cabin. Why the change? We were happy because someone had actually communicated with us. He was not deceptive, and he didn’t lie. We had gone through hours of what felt like dental pain; we never really knew how bad the pain would be or when we would feel it. And yet, by communicating clearly with us he lifted us out of our pain.
At 6:00 pm, he got on that microphone again and delivered the news that the ground hold was still on and our next announcement would be at 7:00 pm. He also threw in the fact that we were positioned beautifully once the ground hold was to be lifted. It worked again. There were smiles and hopeful chatter as the flight attendants put on a movie for us all to watch while they served us water. It seemed as if our pilot’s positive attitude was contagious.
At 7:00 pm, he got on the microphone and announced the ground hold was lifted, and we would be airborne in four minutes. Four minutes? A countless number of flights were delayed and stacked up in airports all over the country, and we were four minutes from takeoff! I’ve never seen the level of cooperation that I saw between the passengers (who sprinted back to their seats) and the flight attendants (who sprinted into action to prepare the cabin).
We had a pilot who owned the moment, and he did the one thing that no one else seemed capable of doing; he communicated! I’m not saying it took the same level of skill as landing the plane, but in my book, it was a close second. Good, bad, or indifferent, communication was the key!
Rob Jolles is the founder of Jolles Associates, Inc. He was instrumental in creating, delivering and managing Xerox Corporation’s highly touted customer sales training programs. Rob provides valuable, experience-based training to his clients, in an informative, interactive, inspirational, and enjoyable fashion.