Last week I had the opportunity to fly with Virgin Atlantic. I’ve become an addict of their sister airline, Virgin America, and was relishing the opportunity to see how the international service compared. Like most savvy business travelers, I packed my carry-on with cleverly matched outfits that would last me the week I’d be away, loaded my iPad to within an inch of its life with books and movies, and sent my boarding passes to the printer. Yeah, I know. I know. Mobile boarding passes blah, blah, blah. I’m a hard copy girl, what can I say?
Anyway, I arrived at the San Francisco airport two hours prior to my flight’s departure only to be greeted with … mass chaos. Apparently, the entire computer system for the airport had been down for over two hours. There were hundreds (and hundreds) of people in line at every ticket counter in the airport. Staff were passing out water bottles. They even had “wag” dogs going through the line to reduce stress. Thank goodness I had printed my — wha?! Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had left my boarding passes on the printer at home. Rats.
First, he took me by the hand.
I dove into the mosh pit and surfaced 30 minutes later with an invitation to the Virgin Atlantic club and a promise that they would deliver handwritten boarding passes in due time. Thankfully, regular announcements were being made about the status of my flight. A half hour prior to my takeoff time I still had no boarding passes. When I inquired at the desk, the club manager said “Come with me,” and personally took me downstairs, circumvented the mosh pit, and got me handwritten passes. I felt like Sir Richard Branson himself, only taller and more female. And maybe not quite as rich. But equally as pampered and appreciated!
Then, the man took off his shoes.
Next stop, security mosh. When I made it to the front of the line I was informed that, because my middle name had not been written on my passes, they were invalid. At this point, my flight really was boarding and the Virgin Atlantic ticket counter had closed. With nowhere else to turn, I headed back to the club where my new best friend, club manager Robert Licea-Wheaton, saved me from being arrested for attempting to jump the TSA barrier by securing me corrected passes, escorting me through the TSA line and … wait for it … taking off his shoes, etc. to accompany me to the gate and all the way to my seat, which had mercifully not been given away.
You may think this is extraordinary service by one individual but I’m telling you, it isn’t. It’s just one more example of the Virgin brand’s magical ability to provide consistently exceptional service for all of its customers. Why oh why can’t more businesses be more like Richard Branson’s? Here’s how you do it:
1. Hire people who like people
Robert didn’t just help me, he got to know me. And I got to know him. He told me he’d been in the hospitality business for years. When he got the chance to work for Virgin Atlantic, he jumped at it. He said he knew from the interview process alone that they shared his values of treating people with respect, kindness, and competency.
2. Make every problem your problem
The responsibility for the chaos that day sat squarely in the lap of San Francisco Airport. But you would never have know it by the way the Virgin Atlantic staff behaved. They apologized, empathized, and responded by helping each individual trying to get on that flight make it safely to his or her assigned seat. They owned the problem, never for a moment pointing a finger. They never lost sight of what was right for the customer.
3. Embrace improvisation and teamwork
Virgin Atlantic pulled employees from every part of the airport, including their sister airline, to get that flight off the ground with all of us on it. Those dedicated souls worked the lines, answered questions, ran interference, and did whatever it took to get the job done. They did it as a team with good humor, camaraderie, and a true desire to help. Two hours after our originally scheduled departure time, when we were finally ready for door closure, the lead flight attendant took one more minute to acknowledge the amazing work their airport staff had done to get all of us and our bags onto the flight. It felt like a hard won victory, for ALL of us. FYI? Not one other airline got off the ground more quickly that day. Not British Airways, certainly not United, not even Emirates.
I could go on. But we’re about to touch down in Johannesburg so I will save it for another day. Happy travels, my friends!
“Virgin Atlantic Airways Boeing 747-400 G-VROC LHR 2014-03-29” by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt – http://www.airliners.net/photo/Virgin-Atlantic-Airways/Boeing-747-41R/2422718/L/. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virgin_Atlantic_Airways_Boeing_747-400_G-VROC_LHR_2014-03-29.png#mediaviewer/File:Virgin_Atlantic_Airways_Boeing_747-400_G-VROC_LHR_2014-03-29.png