Right wing provocateur Ann Coulter and Delta Airlines have been locked in a bitter and high profile battle of wills this week… over $30. Two of society’s great malefactors have been duking it out on Twitter after Ann was bumped from the god-given “extra leg room” seat she had paid for in advance.
Coulter, no doubt hoping to generate sympathy by taking on an institution even more loathed than herself (especially after the misadventures of other US airlines in recent months), drastically miscalculated when she posted a picture of the poor, innocent woman who had been placed in her seat. Delta hit back, counter-tweeting that Coulter’s derogatory and slanderous comments were not apropos. Suddenly we had a natural experiment occurring, with two equally loathed competitors duking it out for glory. Coulter then brought out the heavy artillery, linking to an article in the Washington Times detailing some of our most common complaints about modern airlines
“Americans are sick and tired of being treated like chattel by airlines. Seats are smaller, legroom is far less ample, fees come fast and furious, lines are outrageously long, customer service is about a zero — or less — and complaints, no matter how valid, are handled with the most dismissive of attitudes that seem to sneer, yeah, we switched your seat, yeah, we lost your baggage, but what are you gonna do about it?”
The airline then stated that it would refund her $30 for the preferred seat she bought, adding, “Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience.”
Game. Set. Match.
Well, not really. Coulter has since been doing the rounds on the conservative news carousel, waxing lyrical about her mistreatment by the social justice warrior airline. More fair-minded publications, as well as the liberal Twitter hoards, are pointing to Coulters’ behaviour as boorish and, dare we say it, “Trumpesque”. Squirmishes have continued for days, with no sign of a ceasefire on the horizon
Moving past our first reaction (bafflement that someone as high-profile as Ann Coulter chooses to spend her valuable time – $10,000 just to book a flight – flying economy AND makes her own bookings), what does this incident tell us about the current state of airline-customer relations?
Everyone can understand Coulter’s frustration at being re-seated. However, the bottom line is that Delta reserves the right to move passengers around, for example, when they need to accommodate customers with certain types of requirements. And having flown with a number of people with special needs over the years, I can guarantee you they don’t like having to sit in a specific location, but it’s much better for them and everyone else when they are located in an appropriate section.
The bigger issue is that Coulter’s Twitter tirade is indicative of an emerging norm. The airing of ones’ grievances at customer service via social media. And we’re all guilty of it! In this instance, the company’s response only seemed to inflame Coulter’s ire further, with a minor incident blowing up into a supernova of fraught and uncontrolled media exposure for the company.
That media exposure may work out well for Delta. The airline has been praised for its direct and quick response, employing the best strategy they could to make the best of a potential PR nightmare (see aformentioned United Airlines fiasco). In the words of one PR executive “They saw an opportunity to execute on their values, take an adult perspective and call out Ann Coulter and, in essence, others who have taken what may be a discretionary customer service move on the part of the airline and significantly overreact.”
On the other side of the equation, when someone like Ann Coulter uses her celebrity clout to tweet out a complaint, it reflects badly on her own public profile. Not only does it give the impression of selfishness and petulance, it also says ‘I’m more important’ than all the other customers who must go through the regular channels to place their complaints. And when the company responds through that channel, as they must, it only exacerbates the problem.
All in all, this type of situation is risky for all involved. The Company, whose primary concern is anything that will affect its bottom line (i.e. bad publicity). Delta will deploy a far more rapid response for Ann Coulter because of her 1.6 million twitter followers, then it will for Jo Blo twiddling his thumbs while on hold to the 1800 number. Jo is not going to see his complaint allocated anywhere near the efforts to address the “Ann Coulter Twitter Tantrum” issue. No wonder ordinary folks are driven to act out on social media.
So what is the lesson? It seems fairly simple from our perspective. The customer continues to be key. Companies need to spend more resources on ensuring that those who have paid for their products are satisfied with their experience.
The other lesson: every airline needs a Coulter and hopefully she’ll make the switch to United.
Cheers, Jack & the c word crew
PS. While we’re talking transport … did you see the story about the 15 year old who took over the Twitter account for the UK’s most hated train company.