Got back to my Brooklyn apartment at two in the morning. My flight from Shanghai was delayed getting to Detroit, and I missed my connection but got the lone available seat on a later flight to Newark. My luggage had to take an even later plane, and is not playing delivery bingo at La Guardia airport. They’ll call you tomorrow morning, the attendant at the baggage desk said last night. When they didn’t call in the morning, I called them and was greeted with an automated message that said, essentially, We don’t know anything right now and we can connect you with an agent, but chances are they don’t know anything either.
It’s tough being an airline. I worked on more than one when I was in advertising. As an airline you already have two big things working against you: gas prices (getting higher) and the weather (getting more severe). Everything is dependent of everything else, the system is rife with edge cases and problems that compound with time and load, because hurling four-hundred-ton metal tubes thousands of miles through the clouds, as it turns out, comes with a lot of unpredictability. There are a lot of contingency plans.
When I missed my connection at Detroit, for instance, I was directed to a special area in the middle of the terminal for help. There were only three agents and a long line, but kiosks where you could scan you boarding pass to see what flight you were rescheduled on, and when that failed or, in my case, had you going to Baltimore, nearby was a bank of phones that you could pick up to speak to an agent if the ones at the desk were busy. I was connected immediately, put on the Newark flight, with instructions to go to any gate agent to print a new boarding pass. The miracle is how many flights I’ve been on that have gotten me to my destination on time and without any incident.
Granted, not everyone has worked on an airline and not everyone thinks about the design of airport wait lines, nor should they be expected to. We hide (sometimes go out of our way to hide) complexity, and a tradeoff is when something goes wrong, we blame the most convenient shell of that complexity. And the nature of the airline business is that the interruptions of service happen when your customers least want them to happen. They’re interruptions that stand in the way of someone and seeing the other half of a rocky long distance relationship they’re hoping to mend, someone and their trip to the Dominican Republic to scuba dive with baby humpback whales at a conservancy that only lets in a limited number of people every year, someone and the first big sales meeting with a New York department store for their small Midwestern company that makes bird feeders modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright houses. One only need imagine themself on the other side of a search for @delta or @united on Twitter to sense the patience required to work customer service at an airline. And when you’ve had two dozen people yell at you about the same exact thing that’s beyond your control and a dozen more come at you exasperated because they don’t care about the clothes and other junk in their bag but they do care about the gift they bought for that person, you have to have a thick skin, or a diamond patience, and the times when that patience cracks, that skin wears thin, someone somewhere is going to tweet about it.
What this has to do with what I wrote last week, about the Apple holiday ad, and the notion of “clever advertiser manipulating people into buying things they don’t need” is that if you try to trace the source of that manipulation, or the source of how the luggage you just bought got cracked on its way to the carousel or how you were on hold for three hours only to talk to a brusque customer service rep, what you’ll find, usually isn’t an evil corporation trying to mistreat or manipulate someone but a collection of human beings each trying to deal the situation the best way they know how. You’ll find an account manager who’s been having trouble sleeping because her brother’s in and out of the hospital so she stays up emailing everyone and creating unnecessary fires for herself at three in the morning. You’ll find the strategic planner with a Wharton MBA who feels threatened by the precocious younger planner with a psychology degree from Illinois who wrote a stronger brief and he catches himself acting passive-aggressive toward her. You’ll find the copywriter whose dream is writing for the show Girls who seems to live paycheck to paycheck no matter how much she makes and the day before posted Instagram photos of the death metal karaoke thing she goes to with her coworkers every Tuesday night. You’ll find the VP of marketing and the new CEO who’s looking to prove that his company still has a soul after the passing of their previous CEO, who calls up the chief creative officer at their long-time ad agency and tell him, We need to do something that’s us.
If subliminal advertising is subliminal even to the people who made the ads, then who’s to blame?
If after a five hour wait you’re talking to an irritable customer service agent who’s been called in for an extra shift because on top of all the weather-related cancellations a CRJ2 skidded off the runway at JFK and shut down the airport, then who’s to blame?
Blame is a response to when things go differently than we had planned. And maybe the reason we blame airlines, companies, people, ideas, is that we have trouble accepting that there will always be things that are beyond our control, and we can’t blame circumstance, because it is simply the way the world is at a given moment. Maybe to see past the opacity and into a complex system we begin to realize that our expectations are built on rocky foundations to begin with, and this can be incredibly frightening. Some of us are more comfortable not knowing.
It’s not to say things can’t be improved with airlines, or with anything. But blame is also counterproductive to that improvement. Engaging in it puts the person blamed on the defensive, closes off the blamer to new possibilities. We don’t see how maybe yelling at the agent isn’t the best way to get our bag, or how we don’t have to wait for delivery and can borrow a car from a friend and pick up the bag ourself, or how the contents of the bag are easily replaced. My point is: Blame is easy (and understandable) but solves little, and understanding is tough but worth the effort.
I ordered Indian for dinner tonight. The guy who delivered my food had the biggest smile on his face. A lot of people, I’m guessing, ordered Indian food on account of the weather. The tips must be good tonight. The tips must be good. But this is just a guess, from someone with a father who, the day he got his driver’s license, put his wife and son in a car and drove from Detroit to Washington DC to work his semesters off delivering Chinese food because he had heard from a friend that the tips were better in DC. It’s cold outside but I’m warm in my apartment, and I just got an email from the airline’s delivery company. They have my bag. The website says: Awaiting Assignment to Driver.