Last week I was in San Antonio participating in the brand new THINK Now! Critical Thinking Training program, and was supposed to have a nice short flight home on Friday morning. However, my 2 1/2 hour travel day turned in to 11 hours of sitting and waiting while a mechanical issue on my plane was addressed.
Over the course of those 11 hours, I observed phenomenal problem solving, patience, and strategic thinking on behalf of the Southwest Airlines gate agents.
Imagine the pressure you would feel as a gate agent if you just realized that your flight full of approximately 200 people have just been de-planed due to an unknown mechanical malfunction and have been told by flight attendants that the flight will be delayed 2 hours (while the official text message from Southwest Airlines said the flight would be delayed for 4 hours). Instantly, a swarm of frustrated and worried passengers flood your desk with questions. “What about me?” “Are we delayed 2 hours or 4 hours?” “Can the plane be fixed?” “What about my connecting flight?” “If I cancel and drive, will I get a full refund?” “Are you going to give us a voucher for our time?” “I have to reach my destination ASAP, will you book me on another airline?”
There were a few key things that really impressed me. 1) Despite the anger/frustration of the customers, the agents always remained calm and apologized for the inconvenience. 2) They paid special attention to a gentleman with Down Syndrome whose caregiver left once she thought he was safely aboard his flight. 3) They followed a strategic process to book all passengers on alternative flights as quickly as possible.
They did all of this while under extreme pressure. From a customer perspective, there were several angry passengers because they ran to the gate agent’s desk first and therefore expected their travel plans to be addressed first. Much to their dismay, that is not how Southwest’s agents approach such a complex problem. Instead, they followed a a very logical and strategic process in order to accommodate as many customers as possible in a timely manner. By doing so, they were able to address the most critical needs first and avoid a domino effect of missed connecting flights.
From what I could tell, the first thing they did was look at the next outgoing flight to see if there were any empty seats. They then looked at the customers who needed to make connecting flights and asked those individuals to come forward to be re-booked on the next outgoing flight. This made perfect sense because a missed connecting flight would create even more havoc in the passenger’s day (and more work for the next Southwest Gate Agent). Next, the gate agent radio’d to the baggage handlers and had them quickly retrieve those customers’ bags and transfer them to the new flight.
After all of the flights with extra seats were exhausted, they began adding customers to standby lists. Again, they did so systematically. Instead of just letting passengers rush the desk and cause more chaos, the standby list was based on original boarding numbers. I was impressed that they used a fair, impartial method for assigning placement on the list (even though that put me in 9th place).
What really impressed me was my personal interaction with a Southwest Gate Agent. She outlined the following strategic plan for the day:
Plan A: Grab the next flight to Houston (which had 13 open seats), then fly to Dallas in time to make my connecting flight to Kansas City. Unfortunately, I was the 14th person in line so there were no more seats on that Houston flight.
Plan B: Try the Standby list for the next flight to Dallas which would still allow me to make my connecting flight to KC (this didn’t work out either).
Plan C: Try the Standby list for the 2nd flight to Dallas which would arrive later than my connecting flight, but a seat on the next flight to KC would be held for me. (This also didn’t work out)
Plan D: If all else failed, wait for the original delayed flight (now 6 hours delayed), and a seat would be guaranteed for me to arrive in Kansas City that night.
This particular agent took the time to outline all possible scenarios for me so that I didn’t have to come back to the desk and ask for help if Plan A, B, or C fell through. She saved herself, her coworkers, and me plenty of time by thinking ahead.
I believe that the Southwest Gate Agents were able to successfully accommodate their passengers because they had a plan. They did not cave in to the pressure of the grumpy faces in front of them and handle each request individually. Instead, they systematically evaluated the situation and addressed the most pressing issues first (customers with connecting flights). They then followed those customers through to a full resolution (transferring bags, issuing travel vouchers, and creating back-up plans) before moving on to the next group of passengers.
It might have been less stressful for them if they had addressed the angriest customers first (i.e. the squeaky wheel gets the oil). If they re-routed those impatient passengers immediately, they would have had fewer people grumbling obscenities under their breath, sighing, and obnoxiously staring at the clock. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem for the majority of their passengers. Instead, they stuck to the plan.
How often during your day do you abandon your plan to respond to an urgent phone call, email, or text message? How often is that urgent request truly urgent?
Too often we abandon our mission and respond to whoever is complaining the loudest. When under pressure, it is even more important to remember the overall goal. Next time you are feeling pulled away from your plans, STOP and THINK “Is this issue truly urgent?” “Does it fall under my mission?” “What will happen if I wait an hour to respond?” “Am I the only one who can solve this issue?”
These self-reflection questions can help you put the issue and your problem solving priorities in perspective.
What is your trick for solving problems while under pressure?
Learn more about critical thinking by downloading the Think About It! eBook.
Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.