It was a cross-country flight.

Once you're on board, you hope nothing will go wrong.

Yet, as my very good friend George told me:

Suddenly this smoke starts pouring into the cabin. It was a mystery. It was like the fake stage smoke with that plastic-y smell.

Then the fateful message from the Delta captain on this recent JFK to San Francisco flight: the plane would have to turn back.

By the time it landed back at JFK it was around10.30 p.m. 

The airline suggested passengers could be seated on a midnight flight.

No, it wasn't originally scheduled for midnight. It had been delayed from earlier that day. The weather wasn't being helpful.

George, an engineer who's used to calculating probabilities, wasn't convinced the midnight flight would manage to leave. (It didn't.)

Indeed, after the plane landed he saw the commotion inside the terminal:

I rushed over to the customer service counter where suddenly the whole plane lines up with only two agents to help. They were so harrowed, they were just trying to rebook people like mad and couldn't handle any questions about alternatives. So I looked over across the hall and I see a bank of phones to customer service. With just 5 or 6 people over there on the phone and 10-ish phones free.

He decided to use the phones. He had, he says, a very pleasant conversation with customer service and had the airline rebook him on a flight the next day -- with no change fees -- so that he could go home and get some sleep.

He needs his sleep, does George. He leads a colorful, stressful life. 

I'll leave the next part to him: 

I woke up the next morning, grabbed my phone and there was an email from Delta. I opened it and couldn't believe it. 

This was the email, penned by Delta's Troy O. Tidman: 

I know you weren't expecting your flight to San Francisco to return to New York this evening, especially after being significantly delayed. A smoky odor in the cabin needed to be evaluated before we could continue. Please know that emergency vehicles met your flight out of an abundance of caution. Unfortunately, we were unable to depart last night due to sparse resources due to the winter weather yesterday in the New York area. This wasn't an experience we wanted you to have. I'm really sorry for the disruption to your travel plans.

Well, this was on the margins of thoughtful, wasn't it? Yet this wasn't the end of it. The email continued: 

As a goodwill gesture, I've deposited 15,000 bonus miles into your account. Please allow three business days for the mileage to be posted.

George told me this tale with a peculiar rapt excitement. You know, an engineer's peculiar rapt excitement. 

He doesn't care all that much which airline he flies. He's a bit of a cheapskate. He'll fly anything if he think he's getting a deal.

Yet, as he said to me: 

15,000 miles! I'm just not used to an airline being so customer-focused. I didn't ask for any compensation. And before I've even had breakfast, they've sent me a gift. It was amazing.

I did mention that George is an engineer, didn't I? When he's enthusiastic, it's bizarrely genuine.

Airlines such as American and United still struggle with the customer service idea -- though United, at least in my experience, is making some progress.

George was so moved by this simple gesture from Delta that he wrote back, thanking the airline and saying that if it maintained such a customer-focused attitude, he might end his cheapskate ways. (I fear he paraphrased somewhat. Or, rather, I am.)

That's the thing, though, about customer service. When you do it well, when you think about the little things, it's remarkable how much loyalty it can engender.

It seems that Delta knows how to do it, rather than just blowing smoke.

Published on: Nov 25, 2018