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Sometimes, a company will have a customer service failure; it happens every day. However, with the advent of the Internet, and especially services like Twitter a customer service disaster can have some serious fallout.

Consider what happened to Virgin America recently. They had a standard (but unusual) misstep for an airline: the aircraft was stuck on the airport tarmac for 6 hours. That was notable enough; however, what was most unusual was the fact that on board was David Martin, CEO of a social network startup (kontain.com) that enhances user’s experience of Twitter and Youtube; he took the opportunity to document the entire ordeal by using the airplane’s wifi to update his Kontain.com account. The story was picked up by CNN, the New York Post, CBS, and ABC, and followed up by the blog Technically Incorrect and the blog AeroChannel.

Alson on board was “Dancing With the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba, who sent Tweets about her experience. Another passenger, Uana Coccoloni, posted her experiences to Facebook as it happened. David Martin also posted a video of the experience that can be seen at ABC.

The story began with Virgin America Flight 404 into John F. Kennedy Airport; the flight was forced to divert north to New York’s Stewart Airport. After landing, the passengers were twice offered a chance to disembark; about 20 took the chance to leave. After six hours on the aircraft, the captain was able to contact a competitor with service in the terminal – JetBlue – to take the passengers to JFK airport by bus.

Also quite notable is the fact that had this event happened just a few weeks later, it would result in a fine of over US$3 million. A US law (14 CFR 259) is going into effect on April 29 that will fine the airlines US$27500 per passenger if passengers are kept waiting more than three hours. Several airlines have requested waivers for the airport at JFK (where this catastrophe started) because of this.

In this age of constant Internet presence, and being able to reach thousands easily and quickly, companies (and employees) need to be prepared for an instant backlash to customer service failures like this one. Virgin America responded later by sending letters of apology to passengers of flight 404 as well as a ticket refund and a $100 gift towards future travel. Unfortunately, the initial response by Virgin America was just the $100 ticket towards a future flight; the refund was David Martin’s idea (and Virgin America’s CEO readily agreed). However, this response is too late. Next time these passengers have to fly, will they think of Virgin America or JetBlue?

What should Virgin America have done? What would you have done?

I would posit that some sort of “first responder” group needs to be created that could respond to customer service issues large and small, and that the personnel “on the ground” should be able to respond as needed. The First Responder Group could have notified as soon as the fight was diverted and then had buses waiting at Stewart to take passengers to JFK.

The airport itself (Stewart International) could have had a First Responder Group that would be practiced and ready to go for just such an incident. There could be buses on standby and pagers distributed to appropriate responders, with appropriate responsibility given to them.

Why does it take an act (14 CFR 259) of the US Congress to force appropriate customer service from the airlines?

The final insult? After the plane was cleared, it finally was able to take off for JFK – and beat the passengers that were travelling by bus. Thus, the passenger’s original flight was already at JFK when they arrived.

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