By Eric Groves

A recent travel nightmare with American Airlines left me wondering how different the experience would be if the CEO of American Airlines had spent his formative years running a small business.

Let me set the stage. My daughter flew home from college for a couple of days and two days before her return date a major storm was forecast impacting both the departing and arriving cities of her travel. She was flying on USAir (now American) on a smaller turbo-prop plane and, based on past experience, it was easy to figure out her flight was never going to happen. Silly me, I reached out to American’s customer support to see if I could get her out ahead of the storm into one of the many empty seats shown online.

We all know how this story ends. American Airlines (who apparently doesn’t have access to the weather channel) wasn’t willing to recognize the snowstorm in time to help its customers out. Rather, they waited until 4 hours before the storm hit, declared a snowstorm alert, cancelled the flight and left it’s customer stranded.

While waiting for a “supervisor” on hold, I wondered how this experience might be different if Doug Parker had been tasked with running a small local business for a year before taking over as CEO.

Here’s how things would be different:

Recognize That Customers Matter

Relationships of trust are built through real-life interactions with actual customers. So here’s how a small business owner would get to know their customers. They would:

  • Sit themselves in the middle seat in the last row on cross country flights
  • Board last to get the full “on-boarding with bags” experience
  • Personally try to reschedule a cancelled flight and get to your destination within 24 hours on a non-refundable ticket

Anticipate Customer Needs

Small business owners have to keep their eyes wide open and provide a level of service that’s extraordinary to keep your business. They would have looked at the Weather Channel, figured out this flight was never going to happen, and called me in advance to re-book and get my daughter to her destination in advance of the storm.

Understand Their Inventory

Small business owners understand their available inventory and how to optimize it. They would know the most frequently cancelled flights due to storms, the empty seats the day prior, and would have been prepared.

Be Accessible

I had the opportunity to watch a television story on how Doug Parker at American was focused on becoming more approachable at work.  He had torn down a wall in his corner office, removed the security officer protecting the executive suite, and was no longer wearing a tie around the office. But really what does this add up to other than the illusion of approachability? He wasn’t personally helping customers re-book a cancelled flight.

A small business owner wouldn’t just make themselves appear to be accessible to customers.  They would already be on the frontlines, personally communicating with customers every day and making sure all their needs are satisfactorily met. Even if they were wearing a tie.

Share your travel horror stories and how you as a small business owner would have handled the situation a little differently. While doubtful it will change things at American, maybe folks at JetBlue and Southwest will take notice!

Eric Groves is the co-founder and CEO of Alignable, the free online network where local businesses and organizations connect and collaborate with others nearby. Eric has been a local marketing expert and enthusiast since 2001, authored The Constant Contact Guide to Email Marketing, and believes that local businesses are always stronger together. Follow them at @Alignable.