Customer service 101: Don't exploit natural disasters

Hurricane Irma price gouging claims may be unfair, but what does it say about the airlines?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 11 Sep 2017

It’s often said that disaster brings out the best in people, but that’s not entirely true. It’s rather that disaster reveals our innermost natures, whether good or bad. Am I fundamentally selfish, or am I brave, or am I tough? I don’t really know, but I reckon I’d find out when all hell breaks loose. Perhaps the same could be said of organisations.

If that’s the case, the verdict from Hurricane Irma isn’t exactly fantastic for the US airline industry. Last week, as millions of Floridians were evacuating their homes in the wake of the coming tempest, some airlines raised the price of outbound flights by thousands of dollars, in what has been labelled an egregious act of price gouging.

The message – or at least the one received on social media – was that airlines such as Delta, United and American are willing to capitalise on a humanitarian disaster because they don’t care about you.

Actually, that’s very largely unfair. It seems likely that prices rose automatically, as airlines have in place quite rational systems that increase prices as availability and time to departure decrease.

Indeed, very shortly after the story broke, the airlines started adding more flights and introducing a cap on flight prices. In the case of the Twitter user above, Delta brought the price down immediately

United – notorious for manhandling a paying customer off a plane in April because it had double booked his seat – also offered to match charitable donations and even sent a jet to San Juan to aid in humanitarian efforts.

None of that may be too little, but it is rather too late, at least from a publicity point of view. Having a surge in demand in response to a hurricane cannot be a new situation for an airline that serves Florida and the Caribbean. So why didn’t they intervene earlier, as soon as the evacuation began?   

The answer is probably because organisations are not people. Disaster strips human beings of the petty and the routine to reveal our deeper priorities, but not organisations, which continue to depend on their systems, processes and hierarchies (a lot of the time, this is what makes them act in inhuman ways).

Yet if an organisation’s true purpose is to serve its customers and put people first, then it should surely make sure its systems and processes reflect that. In that sense, a disaster does allow a business to see inside itself and make sure it lives up to its own values.

A lot of people roll their eyes when they hear talk of purpose or values, and it’s true these words do get bandied around as hollow corporate jargon. But being in business does not and cannot stop us from being human. In any case, you can have purpose with profit. An airline doesn’t have to become a charity whenever something bad happens. But it will suffer if customers and employees, existing in a market with lots of competitors and a similar product, see it as cold and mercenary.

I don’t believe the airlines in this case were either of those things but unfortunately, in the realm of public opinion, the onus is on them to prove it. 

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