Big Data Says Your Flight Is Delayed Or Whatever

Flight delays are an inevitable occurrence. Storms roll in. Equipment breaks. Staff oversleeps. We travelers don’t like it, but we understand the sometimes unpredictable nature of the business. Still, flight delays are a frustrating experience for all involved, and one that the best airlines in the world work to limit through a mix of staff training, maintenance, and customer communication. 

It’s the last part of that effort that gave me pause just last week.

The flight boarded on time and without incident. For a commuter jet in the dead of winter, I always count that as a blessing. Things started going sideways, however, when the pilot informed us that a “little light” was out, and that service was sending someone over to fix it pronto. As our departure time came and went, the pilot shared that the repair was imminent and apologized for the delay. 

An hour later, we remained motionless at the gate when I received the email alert from my airline informing me that my flight was delayed “because of a late-arriving aircraft.” A few other passengers quickly received the same message and chuckled since we were all sitting on the plane waiting for a service technician—not an aircraft—to arrive.

Thankfully, some 90 minutes past our original departure time, the issue was resolved, and I made it home before the kids were asleep. 

The reason the episode stuck in my mind was because of that erroneous message. Granted, it was sent with the best of intentions. The airline—as I had undoubtedly requested in my frequent flyer profile—sent me a triggered email alert about my flight’s delay. However, because the alert was both late (an hour into the delay) and erroneous (chalking things up to a late aircraft instead of a clear maintenance issue), its effect was to increase my frustration, not lessen it. 

We hear an awful lot about “big data” these days, but there’s nothing “big” about your data if it’s wrong. As we learned in our 2012 Channel Preference Survey, travel alerts are one of those part-service/part-marketing communications that consumers feel are so important that they’ll actually oversubscribe to them—seeking alerts via email, text, and phone if need be—just to ensure they get the information as promptly as possible. But when the data shared via an alert is erroneous, it creates all sorts of headaches for travelers and crew. 

So perhaps now is the perfect time to audit your own alert communications. In so doing, you should seek to determine: 

  • Are we equipped from a technology and staffing standpoint to support accurate email, text and/or telephonic alerts?

  • If not, on what channel(s) should we concentrate our efforts?

  • How are customer alert opt-ins managed? Are they reviewed and renewed periodically? 

  • Do our current vendors afford us the kind of real-time alert delivery needed in the smartphone age?

  • What are the sources of our data relating to travel alerts?

  • Who updates those sources and are they consistently accurate?

  • If not, what steps can we take to improve the accuracy of our alert or other mission-critical traveler content to ensure our alerts don’t end up adding to traveler frustration?

Automated alert communications present a tremendous opportunity for travel brands to lessen stress for both customers and staff. When they distribute late or inaccurate data, they do exactly the opposite; and worse yet, they can damage the faith customers have in your brand. So it’s time to dig in and rediscover what you’re alerting your customers to—it may just be that your “big data” has a light out.

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3 comments about "Big Data Says Your Flight Is Delayed Or Whatever".
  1. Erik Sass from mediapostpublications , February 12, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.
    "there’s nothing “big” about your data if it’s wrong." Ha! This quote is a keeper!
  2. Chaim Haas from Glide , February 12, 2013 at 4:16 p.m.
    Having experienced this exact issue before, I tweeted about it at the carrier and got "silence." If an organization is going to use big data, they better be prepared to engage on social media, b/c there's no better public focus group than social...
  3. Jeffrey Rohrs from ExactTarget , February 13, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.
    Chaim, you're absolutely right. Social media monitoring & response must definitely be part of the "Big Data" communication plan regarding travel delays. The thing right now, however, is that social has to be reactionary--i.e., in response to a customer that surfaces an issue via Twitter, Facebook, etc. I suspect we're headed toward a day where the customer can append their social media contact information to their travel profile in order to enable social DMs about flight delays--if that's the channel the consumer prefers to receive such alerts.