Building a brand loyalty – how NOT to

Disclaimer: this is a rant.

OK, so I travel a lot. Over a dozen trips this year to be more precise (17 and counting). As such, I tend to be “liked” by airlines which I tend to travel more with. Nevertheless, on my last couple of hops into Europe, I decided to test the water and make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. You know – play the educated consumer who does not get locked down to a certain brand, shops around and knows what’s on the table in terms of alternative suppliers. And that’s how my story starts with ElAl.

you have to realize, than up until this month, I haven’t flown a single flight with ElAl for almost a decade. I have been a loyal customer of another airline (and it’s “alliance”) and as a frequent traveller have been on their highest status for the past few years in a row. I figured, that based on this I would get equal status in ElAl and the same benefits – which turned out almost right… Upon submitting my current status with Continental and my flight history I got a quick call back to inform me that ElAl have graciously granted me (drumroll…) GOLD status!. Gold??? Too bad that my current status with Continental is Platinum. A quick explanation on the phone, and another call back and I was an ElAl Platinum member.

Cool. Shaky start, but getting there. Off to the flights. My real test was a flight that mixed business with a bit of vacation in London with the wife. Used to the status rules on EVERY OTHER AIRLINE I expected that my significant other would get the same treatment as myself. SURPRISE. Pay up – that’s what I got when I tried to get “preferred” seating (exit row/bulkhead) for us. 80 “points” later (because ElAl can’t use miles like the rest of the industry does – that would enable people to compare apples to apples and they can’t have THAT!), and we got a seat for my wife as well.

The flight to London was uneventful, nothing too fancy in terms of service, checkin process, or alike (no separate boarding to business/platinum – just a general “yee-haa!” of a mess, well, that’s Israel for you…).

But airlines are not tested when everything is ok, but when the shit hits the fan. Enter snowpocalypse. the local UK version of it at least. On Saturday the 18th, a bit of snow hit London, and started showing signs of disrupting the quiet English city in ways that were unexpected (surprise – wintery weather in the UK…). As our flight time was fast approaching, we gave ElAl a quick call to check up on our flight status. 7pm, and ElAl’s representative festively announces to us that the flight is on time, and will be leaving so we can head off to Heathrow. Just to set the stage right – we are following what’s going on in Heathrow through all the news channels as both the airport and every other airline on the planet is feverishly communicating to their customers on what’s up and what’s not.

We make our merry way to the airport, all packed up and ready to go, only to get to Heathrow and find a temporary hostel. everyone is stuck, people are sleeping on the floor, and the gates are all closed. The ElAl crew is happily handing out flyers that state the flight being delayed for tomorrow morning.

Problem 1: How come your local crew is completely out of touch with the HQ? How come you tell us to get to the airport when every other airline is saying don’t come in as the flights are cancelled? How come you are waiting for the airport to call you instead of trying to communicate with the locals and get a status update. Answer???? Nada.

Let’s just have a quick recap: Heathrow airport: website is constantly updated with flight status and airport status. They have a twitter account, which constantly updates people on what’s going on, and keeps answering people’s questions. ElAl: website does not reflect any changes in status of flights, no indication whatsoever of any issues with EU flights or airports. On the other hand, ElAl has 3 (three) twitter accounts! (@elalUSA, @elal_il, and @elal_airlines) They must be on this so hard updating everyone!? Nope. All they have there are announcements of flight deals, and ways to spend your worthless points. WHILE PEOPLE ARE STUCK AT AIRPORTS.

Fast forward almost 2 days: Apparently, ElAl have booked me on a flight from Luton airport. Apparently because they didn’t call or text (which they became very good at – especially leaving automated voice messages in different languages on irrelevant flights). So, what’s the problem you ask? you got to get on the first flight out back to Tel-Aviv? Right. If only I was traveling alone… In utter incompetence they left out my wife from the reservation, and kept her on a waiting list for the flight from Luton (which was obviously full to the teeth), and booked on a Heathrow flight later in the evening. The lack of communication here is glaring again: I’m supposed to find out by myself (by nagging and calling them a couple of times a day) that I’m scheduled to leave to Luton early in the morning, and it would have probably helped them to figure out their mistake in not booking my wife if they would have called to notify of the change.

Problem 2: Not notifying your best customers that they are supposed to leave from a different airport is BAD!. Not taking care of the entire reservation (my wife, duh!) is BAD. Having someone at Luton as a station manager that claims that I’m introducing more problems for him by saying that “we are here and I’m flying WITH my wife because ElAl fucked up” is BAD (not to mention that I had to remind him that the flight was in his full control and reservations can’t do anything with it, because I know, and checked…).

Epilogue: Dear ElAl, thanks for getting me Platinum status. You can have it back. Really. I’m sending you back the fancy card because you have FAILED. You failed to understand that you operate in a competitive market. You failed to understand that you need to SERVE your customers who overpay for your tickets for some reason. You FAIL on an operational level if I need to be the one to come up with alternative suggestions for flying people out of places (Luton, maybe a train to another city and a flight from there). You FAIL when I need to ask if you are sending a widebody carrier (747) instead of the regional one (757 or 767) that gets to Luton as there are probably many other customers like me stranded in Heathrow. And for that you are not getting my business again for another decade probably.

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