On 8th May 2022, A long social media post on Facebook by a user Manisha Gupta outraged the whole of India. One of India’s well known low fare Airlines Indigo was in the news again for the wrong reason. Indigo staff once again displayed lack of empathy and arrogance towards their customer and refused to onboard an adolescent with his parents’ citing reasons of safety issues of other passengers. Safety norms are very important and rightly so, however the outrage was not due to following safety norms, but the apathetic way Indigo treated an adolescent with special needs. As the post said that although the child was suffering from some anxiety and hunger after a rough car ride to the airport and then completing an hour of boarding and security check processes, his parents took good care of him, gave him food and medicine and by the time boarding on flight began he was much more relax. However, during the entire process, other passengers’ curiosity and offer to help the child caught the attention of the Indigo staff and posted that they took a stand that no matter what happens they will not let him onboard the flight. The next 45 mins, the family and co passengers saw a shiny display of Indigo’s authority dance for which Indigo has now become so infamous.
There were doctors among co-passengers’ group who tried to convince the Indigo staff that in case of emergency they could also chip in. However, the child seems to be fine to board the flight with his parents, however Indigo did not budge. In travel and hospitality industry, customer service and customer satisfaction is the most KPI and that is why they have extensive training programs for their staff. Just by referring to customer as guest, customer does not become a guest, you must treat the customer like a guest. That day Indigo’s staff forgot customer service, forgot soft skills, they even went on to use phrases such as “This child is uncontrollable. He is in a state of panic “however everyone could see his child sitting quietly. The staff then went on to state something on lines of ‘behaviors such as this, and that of drunk passengers, deems them unfit to travel.”
Whether it is situational awareness and managing angry passengers, whether it is empathy, whether it is customer service or whether it is choice of words, that day Indigo was all over the place, all over the news. Indigo did try to apply bandage by providing hotel stay and made the family board a flight next day to their destination ( After all they have to stay in business and in 21st century they do not have monopoly in airlines but I have to give it to them for at least doing this ). When this post became viral and incident caused nationwide outrage against Indigo, Indigo CEO Rono Dutta was interviewed by NDTV next day and not to my surprise at least, he defended Indigo’s action. Leaders set the tone, arrogance at the top leads to arrogance at the bottom and I will come to this problem in later section. Following this event, a probe was launched by The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the country’s top regulator for air travel and Indigo was caught on the wrong foot. The probe found that the handling of the special child by the Indigo ground staff was deficient and ended up exacerbating the situation. Indigo was fined Rs 5 lakh.
If you are thinking about this incident too much then let me also tell you that history of airlines industry is flooded with these kinds of incidents, what makes this different is the repetition of same mistakes. This was not a one-off bad day for Indigo. In 2017, In a shocking incident, ground staff of IndiGo Airlines physically assaulted and manhandled a 53-year-old passenger at Delhi Airport. Indigo eventually had to do that drill of apologizing, defending and ultimately sack the employee who instigated the assault on the passenger. Now these are very big issues which become national news, however similar issues of lower scale keeps happening at Indigo which does not become news. I have also personally seen my fellow passengers in tussle with Indigo staff over their luggage transfer issues, so many times. I have seen the exact type of responses, exact type of behaviour from the staff. These cannot be isolated incidents; this is a deep rotted cultural problem at Indigo. As a matter of fact, me too was not spared of an infamous Indigo experience.
The time was January 2018, venue was Kolkata Airport. I was travelling to my father-in-law’s place at Vizag along with my wife to celebrate Pongal-the famous harvest festival of South India. We were supposed to fly in Indigo at 12.30 pm and expected to be around one and half hour flight. We reached the Airport well in advance but quite to my surprise met with a long queue at the boarding counter. It was a long wait though, we had to spent nearly 40 mins in the queue to reach the counter to get our boarding pass and drop the check-in luggage. A look of shock followed by a quick enquiry with a fellow staff was enough to send me the message that something is wrong. My instinct was proven right when I was told on my face ” Sorry Sir, boarding has been completed and gates are closed”. l looked at my watch and it was 11.50 am which meant we still had 10 mins time for gates to be closed, also I recollected that unlike other times there was no announcement done by any of the ground staff asking passengers to Vizag to come in front. Clearly things did not fit in and neither were the looks on their face convincing enough to tell me that something has not gone wrong for them. Add to that the largest low cost airline in India did not even offer me any alternatives, their reply was ” Sorry Sir ” followed by vacuum, even “Sorry Sir, we are checking our next flight schedule for you but you have to pay ” would have still made at least business sense leave alone customer service. So I had to raise my voice a bit much to my own dislike and my wife joined in. I was then told a blatant lie on my face that the staff sitting at the extreme corner did announce the boarding getting completed, this lie did not fly for too long when we quickly went to the corner desk and we asked the staff ” when did you announce since we were in that queue for 40 mins and we did not hear, we will now ask people who heard you doing the announcement and if no one has heard that means either your voice was too weak or you are lying”. The person did not even make an eye contact and rudely told us that he did announce and now nothing can be done and that we may contact customer service desk located few meters away and then he walked away.
A classic tale of how a joyful event turned out to be a nightmare. My wife and I quickly checked some flight options going to Vizag but due to Pongal or some other reasons either there were no seats available or the remaining few were way too expensive. We decided to head to the customer service desk and ask for help. My wife started making some calls to my father-in-law to update the current situation while I got busy explaining to a lady at the customer service desk about what has happened. After listening to the whole episode, the lady consulted with her supervisor and told us ” Sorry Sir, we cannot help you, all flights are full for today as well, you may check flight availability tomorrow onwards ” she also added that there will no refunds as well since as per them the mistake was ours. I was starting to lose my cool by this time and my otherwise low voice started to be heard by people around me. I asked to speak to her supervisor and guess what, she pointed me to a person who was working just beside her ( a meter away perhaps). I will give you no points for guessing what the outcome was by posting my conversation with the supervisor. You are right, status-quo was still maintained by INDIGO. The next day was Pongal, and the timing of the journey was so especially important to us especially to my wife. I saw her breaking down a bit by this incident, by then we have spoken to 4 Indigo staff at different levels but everyone spoke like a recorder. However, what happened next did matter in one thing, that is making me realize the importance of Frontline employee empowerment in customer satisfaction.
Two hours later me and my wife found ourselves onboarded in the next Indigo flight to Vizag, yes the same flight about which we were told earlier by the customer service rep as ” Sorry Sir all our flights today are running with high occupancy, we cannot help”. We reached Vizag that day, met with my in laws and had a great time that week celebrating Pongal. But we were not happy with Indigo, not a bit. The experience was simply unforgettable ( in a bad way )and I till date have zero confidence that I will not face same issue again, one single incident was good enough to make a customer nervous even though the issue was resolved.
Here is the rest of the story. While me and my wife were checking other options and busy making calls, we saw a tall lady walk across the floor, whether it is her dress or her attitude or her interactions with staff and customers or her body language or change in body language of INDIGO staff, anything was good enough to send the signal to us that she is an authority in INDIGO. She was going around greeting all customers thanking them for flying with INDIGO. One quick look at each other and both of us knew that this is our chance. We approached the lady, greeted her and explained the whole situation. Immediately even before we finished explaining she started nodding her head and kept telling, ” absolutely not done”. She apologized whole heartedly for this incident and asked the same customer service supervisor to arrange for 2 seats for us in some other flights today. The same supervisor and his team started checking their screens, started making phone calls and we were politely asked to have a seat while they work out our boarding passes. The lady with the magic wand was none other than the Vice President of Airport Operations & Customer Service Cindy Szadokierski. My wife was so thankful and impressed with her prompt action that she even found her on Facebook and sent a lovely thank you message after 2 months of that incident.
So we grabbed a sandwich and coffee while we waited and chatted but for some reason I kept on looking at the service desk , kept on watching the change in posture, the change in attitude, the change in body language of those INDIGO staff who were now made to revert their decision by their authority. They were not actually doing a service to a customer, they were doing a service to their bosses. They were not looking that happy that a customer’s issue was resolved, they were rather stressed out trying to find those two seats to make sure they comply with Cindy. As my unintended glare at the customer service desk from a distance started disturbing the team, I was lost in thinking rather than watching.
” Sir, excuse me Sir, your flight has been confirmed, here are your boarding passes. the boarding will start in an hour ” , someone brought me back to Kolkata Airport from my world of Matrix, it was a moment for me coming back from my world of thoughts and experiencing relief at the same time. It was the supervisor himself who walked almost 50 meters to hand me and my wife the passes, he could have sent any of his team members but he chose not to, not because of his passion or love to make a customer happy but for his fear of authority. I could say a thank you and nothing else since I understood what just happened, however my silence killed the supervisor, he then initiated a very important conversation. ” I am extremely sorry sir, we normally would not have been able to accommodate any customers in this situation but you were very lucky that ma’am came for a floor walk at this time, she is Head of airport operations so based on her request we could do this “. I could not remain quiet after this line. I asked him one question, ” You could have given me 2 seats because there were 2 seats available, you could have turn around this situation in 1 hour however when I approached you, you could not help, you even did not try to help, you could have made a call to your manager or even Cindy but you did not. Now you even had the audacity to tell me that it is not Indigo’s service that helped me, it is my luck that helped me which means next time if I do not happen to meet Cindy I will have to board another flight, right ” , the supervisor put up a sorry smile on his face and replied ” actually we are not authorized to make these decisions sir “.
That day I described to the supervisor the culture of another low fare airlines, the most profitable airlines in United State’s history to make him understand what is missing in INDIGO. I told him about the airlines that had the below numbers,
4% voluntary turnover
44 consecutive years of profitability
#1 lowest number of customer complaints
85% of employees say they’re proud to work for Southwest
No layoffs, no furloughs ever
You know what he said to me before leaving for his desk, ” I request you Sir to please write this as feedback to our higher management, I am sure that might help “. Could you sense the helplessness?
Now let me tell you about one of the many frontline empowerment stories of southwest airlines. Steve Stauning – an extremely popular keynote speaker, writer, and industry consultant in one of his articles describes an experience with Southwest and I quote
” The first incident didn’t even become a customer service issue precisely because the quick-thinking Southwest Airlines flight attendant was empowered to spend a few bucks to avoid such messes.
On my flight, a really big guy with a late connection couldn’t get food in Denver airport before he boarded. I know he was a really big guy, because he got stuck in a middle seat next to me. He was clearly unhappy, and even uttered, “Southwest… never again” as he settled in. When the flight attendant came by to go over the exit row instructions, he asked about any sandwiches for sale on board. He was not happy with her response that Southwest, unfortunately, didn’t offer food for sale. It was then that he uttered, “never again” … again. The flight attendant could have left the situation alone but chose instead to let him know there was no charge for his cocktail order. His mood changed immediately. Later, when I stopped by the back of the plane to get another beverage for myself, she proactively asked my seatmate, “Do you think the guy next to you would like another vodka soda?” Even with the proactive nature of Southwest attendants, this caught me off guard. In my mind, there was no need offer a second free drink, as he seemed satisfied with the airline. It didn’t matter. She showed up in our row with a drink in hand and asked him if he’d like another. His decent mood turned almost giddy and joyful. A customer service issue was solved before it ever became one all because the flight attendant was empowered to take care of flyers. “
I knew that day, just being a low-cost airline or delivering service to any customer at a competitive price is not a game changer, the game changer always has been the culture within which people operate. I knew that day INDIGO is just waiting for it’s time to go down, just a matter of time unless they change their culture. Not to my surprise, few months later Cindy Szadokierski resigned post her contract expiry (You must read that as, she was not interested to renew her contract) followed by several other resignations at leadership level including IndiGo’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO)-appointee Greg Taylor. In 2019 Rono Dutta was appointed CEO. All is not well at the top which trickles down to the ground staff and to the customer, combine that with lack of frontline empowerment to tackle situations on the spot with humility and empathy, doing the right thing for customers and not thinking about what the senior management would say. Indigo has a lot on their plate, hope they decide to change or else 21st century business disruption and competition will change their fate forever.