At times, computers do say no. They did it yesterday to British Airways , upsetting thousands of people all over the world, who could not be where they wanted to be. But this time, what bothered customers wasn't an IT failure but a major communication one.
Immediately IT got the blame, starting a witch hunt for those who pulled the plugs, instead of dealing with the actual problem.
Every interview of a stranded passenger made it clear that their problem was not the lack of technology, but the lack of information.
For us, humans, not knowing is not good.
We are much more tolerant, flexible and resilient when when know where we stand. Strange, because airlines know that already. One of the things that has made a huge difference in recent years has been the captain's announcements on 'entering areas of turbulence'. We might still not enjoy the bumping, but we are now a lot more relaxed about it. We know what it is, roughly how long it is going to take and, most importantly, that someone at the top is on top of it already. Rather than imagining end-of-life scenarios, we hang on to our G&Ts to make sure they don't mess up our laptops.
Why do humans need to know what's going on?
It's not because we are just curious. It's because our cognitive systems are designed to think about our context so we can prepare for it. If there is no information that we can trust, we'll use whatever we have at hand to fill in the blank. And the many thousands of people waiting inside metal tubes or stuck inside terminals needed to have thoughts about it. And those thoughts caused emotions, making it hard to relax and enjoy the flight.
We are much better at tolerating disappointments when we can explain why things are happening. We are good at using information to tame our amygdalas, avoiding our fight or flight response (well, take the latter metaphorically, in this case).
While armies of IT experts rushed back to their cubicles (as remote access was down), BA needed to have a handful of really smart communication experts (ideally with deep understanding of Behavioural Psychology) in order to manage the greatest business problem of all: customers belief systems. I feel they missed the opportunity this time.
BA needs to seriously change its culture
Like many, I loved BA. I've proudly carried my golden tag in all my luggage as I trotted around, feeling really special that I belonged to such a brand.
My professional bias makes me an anthropologist running ethnographical research in every interaction with employees I confess that I secretly run 'cognitive interviews' when chatting with the cabin crew as they top up my G&T (don't see a pattern here).
Over the years, it became clear that BA has been fixing the wrong problems. Of course, IT needs to work well. But it will be a change in culture what takes such an iconic business out of trouble.
I can't wait for a deep and honest Culture Change at BA (but please stop the internal campaigns to get people to memorise values and behaviours -- those things don't change cultures).
I'm close to getting my BA Lifetime Gold card and don't want to feel that I've wasted years of 'loyalty'. I do know I've been a victim of a combination of a bandwagon effect with a touch of loss aversion bias, but I'm not ready to consider my loyalty as a sunk cost.
By now, I bet that BA's IT systems are being restored and people are safely arriving at their destinations. I wonder whether next week the CEO will call for an emergency meeting to create a Culture that truly understands what customers need.
I still enjoy the new fast track at Heathrow, though. Thanks BA for that!