Want to make an impression? Start at the airport. [OpEd]
With all of the efforts to capitalize on Lafayette’s status as America’s Happiest City, I stay pretty in tune with the marketing efforts to promote our area. Just last month, I was in New York City with Lafayette Travel to showcase some great Acadiana restaurants at an event marketing our state as a whole to New York-based travel professionals. I live in constant observance of how well we are ‘telling the story’ of Acadiana. That is why my experience at Lafayette Regional Airport over the weekend was so eye-opening. Let me be clear, this should not read like a glorified customer service complaint, but instead an opportunity for all involved in making Acadiana appear as welcoming as possible.
My wife and I were flying back from a week-long trip to Europe. The 25-hour journey started in Basel, Switzerland, then connected through Frankfurt, Germany, and Houston. It just so happened to be the same day that winter weather halted air travel at much of the major airports in the Southeast- including New Orleans. The last leg of the trip was a United flight scheduled to leave Houston at 9:55 PM. That ended being delayed to 10:15, 10:35 and eventually left the gate shortly before 11:00 PM. Several people on the flight needed to get to New Orleans for this weekend and were told that Lafayette was their best bet. United had no open seats from Houston to New Orleans until Monday afternoon, so these people jumped at the opportunity to land 2 hours away and make the drive in a rental car.
After the short hop over to Lafayette Regional, we landed around 11:47 and got off the plane to what looked like a closed-down airport. The lone United employee was operating the jet bridge and sorting luggage. Ten or so people who had mentally prepared themselves to drive the final 2 hours or their trip stumbled off the plane to find the row of rental car counters completely dark. No lights and more importantly no rental company employees to help. To make it worse, they had no clue what to do or where to go. Where is the closest hotel? How do you get to them? Are there other rental car companies off-site? These questions were all being half-way answered by a security guard who they flagged down on his way outside to the security shed.
One guy was obviously a business traveler and had a few people with him. They were shocked that there was literally nothing open and no guidance on where to go next. I walked over and asked if he needed a hotel recommendation and he said no. By this point, the group of people was just laughing at how ridiculous their predicament was. They were stranded. The guy jokingly tells me, “...and I keep seeing signs that this is the Happiest place in the nation.” Not tonight.
As I said, the reporter in me is constantly observing and assessing situations. I could understand why they were confused. The airline which they paid good money to essentially dropped them in the middle of Cajun country. The tension built as these passengers waited the 20 minutes for luggage to start circling the conveyor belt. To me, that is where opportunity comes in.
No company or airport or airline can predict how bad weather will affect them. What you can do is prepare, train and run drills on how you will respond. I’m thinking this businessman probably has some power when it comes to where meetings and conferences are. I can promise you that after the flight experience early Saturday morning, Lafayette will never make his short lists.
So, I’ll end with some suggestions. When there is a major weather event, why doesn’t the airport have someone there just to be a welcoming face? This would be similar to Ms. Joan in Houston, who smiled and guided people through international baggage claim and customs. This was the same Ms. Joan who happily negotiated with the serious TSA agents to bring me back through a checkpoint to retrieve a bag we left behind. I’m not saying Lafayette Regional Airport should ever strive to be the George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport, but it could definitely learn a few things from ‘bigger’ cities.
Finally, the airport is in the midst of a huge reconstruction. Taxpayers supported a dedicated tax with a set ‘sunset’ to support the construction. The community voted for and approved a design. If the airport is as important to the message of Acadiana, why isn’t Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau headquartered at the airport? Has that even been considered? If it would be, the friendly face I talked about at the end of a long travel day could be a Lafayette Travel expert who can direct displaced travelers to the best hotels and restaurants. All good for thought.
We can do better, Lafayette. And we must if we are to ever live up to our full potential as a region.