Should the Church Be More Like United Airlines?
Yesterday as I prepared to travel to Chicago on United Airlines I had what I am told is not an uncommon experience in flying to O’Hare: Flight delays.
I say “I am told” because while people from all over the country talk a fair amount of smack about their experiences at O’Hare, all the years in purgatory they’ve worked off waiting there or waiting to get there, I’ve never had that experience. But then, I’m originally from Chicago. And maybe God just likes Chicagoans better.
(Note: The editors of America would like to make it clear that Fr. McDermott’s opinions most definitely do not represent the opinions of the magazine or its New York-based staff.)
So anyway I’m sitting there, stuck first because of inclement weather in the Midwest, but then also because United said my flight was going to be delayed two hours, but then when I stepped away for a half hour and came back, it turned out they had changed their minds and my plane was now gone. Thanks for flying the friendly skies.
(Note: The editors feel not even a little schaudenfreude that Fr. McDermott missed his flight.)
As you might imagine, this did not make me happy. Especially after the flight I got put on instead was itself delayed so many times that I eventually gave up and rescheduled my flight for today.
(Note: Poor dear.)
So, having a lot of free time and the typical airport need for some sort of gratification to get me through the metric tons of recirculated air, I hopped on my phone and started tweeting.
Hey @United, maybe don't tell people there's a 2 hour weather delay on all flights to ORD and then take off on time. Just missed my flight.— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
Seriously, if the gate agents had said 'We might not be delayed' or even just 'Stick around', I would have. Not cool. @United— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
Also, @united, give Judy Caro at LAX a raise. She just fixed your mess and did it with a lot of class. Great service.— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
I have begun to measure the time I've spent in this airport by the position of the sun. #Help— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
Within minutes, United had responded. At first, they were a little lecture-y:
@PopCulturPriest We don't recommend that you leave, the gate agent will tell you that. Changes can happen at anytime. ^CA— United (@united) April 9, 2015
But when I wrote again, things changed dramatically:
@united He did not tell us that. He said it was delayed two hours, and so were all the other flights to ORD. Pretty definitive.— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
@united I'm all for that recommendation, btw. It just needs to be stated.— Jim McDermott (@PopCulturPriest) April 9, 2015
@PopCulturPriest It should have been stated, and I will forward your comment to the LAX airport operations manager for review. ^CA— United (@united) April 9, 2015
I’ve had a lot of experience tweeting at United the last few years. Every encounter pretty much goes this way – a clear sense of hearing what I’m saying, a promise to look into the situation/offer feedback, and lots of thanks:
@PopCulturPriest Thanks for the update. Let us know if you need anything else. ^CA— United (@united) April 9, 2015
@PopCulturPriest We're here to help anytime. Thanks for giving the shout out to Cindy. We'll share the love. Tweet us anytime. ^KP— United (@united) April 9, 2015
Now, did they actually pass along either my complaint or the praise I had for the agent that helped me? I assume so, but I have no idea. It could have gone right into the internet version of the circular file (which I think is actually also known as the internet).
Either way, I felt better. In fact, even though I ended up waiting five hours in an airport yesterday and never even got on a plane, when all was said and done I had nothing but positive feelings towards United. Because they were willing to interact with me, and to hear me out.
The whole experience and others like it that I’ve had with businesses on Twitter make me wonder whether our dioceses and parishes might have something here to draw on. For instance, what would it be like if your parish had a Twitter handle to which you could tweet questions, concerns and praise? Or a diocese, for that matter? What if you could tweet at your diocese to thank the bishop for coming to do confirmations, or tweet at your parish to express dismay at a comment made in a service that caused some pain for you? Or to find out when the baptism registration is? Or to send your pastor who likes funny stories a joke?
I can see the very devoted and hard working people who do communications in our institutions pulling their hair out at this idea. Who has the time? And also, who wants to have to wade through all the trolls?
And there’s no doubt, this could be time consuming – in fact, the better an institution is at it, the more people will use it. I started tweeting at United regularly precisely because they always gave such positive, professional responses.
But I think it’s also notable that as I’ve done more tweeting at them, I’ve begun sending a lot more positive things. If a flight crew is amazing, or a gate agent treats me with patience or kindness (even when most of the time I don’t necessarily deserve it), I tweet at United and tell them that. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s clear there’s someone there who will receive it.
Clearly, the trolls we will always have with us. But I wonder if having some sort of online mechanism whereby people can send feedback (which not for nothing is also limited to 140 characters!), even if it’s only “open” one day a week or one hour a day, might not create greater positive feelings and investment in our communities.
In some quarters social media is thought to be predicated upon our isolation, our desire not to be connected, to be free to launch missiles anonymously and from afar. But I don’t think that’s the full picture. The internet’s a tool; it can draw us together just as much as it can force us apart. I’m sure I’ve had as many mixed experiences with United as anyone else. But at this point when someone starts to talk them down, all I can think is “Come at me, bro.”
Maybe some reading belong to parishes or dioceses that do respond to tweets or Facebook posts, or who do that kind of work in their own Catholic community. I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments, what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.
Or feel free to tell me your horror stories about the airlines. (That’s a joke. Resist the temptation.)
(Note: The editors wish Fr. McDermott luck in his travels tomorrow. They really really hope he doesn’t get delayed because of O’Hare again. That would be just terrible.)
(Literally two minutes after I posted this article last night I got an email from United saying my flight for tomorrow has in fact been delayed. *shakes his fist at America editors* *still loves United* *still knows God loves Chicagoans most of all*