An extraordinary, incredible example of customer service (yes, from an airline)

At a time where many airlines are using AI to field angry customer calls, one airline has a very different approach.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Just very strange.

Screenshot by ZDNet

My wife and I wanted to give the digital nomad life a try.

One or two people might suggest that, with the current pandemic, this idea was mere madness. We, though, wanted to see what traveling abroad and working abroad truly meant right now.

The first step was booking flights. We chose Lisbon simply because we love Lisbon. (It's that rare example of peaceful, decent civilization in a world gone twisted.)

Not so long ago, the Portuguese national airline, TAP, instituted direct flights from San Francisco to Lisbon. This was our opportunity to avoid flying through another European capital.

We were already fully boosted with vaccines. We had a PCR test scheduled for the day before the flight. There was, however, one small problem: the TAP website didn't like my credit card.

Three times I tried to fill in the details. Three times the site rejected them, insisting I should do the one thing no one wants to do these days: contact an airline's customer service line.

The wait times can be longer than many flights. This can cause the frustration to soar beyond safe flying levels. Still, I furrowed my brow and dialed the number for TAP's US customer service. Then I waited, preparing to watch a movie or two while I did.

Perhaps a couple of minutes went by, with no movement from the other end, when another call came in on my phone. I looked at my screen; it was a Portuguese number.

This was odd. So odd that my first instinct was to believe it was an especially sophisticated spam. Still, placing a tinge of faith in humanity, I answered the call.

"Hi, is this Krzzzzzztof?" said the male voice. (My official first name has a lot of z's and guttural challenges.)

When I admitted it was, the man continued, "This is [I was so taken aback I've forgotten his name, so let's call him Andres] from TAP Air Portugal."

My skepticism hadn't quite disappeared, but I was happy to listen a little more. "Hi," I replied, as if this was perfectly normal behavior.

"I see you're having problems with your booking," continued Andres. "Your credit card, yes?"

This was all a little too surprising, as well as a little too real. This was an actual customer service person calling me, instead of the other way around. And he was calling me to help.

How was this even possible? How had Andres been snooping on my attempt at booking a flight? How could I even ask him, when I was simply so delighted that this airline was somehow proactively gearing up to solve my problem -- using human means?

It transpired that, for some quaint technological reason, the TAP site believed I was my wife. The credit card number I was trying to insert was being wrongly linked to her name. Therefore, it was being rejected.

Andres quickly fixed this. As we spoke, he emailed me our flight confirmation and the whole thing was done within five minutes. He was utterly charming, and I was utterly disarmed.

I have no special privileges with TAP. At the time of Andres' intervention, I wasn't even a member of the airline's frequent flyer program. 

While many airlines are using AI to field calls from countless angry customers, here was an example of human e-commerce that was bizarre because it was exemplary.

I have no idea if TAP does this all the time. I have no idea how many human customer service agents the airline employs in Portugal or elsewhere. But this was decency beyond measure, which, frankly, I associate with the country as well.

A fleeting moment of fantasy made me wonder what it would like if all airlines behaved this way, especially in the US. Then I slapped my face and regained consciousness.

One day, perhaps AI will perform the precise function that Andres displayed so well. One day, one of the benefits of computerized anticipation will be that problems are solved before customers get angry.

That day seems far away. Which is why TAP's approach here was so remarkable.

And here's another strange thing: the flight was perfectly on time and no one got angry about having to wear a mask.

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