If Only the Shades of Grey were Brighter

I knew I was pressing my luck.

I had flown in or out of LaGuardia Airport three times in four days, and I uttered the phrase, “I’ve had pretty good luck with flights this week.”

And so it follows that, for flight number four, two days later on a Sunday afternoon, I sat with my family of five on the tarmac for three hours only to ultimately return to the gate. A few hours after that, the flight was canceled.

I’d assumed that when American cancels your flight, or, in our case, five of your flights, they give a voucher for a meal or a hotel. Apparently not since “the flight was canceled due to air traffic control and not because of something the airline did or because of severe weather.”

(But the pilot told us 10 different times that air traffic control wouldn’t let us take off due to a “low ceiling in New York.” Isn’t that bad weather? But I digress.)

By my math, the overnight delay cost our family about $500: two $104 hotel rooms at the ALoft, one (terrible) dinner for five at that hotel, breakfast at the airport, an extra night of parking my car at LaGuardia, an extra night of care for our dogs, and a taxi from JFK to LaGuardia since our flight home landed at JFK.

What struck me about the experience was that this is how things work in today’s hyper-transactional economy: each step along the way is optimized by an app offering information (flight status, re-booking) and discounts (hotels, meals), and the sum of all of those micro-transactions is an experience that dehumanizes both the customer and the service provider:

The flight attendant is frustrated because she has no information or control, and the passengers are upset.

The gate agent is powerless. He just got assigned to the gate. He has no information and no discretion, and it feels terrible to give angry passengers nothing.

The airline has no obligations. It’s all spelled out in the fine print.

The one lone woman working at the hotel front desk has such a narrow job that she transfers the call three times to the van pickup and, when it goes to voicemail, she has no recourse.

The bartender has a big smile and pours a nice cold beer, but when we order a full meal off the bar menu he looks terrified. It turns out that the “grilled cheese with tomato soup” at the ALoft Raleigh-Durham is a microwaved hamburger bun with some semi-melted cheese and Cambell’s soup, all served lukewarm—because he has no chef, no pan, no stove, nothing. We’d ordered four of them.

While our 24 hours delay with a family of five was tiring and expensive, what I noticed most was how much it cried out for an ounce of humanity. The economy we’ve built optimizes so much for efficiency that there’s no space for human agency. Every step is a tiny transaction in which both people standing across from each other—service provider and service recipient—are powerless. It’s dehumanizing by a thousand cuts.

Well, not always.

On the bookends of this trip, I got to spend some time talking to Lily. Lily works at The Parking Spot at LaGuardia airport.

I first called Lily on Friday afternoon when The Parking Spot website told me that they were full, and I couldn’t park there. I called to see if this was true or if I could just show up, and Lily confirmed that I could only reserve over the website: “If it says we’re full, you can’t park here.”

So I asked her for advice, since LaGuardia is under construction and every place was full. We talked a bit more then Lily paused and asked what time I would arrive. “Three o’clock,” I told her.

“Come on over, ask for me, I’ll get you a spot.”

When I arrived, Lily and I both discovered that we knew each other a little. About a year ago, my wife and I were leaving from / arriving to LaGuardia on the same day. The best way for us to make it work was for my wife to pick up the car that I’d parked a few hours prior—without a car key, without the ticket, and with a different last name. Randomly, I had chosen The Parking Spot and ended up explaining this long-winded plan to Lily. She was great. I think she thought it was funny. She helped. My wife got the car. Lily acted like a human being.

The same thing happened with Lily this past Friday when I called, and on Monday the five of us rolled in, exhausted after a 24 hour delay. She laughed. She cracked jokes. She put everyone at ease, not because she has to but because she obviously finds joy in being helpful, saying hello, being human. And, to state the obvious, where do you think we’re parking the next time we fly out of LaGuardia?

The infinite, micro-losses we’ve created in today’s hyper-efficient world are epitomized in how remarkable Lily’s behavior is: in making every transaction smoother and a little bit cheaper we disempower everyone, and no one misses what’s been lost until it’s too late. Care, kindness and humanity now feel like luxury goods.

There is, however, a silver lining: it’s easier than ever, against this backdrop, to have the smallest actions stand out as exceptional. You can do this from the front lines. You can do this in how you build your company culture.

It’s easier than ever to be noticed, to have a bright splash of color be seen in an increasingly monochromatic economy.

6 thoughts on “If Only the Shades of Grey were Brighter

  1. Observations are amazing, the bar on being human has been lowered and therefore the opportunity to be great is easy and infinite.

  2. My Mother, God rest her soul, always told me to err on the side of kindness and it sounds like Lily was cut from that same cloth. And in Phoenix, I’ve also had similar good experiences at The Parking Spot so maybe, just maybe they are a stand out implementing a corporate culture that the top Fortune 100 can take a lesson from.

  3. Well, she’s my mother-in-law so I don’t count her as overly objective, but it is very nice of her – and you – to say!

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