Thursday, February 3, 2011

35,000ft over the Atlantic

I had to be in Africa on Wednesday. I had to leave Tuesday evening to get there on time but couldn’t leave any earlier as I had a VIP visitor on campus on Monday and Tuesday. My “go to” airline, United, flies my exact route…six days a week. Yup, Tuesday is their off day. So I flew Lufthansa for the first time.

Now in 2010 I flew 149,137 miles (tracked on I am hardly a novice flyer. But on Lufthansa, I couldn’t figure out how to work the seat, where to plug in my Bose headset, or how everyone but me seemed to have socks and eyeshades. “This shouldn’t be rocket science,” I thought, too embarrassed to ask for help while subtly checking out the actions of fellow passengers for the clues I craved.

I found my airline seat all at once familiar but foreign and found my predicament humiliating, frustrating, depressing, maddening…memorable.

And then I thought about our prospective families and their first visit to our campuses and offices. It’s just visiting another school, right? It should be rather familiar. But I imagine it can also feel rather foreign. What do we do to make our guests’ experience go well? Go memorable, in a good way?

Surely we have the big things covered like visitor parking and good signage. Right? How about a comfortable place to sit that allows a family to be together? And after a possible long ride, is it obvious (to them, not us!) where to find a bathroom or something to drink? Are we careful not to use school-specific acronyms or lingo? What is an OR after all? At my school, it’s an Old Ridlean. To the outsider, it’s nothing more than a reminder that they’re an outsider.

I knew within two minutes of taking my seat on that A340-300 that I was out of my element and my comfort zone, even though flying is perfectly routine for me. It would have been a great help and comfort if a flight attendant had come over and subtly whispered to me, “Is this your first time flying Lufthansa? If so, let me know if you have any questions. I’m here to help.”

Thankfully United is taking me home from Africa. But when I return to campus, my staff will be discussing a, “I’m here to help” perspective with our guests.

(By the way, I found my kit with eyeshade and socks eight hours later when I packed up to deplane!)

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