When in Doubt, Give a Dangerous Trip the Old Heave-Ho

By Dave Millhouser

“Ya big SISSY!”

Huddled in the heated wheelhouse of the dive boat, Captain Steve and I were looking out at a harbor covered with whitecaps whipped up by a 30-knot, wintry breeze.

He had just made the decision to call off the charter, and I was kidding him. Trust me, I didn’t want to go either.

Canceling a trip in any phase of the transportation business is a tough call. You hate to disappoint customers and lose revenue, but beating people up isn’t a good way to ensure repeat business.

Steve had done a good job of training his clientele. In ye olden days, when there was a blow and customers insisted on trying to dive, he’d leave the dock and head out past the breakwater.

It was rough in the harbor, but outside green water broke over the bow. The heaving boat administered a thrashing sufficient to crush the spirit of the divers, who then begged him to cancel the trip.

Sometimes it wasn’t just the boat that heaved.

After a couple of beatings, even the most-hardy customers take Steve’s word on weather.

In the coach business, there aren’t many breakwaters. This complicates the decision-making process when weather, or circumstances, make departing on a trip or continuing on one chancy.

There are a number of factors to weigh when you consider canceling a charter.

Weather forecasting has come a long way. It’s often reliable enough to make informed decisions, ones that anxious clients will respect, but what about the gray areas (pun intended)?

What’s the destination? A shopping trip to an outlet mall is easily postponed, but if it’s the Super Bowl, there is more impetus to at least try. Major events with expensive perishable tickets can tempt us into unwise moves (keeping track of the puns?).

The decision to cancel is a shared one. Management can make the call based on weather or events that could impact safety. They’re in a position to judge the consequences in terms of both business and safety, and are heavily impacted by the results.

With luck, whoever has to communicate the decision gives thought to how best to “sell” it.

Like a ship’s captain, the driver is ultimately responsible. Your corporate culture should encourage their honest appraisal of whether it’s safe to depart, or continue, when problems crop up.

Certainly an individual driver’s level of experience influences the decision, but subtle psychological undercurrents can push less-qualified people to try things that are risky. It’s important to ask questions in a way that makes drivers comfortable with saying no.

Customers’ feelings are always important, but in this case, they’re at the bottom of the decision-making hierarchy. Their understanding of potential hazards is minimal, and they generally are strongly motivated to “go.” In many ways, they have less at risk than the carrier.

If you let them influence you into trying something you know is risky, and they’re stranded, they will expect compensation. That’s best case. An accident is worst case.

When you, or your driver, make a bad choice, it’s your fault. If clients talk you into a bad choice, it’s your fault.

The key here is relationships. If you (or your driver) explain adequately, and have good rapport, you’ll likely be all right. Try to make customers understand that you want to go as badly as they do, but you value their safety and comfort too much to risk it.

Sadly, there is no breakwater available to cruise past and give them a tiny taste of misery.

Sitting in the window seat of a DC9 one night, I could see the lights of Aruba beneath us. The gear and flaps dropped, and we were about 50 feet above the runway when the whole island went dark. Pitch black, darker than a bureaucrat’s heart.

The pilot dynamited the throttle, and we climbed like a bat out of hell and headed back out to sea. The airport had disappeared. The entire power grid, including the runway lights, had failed just as we were about to touch down.

He circled a couple of times, hoping that the lights would come on, before announcing that we’d have to continue on to our next stop, which was Bonaire. We would have to skip Aruba.

Since Bonaire was my destination I was happy, but one large fellow began bellowing that he was going to miss the cruise ship he was scheduled to board in Aruba.

He loudly insisted that we HAD to land because he was important. (Apparently not so important that the ship wouldn’t leave without him.)

Fortunately our pilot was clever enough to realize that attempting a landing was not a bright idea (you counting these puns?). This was one of those cases when accommodating the customer could have had disastrous consequences.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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