No Fly Zone: They Would Not Let Me Board the Plane!

As a business traveler on my way to a speaking engagement, about the worst news I can hear is, “Sir, you’re not going to be able to board the plane.”

Now, a day later, those words are still ringing in my ears and prompting me to fix the issues that caused me to miss my flight.

At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, I arrived at Centennial Airport—a small public use airport just South of Denver. A company called Denver Air Connection has a daily flight to Grand Junction, Colorado that leaves at 7:15 a.m. and returns at 7:30 p.m. It’s cheaper, closer and less hassle than flying out of Denver International Airport—assuming that you can get on the plane.

I walked up to the counter and handed over my driver’s license. The attendant informed me that my license was expired. I looked at it and sure enough, it had expired on my birthday nearly two months earlier. I didn’t panic. I assumed that I wasn’t the first person to arrive at an airport with an expired driver’s license—there must be a process.

She ran through the list of acceptable forms of (passport, military ID, etc.), but I didn’t have any other identification. She said, “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t let you board the plane.”

Still, I didn’t panic. I thought that she was probably inexperienced. Maybe she really didn’t know the procedure for handling someone without proper ID. I thought, “People misplace their IDs or they get their wallets stolen, or forget to renew. This is not a novel or unusual situation. Surely the TSA has a ready-made answer for this.”

So I Googled the phrase, “Can I travel with an expired driver’s license,” and the very first link that appeared was to this TSA blog post that confirmed that you can still fly even if your ID is expired.

I shared the information with the attendant, but she still said there was no way she could let me on the plane. So I called the TSA help line, and the lady I spoke with confirmed that yes, I should still be able to board the flight. She quoted from the TSA’s policies on identification.

However, the attendant at Denver Air Connection insisted that she could not let me board the plane without a valid ID. She called her boss, and I got on the phone to explain the situation and what the TSA help line agent had told me.

The boss said, “Sir, our rules are very strict, and we can’t violate our rules. I don’t know what the TSA is telling you, but I’ve never heard of someone being able to board a plane without ID.”

I asked her if she would call the TSA to get advice on this situation, but she refused. Instead she called her boss, who confirmed that I could not get on the flight.

The plane left without me.

The good news is that Grand Junction was only four hours away by car, so I jumped in my SUV and headed that way. I called the organizers and let the know that I was going to be late, so they moved my speech to a later part of their agenda.

Further good news was that it was a bright sunny day and the roads were completely clear of snow. To get to Grand Junction, I had to drive through the Rocky Mountains and over the Continental Divide, and at this time of year, there could easily have been a snow storm that reduced traffic to 15 or 20 mph and would have made it impossible for me to make it.

I arrived in Grand Junction without any further problems, delivered my speech and drove five hours back home (there was an extra hour of delay, because the part of the highway was closed for construction).

There are several important business lessons to learn from this experience, for me as a business traveler, for Denver Air Connection as a service provider, and for all businesses about anticipating the challenges your customers are likely to face and having a ready solution for them.

LESSONS FOR ME

First, it was foolish and unprofessional for me to allow my driver’s license to expire. I travel for a living. Sometimes, I go months without taking a trip, but other times, I have back-to-back trips clustered in the span of a few weeks. It is an absolute business priority for me to know the expiration dates of my various IDs, and set auto-reminders in my calendar to renew them well in advance of their expiration.

Second, I should pack some secondary forms of ID in my computer bag and carry them with me permanently, just in case I ever misplace or lose my driver’s license. I should abide by the Boy Scout motto – “Be Prepared.”

LESSONS FOR DENVER AIR COMMAND

The response from the attendant at the airport and her boss on the phone was professional and polite, yet at the same time, it was very poor customer service. At no point in the entire exchange did I feel that they were my partners in trying to find a solution.

As a customer who has a problem, I want to at least “feel” that you are trying to help me find a solution, but in this situation all I received was a pure compliance response. The rule is black and white. You must have an ID, and if you don’t have an ID, we have no idea what we could even do for you.

When I Googled the TSA information and shared it with them, they reacted to it as if they had never heard of anyone being able to travel without proper identification—which was further aggravating, because I felt that I had found a path to a solution and they seemed disinterested in helping me solve the problem.

I wanted them to respond by saying, “Let me look through our documentation to see if there is a way that we can do this … or let me call our TSA rep and see what the procedure is in a situation like this.” Or better yet, it would have been great if they had already been trained on how to solve this issue and simply executed the pre-approved plan.

Instead, the answer was, “Sir our rules don’t allow that.”

After I returned home and did some research, I learned Denver Air Connection operates under the Department of Transportation’s Public Charter Regulations. I don’t know anything about those regulations, but perhaps under those rules this TSA policy regarding expired or lost IDs doesn’t apply.

Denver Air Connection should do several things:

  • I don’t blame the gate attendant or her supervisor for their response. They’re compliance officers. Their job is to enforce the rules. If they were in the habit of making exceptions, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs and they would earn Denver Air Connection a lot of fines from the TSA. So they did exactly what they were trained to do.
  • Denver Air Connection should investigate the issue of someone showing up with expired or lost ID and explore the possibility of creating a solution to the problem that is in sync with the TSA’s-policy for expired or lost IDs while still being compliant with the DOT Public Charter Regulations.
  • If it’s not possible to follow the TSA-policy, the workers at the Denver Air Connection should be prepared with an easy-to-recite explanation for why the TSA’s publicly available solutions for ID situations don’t apply to facilities regulated by the DOT’s Public Charter Regulations.
  • When your customer can stand at the counter and Google a TSA solution to a very common problem and your staff is completely unaware of the solution, it makes them seem uninformed and unprepared. It puts them in a very difficult situation. I can testify that as the customer, it was extremely frustrating, because I was speaking to a TSA representative on the phone who said that a solution existed, yet the Denver Air Connection staff continued to insist that no solution existed.

LESSONS FOR ALL BUSINESSES

I was a speaker at the conference in Grand Junction and several of the people who were on the flight were also attending that conference. By the time I arrived, news of my adventure at the airport had spread throughout the conference.

The buzz among the hundreds of attendees could have been (and should have been), “What a bone-head Reggie Rivers is for letting his license lapse. He should have been more prepared! How unprofessional!”

Instead the buzz was, “Can you believe those bone-heads at Denver Air Connection wouldn’t let Reggie Rivers on the plane? He was standing there with TSA on the phone, but Denver Air Connection wouldn’t follow the TSA procedure.”

This is the reality of business. Often when service issues arise, the customer is wrong, yet the business bears the brunt of the criticism, because other customers expect the business to have anticipated the problem and have a ready-made solution for it.

This is a reminder for all business leaders that our customers will always pay far more attention to the way we solve problems than they will to the way we conduct business when everything is optimal.

Solving customer problems has to be at the core of our business focus.

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