I was flying home to Denver a few months back from a business trip.  It was an evening flight, perhaps not the last flight on the route (it was hub-to-hub for the airline, so the route sees a lot of traffic), but close to it, and we were—of course—late getting in.  It was a mechanical issue, not weather, so we were a flight that was alone in its circumstance.  Sometimes when there’s weather impacting a city (whether departure or destination), there’s a feeling that, well, at least the whole place is a mess.  There’s something more isolating when it’s only your flight that’s delayed.

Since I was coming home, I was a little perturbed, but not too concerned.  I, of course, wanted to get home from my trip, but once the plane landed, other than the drive, my travels were basically over.  As often happens, on approach the flight attendant came across the intercom and asked those of us who were terminating (I never liked that turn of phrase in this situation) in Denver to step aside and allow those trying to connect to deplane (another term I never liked) first.

Now, in a situation like this, human decency more or less takes over, if only tinged with a slight feeling of ‘oh, I see…the airline botches it and suddenly it’s my responsibility to help my fellow passengers out.’  It’s funny, and perhaps I’m just remembering it the way I’d prefer, but it never seems the ground crew is in as huge a hurry in these instances.  While the majority of those on the plane understand the urgency, we seem to be alone in that.  But anyway.  Most everybody who’s staying in Denver complies and we let those with connections shuffle as quickly as they can down the aisle and through the door.

Back up an hour or so, and I’d been chatting with some of the folks sitting around me during the flight.  The guy next to me was headed to Saint Louis.  The couple across the aisle were on their way to Omaha.  All were concerned about their connections.  Their original layovers had allowed not only for plenty of time to get from the arrival gate to their respective departure gates, but also to take a minute to catch their breath, use the facilities, perhaps get a bite to eat or a drink between flights.  The delay of this, their first leg, threw that all into question as well as making the connection at all.  In fact, both of these follow-on flights were scheduled to depart within minutes of our estimated delayed arrival in Denver.

As we made our approach, it was looking even more unlikely that my fellow passengers would make their respective connections.  Add to that when we landed, what seemed like an excessive amount of time on the ground taxiing in (of course, in instances such as these, it surely seems like an exceptionally long taxi, but it’s hard to tell), and more time waiting for a gate.  We’d lost our original gate since we came in late, and what?  They hadn’t been otherwise expecting us?  It’s not as though we just popped in.

By the time we arrived at the gate and the door was open, the takeoff time for the Omaha flight had just passed and there were only a couple minutes left until the Saint Louis flight was due to close its door and push back.  These folks sprinted off the plane along with a couple other passengers, none of whom were fully certain either way if they’d make their connections.  Even the Omaha passengers, for example, had some degree of hope their flight may be held for them.

Here’s the rub on all of this:  It was late in the day, but not necessarily late in the night yet.  Surely these smaller destinations (Omaha) and non-hub cities (St. Louis) had limited flights for this particular airline.  I have no doubt that these connections were the absolute last flights of the day to these places.  That meant two things.  First, obviously, these were the only chances these passengers had to make it to their destinations that day…if they missed the connections, short of someone else having a hub at their destination (and our airline being savvy and effective enough to get them a seat on a competitor’s flight), they were at risk of being stranded for the night.  Second, given the time of day and that these destinations were not hubs, the likelihood that any of the passengers already on these follow-on flights were apt to miss their connections was just about zero…a late departure from Denver due to holding these planes (especially for just a couple minutes!) was not putting anybody else’s travel plans at risk.  Sure, those waiting at the gate to close the doors and push back would be inconvenienced by a few minutes (kind of like those of us who waited for the connecting passengers to deplane first were), but again…this is a society we’re living in.  We can put ourselves out minimally if it helps others dramatically.

Of course, that’s the way we think.  The airline?  Well, its numbers had already been hit by a late departure for the flight I had just completed.  The follow-on impact (to their numbers, mind you…not so much to their actual Customers) of having a few more late departures was likely more than they wanted to have to deal with.  And sure enough, when I got into the concourse, the departure screen showed that at least my two nearest seatmates had missed their connections.  Omaha had closed on time without waiting, and Saint Louis was at the other end of the concourse and running through the estimate in my head, there’s no way the guy who was next to me could have made it all the way down there in time.

So because the airline’s top priority was that their numbers didn’t look bad, they put out at least three of their Customers.  Probably more, depending on the other connections.

This is a real-life impact that comes from what I’ve written about previously, Goodhart’s Law.  But it’s also a reflection of what happens when a brand doesn’t derive their actual KPIs from their Customers’ experiences, which comes from having the wrong purpose for ‘doing CX’ in the first place.  If we place the actual experiences of our Customers at the center of all we do, that’ll include putting them at the center of how we measure our success… and that could change everything.