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Airline Customer Service, Are We Doomed?

July 7, 2007 | Posted in: Ask Rick

The past few months the number of e-mails that we have gotten with people wanting to vent their frustrations about air travel has increased by five-fold and the number of press articles has skyrocketed on this topic.This got my antennae up and I started adding this topic to my conversations with reporters and airline analysts and I found it absolutely fascinating what Wall Street thinks vs. Airlines vs. U.S. Government vs. Air Travelers.The question I had in my mind was Will people travel less because of the hassles of air travel or are they resigned to poor service and its just part of the gig from now on?

When it came out in the most recent Consumer Satisfaction Index that all but one airline is rated lower than the IRS, I new it was time to start jotting down bits of information related to customer service that I thought might shed some light on the issue. After chatting with our new editor we came up with an article on the subject, Death of Airline Customer Service, which I think captures where things are today…

Thought I would share some of the things I jotted down during the past few months that formed the basis of this article:

  • Wall Street only cares about the bottom line; airline customer service is not on their radar, they want fewer planes with more people which will keep prices high. They only thing that keeps them awake at night are disasters like crashes; terrorism and oddly enough JetBlue media nightmares (guess they care a tiny bit about customers). Look for more capacity cuts and less deals as Wall Street continues to get its way. With margins still razor thin, dont expect the airlines to put a lot of money in trying to sort out customer service issues anytime soon.
  • The airlines in the U.S. are special, like mail and telephones; air travel is part of what makes the country tick. The airlines share a unique symbiosis with the government on safety, security, flight control, number of employees in politicians districts and airport authorities. I just read an article yesterday about how much of the flight delay issues could be solved with 40 billion from the government for equipment that is available now want to guess where that goes in the congressional handout pecking order?
  • I just cant believe airline employees come to work each day with the plan to upset air passengers. It doesnt make sense why would anyone want a job where all they hear is complaining all day. There must be a way to make air travel a win-win for passengers and airline staff/executives
  • As usual there are always a handful of passengers that cause issues as well. After chatting with several flight attendants I am pretty sure they never signed up for 100% full planes day in and day out
  • The summer peak season traditionally slows down at the end of August, so maybe this is just an aberration me thinks not

12 Responses to “Airline Customer Service, Are We Doomed?”

  1. Scott from San Diego says:

    Rick – I am going through a customer service nightmare with US Airways as I write this. To make a long story short, they discontinued one of my flights on a trip to Europe. The only option they are giving me is to except a red eye flight out the night before creating an over 12 hour layover in Philadelphia before our connecting flight. I am traveling with young children and they could careless about my situation. They have offered me nothing other than basically take the redeye or a refund. Sure, now that prices have risen a refund and rebooking will cost me a small fortune. To top it off, they never even notified us the flight was discontinued, we found out when we tried to add frequent flyer number to one of the tickets. And you have to love that everyone you can get through to is powerless to do anything for you. I should chose another airline when I had problems originally booking the flight (their website was giving incorrect fares and they wanted to charge me $10 a ticket to book over the phone because their website was wrong). My fight is ongoing with US Air, I am not going to just rollover and let them treat us this way. I suggest travelers think twice before booking with US Air, I wish I had.

  2. Rick Seaney says:

    Scott,

    I have had several notes in the past week sent to me about people in the same situation. I actually wrote about one in my newsletter a couple of weeks ago where Delta didn’t even offer a refund, only the rebooking from a non-stop that was discontinued to a one-stop with an undesirable connection time and the loss of hear hand picked seat assignments.

    Let me do some checking tomorrow morning on US Airways specifically and we’ll see if we can come up with something.

    Rick

  3. Rick Seaney says:

    NWA,

    I agree with you. I understand that each person can’t be treated like royalty and the number of fliers is increasing and staff is decreasing or being outsourced overseas and that is not a formula for customer service success.

    There has to be a better way and I am going to keep working on it until we can come up with some happy median where we passengers can work in conjunction with airlines to make both of our lives easier. Somewhere there is a win-win solution out there …

  4. Matthew/Nashville, TN says:

    NWA,

    I have utilized NWA 2 times in the last month for flights to or from France. In-Flight services are on-par but try calling customer service for minor changes or to confirm something on an existing reservations and you better plan on using your entire lunch hour. It is atroshish( spell ck doesn’t recognize this word- does that word still exist? Like customer service I think it is obsolete).
    I think it is easier to speak to George W.

    Secret is to call in as if you had no reservation. It truly has to be amongst top of terrible service to existing clientèle.

  5. stephen jenkinson says:

    Dont worry about british airways and there cheap winter flights to the uk, and not being able to get into london, (they only loose luggage in london anyway) get a flight into birmingham for london or manchester, there are plenty of cheap internal flights, and also a rail system where train fares with virgin are manchester london for £30 return if booked by certain times you need to see virgin web site, or trainline ticket info in the uk, all on the net, theres lots to see outside london, and even glasgow for scotland, connecting train to edinborough,
    theres also lots of cheap flights to europe with rynair sometimes£10 each way plus tax, also bmi, jet 2, thomson, , ie. flight to salzburg austria in feb from manchester £39. return including taxes,with bmi theres also german airlines coming in regular so enjoy the uk and on

  6. Anna Gomez says:

    I recently took a USAir flight to US from Scottland. They are no longer using international planes, so it was extremely cramped for a 7+ hour flight. In addition, one of the bathrooms was broken, which for a 7+ hour flight is ridiculous. (Just imagine what the one functioning toilet in our section looked like 5 hours into the flight). Of the 4 of us flying together, only 1 seat’s sound operated for the movie. Again, no way to watch any entertainment (no seat-back screens either). Finally, my seat belt didn’t operate correctly, which I didn’t discover until we were landing. It was a terribly uncomfortable flight and I will never fly USAir again as long as there are competitors flying the same route. There’s the rub though . . .

  7. John says:

    40 Billion is nothing. We spend 10 Billion a DAY in Iraq.

  8. John says:

    [Edit] $10 Billion a MONTH in Iraq.

  9. Bob says:

    Rick:

    The problem is not ATC. We have the best system in the world.

    The problem is #1, airlines inefficient management of their own business, and #2, weather. No one but the man upstairs can control this one. Nevertheless, weather delays cause the whole system to become bogged down.

    UAL has sent all its frequent flyers a letter requesting they write representatives in DC tellling them to vote for charging user fees for General Aviation. The airlines want to run ATC when they can’t even run their own businesses efficiently! If General Aviation aircraft are charged a fee for using ATC, many will not use the system causing extreme safety deficiencies.

    Summary: ATC sould use some tweaking for sure, Weather is the biggest cause of delays, airline company inefficiencies are next biggest. I know of pilots in USAIR who intentionally cause delays because of how they are treated by their companies. Let the airlines go out of business. There are many waiting in the wings who know how to get the job done. Southwest and Air Tran are good examples!

    Thanks

  10. Eleanor Earle says:

    Spend the money to upgrade safety, security, flight control. Shouldn’t the 40 million come out of the Homeland Security budget?

  11. Scott - San Diego says:

    Rick: Here is an update on my July 11 post about US Airways. Our only option was to accept the red eye flight the night before creating a 12 hour layover before the international portion of our flight. For our inconvenience US AIR gave us seat upgrades where available on the domestic portions of our fights (we had to stick with 2 coach seats out bound, but all are upgraded for the return – we have 6 in our party) and vouchers for future travel on US Air. It took many calls and e-mails for me to get to this resolution, and I used the calm and rational approach in all of my communications. I have to say US Air without a doubt did a better job than Delta in your earlier article. I have to give them credit for that.

    While I have a very undesirable outbound flight. I feel a little better now that US Air customer relations did accept some responsibility and made the effort to try to make it up to us.

  12. Marjorie says:

    As both a licensed pilot of a small aircraft and a frequent flyer (over 1 million miles)I am extremely resentful of the airlines trying to point the finger at general aviation as the cause of delays and other issues with ATC. UAL and Delta even went so far as to put their lobbying efforts into the seat-back pockets on their flights (so much for saving money by cutting down on things such as magazines).

    Fewer than 1 in 25 flights at the nation’s 10 largest airports are private (source: Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association). In addition, nearly all airline delays are caused by the airline’s own scheduling practices or weather (source: Department of Transportation).

    ATC needs modernization, but the U.S. system remains the best in the world. The bill now pending before Congress contains $13 billion for ATC modernization (NextGen). However there is a great deal of skepticism about the FAA’s ability to handle another modernization project. In addition, the bill contains a $500-million-a-year tax break for the airlines.

    The pending bill also contains provisions to restart collective bargaining between NATCA and the FAA. This is an intriguing possibility to those of us old enough to remember what happpened to the PATCO controllers in 1981.

    So, it would seem, the problems aren’t going to be going away anytime soon. The airlines will continue to try to pin the blame on ATC, or private aircraft, or anybody but themselves. Personally I stick with foreign carriers whenever possible. This may not fix the delay-problem, but at least I don’t have to deal with the attitude.

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