Complaints on an industry that probably doesn’t need more grief,

published at 11:03am on 03/07/07

The problem with most complaints about anything is that they come at moments when we are at our most irritable, our most frustrated, our most inconvenienced. When things go according to plan, when we attempt to operate within the system (for whatever system it maybe in which we are operating) and come out clean on the other side, we have nothing bad to say about a given experience. We asked, we received, and we moved on with our lives. It is most often when we try to deviate from that norm, when we ask the system to be flexible to our needs, that the true nature of the service we are requesting is truly realized.

I am referring, of course, to the state of air travel in the United States today. Over the past several months, I have had the good fortune to sample the offerings of no fewer than three of our nation’s air carriers and have managed to make it through the ordeal with nary a scratch. Of course, in keeping with the original thesis, the trauma comes not from situations where things go well, but when things go, well, less than ideally. The apparent problem that I have encountered recently is that there is no one carrier that can be all things to all people.

Take, for instance, the flight that I am currently on. I am on a United Airways flight from New York’s JFK airport to Maui, with a stop in San Francisco for good measure. Remarkably, from a flight perspective, this one has been relatively painless. After my own brief moment of panic this morning brought on by a malfunctioning alarm clock and an overnight snowfall, I arrived at the terminal to find no line at all at the self check-in. I retrieved my boarding pass and made it to security where I was told that I only had the boarding pass for the first leg of my trip. I hurried back to the ticketing machine where I saw my other boarding pass sitting there, waiting for me. Brilliant planning on the part of the machine manufacturer, I must say, to spit out the second leg boarding pass first, effectively preventing passengers from boarding the first leg without the second leg pass in hand. At security, my luggage required a hand check, and the gentleman handling my belongings was kind enough to put the 10 rolls of film that had looked suspect in the x-ray, right back where he found them when replacing them after inspection. At the gate I was able to change from a window to an aisle seat further up in the plane on both legs of my journey, and once on board, the overhead bin accommodated my roll-aboard suitcase without a problem.

Getting to this point was much more of an ordeal, however. This flight was booked using frequent flier miles and as such, had the benefit of being changeable at any point as long as destinations along the route remained the same. The trouble began when I called to inquire about the possibility of adjusting my flights to return home from Hawaii a few days earlier in order to make a brief stop over in Las Vegas (which is another story all together). The trouble, of course, comes from outsourced phone operators, and the cause of this trouble is a lack of cultural empathy. While call center operators in India and the Philippines have a fluent grasp of the English language, they do not at all have the context in which that language is spoke in the United States, and as such, seem unable to understand which parts of the situation are urgent, which are flexible and when to adjust their tone and inflection when speaking with someone who is already frustrated by being locked into the arcane rules of the airline industry.

In this particular instance, I had never been made clear the difference between a layover and a stopover. From my understanding, as long as I didn’t change any of my travel points, there would be no problem in changing the dates. What I did not understand, and what the representatives were unable to convey to me consistently at all, is that changing planes in under four hours is considered a layover, and over four hours is a stop over. These are different in the computer system, and one is unable to change from one to the other without effectively changing the entire flight. The first representative I spoke with was willing to make the change for me (and did not explain this difference), but I was unable to commit to flight times yet, and told them I would call back. The second representative told me that it could not be done, and berated me for trying to make that kind of change. The third representative finally took the time to explain the difference and the applicable fees.

When I decided to abandon my stop over aspirations, I moved on to the seemingly simple matter of moving my flight earlier by two days. The representative I spoke with informed me that, in fact, those flights were available, and that there would be a one hundred dollar change fee because I was making the change within seven days of travel – another restriction that had never been disclosed when I had asked, explicitly when I booked the flight, whether the dates were changeable. I was further informed that if I waited until my travel was underway, that is, if I waited until after I took the first leg, then there would be no fee, but that there was no guarantee that the flight would be available any more.

I told the representative that none of these fees were disclosed, and that I was certainly not going to pay for this change. Without hesitation, she went to speak with her “resources” and returned a moment later informing me that “we do not charge that fee” and changed my flight without further delay.

In retrospect, the situation was not nearly as bad as it could have been. But it is upsetting to know that these interactions are, by default, judged on how poor they are, rather than how good. I had to speak to at least five representatives before finalizing my itinerary, none but the last who seemed actually interested in helping me come to some kind of positive end to my (albeit outside the ordinary) travel situation.

In contrast to this, just this morning I booked and paid for a JetBlue flight before I realized that I had booked the wrong dates. (A note to JetBlue: please include the full itinerary on the final purchase page of your web site, or at least provide a confirmation before making your customers pull the trigger.) I phoned JetBlue and after only a minute of voice menus, was able to speak with a live human being who first offered to help me find a flight on the day that I actually wanted to travel and, when that search yielded no results at the price I was willing to pay, was able to cancel my purchase completely with no questions asked. It was a brilliant customer service experience if I ever had one.

However, while waiting to take off from JFK on my United flight, we were held at the gate for much longer than anticipated. As the passengers were getting antsy, the pilot came on the intercom system and informed us that a JetBlue flight was “doing that thing that they do” (a reference, of course, to all of their canceled flights on and immediately following Valentine’s day this year) and was preventing our flight from pulling back from the gate.

Immediately, all of that goodwill that they had built up with me evaporated when I was reminded that they have infrastructure problems that they seem to have not fully worked out yet.

Continental has been fine, but really, what the hell is up with that last plane I flew on where the aisle was so narrow that my suitcase didn’t roll through it without scraping each seat as I walked to my seat?

It’s a wonder to me that the airplanes stay in the air at all. That for the cost of a couple of billable hours I am able to fly across the country and back again, with two week’s notice. It’s a wonder to me that the industry is so fragile that one minute a fare can be available and the next moment it will be gone. I think about how the value of an airplane ticket increases and increases until the moment the flight takes off, at which point it is worth nothing.

The airlines would do well to remember that the customers, the passengers, the paid seats are all just people, and people can be remarkably loyal when they are treated nicely. They should remember that there is a fine line between the bottom line and satisfaction, and that the former will suffer with the latter.

There are many complaints to be had, but mostly I am glad that the industry exists at all, for my life would be so much more boring if I couldn’t see the world.

Filed under: Observations

At 10:06 pm on 03.10.07, Danielle said,

Snowfall? When did you write this?

At 10:08 pm on 03.10.07, jcn said,

Good point. I changed the time stamp.

At 12:46 pm on 03.12.07, Kyle J. said,

Great article! wish i could beat the “change fee” system tho. but it makes sense. anyways just got off the phone with a United customer service agent. Sounded dimwitted, but was effective in only charging me the change fee and not the flight difference. international travel too!

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