2017 definitely had its ups and downs — for consumers in general and for this site. Reactions to corporate policies, new political situations, violence and terrorism, and extreme weather conditions all contributed to a changing climate for consumer advocacy, as did internal challenges in our organization.
Our advocates dealt with a number of truly bizarre and painful cases of customer service errors, such as a huge overcharge for Bali coffee and a cruise ship that departed early, leaving a passenger stranded.
The standout instance of customer disservice this year was, of course, the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from his paid-for United Airlines seat by security agents to make room for airline personnel, followed by American Airlines’ removal of a mother with a stroller. These occurrences led to proposed legislation to prohibit airlines from bumping already-seated passengers.
But based on United CEO Oscar Muñoz’s response (or more accurately, lack thereof) to his company’s public relations problem, coupled with United’s rise in our most complained-about companies ranking to number two (almost, but not quite, overtaking American Airlines), we’re not sure that U.S. airlines in general are getting the message that mistreating customers isn’t good for business. Brawls involving Spirit and Southwest Airlines passengers reinforced our impression that U.S. airlines have a long way to go in terms of customer service. And our advocates anticipate an uptick in their caseloads resulting from a day-long power failure that grounded a large number of flights in Atlanta on Dec. 17.
The problem of bad airline customer service is global. Our advocates saw a large number of cases of European airlines availing themselves of a loophole in the European air traveler law EU 261 in order to deny or delay compensation to covered air travelers by claiming — at times spuriously — that “extraordinary circumstances” were in effect. British Airways experienced a computer systems failure that grounded flights worldwide on May 28. And German airline Airberlin‘s bankruptcy this year, coming after a number of cases of misplaced luggage, generated a lot of business for our advocates.
The elements also contributed to a number of consumer problems. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Nate, and Ophelia, Tropical Storm Philippe and wildfires in California (which continue to flare as of this writing) overturned many planned trips and created service interruptions for large numbers of people.
The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President had us wondering whether consumers would benefit or suffer from his pro-business and deregulation orientation — and how U.S. travelers would fare abroad. We also saw a controversial “travel ban,” prohibiting entry into the U.S. from eight countries, go into effect, as well as a blockade of Qatar.
Tragically, a number of acts of violence and terror occurred this year in Charlottesville, Las Vegas, New York, London and Barcelona among other places, leading to questions about how safe any place can actually be. New airline security rules took effect this year, and we also saw several instances of negative interactions with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
But there’s still some light showing at the end of a long tunnel when it comes to customer service. A court ruling that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must regulate the size and seat pitch of commercial airline seats and a legislative proposal to allow passengers to make electronic recordings on commercial flights may lead to improved in-flight experiences for air travelers. And we recognized the outstanding customer service provided by AT&T, Disney and Southwest Airlines with our 2018 Reader’s Choice awards.
The subject of privacy turned out to be a sensitive one for us this year.
On multiple occasions, corporate customer service agents and executives requested that we remove their contact information from our Contacts section, and one such organization served us with a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). In response, we ran reminders that our contact information does not come from private sources and is there to facilitate communication between customer service personnel and the people they purport to serve.
In response to similar complaints from individuals requesting our help, we reminded our readers that persons requesting our help acknowledge that we have the right to use whatever information they give us in stories that appear on our website, in social media and in syndicated columns. We updated our legal disclaimer and our FAQ in response to complaints that we weren’t clearly articulating to our readers and help requesters the possibility that this information may be published.
We’ve also worked hard to bring you improved service on our own end.
In February, a large number of complaints about the snarky tone of several comments on our blog columns led to our decision to disallow comments on our published stories for one month, forcing commenters to use social media to discuss our stories. We also decided that for certain stories, such as this one, we will close the comments section. (Note: We’d like to remind you that the ability to comment on our stories directly on our website is a privilege, not a right, which will go away again if it is abused.)
To improve the readability of our website and our newsletter, we revamped their formats and upgraded the themes. In February, we ran a series of articles discussing the benefits of travel insurance coverage and what policyholders can expect from owning it. We changed the name and theme of our “Advocate This” story category to “Help Yourself” to showcase successful stories of self-advocacy as well as to highlight its failures. Our research team added hundreds of new contacts, bringing our total covered companies to over 500 for the first time. (As of this writing, we have 520 companies.)
Our spring fundraiser brought in $25,000 to ensure the continued operation of this site. We’ve just started our winter fundraiser, during which we’re hoping to raise $30,000.
Many thanks to our readers, donors and far-sighted companies for their generosity and dedication to our work, and to our customer service contacts, teammates and everyone who participated with us in the cause of consumer advocacy. We look forward to working with you in 2018.
Happy New Year!