Can airline customer service rise to new heights?

By | January 21st, 2013

delta5The experience of passengers like Nina Boal makes me optimistic about the future of air travel.

An information technology specialist for a government agency in Baltimore, Boal ran into trouble recently when she flew to her mother’s funeral in Chicago. Her fibromyalgia and severe arthritis made it difficult to board the aircraft.

Delta Air Lines staff bent over backward to make the flight as comfortable as possible, she says. It switched her seats to accommodate her mobility challenges, and its agents helped lift her into the seat. They even apologized for the difficulties, even though “there was nothing for them to apologize about,” she says. “Because of their assistance, I was able to get to my mother’s funeral.

Delta didn’t leave well enough alone.

After Boal returned to Baltimore, an airline representative phoned and apologized again, offering a dedicated number for disabled assistance the next time she flies. The airline also offered her a $100 flight credit.

“Not all airlines think only of profits,” Boal says. “There are some legacy airlines, like Delta, that truly want to help passengers get to where they need to, regardless of disabilities.”

But stories like Boal’s aren’t the only thing that make me hopeful. Hard numbers do, too. The industry’s customer-service scores, as tracked by the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, jumped 3.1 percent to their highest level in a decade last year. Granted, its aggregate score of 67 still leaves something to be desired, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.

I’ve also spent time talking with airline executives about their long-term service goals. Last year, I visited with United Airlines in Chicago and Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, and I was surprised by what I learned.

Related story:   Help! United left my 13-year-old daughter in Syracuse

Let me start with my most recent visit with Delta in mid-December. The last time I’d dropped by its corporate headquarters, Delta had just merged with Northwest Airlines, and its customers were unhappy, to put it mildly. About 2 out of every 9 complaints to the Transportation Department in 2010 involved a Delta mainline flight, which was twice the number of grievances lodged against the second-most-complained-about carrier, American.

The executives I met with then seemed nervous. They insisted that most of my interviews take place off the record and spent a considerable amount of time apologizing. They blamed many of their problems on a difficult merger but outlined an ambitious plan which, they promised me, would improve customer service. This included initiatives to empower employees to help passengers, deploy more staff into key service positions and use technology to proactively help customers during flight delays.

The two years that followed weren’t easy, but I started noticing a significant drop in the number of complaints about Delta I received starting in early 2012. By the middle of the year, they’d all but vanished. So when I met with Allison Ausband, Delta’s vice president for reservations sales and customer care, we had a lot to talk about.

The most telling part of our interview came near the end, when I asked what customer service meant to Delta. Did it have the support of senior management? Ausband bolted out of her seat and rifled through a folder, then slid a stack of papers across the table toward me. “We have support at the highest level,” she said. “I meet with Richard Anderson [Delta’s chief executive] every month. We review every number.”

Related story:   New airline rules yet to be enforced, even as DOT levies record fines

I paged through her November presentation. It was an annotated report containing every customer service metric, including consumer complaints, denied boardings and on-time arrivals and departures. “Better customer service is good for shareholders?” I asked, a little rhetorically.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s how we feel.”

When I visited with United in August, they were roughly in the same place that Delta had found itself in back in 2010. United’s merger with Continental was fraught with difficulties, including a disastrous integration of reservation systems, and the complaints were piling up. Almost every executive I met with, with the possible exception of United’s head chef, issued similar pro-forma apologies.

Scott O’Leary, United’s managing director of customer solutions, said that the integration had been “hard,” adding, “We are not running a good operation.” But in a lengthy interview, he outlined plans similar to Delta’s for improving United’s customer service. United is using a combination of technology, extra staff and policy changes to make your next flight go more smoothly. A new program called IROP 2.0 (that’s airline-speak for irregular operations) was just rolling out as the summer wound down.

Change, O’Leary cautioned, “won’t happen overnight.”

That August, 467 complaints were filed against United with the Transportation Department, more than twice as many as the next airline, American. In September, the number fell to 211 complaints. And in October, it slid to 203. That’s the right direction.

A skeptic might say that I’m just witnessing the normal hiccups and convulsions that happen during an airline merger, a phenomenon that will just repeat itself if American Airlines and US Airways hook up.

Related story:   If fuel costs are lower, what’s keeping airfares sky-high?

A cynic might point out that Delta has every reason to treat disabled customers like Boal as deities. After all, didn’t the Department of Transportation fine Delta a record $2 million for “egregious” violations of its disability rules in 2011?

Both would have a point. But I see something else unfolding here. It’s a realization that airlines can’t take their customers for granted, even the ones flying on discounted fares. Delta appropriately refers to these leisure travelers as “essential” passengers.

Maybe — just maybe — airlines have realized that the passengers in the back of the plane are important, too. Maybe in 2013 they want to make all their customers happy, not just the ones with platinum cards.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Can airline customer service rise to new heights?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

  • TonyA_says

    I thought I was dreaming when I read this article before 6AM. My (or our) expectations of US airlines must be so low that sporadic acts of kindness from their FAs almost made me cry. But when you mentioned that it was good for profit and the bottom line, I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Anyone who travels across the Pacific and have flown those Asian airlines do not need this kind of story to tell you what good service is all about. It is so strange that Delta, that has a hub in Tokyo, cannot learn from JAL on ANA. So goodbye Delta, United and American. Hello Cathay Pacific, Singapore Air, Asiana, etc. I hope they get rid of cabotage laws and allow these airlines to fly inside the USA.

    Interesting article here

  • I agree, we should end the antiquated cabotage rules. Nothing would improve service more.

  • TonyA_says

    I wish I had the data in my fingertips but I don’t. I understand that Japanese CEOs make so much less than American CEOs. Also the difference in pay between an average employee and the CEO is much closer in Japan. I would think that this is also true for So. Korea and to some (though less) extent Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. That said I suppose a larger amount of the net revenues are spent to modernize the fleet and improve service. Hence you fly on a clean, modern aircraft with all the ammenities possible.
    Contrast this to US airlines CEO compensation. Their compensation does not seem to tied to any level of consumer satisfaction at all. You get very old and dirty aircraft with very unhappy cabin crew. Don’t mention the food or lack thereof. American airlines do not know what real service means, they just talk about it.
    Added: The same goes for US airports. Compare JFK or LAX to HKG or SIN or ICN. Compare ORD to CTS, new Chitose airport outside Sapporo. Your kids can play on the floors. They are that clean. But in JFK Terminal 7 near Gate 5, there is a hole in the ceiling and the roof leaks when it rains. There is even tape on the carpet below just like the ones they use to mark the perimeter of a dead body.

    And all that shopping your kids need, don’t worry, there is a mall inside the airport. You know, I even ate a real ice cream sundae in CTS. I can’t find that in many US airports.

    We Americans think we are better than everyone else. Unfortunately, we do not compare well or are in denial. A lot of things here are falling apart and they need fixing. A big fixing.

  • Raven_Altosk

    No, the only reason Delta bent over backwards for this particular PAX was because she is disabled (and thus a protected class) that they can get in big trouble for screwing over.

    Had she been able-bodied, she would be crammed into the cattle car just like everyone else.

    I see nothing “amazing” about the “customer service” here. It’s just Delta following ADA.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Agree x10000.
    I’d love to fly coast to coast on an airline that gives a crap. Unfortunately, none of the domestic ones do.

  • sdir

    Another thought, but did the airline know she was traveling for a funeral? Because medical emergency of a close family member or a funeral are two situations where most people would go out of their way to help out. Then again, I may just be cynical before my morning coffee.

  • TonyA_says

    Google Nina Boal. Maybe she is the veteran civil rights activist that marched with MLK? It couldn’t be more apropos for today’s celebration. Maybe Delta didn’t want to screw around with a civil rights activist. But they might with an ordinary person like me and you.

  • john4868

    Airline won’t give a crud until we vote with our wallets to move toward airlines that do. Until then, we’ll just whine about it but fly the cheapest fare. Don’t believe me? Look at AA’s experiment at adding pitch to their cabins. They lost share and money because, while people would whine about room, they wouldn’t pay for room. Also, it would be interesting to find out how many people actually pay for the extra pitch seats on US airline (Econ + on UA & Econ Comfort on DL). My guess is that most of the people in those seats are elites (if you have any doubt, go look at Chris’s other site Consumer Traveler).

  • Alan Gore

    If airline customer service is going to rise to new heights, it must first emerge from the Marianas Trench.

    Blow negative!

  • TonyA_says

    John have you tried
    Not all airlines are created equal.

  • TonyA_says

    RE: AA More Room Throughout Coach.
    That was launched one year before 9/11.
    After 9/11 occupancy plummeted. AA had somewhere near 69%.
    Maybe it was 9/11 that made airlines lose a lot of money and not roomier seating.

  • SoBeSparky

    No. Customer service cannot rise to any satisfactory level in the near future.

    There are too many employees who have done things the rude, abrupt, curt way for too many years. They are highly resistant to change. Retraining these people literally means breaking old ingrained habits and asking them to re-learn the same task, but with different processes. Tough.

    Unfortunately, the quickest and most efficient way to establish a better customer service culture is through new hires with new teams. That means others must go, but given contractual obligations, that is not about to happen.

    This is the same quandary public education finds itself in. Some of the least effective public-contact employees are the most senior, and those who occupy positions of leadership by virtue of their seniority.

    Of course, this is not universal, but prevalent. It’s a tough challenge to change anyone’s habits, made ever so more difficult because employee retention can be based on seniority rather than performance.

    Customer service cultures (both high level and low level) tend to be ingrained and long lasting.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Another proof to support Tony is the services on International routes/flights of Legacy Airlines are better than their domestic flights. May be they are bound by some standards imposed by the Alliance (Star Alliance, Skyteam and Oneworld) on the international routing, First Class and Business Class on United Transpacific and Transatlantic are quite comparable to Asian and European 3-stars airlines. Once I took United Honolulu-LAX and Honolulu-Chicago on United First Class and its were a total disappointment. So let the International airlines fly US domestic routes, we will see the improvements real fast. Begin by improving the attitude of the personnel, it cost nothing, may be some training session.

  • I would love nothing more than to be able to hop on a CX flight from DFW-LAX. If the likes of UA and AA were forced to compete with that, I’m sure they’d clean up their act, and fast. However, good luck getting the unions to agree to that, so I’d put the chances of cabotage going away about the same as a certain warm, toasty place freezing over.

  • TonyA_says

    Well maybe the FA that treated the OP well was a graduate of Delta’s charm school.

    Delta Sends Its 11,000 Agents to Charm School

  • TonyA_says

    Look at New York City to Vancouver and vice-versa, JFK-YVR. Only Cathay Pacific flies that route nonstop. No domestic airline dares to compete. It might be too embarrassing. :-)

  • In a perfect world, what you say would work great. Alas, it’s just not that easy to address executive compensation in the U.S. You really have two options – reduce CEO compensation, or drastically increase compensation of rank-and-file workers. If you go with option #2, I hate to say it, but you will hear howls of protest from many of the same people who complain about crappy service about how airfares went up by $75. As for option #1, whether we like it or not, CEO compensation is governed by cultural expectations as much as anything else, which is going to be incredibly different to change (and I’m not convinced that a more socialistic approach, as you see in places like Japan, would work here). Unless you want to hire someone green and unexperienced like me to be your airline’s CEO, you’re simply not going to get anyone interested in or qualified for the job if compensation is reduced to levels similar to those of Japan. Unless there is a societal shift in how the role of CEO is viewed, you’ll simply see the Doug Parkers of the world go and run another company that will pay better.

    What I think does have real potential is getting a customer satisfaction component included in executive compensation. You would have to demonstrate to the board and the executive suite the value of providing exceptional customer service to the bottom line. But that would also require us, as the traveling public, to stop shopping for airfares exclusively on price and start demanding better service. The rise of carriers like Southwest and Jet Blue indicates we’re headed in that direction, but it’ll take time.

  • TonyA_says

    I might want to add that our government usually demands Open Sky Policy when it comes to other country’s air space. But when it comes to our OWN air space, no way. Hypocrisy at its highest.

  • The wording of this vote begs the comment: “Of course airline service can rise to new heights, it certainly can’t get any lower.” I don’t really believe that statement, I have fairly positive experiences flying, but I have a weird sense of humor.

  • TonyA_says

    You (as CEO) might be better. At least you care about (fellow) passengers. LEAD BY EXAMPLE !!!

    A private jet is an American CEO’s perk.

    But not the CEO of Japan Airlines. He comes to work on the city bus, CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports.

    Merrill Lynch boss John Thain spent $1 million decorating his office.

    Haruka Nishimatsu, the president and CEO of Japan Air, knocked down his office walls so anyone can walk in.

    He buys his suits at a discount store, because a boss who wears Armani puts himself at arm’s length from his people.

    “If management is distant, up in the clouds, people just wait for orders,” Nishimatsu told CBS News through a translator. “I want my people to think for themselves.”

    And meeting his people means popping into planes, chatting with flight attendants, even sorting the newspapers.

    “I’d like to just find what is going on at the front line,” he said.

    All CEOs say that service is important, but Nishimatsu goes it a step beyond. He says that if you’re having a bad experience, don’t get angry with the people you’re dealing with – blame the person in charge.

    The person in charge here walks the walk. Look up, and there’s the boss.

    Got an idea? Catch him at lunch in the company cafeteria.

    His salary for running the worlds 10th largest airline: not millions, but one year as low as $90,000.

    When he was forced to cut salaries for everyone else, he also cut his own.

    “My wife said, ‘what?'” he said through a translator.

    To him, a leader shares the economic pain.

    “I feel close to him,” said flight attendant Akiko Isobe. “It’s encouraging.”

    These days all airlines are struggling. Even at reliably profitable Southwest, its time to tighten belts.

    “It will not work if leaders treat themselves one way and employees another way,” said Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines.

    Nishimatsu says a CEO doesn’t motivate by how many millions he makes, but by convincing employees you’re all together in the same boat.

    Now that’s a spirit that could help survive the current economic storm.


  • emanon256

    Now that’s how to run a company! I wish I worked for any company where the CEO was approachable and shared the pain and pleasure with employees. I remember working for a massive software company, where we all got our pay cut due to the economy, while the CEO got a huge raise. I left soon afterwards.

  • Kfred

    The airlines may improve their customer service but a very large part of the customer experience will be horrible due to the invasive and criminal actions of the TSA. More and more passengers are turning to other forms of travel because they don’t wish to have the Rights stomped upon or have themselves or their children molested.
    The airlines can’t make up for that without standing behind their customers and helping remove the blue-shirt thugs from our airports.

  • Dot Jenkins

    Call me cynical as well. If she was flying for a funeral, unless she managed to get a bereavement fare (do those even still exist?), then she was flying on an expensive fare so maybe they were treating her better because of that.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    I voted yes, airline customer service can rise to new heights — but how high ? …… I’m really not so sure………..

    United, for example……How can you move tens of thousands of employees in the 21st century to a computer system (from Fastair to SHARES) that dates back to Eastern Airlines? A system with manual command entries that has huge limitations. And, please, stop saying the merger did nothing but ruin Continental. Stand alone, as a much smaller airline than United, Continental may have been acceptable as a good airline but merged with a much larger entity with a much larger business traveler customer base – which apparently was not even considered (became a complete mess on transition 3/3/12). Thousands of elite customers left United in just days and weeks after the transition. The CO customer base was used to the limitations, no questions or objections. Though there was some business customer base, the majority of passengers are of an entirely different demographic. The dynamics between the two (CO/UA) were entirely different yet a “ruling force” made up of a majority of CO top brass and staff just went merrily along as though United (as was) no longer existed. Needless to say, UA employees forced onto this inferior computer system became much more limited in what they could do on an everyday basis. What formerly took seconds or only a few minutes to fix a problem with minimum keystrokes now takes 4x longer with repetitive manual, command entries including moving into 4-5 screens (ie., to issue a bagtag receipt or even add a wheelchair request). If that fails (which it does) they are relegated to contacting a Help Desk made up of reservations people whose rulebook viewpoint is entirely dififerent than how things are handled in real life, real time at an airport (exceptions, work-arounds). These same Help Desk agents will frequently spout rulebook “No’s”, “can’t do that” (the typical CO answer). Essentially UA agents with decades of experience now need “permission” to do something they’ve been doing for years. What many are unaware of is the training in SHARES was minimal (only 5-10 days of formats) with absolutely no discussion about procedure and policy changes. UA employees were thrown to the lions with nothing but their own previous, UA procedures but unable to utilize them in this thing called SHARES. My point, good customer service has a lot to do with and is only as good as the tools you are using. Yes, of course there has to be other factors such as good “behavior”, common courtesies (greeting the customer with a smile), avoiding snarky remarks, common sense and ability to go beyond black/white answers while searching and working hard to find a solution to a problem. Not passing the buck or lying to passengers as well. Just own the problem. All the airlines (especially domestic) have a long way to go. I don’t agree that hiring a whole new bunch of people is the answer either, as we live in a world where many people have only a sense of entitlement (not earned) and most cannot take any criticism, constructive or otherwise. I think repetitive training in classes with role-playing and showing good examples of customer service can turn the tide. Equally, employers should show their employees that they are VALUED……Stop taking away and reducing benefits. Praise those that have genuinely gone the extra mile (above and beyond – not only things that are expected and part of their job description). The downside is that there will always be employees “favored” by peers or supervisors, not for genuine work ethic but by popularity or other meaningless reasons.

  • KaraJones

    LOL about the dead body tape!

    And LGA is a step down from JFK.

  • TonyA_says

    This must be the second time CE wrote about Nina Boal.

    More than 2 years ago, the article wasn’t that flattering.

    That walk-up fare makes me want to run away

    Here’s another completely counter-intuitive fare trick. If
    you want to fly at the last minute, your ticket price soars. Airlines do
    this because big-spending business travelers have the money —
    specifically, their employers do — so they pay. It isn’t meant for
    people like Nina Boal, an applications computer programmer from
    Columbia, Md., who is disabled and missed her flight from Japan back
    home because one of her trains wasn’t wheelchair accessible. “When I
    bought a flight for the next day, instead of rebooking me for the same
    price as the missed flight, the price I had to pay for a one-way ticket
    was over $3,000,” she says. “That is absurd.”

    She’s right, it is absurd. Too bad airlines entrap their customers
    with these kinds of price games — particularly those who can least
    afford to pay it.

  • KaraJones

    And then we have Mayor Bloomberg, who is a multi-billionaire, yet he takes the subway to work. But still usually seems out of touch with “regular people”. We should have him talk to Nishimatsu.

  • KaraJones

    We’ll know that the airlines actually want to make customers feel like human beings when they start putting carpet in the TSA areas. I realize that this is the airport’s responsibility but the airlines can demand it – yet, none of them do. I always feel so trivialized when I have to take off my shoes for the TSA and am then made to walk on the dirty floor in my clean socks – which are never clean anymore when I put my shoes back on. It would be such a simple and respectful thing for them to change – but none of them (that I’ve experienced) have done so. Even in JFK’s Terminal 5, which “belongs” to JetBlue – so JetBlue could make that change – same problem.
    It’s not a small thing because it gets us p.o.’d within moments of being in the terminal – so we’re already crabby when we get to the gate.

    (I can’t imagine that this is a decision made by the TSA – much as we hate them – there is no valid security reason why people should have to walk on bare dirty floors versus carpet.)

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    I don’t think it fair that many people compare U.S. domestic airlines with many of the Asian carriers. Typically they hire very young, attractive flight attendants whose jobs are contracted for only 2-3 years. They have no tenure, seniority, they are just replaced easily enough with no questions asked. They are not individuals, they are just numbers. Do they even get any benefits ? Typical or maybe okay for different cultures but not to American or western standards.
    Why should not Americans retain their jobs for many years ( or decades)?. Why should we not have job security in a time when jobs are so easily outsourced to the lowest bidder and there are few or no other jobs to go to? Why should we not get medical, travel or retirement benefits here in the good-ole-USA? Bash all you may against aging, weight gaining middle-agers working for the airlines – the same can be said in every other part of the corporate world. Disparity will always be around but for now?….I’ll keep working well into my 50’s and 60’s, if nothing more than to prove the point !

  • Bill___A

    Chris, most of these airlines had abysmal service long before they engaged in mergers.
    Although I get good service most of the time, as long as their customer service employees fail to use proper reading skills and send canned replies based upon irrelevant key words rather than really addressing problems, we are in for a slow migration to any improvements.
    One of the most important things to improve is to be able to deal with feedback properly.
    Why is Delta bending over backwards and giving $100 credits to someone they treated well and didn’t have any issues? This seems more like a cry for publicity than anything else.
    I’m glad the passenger made the trip well, condolences on her loss. I still don’t feel comfortable booking a Delta flight. If they are improving, that’s great, but they went a lot of years with being bad…

  • TonyA_says

    Yup, just because of that maybe he will figure out how to run for the 4th term (if he doesn’t run for Pres). Oh and that morning subway ride is just a show. I remember reading this.
    Mayor rigs wacky A/C to keep his SUV chilled

  • KaraJones

    Tony, that really cracked me up! They didn’t say what, exactly, he plugs it into.

  • Carrie Charney

    I am one of those elites that stays elite for the Econ + seat on United. I do fly more than the average leisure traveler and I don’t get reimbursed for any of my trips. I do pay more to get to gold or platinum because I usually do a mileage run at the end of the year by doing two trips to an area instead of an open jaw. Or, I take a convoluted route to a place I’m flying to anyway.

  • john4868

    @e327f795c85ae44c8d4c311d6ba547b9:disqus If you look at posting history, you’ll find I am one too. My point was more of … people have the option to pay for it and don’t but will then whine that seats are too close. For the record, I did pay for it on DL where I don’t get it free.

  • Rolland Lawrenz

    This sounds very encouraging. Think so many complaints are more of frustration with just wanting to be heard. Just the simple act of telling someone, “I hear you” will go further than most will ever understand.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Omaha Eppley has an antimicrobial mat in the TSA checkpoint area where the shoes come off, all the way over to the benches where you can put your shoes back on. I think it’s an airport thing, rather than an airline thing, since several carriers are available at the gates beyond the checkpoints.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Last week, I sat next to a gentleman flying from ATL to OMA and we engaged in small talk before the plane took off. He told me he travels 180 segments a year by plane, so I asked which domestic carrier he likes the best. He says Delta (which we were on), but he used to fly United before the merger. He says it’s all cyclical, in 2 -3 year cycles. Food for thought. I must say my in-flight experiences with Delta have been a great deal more pleasant than my in-flight experiences with United these past 2 years. Wait a minute – that means the cycle is ready to turn again!

  • Philip Brown

    I wish Spirit Air would listen to this; I finally received a “good” email for customer service from them & filed a complaint – FOR WHICH I RECEIVED A REPLY!!! Said reply proved I had contacted them with 24 hours to cancel a flight – but for some reason I had been told only FOUR (4) HOURS & thus the cancellation was never processed. Since April, I have been waiting for a substantial refund.
    Now, with this documented info; I again asked for a reply & REFUND. Maybe Spirit doesn’t pau its’ ISP, as now – NO REPLY??? Initially, I may have accepted an apology for such incorrect info; but now I AM FURIOUS!!!
    Thank you Chris Elliott; hoping Spirit will grant you a meeting to discuss my issues & those of so many others. I am DISABLED, but mine is of severe ANXIERY & DEPRESSION – does Spirit care that my finances & HEALTH – have been compromised??? As per the calious nature of the CEO, I doubt it! Fly Delta!!!

  • KaraJones

    It figures that they’re kinder in Omaha than here in New York. : )
    But I’ve encountered the lack of carpeting in many other “friendlier” cities, too.

  • flutiefan

    you just described my life!!!

  • LFH0

    If the U.S. eliminated its cabotage laws, would domestic service offered by foreign flag carriers be better? Perhaps so initially to get some market share. But look at what has become of buying air transportation. It seems that the only thing that matters to everyone is getting the absolutely lowest-cost fare. Unless someone else is paying the tab, air transportation is treated as a commodity in which the passenger expects to have a terrible experience, and therefore wants to minimize cost and elapsed travel time (these being, for the most part, the only trade-offs which are to be balanced). Look at Midwest Airlines, which once offered quite comfortable accommodations and did not enter into the race to the bottom of air fares. Ultimately, it relented, gave up the good service, became just another ordinary carrier, and disappeared under the ownership of Frontier Airlines. Would not the same come true with foreign flag carriers? That is, after a foreign carrier initially gets decent market share (essentially having picked off the low-hanging fruit), the next step will be to cut corners in order to reduce operating expenses. I think the real issue here is that Americans are, by and large, loathe to pay for quality air transportation, and as such, quality air transportation does not exist.

  • emanon256

    When I read that I was thinking of all the bags with hoses taped to them in the ceiling of LGA and the buckets all over for the hoses.

  • emanon256

    As angry as I have been at United since the merger, its all at Jeff. I really feel badly for the front line UA employees trying to do a good job. I have men many a great gate agent in my travels and feel for all of them.

  • bodega3

    Of all carriers I have traveled United is my favorite. BUT, last year we got ‘caught’ in the computer mess, so you have my sympathies. It does sadden me to see what front line employees can’t do like they use to. Travelers are no longer nice and tempers flare at the drop of a boarding pass.

  • jmtabb

    I guess I have more faith that a hard floor is cleaned more often and more thoroughly than a carpeted floor would be. Think about it – the carpet will get the same number of dirty feet walking over it, but it can’t be washed as easily. You know darn well they aren’t shampooing the carpets daily, but they are probably mopping the hard floor every night….

  • KaraJones

    Haha, well I’d be fine with that, too, if they actually kept the hard floors clean. But they don’t. Interestingly, the only people wearing shoes are the TSA agents. So once the floors have been cleaned, it’s not the passengers’ shoes getting the floors dirty again. So they could clean the floor once and then have the TSA agents wear paper booties over their shoes (like surgeons wear). Yeah, sure – that’ll happen!

  • jpp42

    Extra legroom isn’t necessarily working these days either. United is
    reconfiguring their “p.s.” (premium service) 757’s from JFK to SFO/LAX
    to remove most of the Economy Plus seats and replacing them with
    Economy. (Previously these planes had three classes with no basic
    Economy seats at all.) I think that tells the story – mostly Economy
    Plus is full of frequent fliers with status (paying nothing for the
    upgrade), thus it isn’t the money maker they’d hoped.

  • TonyA_says

    What about the $100 certificate? I have never seen an airline so happy to give those away.

  • TonyA_says

    I often buy Cathay and ANA tickets to Asia because they are cheaper than Delta. ANA and UA fares are the same, but I am not foolish enough to pick UA over ANA. Singapore Air fares have dropped for more than a year already so they have become affordable. Asiana is also quite cheap. To save money and fly well, I choose the above Asian airlines over our own carriers.

  • TonyA_says

    Logic tells me that if what you are saying about Asian FAs are true, then they should all hate their jobs and treat customers like dirt. But the opposite is true. Maybe Asians believe an FAs job is a stepping stone to a better career. And maybe they are getting those better careers after 2-3 years.

  • MarkKelling

    Gee, my experiences with Co and UA pre-merger were the exact opposite of what you describe. I got so many answers of “no” and “will not do that” to simple questions from the UA people, I quit flying them. CO was always much more flexible for my requests. Sure, I had a couple of problems with CO that really annoyed me, but that was over 15 years of flying them. I had so many issues with UA in one year, I lost track.

    And as far as a command driven software package being limited, that’s just your viewpoint. It seems to work well enough in many industries beyond travel – you have heard of mainframes, right?

  • Raven_Altosk

    I still fault SMI/J for the crappy transition. Yes, I know he wasn’t the only person responsible for that fiasco, but he was leading that catastrophe.

  • NeverFlyUnited

    United has outsourced its customer service to India. The people who work there will tell you anything… even if it means LYING… so that they can charge your credit card… even if you explicitly tell them you do NOT want whatever they are charging you for. I strongly suspect those people are on commission because they operate with some seriously unethical practices (and this lack of ethics has been apparent every single time I’ve had to deal with their Indian customer service. The only time I’ve ever been able to get anything resolved is when I’ve jumped the chain and spoken with U.S. employees). I had a horrendous experience with United. Then, the airline sent me a customer satisfaction survey. I sent it back with my name and telephone numbers stating that if they really care about customer service and really want to know what happened to me, they should call me back. Needless to say, I never received a call. And I will never fly United again.

  • Chasmosaur

    News to me.

    Due to a soft-tissue injury my orthopedist didn’t think quite merited surgery, I had to use either crutches or cane for most of 2012. (This is on top of joint injuries and disease that I already have, to boot.) I flew several times on Delta. While most Delta staff was kind, I ran into a few FA’s that made things worse for me.

    I use a “CarryOn Free” roller that fits under all except the tiniest of commuter jet seats – and when I was on that equipment, I was happy to gate check – not having to pull even a small, light carry-on while using a cane is actually a good thing. (I checked bags and tipped many SkyCaps when using crutches.) Since I had my cane, I would put my purse inside of the carry on and just kept my Kindle on my person, so I didn’t even have a second “personal item” that went under the seat.

    On one flight, I boarded a commuter jet and my carry-on unexpectedly wouldn’t fit in the OHB. For some reason, the bins were unaccountably small for the equipment – I’d been on smaller planes with bigger bins.

    Since I had entered the plane early – with the cane it did take me a while to get down the jetway and get seated – and I had purchased a FC ticket, the FA’s were just standing at the entrance to the plane, watching me. Seeing my puzzlement at the OHB’s, they sharply told me that I MUST gate check my bag, and wouldn’t even allow me to put it under the seat (where it looked as if it should have fit easily).

    When I explained my husband was my seatmate – he was making a last-minute bathroom stop so didn’t board with me – so sharing legroom wasn’t a problem, they simply stated that gate check was my only option. So very helpful. At least by the time I lost the argument someone was in the jetway to perform gate checks, so I didn’t have to go back up the now-filling jetway like a salmon, which they had expected me to do.

    On a different flight – again, first class, which I bought several times last year so I would have an ostensibly easier flight and the necessary leg room – an FA insisted that my cane was not allowed in the overhead bin (something about it not allowing bags to fit all the way in the bin, which was a surprise for me – it was slender and made the OHB trip many, many times last year, where some kind soul was usually kind enough to grab it for me after s/he pulled out their own bags), and I had to push hard to have him then put it in the first class closet.

    When I went to get off the plane, he’d forgotten that he’d taken the cane, and acted as if it was the world’s biggest indignity he had to bring it to me. He finally found it – after some pretty audible grumbling – at the absolute back of the closet under all of the detritus. I know things shift during the flight, but it was ridiculous.

    Ms. Boal was incredibly lucky, as far as I’m concerned. Not all Delta staff is created equal apparently. (Though one of my FA’s was so incredibly nice and thoughtful, I wrote Delta about his awesome customer service skills. I never wrote in about the bad ones.)

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    Maybe the questions you were asking United pre-merger genuinely merited a correct “no” answer. Sometimes passengers ask for things that are unreasonable or outright ridiculous or they lie about things that may or may not have been “waived”.
    Still doesn’t change the fact that using a computer that takes 4 x as long to do something or is incapable of doing something isn’t going to irritate passengers or highly frustrate employees, thereby affecting the customer “service” (or lack thereof) experience. Who cares about industries beyond travel…..right now we are talking about customer service for airline passengers. Passengers are generally in a hurry or there is very limited time to rebook on same or another airline during irregular ops. If the “system” is so clunky, cluttered, slow and guesswork or the need to call another department gets involved, then we have a lack of a speedy solution. This causes anxiety for all concerned and is NOT a good customer experience.

  • BMG4ME

    My experience is that this is not uncommon service. I often get great service from American Airlines. For example on my way to England a couple of weeks ago, the Admirals Club was full and at my request they opened a conference room – which they usually charge for – to allow people to use instead as it was getting uncomfortable in the main lounge.

  • Chip_E

    I have had several good experiences with Delta customer service recently, which are evidence to me that they are doing their best to improve and find solutions for their customers whenever possible. Even at the highest executive levels, I have been impressed with their “can-do” attitude and willingness to find answers to problems when they are identified. While it is impossible to please everyone in all circumstances, I can say that they did their best for me and gave me hope, by extension, for everyone into the future.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    No, not saying that at all……I agree with you…..they obviously know their jobs are short-lived and probably a stepping stone to something better. They have no time to get cynical, jaded, irritated, etc. Plus their cultures seem to be more “tolerant” of annoying, complaining, mean customers.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.