Airlines are trying to be nice. Did you notice?

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By Christopher Elliott

On a recent flight from Los Angeles to Newark, Caleb Ellis saw something striking: a flight attendant being nice to a passenger. Really nice.

As the American Airlines flight boarded, he noticed a mother and her mentally disabled son who was “not in the most hygienic” state, recalls Ellis, who works for an organic beauty products company in Farmingdale, N.J. “Their would-be seat partner acted highly insensitively, loudly and harshly insisting on a seat change.”

The flight attendant calmly ushered the offended traveler into another empty seat. Then she sat down next to mother and son, who were visibly upset by the episode.

“She told them she would love to sit with them all flight long if she could and that they were wonderful companions to fly with,” he says. “This small act of kindness preserved the feelings and dignity of two passengers who were clearly undeserving of embarrassment.”

Airlines are not exactly known for terrific customer service. In 2017, the industry scored a collective 75 out of a possible 100, a gentleman’s “C,” according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. That’s up a few points from 2016 but hardly something to brag about. And then there were last year’s service meltdowns, including the David Dao dragging incident on United Airlines and a whole string of viral video incidents.

Airlines are trying to be nice

So airlines are trying something new: They’re being nice.

While you may not be able to manage more than a cursory glance and brief smile at the flight attendant while you struggle aboard with your bags, there’s a good chance that the flight attendant is taking a much closer look at you.

In the past few weeks, the number of positive anecdotes I’ve received from passengers has mushroomed — evidence that behind the scenes, airlines are urging their employees to be more friendly, accommodating and to go the extra mile. Now, that may sound easy, but consider that if an airline is too nice and waives too many rules, it loses important revenue.

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When Fred Ackerman boarded a recent flight from Buenos Aires to Miami, a gate agent took one look at him and shook his head.

“I’m 6-7,” explains Ackerman, who owns an adventure travel company in San Leandro, Calif. “I fit in an economy seat, and that’s what my budget is, so that’s what I buy when I travel.” But the kind airline employee said, “We need to get you a different seat.” And he sent him packing — to a premium exit row seat.

“I know airlines can be pretty harsh with their requirement to pay additional fees for better seating,” he adds. “It really helped make that red-eye flight much better and certainly exceeded expectations.”

Friendly favors

Daniel Oppliger, a travel agency owner from Surprise, Ariz., was stunned when he asked a ticket agent to help him when, flying from Phoenix to Santiago, he missed a connection in Dallas because of a flight delay. He wanted to know if the agent could change his return date to a day later so he could make up the lost time in Chile.

“The agent changed my return date to a day later without a fee,” he says. “To top it off, customer service later refunded my upgrade fee for premium economy — the entire trip, not just the one segment I missed.”

Kimber Smith Fidler also experienced an act of generosity from an airline when her husband had to fly to Australia to handle his late mother’s estate.

“It was a total mess, and things didn’t get done by the time we thought they would, and we needed to change our return flight,” says Fidler, a communications consultant from Incline Village, Nev. So she called United Airlines and explained the situation to a representative.

The change fees alone would have come to $300 per ticket, and that wasn’t including the fare differential. But instead of piling on the extras, her agent listened compassionately, waived the fees and changed the ticket at no charge.

“It was also just really nice to speak with someone who was such a kind person,” she adds.

Improving public relations

Airlines know they have a PR problem and are doing their best to lessen their passengers’ pain, one case at time, according to Worldwide Airlines Customer Relations Association (WACRA), an international group of airline customer service professionals.

“We understand the challenges that our industry faces,” says Douglas Stolls, a WACRA spokesman. “In this day and age of social media and the perception that airlines do not care about their passengers, we know now more than ever how important it is to assist passengers and to do so in a timely manner.”

He says airlines believe passengers will forgive them for any past customer service lapses when airline employees are “transparent and caring.” It seems many passengers agree.

But do you know what would make this story even better? If it wasn’t a story at all. What if airlines didn’t have any outrageous change fees or didn’t charge hefty fare differences when you tried to fix a date? What if all flight attendants were compassionate and caring and that a crewmember being nice to a traveler wasn’t newsworthy?

Then I suspect we’d see customer-service ratings in the high 90s. Profits, on the other hand … well, that’s not my department, and frankly, it’s not yours either. Can’t airlines figure out a way to make money without ticking us off?

How to get better service from an airline

• Do unto others. Demanding an upgrade or full ticket refund will almost certainly doom your efforts to failure. Even worse: Slapping your platinum card on the ticket counter and asking, “Do you know who I am?” Odds are, they already do — and it doesn’t matter. Instead, try being polite and level-headed.

• Turn down the drama and stick to the facts. Screaming that you’ll “never fly on your airline again” may make you feel better, but the theatrics and empty threats are not motivational to airline employees. What works better? Lay out your needs in a factual, unemotional way and let your circumstances speak for themselves.

• Be reasonable. If you ask for the moon, don’t expect to get it. Airline insiders say there’s some wiggle room within the rules to make you happy, but insisting on a full refund or a first-class ticket anywhere the airline flies might get a flat rejection. Rather, request a resolution to which the airline is likely to agree.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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