Delusional airline industry pats itself on the back for “amazing” customer service

wreckLook up the word “delusional” in the dictionary and you’ll see a plane and the address of the Air Transport Association in Washington.

Case-in-point: the just-released annual economic report (PDF), which puts the airline trade group in the same league as the tobacco industry lobbyists of years ago that peddled lies and half-truths to an unsuspecting public.

As a customer service advocate, I was immediately drawn to the section of the report dealing with service. And there it was, under the heading “evolutionary thinking.”

I hardly know where to begin, so I though I’d just excerpt the whole page with my annotations.

Every day two million people, more than a million bags and 50,000 tons of cargo are boarded on thousands of planes at airports around the country, traveling on 25,000 flights to thousands of places around the world – from Tacoma to Tangiers to Takamatsu.

As a popular comedian remarked on late-night television, isn’t it amazing that you can be sitting “in a chair in the sky” – which may not recline quite as far as you’d like – but which carries you across the country in just four to five hours and allows you to read, relax and even surf the Internet along the way?

Um, which “popular” comedian would that be? Sounds more like an airline lobbyist, truth be told.

(Noted from the comments: It’s Conan O’Brien. And I thought it was James May. Silly me!)

Yes, it is indeed amazing.

And rest assured that, as your flight makes its way across the country or across the globe, airline employees – onboard your flight and throughout the system – are doing their best to make sure that your journey is safe, pleasant and on schedule.

Really? Tell that to the thousands of passengers who have been trapped on the tarmac in the last year.

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans sometimes do not work as expected and, when that happens, customers are understandably disappointed. Because their goal is to exceed customers’ expectations, airlines strive every day to make better plans. Government reports indicate that those efforts are paying off; customer service is, in fact, improving. Airlines know that satisfied customers are loyal customers and, in today’s extremely competitive marketplace, airlines are vying for loyalty, constantly rethinking and revising procedures to provide even better service to their customers.

Oh, please. Your goal isn’t to exceed customers’ expectation — it’s to exceed your shareholders’ expectations. And where are you getting your customer-service information from? Show me one survey that suggests even a small improvement in customer service. Just one.

Airline service continues to evolve in response to the needs of customers. Not too long ago, frustrating waits with airline reservation agents; piecing together multiple tickets on multiple airlines; standing in long lines to check and recheck bags; and 1950s-era communications, navigational and surveillance systems were the norm.

Today, passengers book reservations, check in for flights and print boarding passes online from their homes, offices or mobile devices; schedule seamless itineraries while airlines and their partners take care of the logistics; watch real-time television and their choice of blockbuster movies; and crisscross the continents without the slightest worry. Not too long ago, just-in-time delivery of goods was merely an aspiration.

Today, time-sensitive cargo is shipped around the world in a matter of days – sometimes even hours. Without question, the safe, efficient movement of people and goods has changed all of our lives and enabled a global economy.

True, but you were about 20 years behind other industry’s in tossing out your antiquated legacy systems and adopting new technology. This is nothing to gloat about.

As the customer service evolution continues, airlines are focused on addressing a dilemma that is largely outside of their control: flight delays. Delays – infuriating to both airlines and their customers – cost the nation’s economy $40 billion each year, according to the congressional Joint Economic Committee, in lost productivity, missed business meetings and opportunities, cancelled and delayed vacations and, perhaps most importantly, disrupted family events.

The nation’s outdated, inefficient air traffic control (ATC) system is the primary culprit, allowing poor weather to wreak havoc on flight schedules, and delays in New York and in other traffic centers to ripple throughout the system. The answer: accelerate ATC modernization. We – the administration, agencies, airlines, airports, air traffic controllers, general aviation and others – must work together and take the necessary steps to get the job done – in a few years, not a few decades.

You dont’ think this could have anything to do with the fact that all of your flights are scheduled to leave from LaGuardia during a one-hour window? Nah, couldn’t be. Let’s blame it all on the ol’ air traffic control system.

If we do, flight delays, fuel burn and emissions will decrease, improving efficiency, customer service and environmental performance.

Ultimately, the overall economy will reap tremendous benefits and as the economy recovers, the customer service evolution will continue.

A nod to the environment. I like that. Let’s just set aside the fact that your airlines are ripping a hole in the ozone layer. What does any of this have to do with customer service?

Nothing.

The domestic airline industry is the most complained-about American business since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The airline industry needs to be honest with itself — and with its customers — if wants to improve.

This airline propaganda is a big step backwards.

(Photo: YoNoSoyTu/Flickr Creative Commons)

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