“It seems like these airlines do not care about their customers”

When Seth Kunis booked a Thanksgiving flight on Continental Airlines, it included a snack. It’s a small thing, he admits. But when Continental changed its onboard food program, he felt the airline had reneged on a deal.

I’m sure that some of you reading this will agree with Kunis about this being a small thing. What’s a little snack in the grand scheme of things?

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The problem is that for airlines, this has been a pattern of behavior during the a la carte revolution: They take something that was once included in the price of the ticket, unbundle it from the fare, but leave the price unchanged.

The government took steps to stop airlines from imposing their new luggage fees on old tickets a few years ago. But it doesn’t normally get involved in minor issues, like those involving airline meals.

So Kunis decided to let Continental know he was unhappy.

“I honestly don’t know what else to do,” he told me. “It seems like these airlines do not care about their customers and they may have lost a lifelong customer.”

Here’s his first note to the airline:

I booked a flight in coach in January 2010 for travel over the Thanksgiving weekend. That flight included a snack in the fare.

With Continental switching to paid meals after October 12th how will my flight be handled? Do I lose the snack that I paid for?

Here’s the airline’s response:

Thank you for contacting Continental Airlines.

I understand you had some concerns about our new meal policy. Our traditional free-food model, which served us well for many years, has been updated to reflect today’s market and customer preferences.

Meals are a complimentary amenity that Continental Airlines traditionally supplied to our customers. To ensure profitability in a competitive industry, we could no longer offer complimentary meals when competitors were charging for meals or not serving meals at all. Research indicated that economy travelers do not select their airline based on the meal service.

We will continue offering complimentary meals for most international flights and BusinessFirst and First Class customers. Most other flights will have food for sale onboard. Food choices will vary by flight. Shorter flights may have snacks, such as candy bars, cookies, chips, and trail mix, while longer flights may offer salads, sandwiches, or wraps.

Please remember, we now have cashless cabins, so credit or debit cards are required for purchasing products and services onboard our planes.

Customers with special dietary requirements may be interested in visiting airport vendors or bringing food items from home.

We appreciate your business and look forward to welcoming you onboard your next Continental Airlines flight.

Huh? Did they even bother to read his first email?

So he tried again.

Can you please verify if the flight I booked in January 2010 (for flight in November 2010) under confirmation number [redacted] includes a free food service? I booked this flight in January 2010 and at that time there was a meal service included with the flight.

I have called and spoken to two people at Continental and neither of them could give me a definitive answer.

If however, Continental has decided to remove this option from my already paid fare, that included a meal, I am requesting four meal vouchers. One for each leg of mine and my wife’s flights in November.

I think this is a reasonable request. But not to Continental.

Thank you for contacting Continental Airlines.

Beginning October 21, 2010, the new food-for-purchase menu will replace the complimentary meals and snacks currently served in the economy cabin on the select routes. Continental will continue to offer complimentary food in the economy cabin on all intercontinental and certain other international routes, and on long-haul domestic routes over six and a half hours. Continental will also continue complimentary food service in the front cabin (first class and BusinessFirst) on routes worldwide.

I respectfully decline your request for complimentary meal vouchers as this circumstance is not one for which we would normally compensate.

We appreciate your e-mail and look forward to welcoming you aboard your upcoming Continental Airlines flight.

That didn’t sit well with Kunis.

I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the situation. I am a long time customer of Continental and have always chosen your airline because of the excellent customer service and added amenities. However, I purchased two airline tickets that were advertised (I have the original confirmation to prove this) to come with a meal. To remove this and not offer to compensate me for this is not acceptable.

I again am asking for either meal vouchers for these flights or equal compensation.

I further request this complaint be escalated to a higher level so it gets the proper attention it deserves.

Fortunately, he had a few contacts in Continental’s executive office. I heard from him a few days later.

I actually did and after pushing and prodding I finally got somewhere with the president’s office. They ended up giving my wife and I each a $50 American Express gift card to pay for food prior to getting on the flight.

If it wasn’t for all the articles of yours that I read I would have never been able to get this resolved.

I’m not sure if snacks will cost the couple $100, but it’s a nice gesture by Continental. I’m glad someone finally took the time to listen to him.