When airlines go above and beyond

Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
Airlines and bad service. The two kinda go together, right?

They do if the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) is to be believed. In its 2013 report card, the research company punished the airline industry with an overall score of 69 out of 100. That would be a high “D” if you were in grade school.

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But this isn’t another story about airlines treating us like self-loading toxic cargo, which is apparently what some crewmembers now call us.

When it comes down to it, a simple act of compassion can make you forget the deficiencies of modern-day air travel for a fleeting moment. It can shift your perspective, challenge your assumptions — and it might even make you cry. Don’t believe me? Then let me tell you about Keith Hambright, a maintenance technician from Antioch, Calif. Hambright recently had to fly to South Carolina for his father’s funeral. Surprisingly, he found two award tickets on United, an airline with an ACSI score of 62, the lowest of all.

“The services were held on a Thursday,” he remembers. “We were getting ready to fly back to California on Saturday when my older brother, Teddy, unexpectedly passed away. Barely able to speak, I called the airline to change my flight.”

Shockingly, the airline agent believed him.

“The agent rebooked both of us to return the following Tuesday, after services for my brother,” Hambright told me, “She waived all our change fees. I asked where I should send proof of my situation, and she said, ‘No one would make this up. Please accept our sincere condolences.’ ”

You’d assume the agent would have required proof of his brother’s passing, wouldn’t you? I mean, “death in the family” is one of the oldest tricks in the book to persuade an airline to bend its rules. It stopped working after 9/11, when the major airlines implemented their “no waivers, no favors” policy. Instead, the airline employee showed compassion for a passenger who clearly needed it.

Hambright isn’t alone. Consider Dick and Zoe Hannah, both retired school teachers from San Jose. After the sudden death of their adult son, they, too, had to cancel their upcoming flight. Not only did Southwest Airlines (ACSI score 81) zero out all of its applicable fees, but the agent went a step further.

She sent them a condolence card. “It touched us quite deeply,” says Dick Hannah. Me, too. “I still cry when I read these stories,” Linda Rutherford, Southwest’s VP of communications, tells me when I share the story. “Never gets old.”

The image of a callous and uncaring ticket agent is hard to shake. And you may dread your next flight because on your last one you had to pay a “gotcha” fee or were scolded by a surly flight attendant when you failed to stuff your bag into the overhead bin quickly enough. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation got 9,131 complaints about airlines last year, up 41% from 2011.

Has air travel really devolved to the point where a simple act of common decency makes us sit up in our economy-class seats and take notice? I refuse to believe it. In my role as a travel consumer advocate, when I speak with flight attendants, pilots, ticket agents and even airline managers, I sense that while they’re embarrassed by the industry’s customer-service reputation, they feel hamstrung by their airlines’ own rules, which are designed to protect revenue, not project compassion.

They think passengers might benefit from a little perspective, too. For example, that 69 score from ACSI? It’s up two points from 2012. The DOT grievances? As a percentage of enplanements, they were only 1.42 per 100,000 people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if airlines competed on service again, as they did before deregulation in 1978, when the aviators who started airlines, and not MBAs, were calling the shots? Don’t laugh. It can happen again in your lifetime. These random — and, I would add, often risky — acts of compassion by employees suggest that rank-and-file workers may want it as badly as fliers do. Perhaps more.

This summer, don’t assume your next flight will be terrible. You might board a plane staffed with employees who can’t wait to prove you wrong.

Do airlines deserve their customer service reputation?

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