Can airline customer service rise to new heights?

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By Christopher Elliott

The 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.

A positive shift in airline customer service

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.

From turbulence to transformation

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.

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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.

Transformation and executive commitment

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.”

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.” (Related: How to get the best airline service.)

United’s customer service overhaul

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.” (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

Shifting tides for a better experience

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.

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?

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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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