Unfriendly Skies

Imagine, for a moment, that a hotel requires you to pay your bill in full for your entire stay before you arrive. When you arrive, you are greeted by a surly bellman who whisks away your luggage, but not before charging you $20 up front for this chore. You make it to the front desk, where a clerk who, despite her nametag that reads 10 years of service, acts with utterly confused cluelessness, as if you are the very first guest she’s ever assisted. After a cacophony of keystrokes on the computer, she informs you that your room is not ready and won’t be for hours. The reason? A maid from another hotel in the chain is delayed by bad weather outside and won’t be able to clean your room for several more hours.

You wait in the lobby. No refreshments are offered and no refund is even hinted. Several hours after the initial delay, you overhear the busily confused clerk mention to another employee that the rooms won’t be ready for several more hours due to problems with the beds. She doesn’t mention this to you or anyone else. You approach her to get clarification and an update on the room availability, but she claims that she has no new information. At this point you are tired and hungry, and around you babies cry and someone with a foul smelling odor grumbles incessantly. You are frustrated, and call the hotel’s customer service hotline. They don’t offer so much as an apology, and blame the entire problem on the weather.

At long last, the hotel clerk makes an announcement that your room will be ready in an hour. Two hours later, you are told you can head up to your room. You make it up to find that the bed is lumpy and uncomfortable, there is trash tucked away in a corner, and the toilet doesn’t flush. You inform housekeeping, but they tell you the toilet is broken and you’ll have to either wait or use one down the hall. Too exhausted to be angry, you collapse on the bed, which subsequently collapses beneath you. Again, too tired and hungry to care, you call for room service, but they inform you they only offer a can of soda and maybe a few crackers – for everything else there is a fee, and you must pay with cash, preferably exact change. Oh, and your luggage. When you call the bell desk they tell you it is lost and won’t be back until morning. No apology, no offer of a refund of your $20, just a cold statement that it will arrive in the morning. No consideration is given to a refund or future travel voucher for your horrible experience.

Ok, enough of the hotel metaphor. You get the point right? If any industry other than the airline industry charged you exorbitant fees in advance, proceeded to deliver pathetic service, and then treated you like an steaming pile of dung you would be shocked and outraged. You would demand an apology, write negative reviews on Tripadvisor, yelp.com, and any other site where your could express your immense displeasure. Yet how many of you reading this have had a similar experience with an airline? How many of you have had a similar experience on multiple occasions? How many of you have that experience most times you fly these days? And how many of you, for all your problems, ever get offered a discount, refund, or even a simple heartfelt apology? I’m guessing the answer is somewhere between zero and “Hell no!” For Melissa and I airline travel is a nausea-inducing ordeal, an exercise in futility and a consumer rape of epic proportions. We expect to experience delays, be treated with the utmost disrespect by the staff, and have some sort of problem during the course of travel. All at too-high prices and without even consideration of a refund or discount. Ah, the joys of flying.

Recently the U.S. Department of Transportation released its annual report on airline performance. In what should be the least surprising statistic of the year, consumer complaints about the airlines were up 28% in 2010. The reason complaints were up by such a significant amount is very simple and needs little analysis: it doesn’t take a genius to see that, collectively, the airlines suck. While objective performance measures (punctuality, baggage handling) were slightly improved, customer satisfaction was down, as consistent incompetence worsens with every trip the airport.

Predictably, airlines blame bad weather, overcrowded planes and airports, and a shortage of runways across the country for the increase in consumer discontent. But what they fail to realize is that continuing to pass the blame and consistently shirking responsibility for their poor performance only catalyzes customer frustration. The airlines, ostensibly a transportation and service industry, are wholly unique in their ability to bilk passengers and simultaneously piss them off with impunity. Costs are rising and traditionally free services – such as baggage handling – now carry significant charge. Yet as prices rise and the miserly nickel & dime fleecing propagates, the quality of customer service plummets, as does even basic competence amongst airline employees. No other industry – particularly a service industry – can claim to raise prices and take a collective dump on its patrons while decreasing quality of services rendered. Hence the increasing consumer angst.

Above and beyond abject scorn and non-existent customer service, the worst part about the airlines is their unabashed incompetence. Tasks that should take 10 minutes end up taking 30; workers don’t know (or care) what the airline or airport policy is; policies on pets and infants vary from flight to flight. No one seems to have any idea how to do their specific job. All of that is infuriating, but the number and frequency of mechanical problems is downright scary. On a recent flight from Atlanta back to Fort Walton, all three flights on that route had “mechanical problems” that led to delays of at least 2 hours for each flight. Certainly strange things happen and the occasional glitches can occur, but if 3 flights to the same small airport all have problems in the same night, either the airline is lying about the problem or the mechanics are incompetent. Both scenarios only increase resentment for the airlines.

Managing a single model airplane is too much for Delta's half-wit CEO.

The airline that received the most complaints in the DOT report was Delta Airlines. Again, does that surprise anyone? Delta is horribly managed in every phase of operations and support. They are rarely on time – “Doubtful Ever Leaves The Airport” – and customer service is absolutely non-existent. The sheer magnitude and degree of incompetence at every level never ceases to amaze. The worst thing you can see on your airline itinerary is Delta ATL connection. Delta’s CEO, Richard H. Anderson, raked in $8.3 million in compensation last year. For those of you keeping score, that makes him the highest paid airline CEO and places him 394th on Forbes’ executive ranking. So what if his airline received more complaints than any other airline – by a significant margin – in 2010. And don’t mind the fact that Delta has lost money eight of the last ten years, including $1.2 billion (yes, that’s billion with a b)  last year. But who’s counting, right? The truth is Richard Anderson – like most other airline CEOs – is a colossal douchebag, a meat-head of epic proportions, a charlatan, thief, and glowworm.

Incontrovertible proof of Delta's suckage.

Cool gig, being CEO of Delta: giving a perpetual middle finger to your customers and putting the company billions in the hole while raking in a nice $8.4 million. Must be nice making that kind of dough so he doesn’t have to fly a crappy airline like Delta.

Ultimately airlines are the only industry I know of that get away with overcharging and performing horribly. Punctuality isn’t a priority, the planes are often dirty and poorly maintained, the customer service ranges from terrible to non-existent, and concerns over basic safety continue to rise, illustrated by the cracked fuselage on a Southwest flight last week. I’m not a big fan of government regulation and am all for privatizing industry, but at this point the airlines can’t get any worse. I’m in favor of refusing them future bail outs, allowing them to fail, and then just starting over. The status quo cannot continue.

If the airlines go back to basics, design sensible schedules, and starting caring about their customers they can regain our trust. Until then we will anticipate flying with absolute dread rather than excitement.




Filed under Miscellany and Tomfoolery, Travel

2 responses to “Unfriendly Skies

  1. Well, what I do is NOT take any american based airline. I don’t complain on the internet (tripadvisor, etc) and I don’t worry about them. I don’t use them, I think they should all go out of business and I think they all deserve it. Now, this is only possible if you are travelling international, not within the states, so I feel sorry for those, but, in my opinion, relative and compared to other foreign based airlines, it’s too late to go back to basics. Don’t use them when you have the option, they suck.

    Good post. John

  2. Another great post. I really enjoy your blog very much. I have been lucky enough to travel my whole life. The experiences you have traveling can be amazing.

    Useful Travel and Vacation Tips

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