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July 06, 2007
The bleak summer of airline travel
This summer, forecasters are predicting stormy times for U.S.-based air travelers. Too much job pruning and ongoing computer snafus layered atop seasonal thunderstorms are creating a miserable summer for air travel.
Early data seem to bear this out: the number of flights canceled in the first 15 days of June was up a whopping 91% compared with the same period last year, according to Flightstats.com. The passenger complaint rate, as measured by the government, surged 45% in May.
Part of the deal we accept for affordable tickets on more airlines is packed airplanes and tighter schedules. What we as customers expect in return for smaller seats and less legroom is respect for our time, like relevant and current information that's easily accessible. When flights are canceled or delayed, customers need information to make decisions quickly. When companies cut costs so drastically that it makes it virtually impossible to invest in customer self-serve systems or for employees to do their jobs, vitriolic word of mouth spreads like a tumor.
Our summer of airline discontent shows few airlines respecting customers' time. My 2 p.m American Airlines flight out of La Guardia last week was canceled because of weather. By 4 p.m., all remaining American flights for the day were sold out. Standby lists grew to more than 100 people per flight. The American gate agents at La Guardia were so frazzled they simply stopped speaking to customers. Their frustration turned into anger, as they berated customers via the public address system to call the company's 800 number. I and thousands of other people did, simultaneously: the hold time was 118 minutes.
To reclaim the money from my unused American ticket, I visited the company's website. Finding Jimmy Hoffa is easier than finding refund information on aa.com. The site made no mention of the system-wide flight delays and cancellations that had affected thousands of travelers. That was another 30 minutes wasted by simply looking for information on American's website. The respect thing, again.
For grins, I checked JetBlue's website. Immediately, the company demonstrated its understanding of its dual roles as transportation provider and information provider: A prominent link at the top of the front page mentioned the storms that were causing everyone havoc. Clicking the link led you to a page that made it easy to apply for a refund or credit immediately. Ahhh, respect!
Rather than waste any more time with an obviously unprepared American, I booked a flight on JetBlue that left the next morning.
For JetBlue, it only took one bad experience -- the Valentine's Day fiasco -- to recognize the considerable power of negative word of mouth that comes from poor operations coupled with poor customer communications. Within days of its widely discussed meltdown, JetBlue introduced a Customer Bill of Rights for obtaining quick refunds for canceled flights, as well as customer expectations for departure delays, overbooked flights and and onboard ground delays.
That Jetblue can adapt quickly after a few weeks' time to upgrade its communications and information systems that make it easier for customers to do what they want -- while most other airlines can't or won't -- is a testament to JetBlue's understanding of fleeting customer loyalty.
More on the miserable state of airline travel:
- Ugly Airline Math: Planes Late, Fliers Even Later (NY Times)
- Air delays grow; complants climb (Chicago Tribune)
- United struggles to navigate new course (Austin Statesman)
Other blogs that reference The bleak summer of airline travel:
Interesting that you should mention JetBlue. A friend from New York was visiting me in Portland last week, flying back on Wednesay in the midst of the big storms. I dropped him at the airport only to have my phone ring 10 minutes later, my friend informing me that his flight was delayed for 4 hours (if it was going to leave at all). He decided to stay a couple of extra days, but the process of changing his ticket was horrific. He spent a total of 5 hours on hold navigating various menus, hold music and FINALLY a ticket agent. In fact, he had to call back once because his phone dies from being on hold for so long!
Now, every business has it's problems, of course. And JetBlue should be commended for offering passengers an easy way to request a refund or credit. But they still suffer the same problems that most other airlines are dealing with.
That's why I try to fly Southwest whenever possible. It's just a better system.
Amen, sista. I fly nearly every week and I fly Southwest about four out of five flights. I, too, got caught by the monsoon in North Texas this summer. The folks at Southwest immediately announced the weather delay (we were already on board and had left the gate). They returned us to the gate at which time a very pleasant flight attendent offered us water. Communication came from the cockpit as promised. If they told us they would give us more detail in 5 minutes, they came back in five minutes, even if it was bad news. The flight ended up leaving about two hours late. BUT IT LEFT!! And, just about every person on the plane was happy and joking and thankful for the excellent communication and effort put forth to get us in the air. Southwest made it their goal to communicate and to get us flying. Sometimes, I think American just doesn't want customers to be happy because they aren't happy!!
Ahhhh, American Airlines. My parents were flying from MSY to SEA, checked their baggage, went through security, made it all the way to the gate where the staff informed them their flight was cancelled due to bad weather in DFW and they would have to go back and get their luggage back and make other arrangements.
Now why couldn't anyone they encountered in the few minutes it took from checking bags to reaching the gate have told them that? Lack of communication to the other agents!
And of course, they were given no meal vouchers while they waited for their new flight (departing several hours later, routing them to NC first!).
I've had the identical American Airlines experience that you describe. I now avoid them at all costs which is pretty hard to do since I live in Dallas. They are really just so bad, it's almost laughable.