An Open Letter to the Airline Industry: Customer Service? Prove It.

Dear Airline Industry,

The time has come for you to start listening to travelers’ concerns. Not just hearing, but actually listening.

I have many years of personal and professional experience in the travel industry. My father was a pilot for a major U.S. carrier and my brother currently flies for another major U.S airline. I was raised around planes, understanding from a very young age about respecting other passengers, the flight crew, and airline representatives. Now a Certified Destination Specialist and the owner of a specialized travel company, I am very familiar with how air service was and what it has become. I have always been an advocate of the airline industry, but the time has come to really speak out about the mishandlings and sheer insolence. Let me also say that I write this letter openly in the hopes of, somehow, making a positive change.  I am certain a carrier would prefer to receive twice as many compliments and half as many complaints.

Allow me to specify. The following are taken directly from the respective company websites:

United: We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.

Air Canada: Send us an email with your comments, suggestions, and questions. You’ll help us improve the services we offer. At Air Canada, we want to maintain a relationship with our customers after they have travelled.

Delta: Delta Air Lines intends to ensure that your air travel experience will encompass, to the best of our abilities, the most comprehensive customer service possible.

Hawaiian Airlines: At Hawaiian Airlines, our approach to customer service is simple: you’re our customer, and our goal is to provide you with the best service possible. So tell us: what can we do for you today?

I genuinely wish these statements were true. How much nicer the world would be if certain airlines actually cared about their customers. And I mean all of their customers, not just elite, business and first class passengers.

In February, a group of us flew from Portland to Orlando on Delta. Without exaggeration, I say that we should have felt so lucky to receive a bag of trail mix and a cup of soda. Or at least that is how the flight attendants made us feel. The attitude was derisory. When Delta incorrectly printed our boarding passes with everyone sitting apart, although we had selected our seats three months earlier, the agent was visibly displeased with having to take time from her busy schedule to correct the error.  After landing, while retrieving our stroller from baggage claim, we found it was broken. Delta did, however, compensate us for the cost of a new one.

Last month, while flying on United from Delhi to Newark, I witnessed the worst customer service of any flight in all my years of travel. It would almost be comical if the service had not been so blatantly terrible. Racism, discrimination and rudeness are just naming a few of the issues. I was appalled.  One flight attendant did not smile for the entire 15-hour flight. Trust me, I noticed. I even tried to crack a joke when she served beverages. No luck. When I was waiting in line for the restroom, the flight attendants were sitting together and talking. They were actually making-fun of the accent of one passenger and laughing out loud. They also were discussing his hygiene and meal request and how the meal may be contributing to his scent. Not to mention all of this was in public.

Just last week, a client was flying from Toronto to Delhi via London.  The segment from Toronto was on Air Canada and Air India was servicing the flight from London – Delhi. After arriving in London, the clients were denied boarding on Air India. The gate agent told them that their ticket number and confirmation number were invalid. They were instructed to visit the Air Canada office to correct the issue and return to the gate. The Air Canada agent pulled up the reservation and said the ticket number was correct confirmed in the system. They were told to return to the gate and try again. Yet upon reaching the gate, the agent said the same thing and once again denied boarding. They missed their flight.

To make an incredibly long and completely avoidable story short, Air India admitted their mistake and found the reservation but still refused to rebook the passengers on the later flight. There were five seats available in economy, but since they were in a different fare category they would not re-issue the tickets unless a supplement was paid. Sound familiar? After being on a call with various Air India offices for four hours, my air desk agreed to pay the difference in fare, just to get the clients on their way.  To this, Air India responded that they could no longer make changes to the reservation since the clients had already departed from Toronto. The tickets were not reissued, the clients were forced to spend an overnight in London, and Air India would not provide a hotel voucher, meal voucher or assistance. Finally Air India re-booked my clients on a flight the following day and issued an apology. Again, should my clients or I feel warm and fuzzy that Air India apologized? How about doing what you strive for, according to your company philosophy, and exceeding customers’ expectations?

One final example: Last month, some of my family members flew to Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines – Portland to Maui via Honolulu. They booked their flights the same day on the same plane and received confirmation and seat assignments.  A few weeks before travel, only party #1 was notified that their flight from Honolulu to Maui was cancelled and they were re-booked on a much later flight.  Party #2, which was not notified, was reconfirmed on a different flight.  Party #1 was told there were no more seats on the flight of party #2.  After several phone calls, they were made aware that there were the three needed seats available on the same flight.  However, Hawaiian Air would NOT upgrade them to those seats without charging an additional fee.  They even offered to refund the entire groups round trip tickets rather than allow the easy fix on the short hop from Honolulu to Maui.  So much for their slogan of a SIMPLE approach toward customer service!

Unfortunately, my sentiments are all too common. Visit any online forum or ombudsman column and the complaints are fairly similar. I will just go ahead and say what most of us are thinking. Don’t value your job? Quit. Quitting not an option? Then reevaluate your position and understand that we, your customers, are not the ones who are making you unhappy… or disrespectful…or just plain rude. You are employed in a customer service industry, and if you are not having the patience to field and alleviate our (mostly valid) concerns, then shame on you. I am fairly certain you would not act this way if your supervisor, director or CEO was monitoring your behavior.

Here is another idea. Start treating your customers like you are one. If you were in our position, how would you react? If you were denied boarding, talked about behind your back and humiliated, would you simply accept it? Given your ability to throw stones, I believe not.

I would also like to take the time to state that some airlines do an excellent job and it is very clear that customer service is the priority. I had a wonderful experience on ANA in October, when our United flight was rerouted via Tokyo due to Hurricane Sandy. The kindness, patience and precision were perhaps the best I have experienced on an international carrier. Emirates is also high on my list as well as Alaska Airlines. It is evident on these carriers that the employees care about the passenger experience, both on the ground and in the air.

It is my hope that this feedback will be taken seriously and appropriate measures will be taken to correct the extensive list of concerns. Part of this responsiveness will mean going beyond the typical electronic letter that thanks me for sharing my feedback, apologizing for the poor service and stating the comments will be reviewed by a quality department.  As someone who was raised in the airline industry and has made a profession in the travel industry, it breaks my heart that this is what flying has become – simply a form of transport where the customer is lucky to receive basic courtesy and – Gasp! – even a thank you for their business.

Is it correct to assume that this corporate airline culture is coming from the top? Are CEO’s responsible for the decisions and actions of their employees? Would employees be making these decisions if it was not an airline policy? These are valid questions to start the conversation. I have actually considered not offering air ticketing with my tours because of all the time and trouble. However, my clients deserve inclusive packages and their needs are my primary responsibility.

Fortunately, I remain optimistic that the airlines can recover from this poor reputation and bounce back stronger than before. After all, it is a new year of possibilities and I believe in miracles.

Sincerely,

Allison Sodha

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About the author: Allison Sodha

Allison Sodha is an India Destination Specialist and the owner of Sodha Travel, a company that coordinates private tours to South Asia. She is also a Destination Expert for AFAR and has written features for Little India, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and various travel publications. Allison resides with her family in Portland, Oregon, but considers India her second home. Please visit: www.sodhatravel.com www.indiatravelspecialists.com blog.sodhatravel.com

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