Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Unfriendly Skies

What has happened to the airline industry?

If you’ve heard the bad news, you already know about the layoffs, the bankruptcies, the mergers and the rising fuel costs. There is general chaos and confusion. Even big airlines like Alitalia are struggling. Apparently, it’s a tough business but even the toughest seem to be crying for help. This might make you make you feel sorry for the industry until you purchase a ticket, sit your ass down in a seat made for an anorexic Ethiopian and realize that, wait a second, the customers are the real victims here.

During my sabbatical, I have flown much more than usual and I am amazed at how bad the service has become. I realize that you need to keep your planes full but how on earth can you overbook by 14 people? When I was travelling from Savannah, Georgia to Toronto, Canada on United Airlines I checked in at the counter. They told me they couldn’t issue a boarding pass until I checked in at the gate. No need to line up, they told me, they would call my name when the pass was ready. No big deal, I thought. Half an hour prior to departure, they still hadn’t called my name and I was just about to get up and see what was going on when they made an announcement. They had overbooked the plane by 14 people and were requesting volunteers to stay behind. If they didn’t get enough volunteers, then anyone without a boarding pass was going to be denied boarding. Of course, this caused a long line at the counter with all the people who were presumably going to be denied boarding. I waited in this line for 25 minutes until my name was finally called. As if my guardian angel herself plucked me from the crowd, I was given a ticket to board. Up until five minutes prior to boarding, I had no idea whether I had a seat or not.

On this same flight, I was travelling with my fifteen year old Pekingese and I paid $100 to put him underneath the seat in front of me. $100 one way! He was taking up no more space than a knapsack and certainly was no more trouble than one. When I walked onto the plane (grouchy after the overbooking ordeal), the flight attendant took one look at his carrier and snapped, “Put it under the seat”. Where else was I going to put it, honey? In the overhead bin? On the pilot’s lap? I felt like saying, “It’s not an it. He’s a he”, but there are some battles that are not worth the fight.

Why can United charge $100 for a one-way ticket for a pet that is going under the seat? The answer is very simple. Because they can. This is also the reason why they can now charge $15 for your first checked bag. This was the little surprise I got when I flew back from Toronto to Savannah. No longer is your stowed luggage going to have a free ride. $15 will cover all the hassles of transporting it to your destination. I realize that $15 isn’t a lot of money but why is United (and the other airlines) playing the nickel and dime game? Just add it into the cost of a ticket. The same goes for the food. Instead of getting crappy food for free, now we get to pay anywhere from $5 for a “snack bag” to $10 for a dry sandwich. The airlines (at least most of them) also charge for the earphones. Usually it’s just a couple of bucks but holy crap, these things probably cost 25 cents to produce in a Beijing factory. The flight attendants are also pleased to point out that the customers can keep the earphones for later use. Really? The sound quality is so great with them, I’m sure lots of people use them regularly with their iPods. I’m convinced there will come a time when we will have to pay for the in-flight movie.

With all these added charges, I think we should start charging the airlines when we feel like it. Your seat is so close to the one in front of it that you can’t feel your legs? That is good for $50. Your flight arrives an hour later than it was supposed to? $100 charge. Your flight arrives an hour later than it was supposed to and you miss your connecting flight? Full refund of the ticket.

I flew from Los Angeles to Key West on Delta. My flight arrived in Miami about an hour late. I knew that the connecting flight was going to be tight so I ran to the gate. They were expecting me. I still had about twenty minutes before the plane took off so I thought I was going to be okay. They drove me out to the plane but the doors were closed so I was denied entry. When I asked them why they didn’t wait an extra two minutes when they knew I was on a late connecting flight, they told me they didn’t know how long it would take me to get from one gate to another and they couldn’t hold up the plane for one passenger. It was the last plane of the day so I was forced to spend a night in Miami.

With all this travelling, I have been a very good customer and so the airlines have rewarded me with their ultimate present, AIR MILES. I used to think that air miles meant a free ticket with certain airlines. Sure, I understood that there were some restrictions (I couldn’t fly on the “blackout dates”) but I thought a “free ticket” meant a “free ticket”. Not always so. It’s important to read the fine print. Taxes and “gas surcharges” can make the price rapidly escalate. I am currently trying to negotiate a flight from Los Angeles to Manila using my brother’s air miles on Philippine airlines. (He was very generous to donate them to my account). I was told that the flight was “free” if I used 60,000 miles but there were additional charges of $400, most of it due to the gas surcharge. When I can purchase a ticket from LAX to Manila for about $900, these extra charges amount to almost 50% of the regular price. Suddenly, this free ticket isn’t so free. I also have air miles through my World Points Visa card. After accumulating 25,000 miles, I can get a round trip ticket. There is no charge for the flight as long as I use the flight with the lowest available advertised price. This sounds okay until I found out that the cheapest flights are either very early in the morning, late at night or have multiple stops along the route. Convenience, it seems, comes with a price.

To be fair, not all airlines are created equal. Although I’ve had especially bad experiences with Delta, Alaska and United, I’ve always had good experiences with Southwest. Their tickets are easy to purchase online, their staff always seems to be friendly and whenever I call their customer service number, I get a REAL PERSON right away and not the “Press 3 if you’re calling for reservations” type of bullshit. When I use my air miles, I get a round trip ticket without any strings attached. There was a little confusion among their customers when they changed their way of lining up at the gate but I think most people have now got it all figured out. Some complain that they don’t like the open seating policy but I’ve never had a problem; if I check-in online twenty-four hours ahead of time, I get an “A” seat. They are a “no-frills” airline but they don’t pretend to be anything more. This is far better than the other airlines who think they’re world class yet run their businesses like a used car lot.

My advice to the airlines? Start putting your customers first. In case you haven’t realized it, we are the ones paying the bills. Don’t add on ridiculous extra charges. Don’t overbook the flights. If you want us to pay for food, then make it food worth paying for. Revamp your air miles programs and don’t try to hide important details or mislead us with words like “free”. Make your customer service agents helpful. And maybe, just maybe, put the joy back into flying. If you succeed in doing all that, we’ll still bitch about the high cost of your fares but at least we’ll be getting our money’s worth.

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