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Airline Customer Service: It Is Getting Better

Think airline service is the totally the pits? Think again. Airlines are really trying, and recent statistics show it is getting better. I had to opportunity to witness this miraculous metamorphosis in action during my latest travels. What I found was (gasp) refreshing.

Taking Charge

In mid-June, my US Airways' flight from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was delayed for mechanical reasons. Upon reaching the gate, I noticed that a 30-minute delay was posted. While checking in, the gate agent informed me that one of the aircraft's engines had either ingested birds or rocks upon landing in Charlotte, and that mechanics were working on replacing the engine's fan blade. I was taken aback by the honesty. In the old days, airlines never used to mention the details, especially when it involved maintenance.

I sat down, pulled out a book, and listened while other passengers checked in—the same story was repeated. A few minutes later, the agent announced that the plane was still being repaired, and that the delay would be an additional 30 minutes. The departure was now tentatively scheduled for 1:10 p.m., instead of the original 12:10 a.m. The next flight to Pittsburgh was at 3:50 p.m., and no other airline flew between the two cities. (note: AirTran has since begun service.)

A few minutes later, the agent announced that the flight was cancelled because the mechanics did not have all the parts they needed. He then proceeded to let everyone know that they had been rebooked automatically on the next flight. He also said that if anyone had questions, to see him at the counter. Most of the other passengers were booked on the next flight. Others, with connections, were rerouted on other airlines.

US Airways was able to rebook everyone through a comprehensive computer program that provides faster reaccommodation when flights are canceled or delayed. I called US Airways' customer service number, and found I had indeed been placed on the 3:50 flight automatically. The reservations agent informed me that there was no other carrier that could get me to Pittsburgh earlier. If there had been, I would have been rebooked on that carrier.

I never heard a passenger invoke Rule 240; it had been done automatically. US Airways had everything under control, and no one was angry or upset.

US Airways has also taken control inside the cabin. Recently, travel expert for NBC17 in Raleigh-Durham) experienced a weather-related delay onboard her US Airways flight. "It was hot and uncomfortable in the aircraft. People were tired and cranky," says Jones. She adds, "The captain kept us informed, the flight attendants passed out ice water, and when it appeared the delay would be much longer, we were allowed to deplane." "They did a good job in trying to make us as comfortable as possible and in being understanding and empathetic." "Weather isn't the responsibility of an airline, but US Airways handled it just right."

Behind The Changes

Airlines appear to have improved their ability to control the chaos with their "Customer Service Commitments." According to the latest Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, airlines have made significant strides to improve their customer service. Consumer complaints against U.S. airlines fell 30.5 percent in May, compared to the same period last year. Hoping to head off a passenger bill of rights in Congress, airlines have recently amended their "contracts of carriage" (the fine print on tickets) to include the 12 voluntary pledges made in late 1999. It's now legally binding that airlines notify passengers of and do the following:

  1. Give accurate and timely information on flight delays or cancellations.
  2. Track down lost luggage within 24 hours.
  3. Increase the lost-baggage liability limit.
  4. Offer the lowest airfares over the phone.
  5. Allow them to cancel a purchased ticket within 24 hours without penalty.
  6. Make prompt refunds.
  7. Disclose policies for customers with special needs.
  8. Improve handling of long onboard delays.
  9. Notify regarding "oversold" flights.
  10. Give details regarding frequent flyer programs.
  11. Require the same quality of service by associated commuter airline partners.
  12. Respond promptly to complaints or requests for information.
In addition to the twelve customer service pledges, another part of the success—according to airline executives—is the many voluntary changes airlines have made, including

  • Making on-time performance information accessible to customers via their website or
    through a toll-free number.
  • Establishing a toll-free or local number for baggage information.
  • Creating a task force to help passengers required to stay overnight because of delays or cancellations.
  • Ensuring that airport display monitors are accurate.
A major part of the success in turning the tables has been enabling and training employees to share information with customers. "Customers get quite frustrated with no information to tell them where they stand," says US Airways' spokesman David Castelveter. According to Castelveter, US Airways' employees have received extensive customer service training. "It's a work [in] progress and employees participate in a series of ongoing training and education programs to instill the commitment," he says.

Nifty Innovations

Airlines are also stepping up their commitment to higher technology. In an effort to improve service quality and build customer loyalty, many airlines are invoking new technology geared to make the flying experience a little easier. Innovations include:

Wireless Check-in

Alaska Airlines is the nation's first airline to allow customers to check in for flights using wireless handheld devices such as web-enabled cell phones and PDAs.

Instant Messaging Airline Customer Service

Alaska Airlines has also become the nation's first airline to provide assistance to its website customers through instant messaging technology. Users of can now access immediate online communication with the airline's web help center., (Alaska's sister airline Horizon Air) is also using the technology.

Portable Phone Banks

US Airways has added portable-phone banks at major airports during severe delays and cancellations to provide their customers with direct and priority access to US Airways Reservations for rebooking flights.

Airport Kiosks

Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways offer self-ticketing kiosks allowing customers to bypass lines at the tickets counters or gates.

When it comes down to it, the airline industry is a competitive arena in which customer service is crucial to success. Although airlines have room for a lot of improvement, they appear to be on the right path to improving their product. This is good news for consumers.

More Information

Check out the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report.

How does your airline rank? Check out Airline Quality to see how many stars your favorite airline has earned.

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