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.
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
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.)
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
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
Behind The Changes
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:
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,
- Give accurate and timely information on flight delays or
- Track down lost luggage within 24 hours.
- Increase the lost-baggage liability limit.
- Offer the lowest airfares over the phone.
- Allow them to cancel a purchased ticket within 24 hours
- Make prompt refunds.
- Disclose policies for customers with special needs.
- Improve handling of long onboard delays.
- Notify regarding "oversold" flights.
- Give details regarding frequent flyer programs.
- Require the same quality of service by associated commuter
- Respond promptly to complaints or requests for
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.
- 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
- Creating a task force to help passengers required to stay
overnight because of delays or cancellations.
- Ensuring that airport display monitors are accurate.
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.
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
Instant Messaging Airline Customer
Alaska Airlines has also become the nation's
first airline to provide assistance to its website customers through
instant messaging technology. Users of alaskaair.com can now access
immediate online communication with the airline's web help center.
Horizonair.com, (Alaska's sister airline Horizon Air) is also using
Portable Phone Banks
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
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.
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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