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Taxman Preferred Over Airlines

(December 27, 2001)

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index released by the University of Michigan in mid-December, given a choice, Americans would rather file taxes than fly on commercial airlines. Ouch! From a consumer satisfaction standpoint, it doesn't get much worse than being topped by the IRS. What's even more interesting is that this survey was done before the September 11th attacks. To make matters worse, airlines are cutting the very things that make customers more satisfied.

Airlines Cut to the Bare Necessities

Buffeted by the events of September 11 and the economic slowdown, U.S. airlines are struggling to survive. Say "buh-bye" to flying perks that are deemed an "excess cost"—mainly items used to make the flying experience a little more bearable. Here's what's being taken away:

  • Fewer (or no) Pillows or Blankets: US Airways announced last month that they are eliminating blankets and pillows from all flights except transcontinental and international ones. After outcries from flight attendants, the airlines recently changed their minds and now allow pillows back on the airplanes. Regardless, most airlines have cut back on the number of them onboard each aircraft and the frequency in which they are replaced.

  • No Meals: Most meals on flights under three hours have been eliminated. In addition, many airlines have done away with many special meals previously offered.

  • Fewer Magazines: Most airlines have removed or streamlined the selection of commercial magazines onboard. However, there is still some decent reading to be had as airlines are keeping their own in-flight magazines.

  • Less In-flight Entertainment: Airlines have cut back video and music offerings as these programs are expensive to produce.

  • Dingy Cabins: Aircraft cabins will not be as tidy as in the past because airlines are cutting back on cleaning crews. There are also more broken service items, including burned-out reading lights, seats that don't recline, audio plugs that don't work, broken monitors, and lavatories with broken items. Part of this is due to airlines deferring maintenance to hub airports where an airplane already has scheduled maintenance.

  • Reduced Staffing: Airlines have reduced staffing everywhere. Long lines at check-in counters are becoming longer because of employee furloughs. Airline reservation agents are swamped since cutbacks and take longer to answer calls. Even flight crews are affected as most airlines have cut flight attendants to the FAA minimum. Furthermore, so many pilots have been furloughed that there may not be enough reserve pilots to fill the gaps when operational problems occur, something that could result in cancelled flights.

  • Fewer Clubs: Most major airlines have closed some of their lounges. Business travelers are complaining that clubs are becoming as crowded as gate areas. Furthermore, perks such as free drinks and snacks have disappeared.

  • Reduced Schedules: Airlines have cut service and pulled out of many small markets. Some existing flights have disappeared with little or no notice.
Many employees I spoke with are downright frustrated with the cuts. Most said their jobs have become increasingly difficult because so many basic things have been cut. One flight attendant I spoke with stated: "The airlines are in the fight of their lives but they seem to be shooting themselves in the foot with senseless cuts."

Dumb Moves

US Airways' seesawing-on-the-pillow issue is a good example of airline mismanagement. The airline stated it would save two million dollars a year by cutting them back. Nevertheless, cuts like these only add to the growing animosity towards airlines. In the scheme of things, two million spent on passenger comfort is money well spent. Especially since airlines have been aided with five billion dollars in government relief funds.

It's amazing to think that the drudgery of filing taxes is ranked above traveling on airplanes, something linked to leisure. For airlines to be perceived in a better light, they must re-think the big picture and improve what's mentioned in the above list so their employees can better serve the flying public.

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