Service of Travel II

June 17th, 2013

Categories: Airlines, Rail Travel, Reviews, Travel, Vacation

Airport Trave

It’s vacation travel time again—three friends are leaving for trips this week.

I’ve covered the topic in countless ways: About a friend’s nightmare–literally spending the night at an airport when her flight was cancelled in “Service of Travel” and in “Service of Gagging Customers,” about the aftermath of the Costa Concordia accident. There was “Service of Good Samaritans,” about railroad travel and an amazing, caring conductor; “Service of Tourism,” about Portland, Maine that does a stupendous job and more.

Here’s today’s lineup:

Wait a Minute or 20

Customer service nowA colleague was on hold for 22 minutes Friday in response to an urgent message left by her airline about her return flight three days later. The recorded wait message repeated incessantly “we will be right with you” instead of a truthful “There are 40 people ahead of you,” or “Your wait will be approximately 20 minutes.”

Once there was a live voice she asked the customer service staffer why she’d been bumped and was told “I don’t know” and was then given an option for her return flight of the day after her original flight.

Could the airline run smoothly if its operators and crew showed up a day late for their jobs? And what if, for this phone call, she wasn’t on a landline or with access to electrical outlets but on the street or on a bus with a mobile phone that needed a charge?

All Aboard

Railroad tracksArthur and Pauline Frommer are my companions on Sundays as their weekly radio travel program coincides with house and garden work and errand time. I looked up Arthur’s early May blog post “Americans Were Recently Made Aware of How Much We Spend on Air Transportation As Compared With How Little We Spend on Rail Transportation,” because I couldn’t forget what he’d said.

As a result of reports about the Sequester’s affect on air travel, he figured out that air traffic controllers cost the Federal Government $13 billion a year, “And that’s only a fraction of the much larger amount spent each year by the federal government on air transportation,” he wrote. He continued: “By contrast, we spend about 1 billion dollars a year subsidizing Amtrak.”

He reported that he’s reprimanded every time he suggests the government subsidize railroads with comments such as: “How horrendous!” and “How incredible to suggest that the federal government should dig into its pockets for rail transportation. How anti-American! How anti-free-enterprise!”

He wrote that he responds, “Absent from their arguments is any mention of the infinitely greater sums the federal government spends on highways and vehicular traffic, and on airports and aviation.” corroborated Frommer’s figures and identified the fact that many are choosing the railroad.  “In fiscal year 2012, Amtrak was approved to receive an operating subsidy of $466 million. The remainder of government help for capital improvements and debt service was estimated at $950 million,” according to CNN.

“Nearly 90 percent of the rail service’s ridership since 1997 has been on trips under 400 miles. Along with a 55 percent jump in passengers, it generated a positive operating surplus of $47 million in 2011, according to a new report released by the Brookings Institution.”

Ruining It For Others

PinnocchioIn “Service of Reviews,” in a previous post, I wrote about the self-serving, fraudulent kind, a subject also inspired by Arthur and Pauline Frommer.

In a recent program they mentioned yet another executive caught red-handed. I found, on line, the complete story in the article “TripAdvisor reviewer exposed as hotel executive: A senior executive at one of the world’s largest hotel groups has admitted breaching TripAdvisor’s rules by posting dozens of glowing reviews about the firm’s properties,” by Oliver Smith in The Telegraph.

Smith reported that Kwikchex–that he described as an “online reputation management firm”–identified the reviewer and his true stripes. TripAdvisor rules, wrote Smith, state that reviews “‘written by ownership or management; including past employees or anyone associated with/related to employees of the property in question’ will not be permitted. It adds that ‘individuals affiliated with a property may not review other properties of the same type (accommodation, restaurant, or attraction) within the same city or town, or within 10 miles of that property.’”

The executive admitted he’d written the reviews explaining that he’d visited and graded each property, had given high ones to competitors and hadn’t always been complimentary about his own. Smith quoted why the executive chose to use a pseudonym: “Because I cover such a wide range of travel experiences, it would not be appropriate to review them as a company representative….. However, it is fair to say that my professional position should have been mentioned in any reviews of hotels.”

Shop Early and Often

Booking airline tkts on line“Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent—And How To Reclaim Our Skies,” a book published last year by a well regarded travel journalist, William J. McGee, opens eyes on a range of topics.

The disclosure that Arthur Frommer landed on in his blog is worth sharing. He wrote McGee “is claiming that numerous airlines have begun collecting data on their passengers and would-be passengers–their previous purchases, the extent of their cost-conscious attitudes, their race, income and gender, whether they make impulse purchases or else ‘shop around’–and then tailoring the prices offered to them according to those personal characteristics. Two passengers requesting the same flight at the same time are quoted different prices on the airlines’ websites!”

In Pauline Frommer’s interview with McGee it was clear that you get the best price if you don’t buy the first time you visit an airline website. Keep checking at different times.

Unrelated to this interview, Pauline Frommer has frequently advised callers planning to travel with others not to book all the tickets at once because you’ll pay more for each ticket than if you book one at a time.

Do you have tips—and/or positive/negative airline customer service experiences–to share? Do you believe online customer reviews? Should the government increase its railroad subsidies?

Modern railroad station




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13 Responses to “Service of Travel II”

  1. Ginny Pulos, Ginny Pulos Communications, Inc. Said:


    For me, I simply can’t understand the Congressional stupidity of not going all in on high speed rail systems between NY and DC, NY and Boston, LA & San Fran. These are obvious. But what about Dayton to Toledo? Detroit to Toledo? New York to Chicago? Cincy to Chicago? Chicago to Detroit? Houston to Dallas to Austin? Just think of the possibilities! Just think of the jobs and the innovation this would create! If the commute was speedy, efficient, on time, and economical it will give the airlines a run for their money. How might the talent pool extend! How that might spur creativity, loyalty, excellence!

    Traveling by air is a total nightmare and a disgrace. And they get away with it because they’re the only game in town. I just heard that by September most airlines are going to be “squeezing more seats on every plane” to make travel more cost effective for the airlines!

    As for customer service, customer service vanished completely. It takes people to make customer service. It takes employees who aren’t just treated as a commodity.

    Between not being smart about high speed rail and being so dumb about a new high speed electrical grid, America is rapidly becoming a third world, third rate nation instead of a leader and innovator.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    High speed travel in Europe is a dream–clean, seamless, stress free.

    What’s happening in Congress reminds me of what can happen in divorce: As the couple swats at each another the children become collateral damage. In this case, the public suffers because lawmakers can’t get along.

    I, too, heard about squeezing more seats/people in planes, further reducing leg room and comfort. Yesterday the Frommers observed that doing this might encourage people to upgrade and reserve the more expensive seats at the front of the plane.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    I usually have no troubles, and have “met” numerous airline people who have shared experiences and saved me tons of money over the years, so can’t complain. Like anyone who has lived and traveled long enough, there have been bumps along the road, but whining about them is a waste of time.

    As to the reportedly “seamless” travel in Europe, much of it is undoubtedly due to inborn Continental efficiency, under a system known as Socialism aka governmental control and/or ownership. This would not work here because of the millions of Tea Party comrades who would croak, thereby diminishing the number of travelers by a huge enough percent to affect the economy!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I have not studied the economics of air travel. When it works there’s nothing like it but to remove stress from one’s life, especially for short runs, I vote for a train. It can take the same amount of time to go to Washington DC or Boston from NYC by train if there are airport delays or flight cancellations for example.

    Recent bankruptcies point to a stumbling airline industry. So maybe it’s time to back a different horse and provide additional options is all Arthur Frommer, Ginny Pulos and I am suggesting. I also object to being manipulated into paying for a more expensive seat because the cramped quarters in the back of the plane are inhuman for flights that last over two hours.

    If more people squawked at poor service–or stayed home–the airline industry would be forced to change its approach. In a service vacuum comes a Federal Express and improved UPS. The USPS is still in shock. Let this happen to the airline industry and then we’ll see who does the whining.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Things may have changed drastically since the “sequester” but I reserve my complaints for serious matters, if for no better reason one usually is heard and remedies taken. I have traveled by air a number of times with excellent service and promises kept (Southwest – no baggage fee and on time to early arrivals). Trains are great fun, and only wish I could find more excuses to travel that way.

    Stress is a state of mind, which if used the wrong way, can kill. Think of that when starting to fume at being held on phone for long periods of time. I put the instrument on speaker phone and go about my business until a voice is heard. No fuss, no muss, no stress.

  6. T. Bascom Riddle Said:

    I was thinking as I read your post what a pain in the neck it is to remember all the stuff you write about and then to bargain on the computer to get a decent deal when travelling somewhere. Shouldn’t somebody regulate the industry to make sure that travel services providers treat everyone fairly?

    Then I remembered that it has always been like this. I’ve travelled a lot, and even as a little boy, I can recall my mother telling my father how they got this or that ticket or hotel room cheap. People never tire of bargaining, or of thinking they made out on a deal. (Whether they did or do is another story.) Most people didn’t want fixed prices then and don’t want them now.

    Whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, the government heavily subsidizes travel, especially in automobiles and airlines, and neglects railroads because that is what most voters want. No matter how shortsighted a policy it is, it is not going to change.

    Another thing that hasn’t changed and won’t change is that travel in P[ort] O[ut] S[tarbord] H[ome]outside cabin on Bridge Deck on a luxury liner is a lot more pleasant that a porthole-less shared cabin in steerage, just as travel by private jet beats a squashed seat in the “back of the bus” any day! Of course, it costs more, even if you bargain, but who cares.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    T. Bascom,

    I would prefer to be squished than to take a private jet. They scare me silly–seem to have more accidents than commercial planes. If I had the money for a private jet I’d take business or first class any day!

    If the CNN stats are accurate and there was a 55 percent jump in railroad passengers then politicians had best pay attention and readjust their budgets and priorities.

  8. DManzaluni Said:

    Yeah, one tip, always use a different browser to check ticket prices. Airlines store cookies in your browser’s cache to tell them what price they have quoted you to TRY to ensure that once you check a price, you arent thereafter quoted a cheaper one. Install a vareity of browsers even if just for this purpose: Firefox, Chrome, even Internet Explorer can exceptionally be used for this! Or if you have a Mac, install a Virtual Machine and check with the same / different browsers on different operating systems.

    (You can clear cookies each time but it is a bigger pain in the neck).

    And some airlines actively try to discourage you from calling them while using a speakerphone by having those annoying interruptions while using equally annoying music-on-hold: TRICK: The annoying interruptions blare so loudly in their attempts to get you off line and on to the Internet that you can dispense with the speakerphone and crank the vol even higher and put the phone down beside you. The volume is low enough not to bother you but loud enough to let you know when someone is answering.

    These airlines are usually the ones with the highest ticket add-ons such as American (who apparently now even want to charge for carry on luggage!) which is the one reportedly wanting to squeeze even more passengers on to over-four hour flights this summer. Easy one this: Avoid AA in whatever you do.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Wonderful tips.

    The colleague I wrote about in the lead anecdote just returned from her trip. Her flight out of the city left five hours late she said. She’s done with that airline!

    If more people walked with their business, the airlines would have to change tunes but at the moment, many feel that they are in the driver’s seat and can act as they wish. I’ve heard only good things about JetBlue and if it’s as good as reported, then let it shine!

    As for add-ons, I find them to be childish. Do they think that they are fooling anyone? Market the product as everyone else does [you get shoelaces with sneakers, tires with cars] and be done with the de minimis price fiddling. There will always be some–I recall conversations with booking staff long before the Internet where, after being told that this was the cheapest ticket from X to Y place, I’d ask: “If I leave on a weekday? If I leave in the early morning or mid-morning? etc. will that lower the price?” and it always did.

  10. Ginny Pulos Said:

    It’s a good thing Lucretia is healthy, has no injuries and can drag her bag, and twist her body in those narrow aisles. If you’re like me, and ex- child and college athlete who suffered a severe injury in her youth, we, and millions like me aren’t just dealing with a “state of mind!” We’re dealing with horrible travel, not by choice, and “dealing with days of pain” from the moment we step into an airport till long after the trip is long over.

    It’s not about socialism, it’s about a contract with citizens for the common good. We have fire departments and police officers. We don’t call that socialism. If we pay taxes, the government should not just line the gunmakers’ pockets. And the pharmaceutical and healthcare professionals’ pockets,. The taxes should provide services to the citizens who pay them, not the lobbyists who line their pockets to be a mouthpiece for industries which have long since broken that contract with the American people.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I, too, live in a world of what should be—hence this blog–and have seen doctors shrug and show the door to severely ill patients; restaurateurs treat shabbily a demographic they’d rather not have as guests while accepting their money, so why should we be surprised at an airline that practically needs to hand out oil so humans can squeeze into seats? [God help anyone taller than 5’5”.]

    I’m surprised that just as elevators have limits to the numbers of people or total weight permitted inside that planes don’t have the same restrictions.

    Symbolically, an airline that plans to scrunch in a ton more passengers isn’t going to treat them very well along the way. DManzaluni’s suggestion that folks select a different company resonates.

  12. T. Bascom Riddle Said:

    I applaud and sympathize with the fire with which Ginny Pulos writes. I find the dismal experience that air travel has become for the typical passenger disgusting, but it must be much worse for the physically impaired. The service has become so bad that I am not even sure if it is safe to fly anymore.

    I’ve flown now for over 75 years in everything from old Ford tri-motors to the Concord — perhaps upwards of 750,000 miles. However, after my last flight five years ago, I decided I would never fly again with a commercial airline. (I wrote off 120,000 air miles on four carriers as a consequence.)If someone wants me to go somewhere now, I will not fly unless I have a private plane at my disposal. (So far, no one has offered.)

    I, too, am physically impaired. My impairment is genetic. My brain has difficulty making my fingers do what it wants them to do. For example: I often have to dial up to ten times on a telephone to get a ringing sound, and then it’s usually a wrong number. Fortunately, I am a wiz at those idiotic multiple choice tests, and as a consequence, had a secretary to dictate to all my hard working days. Fortunately, again, I worked at a time before computers dominated the workplace. Were I in my twenty’s now trying to find a job, I would be relegated to the most menial of manual labor. Is this wrong? No. Should I expect the government to help me in any way? No.

    Travel is not a right. It is a privilege. The government’s responsibility is to make sure that travelers are safe and that people doing business in the field do it honestly, and they should charge those businesses for whatever it costs the government to do its job. However, it should not subsidize the industry.

    Ginny is right to complain. The rotten service airlines offer is terrible, but the way to make it better is not the government, but to hit them in their pocketbooks. Stop flying! If she has to travel on business, get a new job, or make enough money to be able to afford to travel comfortably.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:

    T. Bascom,

    I can’t agree with your conclusion which I trust is tongue-in-cheek. I can hardly think of a job at Ginny’s level that doesn’t involve travel and train, bus or car won’t hack it for long distances with her schedule. I can just imagine telling a client: “Send a private plane, please.” Sure.

    As I’ve written countless times before, you couldn’t get me in a private plane again. I’ve been in several. Most accidents happen in these things. Looking back on all the times I’ve said, “I will NEVER do thus and such,” and the numbers of times or circumstances that forced me to change my mind, [never about ethical issues], I hope if a wonderful trip comes your way that you won’t be so stubborn as to shoot yourself in the foot and miss it. Take a book, take a pill, take the plane and enjoy the vacation.

    The fact that the government does subsidize an industry that treats people so poorly is as much to the point as whether or not it should do so to begin with. Would you invest your money in an organization or company or industry that behaved this way?

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