Service of Travel

May 24th, 2012

Categories: Accommodation, Airlines, Customer Care, Customer Service, Travel

As some airlines are reported to squeeze more money out of infrequent flyers and those who book later rather than sooner, I thought that Catherine C’s recent experience was an especially fitting one to share on the eve of Memorial Day weekend.

According to recent airline shenanigans, frequent travelers flying coach on these airlines are given first dibs for window and aisle seats. Standard travelers who don’t reserve early can ensure that they will sit next to family, friends and colleagues by forking over $25 each way. So you had planned to travel with your bride/groom, grandma or the kids? Such folly! Be prepared to say “See you when we land.”

Catherine C has written several guest posts on this blog such as “Service of Pets” and “Service at the High End.” The recent harrowing travel experience she shares was caused by weather.

Weather is an inevitable factor for all in the travel business. Yet there were so many ways that the airline and airport might have turned the inconvenience of storms into far less of a stressful nightmare for Catherine and countless others, as she describes:

I had a horror story of a flying experience recently.  Talk about lack of service.

I was coming home from a business trip to Florida, flying to Newark on US Airways via Charlotte.  We were warned, on takeoff, that there would be bad weather en route to Charlotte.  In fact, when we got near, we were forced to circle.

Because we still couldn’t land, we diverted to Greenville-Spartanburg for fuel. Once there, we were seventh in line and waited a long time.  Eventually, it was our turn but lightning strikes forced another halt.

When we finally took off–just short of three hours on the ground–it was past the time I should’ve been in Newark. I can’t say the pilot kept us updated as often as would have been nice. The airline did actually give us each two little cookies and didn’t charge.

When we finally landed in Charlotte, we were not told that the rest of the flight had been cancelled. We were just herded off the plane. We may have been the last flight to land.

Someone handed me a card with two phone numbers: One to call to rebook and a second to order a discounted hotel room. “Good luck,” he said.  “I doubt you’ll find a room.”

I was able to use my mobile phone to rebook but nevertheless had to go to the desk to get the ticket issued. There were two agents: a man and a woman.  Fortunately, I got the man.  The woman was quite nasty.  Two colleagues who were with me-I’ll call them G. and L.–got stuck with her.  The best the agent could do for me was an 11:30 flight the next morning.  I wasn’t happy, but at least the seat was in first class.

I later realized that he wasn’t doing me a favor. One of my colleagues was lucky and was booked two flights earlier than mine and one was booked on the flight after that.

By now it was around 2:00 am.  It took some 30 minutes working our iPads and iPhones to find out there was no room at the inn and we’d be sitting up all night at the airport.  There had been so many cancellations and we were so late getting in, we didn’t stand a chance.

So we made “camp,”  but here was no place to sleep.  We were forbidden the gate areas, which left the cold concourse with noisy cleaning crews.  Nothing was open, so there was no food.

Cockroaches came up out of the planters onto the floor in waves, forcing us to get our bags and gear off the floor.  It was 5:00 am before anything opened. Thank goodness for Starbucks, which was first.

At 5:30 the US Airways Club opened. One of my colleagues is a member and got us in as guests.  The woman at the desk didn’t look happy, and grudgingly helped get two of us on the standby list for earlier flights to Newark.  We were 20th and 21st, I think.

In the club there was food, newspapers, nice bathrooms, comfy chairs, TV – civilization.  When the early flight rolled around, we all went to the gate.  G. was ticketed and L. got on standby. Both of them fly US Airways frequently. I once did and was in its frequent flyer program, but not for years.  So I didn’t get on the first or next flight either.

I went to the gate for the 11:30 flight and checked in with the agent.  Giving her my ticket I said, “Tell me I am definitely on this flight.” “No,” she said, “It says you went standby on that last flight.” I told her they never called my name and before leaving the gate I asked whether they were done calling standbys, which they were.

“How can you do this to me?” I asked her, explaining what the last 12 hours had been like. I didn’t raise my voice; I just looked as exhausted as I was.  I’ll add that I was well dressed, which may have helped.  She didn’t say anything but clicked away for ages and finally handed me a new ticket for the same first class seat.  When the next passenger came to the desk, I overheard that she and I both had been rebooked to the next flight: a commuter flight in another terminal.

So, the storms were not the airline’s fault and there was no obligation on its part.  But:

1) Why did the airline provide so little information along the way?

2) Why did one of the gate agents have to be so bloody nasty?

3) Why, in situations like this, is there no provision for people who have to remain in the airport?  No place to rest, eat, warm up? Why can’t the airlines keep their clubs open?

4) How can they play the kinds of games they do with ticketing?  You have a confirmed ticket but bump you without telling you so as to give the seat to someone they value more than you?

Ironically, one of the presenters at the conference I just attended had worked at Virgin America, which aims to be the antidote to legacy airlines. I thought quite a bit about that while going through this experience. I think I may give it a try.

What else might the airline and airport have done in such an instance? Have you similar experiences to share? Have you noticed improvements in air travel?

6 Responses to “Service of Travel”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    There’s no argument that airline service on many carriers has deteriorated since I first started flying, and things appear to be worsening. Some folks are looking for other means of travel when on the continent. Should their numbers keep increasing, airlines are going to be forced to take action before business peters down to a trickle. Over and above that, a number of businesses have found ways to cut local and world travel costs by hosting electronic meetings. If this doesn’t cause alarm in the flight world, perhaps it should.

  2. ASK Said:

    Like any other business, airlines are going to take care of their best customers first…The so-called “golden days” of air travel were days when fewer people went to airports to go anywhere; fares were relatively expensive, and air travel had to be sold. When a product or service literally becomes a commodity and the emphasis is most often on price…like air travel now…alas, service flies out the window.

    The last time I found myself in a situation similar to Catherine C’s was 30 years ago. After dinner on a plane from Miami to LaGuardia (an Eastern flight), we were forced to land in Charleston, W. Va. because of weather. A bus took all of us (even coach passengers) to a local hotel and brought us back to the airport in the morning. No charge for room or breakfast.

    The above is not to justify the airline or the ungracious behavior of its agents. And, having flown Virgin on a couple of occasions, I’m not sure they would have behaved any better.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Trains! I wish we had the wonderful high speed trains they have in Europe. Stations are in the city and are convenient, easy and inexpensive to get to. Trains are comfortable. No traffic. Price is right. I wish someone would take under their wing or take over the train system as Fed Ex and an improved UPS have the mailing and shipping industries.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    Lots of businesses do care first for their best customers: Restaurants come to mind. But it’s so much easier to leave a restaurant and find another place to eat than it is to huff off when caught in a jam as Catherine C and her colleagues were.

    I remember being stuck at the French/Italian border in a car for hours. I was a child. When we finally got to a town it was very late and as with Catherine C, no places at the inn.

    However the tourist info office at the railroad station was open, we went, and were given two places to stay for the night in private homes: My mom and I stayed in one and my sister and grandmother in another. I was freaked–staying with strangers? My mom wasn’t at all afraid–she was relieved we had a dry place to rest–and the families made a little extra money. I wonder if such as system might work in small town America today.

  5. GBS Said:

    I first flew in 1940 — New York to Washington, I last flew in 2007 — Venice to New York. Between those dates, I’ve flown constantly almost everywhere in everything from Piper Cubs, C-47s and Ford Tri-motors to Leer Jets, various B7blank7s, and the Concorde. I am not going to fly again unless somebody lends me their private jet. Why? As Catherine C. so vividly points out, “It ain’t worth the aggravation.”

    Since, frankly, starting with at least two dozen government agencies, and ending with virtually every airline in the world, this mess isn’t going to be cleaned up in my grandchildren’s lifetime, may I recommend sea travel, which used to be delightful — Cunard ships periodically go New York to Europe now – and rail travel, which, at least in Europe, is still relatively civilized?

  6. jeanne Byington Said:

    GBS,

    As I’ve written before, private planes scare me. I wouldn’t want to share an experience like Catherine’s nor would I want to travel with a blanket, pillow + roach spray but that would be better than a trip on a dangerous little plane!

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