These airlines are the poster children for bad service

By | March 24th, 2014

Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock
Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock
When you have a customer service problem with a company, it can usually be cleared up with a quick phone call or email. Unless you’re dealing with an airline.

It seems air carriers like to shield themselves as much as possible from the traveling public, particularly when things go wrong. And I should know. I’m this site’s director of research, and it’s my job to connect people with companies.

If you’ve ever called an airline’s toll-free telephone number to resolve a problem, generally with a lower-level customer service agent, you’ll have a real understanding of what the word “exasperating” means.

Take, for example, the problems experienced by passengers Cheri Rosenthal and David Weinberg, who traveled last year with two bicycles, paying $300 to check them on American Airlines and AirBerlin.

The bicycles were packaged according to airline standards with bubble wrap and a cardboard cover, yet when they reached their destination, one of the bicycles was nowhere to be found. When it finally turned up two days later, after being lost twice by AirBerlin, it was damaged beyond repair, having a large crack in the frame.

What followed could certainly be considered an exercise in futility.

Since they’d traveled on two different airlines — American out of Minneapolis, AirBerlin out of Miami to Malaga, Spain — they contacted both airlines for assistance with their claim. They even emailed the CEO of AirBerlin, Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, and the COO, Helmut Himmelreich, and heard nothing.

(And as a side note to this, within a couple of weeks of the AirBerlin page going live in the database, both executives changed their email addresses and we still haven’t found the new ones)

After many phone calls and emails, some taking weeks to get a response, each airline blamed the other, with the result being no one is offering to replace the damaged bike. A year later, the couple is still trying to convince them both to accept responsibility for what is clearly airline negligence.

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Rosenthal is now what could be politely referred to as “miffed.”

“We learned the hard lesson that you get your boarding pass, give them your baggage, and hope you might see it again,” she says.

And the takeaway in all of this for Rosenthal and Weinberg? “Airlines today are soulless corporations that take no responsibility for their actions, whose leaders shield themselves with low-level gatekeepers and arcane procedures,” she says.

Think they’ll ever fly American or AirBerlin again? Neither do I.

Another airline that’s given the readers here a difficult time is LAN and TAM Airlines, with both falling under the umbrella of LATAM Airlines Group. Because of a merger in 2013, none of the contacts shown in the database are now working.

Not long ago, the owner of this site, Chris Elliott, was contacted by a representative from LATAM, Megan Williams, the Marketing Director in their Miami office. Responding to an article he’d recently written about a customer who’d had a poor experience on a TAM flight, Williams sent Chris an email to let him know she’d taken care of the problem.

In her message, she said:

Since you are trying to help passengers get their issues resolved with airlines, in the future, I would appreciate if you could reach out to me to assist you in getting through the right TAM and or LAN customer service channels. Please consider me as a resource for any support that you need in the future to assist with reaching the proper contacts in a timely manner.

Since that time, there have been more consumers trying to make contact with LATAM.

One such customer is Margaret Smith (not her real name). She and her husband flew on TAM Airline and it was fraught with missteps. While they reached their destination initially, even calling their first flight “comfortable,” it was when they were flying back to Miami from Curitiba that everything fell apart.

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When they got to the airport, they were offered an upgrade to their seats for an additional $85 each. However, once they paid for the upgrade, the seats were no longer available, nor were their original seats. Smith sent her husband on his way while she stayed behind, catching a later flight.

To add insult to injury, when the Smiths arrived in Brazil, their suitcases were soaked through and she had no clothes to wear until hers dried out.

The Smiths have made several attempts to contact TAM and LATAM, beginning with the customer relations email Williams gave Chris. The answer? Nothing. Following this, they sent an email to Williams. More silence.

Chris and I appealed to Williams for a better point of contact for their passengers, but she refused to give us anything more than what we already had.

Think Williams meant it when she told Chris, “I would appreciate it if you could reach out to me to assist you”?

I’d wager the Smiths would like to know the answer to that question, too.

Something companies need to realize is this: When a customer has a good experience with a company, they tell very few people.

Every year, American Express polls their customers, not just in the US but also in ten other countries. What they discovered in their 2012 survey was: when a customer has a good experience with a company, they’ll tell an average of 15 people, at least in the US.

But when a consumer has a bad experience? The average US customer is likely to tell 24 people, up from their 2011 survey. And in India, which is at the top end of the “I’m telling” scale, it’s an average of 44 people.

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Using the two examples given here, between the Rosenthal/Weinbergs and the Smiths, if each of them is true to the results of the survey, they will tell a total of 96 people of their being treated poorly by these airlines. Since one of the people they told is Chris Elliott, that number now goes into the thousands.

And speaking of the survey, there were other items of note.

Over 50 percent of the consumers polled expressed they’ve stopped a transaction due to poor customer service, taking their business elsewhere. In addition to that, an average of roughly 60 percent believe the companies they do business with either “don’t care about their business” or that they “take their business for granted.”

It also seems once a consumer finds a company that will give them good customer service, they tend to stay with them, even if it means spending a little more money. And these same customers actually increase their spending once they find a company they feel cares about them.

Not only are some airlines hurting their bottom line by not treating their customers better, they’re helping their competitors in an appreciable way.

What are consumers looking for in the companies they do business with? It’s simple, really.

According to the survey, all they want is “polite, timely and responsive customer service.”

So this begs the question: Is good customer service really becoming so difficult to provide?

Have you ever taken your business elsewhere because of bad customer service?

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Nancy Marine is the director of research for Travelers United.

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