RealCG/Shutterstock

RealCG/Shutterstock

As Juanita Centanni boarded a recent Cayman Airways flight from Tampa to Grand Cayman, she braced herself for an awful travel experience.

She remembered what happened to her on a domestic flight not so long ago, when she was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. Centanni, a retired government employee, wondered if one of the flight attendants could help with her carry-on bag.

“Ask one of the passengers,” the airline employee snapped.

So when a Cayman Airways attendant met her at the door without any prompting, offering to carry her luggage and stow it in the overhead compartment, she couldn’t believe it.

“I was amazed,” she says.

That sense of disbelief is spreading among air travelers as 2013 winds down. Could it be that airline employees are rediscovering the lost art of customer service? Or perhaps just relearning the good manners their mothers taught them? There’s evidence that the answer is yes.

To understand how far things have fallen, it helps to know your aviation history. Before airline deregulation in 1978, airlines differentiated themselves with their customer service, and domestic airlines set the standard worldwide.

Today, air travelers routinely penalize airlines with some of the lowest customer-service scores. Collectively, airlines received a 69 out of a possible 100 from their passengers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), about the same as bottom-feeding industries such as subscription TV services and social-media companies.

So when they’re nice, it’s jarring. Kitty Werner expected to have the book thrown in her face when she phoned United Airlines recently to ask if she could change her return flight from Denver to Washington because of a snowstorm — in other words, insisting that she pay a $200 change fee and any fare differential.

Instead, a customer-service agent said he’d be happy to accommodate Werner. He offered to rebook her at no additional charge.

“I certainly appreciated his help,” says Werner, a former airline reservation agent. “I can’t say that about all the flights I’ve been on.”

When Dianne Sakaguchi and her husband flew from Miami to Los Angeles on American Airlines, they found the overhead bins were full even though they’d paid for “Main Cabin Extra” seats. Sakaguchi, who works for an aerospace company in El Segundo, Calif., expected that American would force her to check the carry-on and might even charge her. A flight attendant promised she’d find room for her bags.

“At the time, I didn’t believe it,” she says, “but she came through. She found us unused space in first class for the bags and allowed us to move them. I really appreciate that she made the effort to help.”

Rick Brown was taken aback when he tried to change a flight on United Airlines from New York to Beijing. A phone agent asked Brown, who owns a trading company in New York, why he needed to fly earlier. He told them it was an “emergency change of plans,” but mentioned it as an afterthought, since, in the past, United had always socked him with a $300 change fee and a fare differential.

Instead, the representative offered to waive the change fee.

“I think the world has changed its direction of rotation or something like that,” says Brown. “There’s some strange stuff going on.”

He’s right. The answer might be simple. It’s that time of the year, when even the least charitable companies show a little humanity.

Another possibility: Airlines are fed up with their low customer-service scores and want to improve. They’ve quietly loosened the policy shackles that kept them from doing favors or offering waivers. They’re encouraging employees to be kind.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The airline industry wouldn’t mind having a better reputation for service, but it has other priorities — like making money.

Take Delta Air Lines, which, like many other legacy carriers, has had an informal “flat tire” rule, which says that if you can’t make it to the airport because of a car accident, the airline will put you on the next available flight at no charge.

But that’s not what happened to Steven Lesser and his brother, who were stuck in a sandstorm as they tried to drive from Tucson to Phoenix. A massive highway pile-up stood between them and the airport; they missed their flight.

“We called Delta and thought that maybe they would accommodate us with the next flight at 6 a.m.,” says Lesser, who works for a college in West Bloomfield, Mich. “The representative only asked if we had insurance. Since we did not, Delta charged us each an additional $200.”

Lesser contacted me for help. Surely, he suggested, there must be a misunderstanding. The accident on Interstate 10 was well documented. I suggested he appeal the fee to one of Delta’s executives, and I also asked the airline about its flat tire rule and shared his case with the company. Delta refunded Lesser’s fee.

Maybe airlines really want to give you good service. Sometimes, they just need a nudge.

Is good airline service possible?

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