The real reason legacy airlines are awful

Because they can.

That’s my conclusion after finishing the missing emails from April and May. America’s legacy airlines are awful because they can be awful, and because we let them.

The graph (above) comes directly from data provided by the authoritative American Customer Service Index. Don’t confuse it with one of those incomprehensible charts posted on an airline fanblog. This is the real deal — it’s the last decade of service scores.

If I’d received the same grades as the legacy carriers when I was in school, I’d have never graduated.

Yet these airline serve us — indeed, some abuse us — every day.

Shame on them for doing it, and shame on us for letting them.

So here’s what I uncovered when I answered two months worth of emails. The airlines that scored the lowest have been busy taking advantage of their customers. Busier than I could have possibly imagined.

They throw the book into their passengers’ faces with alarming regularity. They invent ridiculous, customer-hostile policies, designed to extract more money from them. They do it without shame.

And lately, they’ve become more aggressive about the rightness of their cause. Their lumbering size and the laughable lack of government regulation has been interpreted by them as a mandate to ratchet up the fees, surcharges and toxic policies. Their rhetoric (“fees are good”, and “we’re the most regulated industry in America”) is such a classic example of corporate doublespeak, I don’t even know what to say.

You know better.

I was absolutely shocked by the brazen attacks that I uncovered in the emails — the airline apologists who are defending this house of cards consisting of avaricious surcharges, bizarre rules and addictive, non-reciprocal “loyalty” programs. It’s so awful that even some airline insiders have contact me, apologizing for the rudeness of their employers. Who would have thought?

At the same time, I’ve never been more sure of the rightness of our cause. We — you, me, and everyone else on the plane no matter where we’re sitting or how much we paid — deserve to be treated with honesty and dignity. When the airlines try to persuade my outlets to drop my column — without success, fortunately — when they send their little apologists after me, well, I know there’s only one response.

Have a look at your customer service scores.

I don’t even have to say it.

You’re terrible.

This post originally contained language that some readers found offensive. My apologies.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Too big to fail.

  • Cybrsk8r

    This should surprise no one since the legacy carriers do everything except turn their customers upside down and shake them for their pocket change.

    This is why, when the change fee exceeded the value of the ticket on United, I let the airline eat the seat instead of cancelling. Yes, Chris, I’m that guy.

    I can’t help but notice one airline is about 15 points better than the rest. Could it be … yes, I think it is. Southwest. My favorite ariline. That should also surprise no one.

  • Jim Zakany

    This is what you get when private enterprise has a monopoly or oligopoly. Cable companies and cell phone providers are other good examples.

    Government is usually subject to voter wrath, which limits their damage, but still no one ever uttered, “that was fun” when leaving the DMV, unless they were being sarcastic.

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe do online check in :)

  • Raven_Altosk

    Airlines do suck.
    And I say that as someone who has more miles on his butt in a year than on his 12-yr-old truck.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I’d rather get a body cavity search than set foot in a DMV.
    At least with a body cavity search I might get lucky…

  • Ward Chartier

    A United Airlines pilot made the right decision yesterday. Flight from Amsterdam to Dulles was not able to pump water to sinks and coffee pots. Pilot decided to fly on to Washington versus stopping for hours in London for repairs. This so passengers could make their connections. Plane had plenty of bottled water for washing hands and drinking. No hot water for tea or coffee, though. Toilets unaffected. Kudos to the pilot.

  • crash025

    Or reserved seats.

  • crash025

    I have been through the DMV in Chicago and came out saying “wow… that was pretty efficient” The do doc checks first thing, and then you go through the stages.

  • crash025

    Some just suck less than others.

  • crash025

    They’ve been pretty good to me in the last few weeks.Maybe they’re actually serious in their latest marketing campaign.

  • DavidYoung2

    Well, not all of them suck and not all the time. Last week we were on a flight from Sao Paulo to Atlanta on Delta. The plane departed 45 minutes late because a passenger became ill and they had to offload their baggage — not Delta’s fault

    Upon arrival, I found a e-mail from Delta Customer Service with a ‘Case Number.’ They expressed their apologies AND credited each of us (three passengers) 20,000 SkyPesos. Now, we didn’t even complain and it wasn’t even Delta’s fault, but they pro-actively addressed the issue.

    Oh, and the ‘Cold Chicken Salad’ economy meal was amazing! No, really, it was.

  • MarkKelling

    They are probably making enough money now from charging for drinks in the United Club they used to give away for free to afford to be nicer. :-)

  • crash025

    Wow… that sucks.. I haven’t been in one of the clubs yet… unless I fly internationally. [I’m United Gold]

  • AirlineEmployee

    And I just used a DMV and the experience was horrible. To replace an expired Driver’s License I was given wrong information by three different people and shuttled from window to window while having to “drag” correct information out of all of them. I shutter to think of the answers if I didn’t ask the “right” questions. The 4th person was finally helpful after I “calmed” down and played dumb. She discovered that I did not have an expired driver’s license but that I had lost the current one. (I brought in the old expired one from home and thought it was all I had). My stupid mistake but all it made me think of was being nicer to passengers no matter how dumb the question and certainly be pleasant (if not smiling). They were all so grim and angry, WOW !!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I went to the DMV because I lost my registration. I made an appointment which made all the difference. The entire process took maybe 20 min. BUT…, the first employee screwed up and gave me an non-appointment ticket which would have made my wait several hours.

  • Daddydo

    After I got my dictionary out to understand your column, I agree with every word. Airlines today just out and out stink. (cleaned it up) . But we the customer are a bit at fault. We became traveling bumpkins. In the 80’s, I wore a suit, my wiffe a nice dress, we had and got nice full service. Then starting in the 90’s, people showed up in tank tops, crappy looking shorts, etc allowing the airlines to sneer at them and think that they don’t deserve as much service. Today, I fly in the least legal clothing to take the least off at TSA and expect to be treated like that bumpkin. The airlines won and it won’t go back.

  • bodega3

    My last visit to the DMV, I also made an appointment. They gave me 12noon and the window number. Apparently they gave 3 others the same time and window number, as we met in line while we waited and waited. What was missing is that the workers take lunch at 12noon, so only one window was open and it wasn’t the one we were all assigned. Sad how they try to make things work but the left hand doesn’t know how that right hand works :-(

  • bodega3

    The drinks were free for us the other day at the Red Carpet Club.

  • crash025

    Was that in chicago? My DMV experiences in NC has been the worst that I’ve had ever.

  • duvenstedter

    Are these all the legacy airlines? What is the score for Alaska Airlines? Alaska Airlines is much older that Southwest. I would also like to see jetBlue. I can understand why you left jetBlue off the chart (not a legacy airline), but it would be good to see how the legacy airlines, even Southwest, compare to jetBlue.

  • Mama2tnt

    So an entire planeload of people had to wait for the sick person’s LUGGAGE? Why not just send it back on the next plane AFTER the flight? Sheesh.

  • Mama2tnt

    Why don’t people (okay, it’s usually women) wear sensible shoes to travel in? I’m a woman, and I do. When I look around at fellow passengers in those ridiculous airplane deathtraps they call “fashionable shoes,” I think, “Okay, if there’s an emergency and we have to deplane using that inflatable ramp and one of them gets in front of me and pokes a hole in the ramp….”

  • justmeeeee

    Because luggage is not allowed to travel without a passenger for security reasons–if someone managed to smuggle an explosive into checked luggage, then deplaned because of “illness,” wouldn’t that be convenient?

  • justmeeeee

    Once in a DMV in Northern Virginia I heard a customer who’d had an hours long wait and extremely poor service ask the “concierge” just inside the door for a comment card. She kind of laughed and said, “we don’t have those–why should we? We’re the DMV and you can’t take your business elsewhere.”

    At least we all laughed.

  • accountingforlove

    At least you’re guaranteed *some* action that way…

  • Tim Frye

    Perfect example right here. I just posted the following on my FB page

    This Airline Has Gone Too Far…

    Ok,United/Continental (whatever they call themselves now, I honestly
    don’t care) has officially lost me as a customer going forward, unless
    they are the only stinking airline that flies to some remote destination
    I absolutely have to get to in the future.

    Had to cancel a $543 ticket last September because Suzanne was feeling awful, too awful to try and go to her Parents
    50th Wedding Anniversary party. That means she was feeling bad! So
    tonight I’m trying to use the credit to buy her a United ticket to
    Houston for her July scans and check-up with her Oncologist. Found a
    itinerary for $361, but of course there is a $200 change-fee and then
    another $50 “agency” fee because I bought the ticket on Expedia or
    somewhere instead of buying the original ticket directly from United.
    Anybody else ever heard of this “agency” fee before, that was new to me.

    But the cherry on top is that they won’t even apply the $182 remaining
    credit ($543 – 361 = 182) to the $250 in fees. They want me to pay the
    $250 outright and then still have the extra credit sitting out there
    which of course they’ll probably charge me another $250 to use later.

    I even talked to a supervisor and then another supervisor and explained
    the circumstances that the ticket had to be cancelled due to effects of
    Cancer treatment and that I’m trying to use the credit to get Suzanne
    down to Houston for more check-ups related to her cancer. I was barely
    finished before she cut in again with the same Blah, blah, blah. “The
    change fees are a separate fee and not a ticket so I can’t apply the
    credit and you have to pay the whole $250 right now. If you get a
    doctor’s note they might refund part of the $200, etc, etc, etc…”

    If most of the airlines are going to continue to think up new ways to
    screw us with fees, fees and more new fees, why don’t they just go out
    of business already. United can take they’re whole $543 credit (which
    is really only worth $111 in this case) and SHOVE IT!!! They’re not
    getting $250 more from me, I’m going to go use it to buy a ticket on
    SOUTHWEST instead!

    Feel free to tell your favorite United story here in the comments. I might just send it all to ’em…