When it comes to airline service, it’s easy to make sweeping generalizations, because they’re usually completely correct. The awful air carriers deserve their reputations. So do the good ones.
But every now and then something happens that makes me question the conventional wisdom.
Take yesterday’s experience in New Orleans, in which I received surprisingly attentive service from an airline that I didn’t expect – and unusually poor service from one that I did.
I had just wrapped up a meeting in the Crescent City and was schedule to fly to Bermuda for another event. My outbound flight was delayed because of a mechanical problem, and I ended up standing in line at a ticket counter belonging to a major airline, trying to find another way to get to the island.
Here’s the interesting thing. Even as the agent tried to help me – at one point attempting to rout me through Los Angeles – her colleagues urged her to take the easy road and rebook me on tomorrow’s flight. That would have meant missing my meeting, and the ticket agent knew that and generously spent a full hour trying to get me to Bermuda. (In the end, she couldn’t, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.)
When it was clear that I couldn’t make it to my destination, the agent made sure I was taken care of. She issued a hotel voucher and two meal vouchers, even though I had already booked a return flight to my home in Orlando on a low-cost carrier for the next day and was standing by for an afternoon flight.
All of which brings me to what happened when I boarded my budget airline flight a few hours later. I was the last person on the plane, and found a seat but no room for my carry-on bag. I pack light, and my first rule of air travel, like so many business travelers, is “never trust an airline with your luggage.”
I found an overhead bin that could almost accommodate my bag. But a small pouch in the bin prevented it from fitting. I asked a flight attendant if she would allow me to put that pouch under my seat.
“Oh no you don’t,” she snapped. “That’s my bag.”
Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned about mediating travel disputes, it is never argue with a flight attendant. You don’t want to give her a reason to kick you off the flight or to call the authorities. So I was forced to gate-check my bag after removing my laptop and noise-canceling headphones.
I said nothing to the attendant. But after surrendering my wheeled bag to a ramp worker, she came over and delivered a lecture about the importance of checking in early and arriving at the airport on time. It didn’t occur to her that I might have been a standby passenger. I wasn’t about to tell her.
“If you’re in the ‘C’ group, don’t even think about bringing a bag on the plane,” she said. (I realize it’s probably not too difficult to guess which airline I was on. Whatever.)
I just looked at her and said, “OK.”
But it was not OK.
I had just paid a pricey walk-up fare, and what few personal belongings I had, I expected to be able to take on the plane with me – particularly if there was room for them.
This got me wondering whether the generalizations we make about airlines, especially when it comes to service, are true anymore. Do the network carriers really hate us? Do the discount carriers love us?
I believe the answer to both questions is “no.”
Low-cost carriers are not just vulnerable to sudden bankruptcies, but they can be breeding grounds for second-rate customer service. In the same way, a network airline with a proud history of customer service can still do it right.
I’ll be far more reluctant to make a generalization after yesterday. Because generally speaking, I could be wrong.