Want an airline to change? Then speak with a million voices

If you don't change you could end up here. / Photo by jwm 1049 - Flickr
When it comes to customer service, travel companies constantly push the limits with fees, surcharges and onerous policies. No industry does it more than the airlines, and no domestic airline does it more than Spirit Airlines, the small Florida-based carrier known for its risque ads and creative extras.

But consider what happened to Spirit last week, when the carrier made two decisions that drew an immense amount of publicity, much of it unexpected.

Within a few news cycles, it denied a dying war veteran a refund on a ticket he couldn’t use, standing its ground because the ticket was nonrefundable. It also quietly raised its fees for carry-on luggage (that’s right, carry-on luggage) to as much as $100, effective this fall.

It’s difficult to overstate the public reaction. A Facebook petition to boycott Spirit mushroomed, garnering more than 40,000 “likes.” Air travelers slammed the carrier as heartless and greedy.

Can you guess which of those issues Spirit relented on?

No, not the carry-on fees. It fully refunded Jerry Meekins’s fare. “I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country,” a contrite Ben Baldanza, Spirit’s chief executive, said in a prepared statement. He made a $5,000 contribution in Meekins’s name to a charity for disabled veterans.

Spirit is hardly the first airline to back down after crossing a line. Just a few days after the Meekins incident, United Airlines changed its policy on transporting dogs after the owner of a pit bull collected more than 45,000 protest signatures online. Jessie Huart blasted United for banning some dogs from flying based on their breed, essentially suggesting that they were pet racists. United relented, issuing a brief statement that it will “now accept previously restricted breeds of dogs.”

What made Spirit — what makes any airline, for that matter — reverse a decision? The answer raises some troubling issues, not only for summer air travelers but also for government regulators.

An airline will often back down in the face of unanimous opposition to one of its policies. But the reaction to Spirit’s announcement about higher carry-on fees wasn’t unanimous. Beginning Nov. 6, the airline will raise most of its nine carry-on bag fees by either $5 or $10, and one — for carry-ons that are declared at the gate — will leap from $45 to $100. Many passengers and TV talking heads were angry, but some air travelers supported the idea. “I think Spirit is on the right track with its carry-on fee,” says Joan Mohan, an instructor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “Watching people competing for overhead space is annoying and time-consuming.”

Most Spirit customers know that the airline bases its business model on fees, and they seem prepared to accept it. Despite its reputation as a complaint factory, Spirit drew only 58 formal grievances to the Transportation Department in February, the latest month for which numbers are available. That’s far more than it should have, considering how small it is, but nowhere near the numbers some of its critics had suggested. The previous month, it had drawn 59 grievances. (I keep an informal tally of such complaints; Spirit’s numbers are high but in line with those of other discount airlines with a thing for fees.)

Contrast the mixed reaction to the fee increase with the widespread public outrage over Meekins. His predicament pushed a lot of hot buttons: He’s a Vietnam veteran and a cancer patient. After he bought a nonrefundable ticket to visit his daughter, doctors reportedly told him that he was terminally ill and shouldn’t fly.

You’d think that Spirit would refund his fare out of compassion. A day before Baldanza changed his mind, I asked him to explain his reasoning for not okaying a refund. He delivered a terse response by e-mail. “In fairness to all of our customers,” he wrote, “we don’t make exceptions to our policies.”

I followed up with him after he changed his mind, asking him to explain his reversal, and the response was even terser: no comment.

Clearly, public pressure had prevailed.

Another hot-button topic is pets. I recently wrote a column for National Geographic Traveler in which I suggested that readers should leave their dogs and cats at home when they go on vacation.

The reactions were predictable. “Young children traveling with their parents are a lot more disturbing than any animal could possibly be,” sniffed Cheryl Gray, a retired flight attendant, who referred to her dog as “part of our family.”

The passion of pet owners explains the success of Huart’s dog petition, which had the added backing of the social advocacy site Change.org. When a petition can attract more than 40,000 supporters — even if they aren’t likely customers — it will get an airline’s attention.

All this is sobering news to passengers who may be under the mistaken impression that their airline is actually listening to them, and it’s downright depressing for regulators who are trying to fix the problem of bad airline service.

For air travelers and consumer groups, it means that they’ll need the right mix of demographics, timing and critical mass to effect any kind of meaningful change on a policy level. It’s a tall order that requires cooperation and coordination, not to mention a lot of work.

Now that the Transportation Department has postponed its latest round of proposed airline consumer rules until after the election, and with air travelers still lacking a consistently unified voice in Washington, the chances that any real change will take place during the busy summer travel season seem distant at best.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Raven_Altosk

    If airlines were listening to their customers, we’d have seats we didn’t have squish into, XL pax would be buying two seats, carry-on size would be enforced, and Chris might be out of a job.  ;)

    At least, those are my three pet peeves…which seem to be pretty standard to the regular road warriors out there. 

    Oh, and free drinks for any business traveler who has to fly to MCO. lol.

    Stuck on that route again next week. I’m sure I’ll have amazing stories of idiots who lost their brain when they booked their vacation to Di$ney.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4DMVW6EDML54CXFQMZHZCZ7WEY EmilyE

    Yes, airlines are listening to their customers – customers wanted lower fares, so they got lower fares. Sure, service declined, planes got fuller, charging for extras started, but customers got lower fares. 
    You can’t have it both ways. Customers either complain about service and fees and the like, but they still want low fares. But it’s good that both airlines and customers have found some sorts of compromise (such as United transporting dogs).

  • SoBeSparky

    In a way, some airlines are listening to the customers.  To steal from the world’s largest retail chain, these low-cost carriers seem to believe, “Advertise always the low price, always.”

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    “Young children traveling with their parents are a lot more disturbing than any animal could possibly be,” sniffed Cheryl Gray, a retired flight attendant, who referred to her dog as “part of our family.”
    “Sniffed”?? I’m “howling” with laughter. Wonderful turn of phrase.

    I’m waiting for the hordes of angry pet owners, sorry, *human companions* to chime in, after they get back from taking their family member from their morning walkies.

  • AirlineEmployee

    They’re not listening to their own employees – why would they listen to the passengers ??

  • Chasmosaur

    My dog – currently snoring at my feet – is a part of my family.  And unless it’s an emergency, I’m driving, and limit those driving days to no more than 10 hours, tops?  She’s a family member that doesn’t travel with me.

    My dog loves going to the kennel – it’s almost insulting how excited she is when she sees me bring her bedding downstairs to put into the car.  But I’d rather know she’s unstressed and well-cared for in my absence than confuse her with unnecessary travel.

  • Raven_Altosk

    GF and I have five cats. We had to drive them over 1500 miles when we relo’ed.

    While my cats are part of the family and probably live better than some people, I would NEVER want to travel with them unless absolutely necessary. Ten minutes to the vet, once a year, is quite torture enough!

    However, I do believe if the government is looking to break a few terrorists, they need just put them in a car with a bunch of unhappy cats.

  • TonyA_says

    We have 2 cats :-)

    When we travel (international) for 2 weeks, we keep them at the vets (or else they tend to become obese at other places). It costs us the about same as another airline ticket for those 2 weeks but they also get their checkups at those times.

  • TonyA_says

    Public shaming (still) works.

  • judyserienagy

    I have to agree that the current stuffed economy section and the ridiculously-high change fees are the result of Americans screaming for the lowest fare.  Whether we’re getting the lowest fare while still being treated like cows is an unanswerable question for me.  I would like to see change fees calculated as a percentage of the fare. 

    I gave up sitting in economy years ago when the seatback in front of me crushed my knees, so  I still enjoy flying.  Somehow I manage to not mind all the security stuff, even with a metal hip … this country had to do something to keep the bad guys off the planes … whether TSA is the best thing or not, that’s what we have, and none of our cities have been blown up since 9/11.  In all these years, I’ve never met a terrible TSA agent, and with the hip I’ve spent lots of time with them at many airports.  I try to treat them like human beings.

  • Raven_Altosk

    We use a professional pet sitter and I am more than happy to pay for her expertise.

    I have one with asthma who requires prednisone every three days and a diabetic who needs a shot every morning. They do better at home rather than at a kennel/vet where they stress. The diabetic one can ratchet up his blood sugar to the dangerous levels of 300 and 400 mg/dl if he’s stressed. And, since they are all shelter kitties, being caged freaks them out.

  • TonyA_says

    The male needs special food because he got too obese and had problems urinating. The 2 are troopers and take the stay at the vets okay. They are 2 spoiled (old) cats though.

    We have an idiot new neighbor who refused to get an invisible fence for their dogs and they terrorized our cats. Now they have a fence since animal control kinda forced them to. So we just don’t leave them with anyone.

  • 46Shasta19

    Well, first I will acknowlege that I am not a frequent flyer, but I do not want to travel with anybody’s dog or cat, including my own. Also,  the few times I have flown, it was extremely annoying to me to see people forcing their way to big luggage into the overhead so I would also like to see size regulations enforced.

  • jerryatric

    I said it before & I say again : Pick 1or 2 airlines & start a BOYCOT? Don’t fly those 2 airlines for at least 1week, then pick another 2, then they may start to listen. They only understand 1thing net profit! You all stop flying they lose money. That they understand.

  • http://twitter.com/StuntFox Ronald Fox

    I sent the following to Spirit’s executives (I’m shocked to not have heard from any of them).
    One can still get reasonable fares and good customer service.  I experience that all the time in many of the Western European countries I travel to.

    To Whom This May Concern, 
    Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this. 

    I think it’s telling when one has to search long and hard to find the proper email contact link as I did with the Spirit website.  But find it I did, and discovered I was afforded the opportunity to write 500 characters.
    The following Italicized response is what was sent to your customer service link.
    I have little faith, after the abhorrent treatment we received, that I’ll get no more than some pat generic response.
    So I opted to send an additional note to each of you.

    The chaotic disarray that seems to be a daily part of the check in process in Fort Lauderdale (I was told this by one of the counter agents) is of such a dire nature it makes third world country experiences shine by comparison.
    I’ve been to Mexico, Haiti, Morocco, and Tunisia, and those experiences were some of the most frightening…until I stepped into the Spirit Airlines version of The Twilight Zone.

    Besides the misinformation provided on the check in process, or the fact that at one point there were nine counter agents behind computers refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the queue, or the fact that once we had managed to check in our bags and proceeded to the TSA snake queue, one of your Spirit agents was there yelling (YELLING) at people to move through the lines and not stop.

    And airline executives wonder why people refer to air travel as “Greyhound by air?”
    That’s not really fair. My most recent Greyhound experience was a luxurious affair by comparison.

    But treating people like cattle?
    I’d suggest you all spend some time, incognito, in the front lines taking a look at how your customer service is doing a disservice to the industry.  They are putting the fun in dysfunctional.  Fun for them.  Not so much for us travelers.

    I found one agent, at the gate who was a gem.  But she was the only one of dozens of terrible players in a third rate production dinner theatre misadventure.
    There are plenty of value, budget, and low fare business models where humanity and dignity is still a valued part of the customer service experience.  Seek some of them out and learn.

    As for me, I’ll not be flying on your airline again unless you find some way to earn my business back.
    You can hide behind claims of allowing passengers to pick and choose their fares as a way of maintaining your low fare structure, but at the end of the day when you treat enough people terribly, they leave and never return.

    what follows is the short missive sent through the website.

    Your hub is a mess. Still, I feel better.
    Better about the decision I have made to NEVER fly Spirit again.
    The treatment I got from TSA was a spa day compared to the rude and disparaging nature of your counter attendants.
    I watched one of your agents actually chase after and yell at a customer.  
    One of our checked bags weighed 41.55 pounds, and your agent next to the scale said “got to get rid of a pound and a half.”I watched people check 42 lb bags fee free.
    I know why you’re called Spirit: you rob people of energy.
    remember – Good news spreads like molasses, bad news spreads like wildfire.

  • fedupgerry

    Like al major corporations, the airline executives are interested only in their stock options & bonuses & could care less about “customer service”. I would like you to advocate “Open Skies”, allowing foreign carriers (Cathay, Singapore, Emerite, etc.) to pick up & drop off passangers within the USA. Once the travelling public discovers their level of service (no..not all perfecxt but much better), they will abandone domestic carriers. Then the domestic airlines will have to respond or just die & go away.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    yes I want to fly 1st class & pay $1. Great idea, BUT It doesn’t work.

    People complain about cuts to service, but they don’t want to pay for service.

    Another angle … guy who runs Allegiant said in Jan edition of Ariways magazine that their average fare has dropped to something like USD$70 while ancillory spend is $50/person, but ask customers to pay $120 & they won’t.

    It’s a bit like price points in retail shops.

    People will buy X number of widgets at $99, but put price up by a $1 & sales plummet.

    Are people just dumb ?

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    My family, too, has 5 cats.  It is a royal PITA just to get them to cooperate to be put in a kitty carrier for a 5 minute ride to the vet.  Heck, I once had one escape from me while letting him out of the cage at the vet’s office.  It just so happened someone else came in the door right as I let him out, so he darted out the door, and straight into a bramble patch across the road.  15 minutes and a pair of scratched-up arms later, I finally got him back, but methinks if a 5 minute car ride stresses a cat out that much, they’d find being trapped in a 10 x 15 room full of rocking chairs to being stuck in a cage for 4+ hours flying them somewhere.

    Needless to say, they either stay at home with a sitter or in the kennel when the parents are gone for extended periods. 

  • Ann Lamoy

    I have a cat that is royally spoiled.

    He also stays home when I travel. A friend stops by daily to make sure he has fresh food and water, his litter box is cleaned out and he gets some love and attention. He is a little clingy for a couple of days when I get home but otherwise, things are fine. I wouldn’t want to inflict airline travel or a long car ride on him, just to keep him with me.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Hmmm.  I actually have to support Spirit on this one.  If someone wants to bring a titanic carry-on on board, there’s no reason not to try if they end up paying the same amount to check at the gate.  But if they know they’ll be penalized if they’re caught trying to sneak a huge carry-on on-board, it might make them think twice about it.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I also hate the SUPER HUGE things that manage to pass as carry-ons. The airlines need to enforce the rules and if people decide to make it to the gate with those things, they should be penalized.

  • TonyA_says

    I wonder why this airline keeps on growing? What is it that OTHER people see that makes them fly Spirit? Perhaps you know since you tried them.

  • TonyA_says

    I know a lot of us want ALL airline call centers  to come back to the USA. So when I read this article titled I love United Airlines’ Indian Call Centers from the guys that offer award upgrade service, I was shocked.
    Read article here:  http://upgrd.com/matthew/i-love-united-airlines-indian-call-center.html

    Apparently they were getting better service from United Airlines when they called India. They were able to get awards with LESS miles. What do you think?

  • Daves

    Luck of the draw maybe, depending on how much one knows how these things go. (and how patient one is, heh.)

  • Daves

    He he, Chris, I think a distinction may be needed. There’s listening, and there’s doing what passengers want or are crying out loud for.

    Sure airlines listen to passengers. Whether they’ll do what they ask or so is a different act.

  • dmellor

    I think the airlines are listening to us.  However, they know that we’ll never stop flying, so they continue to impose fees for whatever they want.  They hear our complaints but know that there’s nothing we can do about it, because it would take entirely too many people to boycott enough to do them financial damage.  They might bow to pressure on specific issues like the Vietnam vet, but to overall issues like fees — no way.

  • Lindabator

    CHEAP!  (At least, looks like it)

  • jet2x2

    Social media can be very powerful when the story appeals to the readers’ emotions.  Those stories are far and few between.  I think the airlines might be more inclined to listen to those customers who can really hurt  them financially if they take their business elsewhere. Those are probably the frequent business travelers.  And even that may not matter if the companies those customers work for don’t care about anything except the cost of the ticket, and/or they don’t give their employees a choice about which airline to use if the price is the same or close.  Also I suspect the airlines may pay a bit more attention to those customers so maybe they don’t have as many problems as the rest of us.  I am old enough to remember when it was fun to fly and I sure miss it. 

  • Jumpinfish

    Beware flying families:recently was taking whole family to Disney. Got to the airport and US Air said “Sorry, we’re oversold and we don’t have seats for you””I bought them 4 months ago”, I say”Sorry, sir, the FAA says we can bump people. Oh, and there are no more flights for 3 days.”Unreal.How can this be allowed?Luckily a very nice man gave up his seats when he saw the situation–saved our spring break. We all saw Mickey…Thank you sir, wherever you are.Us Air, hope to never see you again.

  • bodega3

    Did you have seat assignments when you bought your tickets? 

  • Philip Brown

    Maybe Chris Elliott can recommend a lobby person for the Cosmumers of Air Travel -“CAT” in Washington, DC. It is about time that all us “little guys” are not pushed around by the likes of Spirit Air; I made a detailed comment in the forum in May/July(?) about my personal experience & frustration of being told to “SHUT-UP”
    Mr. Elliott would be an excellent choice, maybe we can persuade him to consider?
    Muchas gracias,
    Philip C. Brown