When airlines go above and beyond

Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
Airlines and bad service. The two kinda go together, right?

They do if the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) is to be believed. In its 2013 report card, the research company punished the airline industry with an overall score of 69 out of 100. That would be a high “D” if you were in grade school.

But this isn’t another story about airlines treating us like self-loading toxic cargo, which is apparently what some crewmembers now call us.

When it comes down to it, a simple act of compassion can make you forget the deficiencies of modern-day air travel for a fleeting moment. It can shift your perspective, challenge your assumptions — and it might even make you cry. Don’t believe me? Then let me tell you about Keith Hambright, a maintenance technician from Antioch, Calif. Hambright recently had to fly to South Carolina for his father’s funeral. Surprisingly, he found two award tickets on United, an airline with an ACSI score of 62, the lowest of all.

“The services were held on a Thursday,” he remembers. “We were getting ready to fly back to California on Saturday when my older brother, Teddy, unexpectedly passed away. Barely able to speak, I called the airline to change my flight.”

Shockingly, the airline agent believed him.

“The agent rebooked both of us to return the following Tuesday, after services for my brother,” Hambright told me, “She waived all our change fees. I asked where I should send proof of my situation, and she said, ‘No one would make this up. Please accept our sincere condolences.’ ”

You’d assume the agent would have required proof of his brother’s passing, wouldn’t you? I mean, “death in the family” is one of the oldest tricks in the book to persuade an airline to bend its rules. It stopped working after 9/11, when the major airlines implemented their “no waivers, no favors” policy. Instead, the airline employee showed compassion for a passenger who clearly needed it.

Hambright isn’t alone. Consider Dick and Zoe Hannah, both retired school teachers from San Jose. After the sudden death of their adult son, they, too, had to cancel their upcoming flight. Not only did Southwest Airlines (ACSI score 81) zero out all of its applicable fees, but the agent went a step further.

She sent them a condolence card. “It touched us quite deeply,” says Dick Hannah. Me, too. “I still cry when I read these stories,” Linda Rutherford, Southwest’s VP of communications, tells me when I share the story. “Never gets old.”

The image of a callous and uncaring ticket agent is hard to shake. And you may dread your next flight because on your last one you had to pay a “gotcha” fee or were scolded by a surly flight attendant when you failed to stuff your bag into the overhead bin quickly enough. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation got 9,131 complaints about airlines last year, up 41% from 2011.

Has air travel really devolved to the point where a simple act of common decency makes us sit up in our economy-class seats and take notice? I refuse to believe it. In my role as a travel consumer advocate, when I speak with flight attendants, pilots, ticket agents and even airline managers, I sense that while they’re embarrassed by the industry’s customer-service reputation, they feel hamstrung by their airlines’ own rules, which are designed to protect revenue, not project compassion.

They think passengers might benefit from a little perspective, too. For example, that 69 score from ACSI? It’s up two points from 2012. The DOT grievances? As a percentage of enplanements, they were only 1.42 per 100,000 people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if airlines competed on service again, as they did before deregulation in 1978, when the aviators who started airlines, and not MBAs, were calling the shots? Don’t laugh. It can happen again in your lifetime. These random — and, I would add, often risky — acts of compassion by employees suggest that rank-and-file workers may want it as badly as fliers do. Perhaps more.

This summer, don’t assume your next flight will be terrible. You might board a plane staffed with employees who can’t wait to prove you wrong.

Do airlines deserve their customer service reputation?

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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.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Wouldn’t it be nice if airlines competed on service again, as they did before deregulation in 1978


    No. The price of airline tickets would be outrageous. Air travel would once again be relegated to the privileged few.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    One vote against better service. So noted.

  • Deborah Orth

    I don’t feel that good service must also = outrageous $$$$ I vote for better service!!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Not what I said. My comment speaks for itself

  • Carol

    I would be thrilled to see better customer service from the airlines, especially the US carriers. I’ve seen much better service and understanding from the foreign carriers for years. As you mentioned, these stories only make news because they are so rare and shocking. As I commented on your SW story of compassion, when DL can take confirmed seats to Africa away from a mother and 5-year old (after they had been confirmed for 4 months) to give to an elite frequent flyer is reprehensible. My clients are now nowhere near the rest of their group and are stuck in middle seats. Okay, I’ll stop whining about that now. My point is that after dealing with airlines for 20 years and seeing their customer service nosedive, I would love to see these types of stories become the norm. Most of the agents at the airports are not trained properly so it’s not their fault. There are numerous occasions where they tell my clients they don’t have a ticket! I actually warn all my clients that if there is ever a problem, don’t give them your name, give them your e-ticket number. I tell them to be firm but polite and ask for a supervisor if there is a problem. It’s sad that I actually have to scare them a little about their upcoming trip, but too many times I have had clients miss their flight or pay out of pocket for a new ticket because the agent didn’t know what they were doing. And trying to fix one of these nightmares after the fact is almost impossible. I had 2 couples traveling overseas and US Air told them 3 of them were ticketed, but the 4th was not. Of course this wasn’t true. It was a code-share nightmare. Half the time the agents can’t see or understand the records. The client actually paid $4000 for a new ticket! He flew on the new ticket but somehow flew back on the ticket I issued that the airline said didn’t exist! After 6 months of back and forth, they still didn’t get all their money back and I had to pay out of pocket for a partial refund when I had done nothing wrong.Trust me I could go on and on with stories of the airlines and/or the airport agents messing up my client’s travel but I will not bore you further. I would be THRILLED to see a change but unfortunately due to past experience, I don’t hold out a lot of hope. I pray I am proved wrong. Okay, getting of my soapbox now….

  • SoBeSparky

    Great column for two reasons. First, acknowledging all airlines are not mean and nasty all the time. Second, citing the difference between regulation and deregulation. Back in the day, regulated airlines were run by aviators, not businessmen and women, because their profits were guaranteed by fixed prices and routes. With no incentive to compete on price, they competed on service and sometimes advertising sexual innuendo. (We move our tail for you. Fly me. Etc.)

    Post-regulation, it is folly to think airlines would compete on service before price. Almost every example of high-service, high-cost airlines have gone out of business. Even Southwest, now that employee seniority costs and other factors have caught up to them, is having a problem continuing its sterling profitability. It also has instituted a lot of legacy airlines features.

    To ask airlines to provide the type of services which used to be performed before 1980 is like asking the old Marshall Field’s or Bergdorf Goodman to compete on price with Walmart. Ain’t gonna happen. Grab your cheap merchandise, wait in lines to check out, and then wait even longer when you have to return defective items. Check-out clerk might never make eye contact, never say hello, and certainly never say thank you. He or she depends on the receipt to do that!

    Walmart admits it up front, “Always the low price. Always.” And many airlines do the same. They know what makes the cash registers (of old) sing.

  • X STL Stew

    Not true. During the decade after deregulation, many (new and existing) airlines offered impeccable service at a low cost to compete with the major carriers. I flew for one, Ozark Airlines, and though the name sounds back-woodsy, the service was anything but.

    We had to compete by offering a premium inflight product, like complimentary wine cellar flights, fillet of beef served on china with a split of wine – some sort of food service was offered on every flight, even the shorter ones like STL-ORD where we served pizza and beer. Now, you’re lucky to get a bag of pretzels on a 3 hour flight.

    The legacy carriers couldn’t compete with these smaller carriers offering stellar service, so they saturated competing markets, and brought prices down so low, it forced the regional carriers into bankruptcy or mergers.

    Flying in the 1980’s – early 90’s offered a plethora of air travel options that don’t exist today. Deregulating the aviation industry was done to spark competition, but sadly we’ve gone from dozens of Airlines to less than a handful, and lost out in the end.

  • James

    Keep in mind, D is a passing grade! ;-)

  • $16635417

    I was on a flight last night and a passenger was clearly upset when she did not get the answer she wanted about a refill on her soft drink. She was one of the first to be served and finished before the flight attendant could complete serving the rest of the people their first drink. She rang the call button and when the flight attendant came to check on her she said “I’d like another Coke, with ice.” and handed him the empty glass. No use of “please” or “when you get a chance” or use of the words “may I”.

    He responded that as soon as he finishes serving everyone else first, he would be happy to bring her as many as she likes. She grumbled and said something about filing a complaint.

    Weather and Friday night air traffic control issues in the Northeast caused us to be leave about 40 minutes behind schedule and she said “all these issues would be included in her complaint”. Weather and ATC are certainly out of the airline’s control…and I personaly was glad they waited until the weather cleared up a bit before departure! The crew was very nice, anyone who ordered a beer, wine or hard liquor ended up not being charged and they made the movies free for everyone.

    I could certainly deal with arriving 20 minutes behind schedule on a busy Friday night with weather issues. The crew went out of their way to do what they could to make the flight better for everyone. The gate agents made continuous announcements and kept apologizing for the delay.

    Not a bad experience at all, but if the 1 upset person on the flight follows through with a formal complaint, and that gets counted, it would be a shame.

  • jerryatric

    Been flying for almost 50 years. It used to be a pleasure! Service always great, AND you were treated as a paying customer. Today it’s a nightmare, from rudeness following every aspect of flying.
    Most, not all in- flight personnel treat you like your a bother rather than a customer. And ground personnel, ticket agents, gate agents and others really go out of their way to make things difficult.
    Add to that your great TSA & the rotten flying experience is complete.
    That’s why IF someone is nice & treats you well it makes the news.

  • lost_in_travel

    I don’t shop at Walmart. Why should I have to fly at its equivalent? Even paying more for tickets still puts one in a cattle car situation because everyone is treated badly. I make a point of flying foreign carriers whenever possible and making my domestic flights as short and infrequent as I can. I would pay more for better service but that choice has been taken away. And no, I am not wealthy, but I am tired of being treated like cargo.

  • Londoner1936

    Mr. Ham bright flew on award ticket, and changing the flight date, provided space was available is easy, and normally free of charges. There might have been a late reservation fee given the short notice, but that is all. United was accommodating, but hardly out any revenue.

  • SoBeSparky

    You have to shop at Walmart-like domestic airlines because the marketplace has dictated it. Free enterprise has driven the high-cost, high-service companies out of business. Even the start-up first/business-class-only airlines, mainly on international routes, have failed.

    There are too many market barriers to entry (capital, maintenance, airport slots, etc.) to allow easy entry into commercial aviation, including the FAA certificate. So it takes a massive commitment to provide service, and all efforts thus far in the domestic market (fleets of around 10 or more) have failed. Would you let your retirement investment dollars follow in the footsteps of the failed enterprises? Who then is going to invest in these flights of fantasy called service-oriented airlines?

    We are stuck in the low-cost, free-enterprise model, and only things like a passengers’ bill of rights is going to restore a bit of dignity to the cattle-car approach.

    Many foreign airlines are official flag carriers, so they are backed, either explicitly or implicitly, by their sponsoring government. While these are shrinking in number, they still set the standard for international service. With limited, if any, competition in their home countries, they enjoy the advantages of a closed market economic system. These take the form of an abundance of slots at the country’s busy hub airport, tax advantages, government-guaranteed or provided loans, free worker training and relaxed employment regulations, and trade bargains whereby the country gets the bargain priced airplanes in exchange for favoritism in import regulations. Flag carriers have all sorts of back-door advantages versus a free-market system as in the U.S.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t understand. You’re lauding the 80s and 90s flight experience, which occurred AFTER deregulation. It sounds like you are actually in 100% agreement with my point.

    Also, premium service isn’t as important as it used to be. With may airports offering great food options, I’d rather eat at the airport and have exactly what I want. That makes the airplane food less important, at least for me. (if you fly out of LAX, eat elsewhere though)

  • TonyA_says

    How about rating the passengers? What percent would get a passing grade?


  • ctporter

    I agree, and it is that type of passenger that seem to spread the idea that all airlines and all airline personnel are rude, cranky, lacking in good service. Very unfair IMHO and my experience.

  • bayareascott

    Hi Carol,

    I agree with a lot of what you write but you actually are combining two very different things — customer service and technical skills.

    I think that SOME foreign carriers are far better at service *in the air* and that often comes from countries that have primitive worker rights. I have also seen that foreign carriers quite consistently almost never bend their rules and policies. Counters close one-hour before departure, no exceptions…for example.

    Technical skills limitations are problems that pervade all carriers and all locations but they are particularly bad with U.S. carriers. Most of the major carriers went through a bankruptcy sometime in the last decade and use complicated systems. When they entered bankruptcy, training was eliminated. Even now, with post 9/11 and post-bankruptcy growth, training programs have been severely curtailed. They are shorter and less frequent. U.S. carriers also outsource work, and not just overseas. They eliminate their own employees (read: theoretically invested in the company) and hire both domestic and foreign vendors to run their customer service/reservations operations. These vendors do not have that investment, and may or may not care about outcomes. Furthermore, they also get the shoddy training.

    In my opinion, this is the way modern corporations work. They pay good lip-service to things like customer service, but their actions say otherwise.

  • bayareascott

    This kind of thing and attitude happens all the time. It is not a large percentage of travelers, but even if just 1%, that is at least one person on every flight. And people wonder why airline personnel are always on their guard?

  • bayareascott

    All those people really go out of their way just to make things difficult for you? To me, you sound like the Coke lady described above.

  • jerryatric

    Typical response from a flight attendant. Which airline?
    I have travelled to over 33 countries on business & pleasure. I’m a normal quiet CANADIAN who is always polite, & never create problems.
    As I said very simply – service has gone downhill in a hurry over the last many years.
    Add to that your really terrible TSA & flying is a poor experience.
    Only places worse? Russia & China!

  • Miami510

    We’re seeing the competition right now… Congratulations to United Airlines.

    Recently my 12 year old grandson flew down the eastcoast, an an unaccompanied minor, to visit with us. This was the second time he flew United and while this isn’t in the same catagory as the compasionate treatment the letter writters received, for my grandson, the parents, and the grandparents, it was wonderful and United deserves our compliments. The cabin crew put him in first class to keep an eye on him… he reported them being very solicitous and kind. They were rigorous in their checking to see that we could properly identify ourselves before releasing him from their custordy.
    Hat’s off to United…. and many thanks.

  • MarkKelling

    If everyone at your chosen airline treats you that bad, maybe you need to try a different airline the next time you fly.

  • jerryatric

    OK the other side of the coin – U.S. Air , Cathay Pacific, British.Air. Delta have had some pleasant experiences. In Canada WestJet is very nice.
    1 airline I try & avoid at all costs UNITED! My point still remains – airline service has gone down the drain overall. In many cases it’s not the flight attendants so much as the ground personnel that are, in many cases just plain rude & in some cases have no clue. Poor training?
    Even worse TSA!!! So by the time you get on the plane your upset.

  • bayareascott

    Flight attendant? Not hardly. But thanks for playing.

    It’s not hard to spot an overly-entitled jerk who makes travel just that much harder for the rest of us. Yeah, everyone in the industry is horrible but I’m sure you are just perfect.

  • JewelEyed

    Not where I went to school. I’ve never attended a school where anything below a C- was passing.

  • JewelEyed

    Your username is absolutely perfect. Next you’ll be screaming at Scott to get off your lawn. You sure do like to make assumptions about people. I don’t see you as normal, quiet, polite, or going out of your way to avoid making problems on this thread! Maybe dial it down a few notches.

  • BMG4ME

    Airlines are no worse than most other businesses. Airline employees are people and it’s people being nasty or refusing to be flexible that causes bad service. This can happen anywhere. It’s caused by companies not being careful in the interview process, and eventually bad employees become bad managers that hire even worse employees. Also it happens employees are rewarded inappropriately. Until companies get back to vetting employees properly then this bad service will perpetuate. The airlines with the best average service are the ones that vet their processes best. In the case of the story, one of the good employees was the one that was dealing with the call. Someone needs to write to the airline citing this employee as one that should be used as a role model and recommending that their hiring and appraisal processes be based around hiring, producing, rewarding and retaining employees like this one.

  • Grant Ritchie

    You know what they say, Jerr. If you meet three assholes in a day…

  • jerryatric

    It’s really sad that people make idiotic assumptions about others w/out knowing a thing about them. Sort of like braying asses. I merely pointed out that the “flying experience” based on my own & it would seem many others is or can be a very poor experience. By the many complaints aside from mine it is a fact. I never ask for anything on board that is not presented to me, & NEVER even had an altercation with any flight attendant or other passenger, but you all know different. So lets not hear another HEE HAW from you all.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Oh no… hoist by his own petard. :-(

  • jerryatric

    I have an even better 16th century expression that suits many of you today!

    So much “peter” ( French) passing amongst you!

  • Taylor Michie

    If you want better service or more amenities, and would pay extra for the privilege, fly first class. The masses have voted, and they want to get from point A to point B as cheaply as possible.

    How do we know this? We look at aircraft utilization. Delta deploys a Boeing 767-400 on Frankfurt – Detroit because they know that ~206 people will pay x amount to fly in economy, the cheapest way possible, and that many less people are willing to pay extra to sit in Business.

    If the traveling public suddenly made service a priority, and everyone started ponying up the extra dough for Business class, airlines would act accordingly. You can’t have it both ways.