A few thoughts on customer service from the SOCAP convention

The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals is holding its annual conference in Atlanta this week, and I was fortunate enough to be an invited speaker. I shared my thoughts about travel and customer service with a select group of SOCAP members from the travel industry yesterday.

I met a lot of people who I’ve dealt with by phone or email for the first time yesterday. Folks like Anne Munoz, the senior director of customer care at Continental Airlines, and Cindy Waisganis, the manager of business systems and reporting for United Airlines’ customer relations department.

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Please don’t use the C-word at this airline fee conference

airport terminalFor some reason, I never got my invitation to the 2009 Ancillary Revenue Airline Conference, which is being held in Los Angeles next month. Maybe it was this post. Or this one. Or maybe this one?

At any rate, I’m not planning to show my face at this meeting unless I develop a sudden deathwish. I find it strange that my yield-managing friends should be so upset, when all I do is highlight their schedule of events. You’d think they would love the free publicity!
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Grab your protest signs and a bullhorn, and head to Miami next month

If you’re tired of being nickeled and dimed to death when you fly, you might want to be in Miami on May 12 and 13. That’s when hundreds of executives will gather at an industry conference to figure out how to grow the $3.5 billion in so-called “ancillary” revenues they expect to collect from us this year.

The Airline Sales Channel and À La Carte Pricing Conference appears to be there for one reason alone, at least from a customer’s perspective: To help companies find new ways of separating you from your money.

Makes you wonder if any of these folks have heard of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Among the highlights:

• Vik Raman, Spirit Airlines’ senior manager for ancillary revenue, will answer the provocative question of “What can airlines really sell?: How, when and where?” (Based on feedback from Spirit’s customers, the answer is “anything” and “anywhere.”)

• John Guidon, co-founder and chief executive of in-flight wireless provider Row 44, will talk about “the state of in-flight connectivity and its ancillary revenue potential.” Well, so much for free Wi-Fi on planes.

• Travelport’s vice president for product programs and services, Paul Hesser, will discuss “A-La-Carte Fee Transparency: How can you effectively display your fees with Online Travel Agencies and relay them clearly to your Customers?” Again, based on reviews from customers, I can’t imagine anyone attending this seminar. Why tell your customers about fees when you can surprise them?

• Alan Wyley, Eurocommerce Payments’ chief executive, will answer the question of whether payments are a cost or a “touch point” for ancillary revenue. In other words, should you pay to pay. Betcha I know the answer to that. Spirit Airlines does.

• There’s a forum on social networking and loyalty supporting new business initiatives. I would expect to see my friends from Royal Caribbean and Cruise Critic at that one.

• Don’t miss the closing panel, “New Airline Business Model: are commission-based sales & a-la-carte really ‘ancillary revenue’ or they simply revenue in the 21st Century airline business?” It’s moderated by Paddy Murphy, the former chairman of Ryanair, so you can don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess the answer.

If you want to know which companies are interested in adding more fees, here’s a handy list of attendees.

Let me be clear about this. Industry executives have a constitutional right to gather and discuss these customer-hostile ideas. But their customers also have a constitutional right to express their opinions about “ancillary” revenues, deceptive practices such as “unbundling” and the overall lack of price transparency in the travel industry.