Dear Frontier, it’s time to stop treating your passengers like cattle

There was a time when choosing a “budget airline” meant traveling with the Southwests, JetBlues and Frontiers of the world.

It was an affordable experience that actually had the feel of a boutique rather than a big box brand. The flight attendants were friendly, the customer service was on par with the rest of the industry and the perks for frequent fliers were so worth it.
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3 sweet lies you should thank a company for

As far as rejection letters go, the one I almost never use is unfailingly polite.

It’s apologetic. It blames a “system” in which the deck is stacked against you, the consumer, for my failure to accept a case. And it offers several other options, including small-claims court or a credit-card dispute, as possible alternatives.

But a few weeks ago on this site, I confessed that I hate using the rejection letter when someone turns to me for help as a consumer advocate.
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Is your complaint being “form lettered”? Here are three ways to tell

It was just a matter of time before corporations created the perfect form letter, capable of fooling a veteran consumer advocate. Or you.

You know what I’m talking about: those emails that say “we’re sorry you feel that way,” but offering you nothing for a customer-service failure.

Spotting a form letter used to be super easy, which was helpful, because you could quickly appeal the boilerplate rejection to a supervisor. In the early days of email, when low-level agents didn’t understand the difference between text and HTML, you could actually see the cut-and-paste responses, because they were rendered in a different font. You knew you were being fed a line.

Now? Not so much.
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Is anyone really listening to your TSA complaints?

Champion Studio/Shutterstock
Champion Studio/Shutterstock
With only a few weeks left to leave your comments about the TSA’s controversial passenger screening methods, here’s a question worth asking: Is anyone listening?

If you said, “not really,” then maybe you know Theresa Putkey, a consultant from Vancouver. She had a run-in with a TSA agent recently after trying to opt out of a full-body scan, and sent a complaint letter to the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

Here’s the form response from the TSA:
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The smarter consumer: How to turn a “no” into a “yes”

You killed the bird,” the pet-store owner barked, pointing an accusatory finger at me.

“That’s not what the necropsy said,” I replied.

“Yes you did!”

“No I didn’t.”

Around and around we went in circles. But the pet store had my $900 and no intention of returning it. And my beloved African gray parrot named Scarlett, who I had adopted just a few days before, was gone.
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You said it: Virgin America is “thinking outside the box”

I‘ve written about Virgin America several times in the recent past, and have even had a chance to fly with it.

Despite the occasional glitch, I think it would be fair to call me a fan of the airline.

I’m not alone. Here’s a note from reader Jeff Allen. He works for an engineering firm in Boston, and decided to give Virgin America a try for his weekly commutes to LAX.

“I fly a lot,” he says. “These folks at Virgin seem to have figured some stuff out that is really interesting.”
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How to get out of a form letter trap: 5 insider tips

So you got a form letter from your company. Lucky you!

Last week, I helped you ferret out a form response from a real one, despite a company’s often clever attempts to fool you. But what now?

Fact is, if you reply to a form letter, chances are you’ll just get another one. As a consumer advocate, I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. Even a well-reasoned response can yield yet another cookie-cutter missive, which continues until the company goes silent with a terse, “We will not respond to any more correspondence on this issue.”

Most customers don’t bother responding if they suspect they’ve been sent a form letter.

“I usually contact the president or CEO’s office directly with a phone call,” says Kenny Jahng, a technology consultant in Bayonne, NJ. “Most public companies’ CEO office telephone numbers are relatively easy to find on the Internet or through the headquarters’ switchboard.”
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Form letter fail: 5 ways to know if you’ve received cookie-cutter email

The company’s email had it all. It addressed you by name, acknowledged your concern and left you feeling as if the company really cared.

Except for one thing: It wasn’t real.

The missive was a pre-written response – a form letter – intended to convey the genuine sentiment of a personal message. But chances are, there’s an overworked customer service representative furiously cutting and pasting from various templates on the other end of it.
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How long should I give a company to respond to my complaint?

Two weeks — that’s the short answer. From the time you receive the form letter that says “thank you for your inquiry” it should take no more than that to receive a meaningful response. Often, it takes far less.

So if it’s been more than 14 days, it’s time to restart the process. But there are a few exceptions to the rule.
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Rejected? Enjoy the art, but you can still appeal

If you’ve recently been the unlucky recipient of a rejection letter from your airline, hotel or car rental company, you’re in good company. The travel industry appears to be sending out more form letters than ever.

I know, because my blog is the travel industry equivalent of the “Wall of Shame” to which high school seniors pin their college rejection letters. Every day, travelers click on my site to admire the latest pre-written “no” from a company. There’s no shortage of material.
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How do you get an airline to keep its promises?

plane landingLast summer, Jennifer Patronis’ father suffered a massive aneurysm and stroke. She immediately booked a round-trip ticket from Athens to Cleveland on Delta Air Lines to be with him. Three months later, he died, leaving her with an unexpected problem: How to get back to Greece, where she lived.

Despite a verbal promise that it would waive its ticket change fee, Delta wanted another $700 for her return flight. That’s over and above the $1,000 she spent on the roundtrip ticket.

Far be it from me to argue with an an airline when it comes to change fees and fare differentials. But a promise is a promise, right?
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“Crushed” by an XL passenger on a Southwest flight

It’s not every day that I republish a complaint letter in its entirety. Then again, it’s not every day that an airline does the right thing without yours truly getting involved.

Maybe it was the letter. Or maybe it was the fact that the airline in question was Southwest, which has the best reputation for customer service among the domestic airlines.

You decide …

I’m a long term Southwest customer who has just had his first problem in decades and I want to let you know about it.

I always fly Southwest, and I always make a point of checking in early at the airport. That way, I receive a low Southwest boarding pass number, am able to board before the plane fills up, and take the aisle seat in the last row. Then, even if the plane is nearly full, I often end up with an empty seat beside me, and I like having the extra room.

The flight in question was #993 from Sacramento, CA (SMF) to Ontario, CA (ONT), departing Sacramento at 1:00 PM on January 30, 2009. Here’s what happened…

As usual, I arrived early for the flight, procured my usual back row aisle seat, then watched and hoped as the plane filled. Eventually, a man took the window seat in my row. He was what Southwest calls (I believe) “a passenger of size”. He was huge. He couldn’t get his seatbelt on, or the armrest between him and the middle seat down, but hey… no skin off my nose. We had an empty seat between us, and I assumed that one of the attendants would deal with his seatbelt problem.

The plane filled, and as luck would have it there ended up being a single empty seat on the flight… the one between me and the window seat passenger in my row. Then, a Southwest employee came on from outside the plane, walked down the center aisle looking for empty seats, noted the open seat in my row, and walked back off the plane. A minute or two later, another passenger came aboard and attempted to shoehorn himself into that center seat. Because the window seat passenger was sprawled into the center seat, there wasn’t enough room for the new passenger. The only way he could fit was by raising the armrest between his center seat and my aisle seat, leaving me crushed against the aisle-side armrest.

The irritating and inexcusable thing is that your attendant stood in the area beside the rear restroom, watched this whole fiasco, and didn’t say or do a thing to help. I felt as if he was waiting for me or the passenger in the center seat to complain about the “passenger of size” in the window seat before taking any action, and that’s not fair to us. It’s not my job as a passenger to challenge and perhaps embarrass another passenger who should never have been allowed on the flight in the first place without buying two seats.

My final concern is that the center seat and window seat passengers made the entire flight with their armrests up and their seatbelts unfastened! Here again, is it my job as a passenger to have to say something about this, or should your attendant have offered seatbelt extenders to these passengers?

Please let me know that you have done something to educate the attendant who failed to help me and my fellow passengers, and also please let me know what I should do if this kind of situation arises in the future.

Thank you,

Grant Ritchie

Why reprint the letter? First, because it follows most of the principles of a successful complaint letter. It’s a little long, but it’s certainly polite. And second, because it worked.

Southwest didn’t follow its own policy, which requires that passengers “of size” buy an extra seat.

Within two weeks of sending the letter, Ritchie got a phone call Southwest.

She was a perfect example of how to respond to a disgruntled passenger, or an unhappy customer of any kind… apologetic, concerned, and patient. She took a considerable amount of time to just listen to me and let me vent. She even laughed when I told her how I had eventually paid the little girl in the next row five dollars to switch seats with me.

By the end of the call I was smiling, and felt as if I had been talking to a friend.

Southwest refunded the $79.50 for her ticket and e-mailed a “LUV” voucher for another $79.50.

Nice work, Southwest.

Update: (3/12) Apparently, Southwest’s management agrees with me. In its weekly employee news line, Southwest’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, acknowledged the customer service representative who helped Ritchie.

Finally this week, I’d like to give a shout out to Customer Relations Rapid Rewards Writing Rep Nancy McKinley. Nancy was just doing her job one day by responding to Customer letters, and I’m sure she didn’t think anything of it too much. But the particular Customer she was helping was very appreciative of her detailed and caring response. He then wrote a blog post about how helpful she was, and he twittered about it too. I don’t know if it’s twittered or tweetered, but in any event, I think this just goes to show that in today’s world we’ve got to remember that every Customer truly does matter. Each little thing that we can do to make a difference has meaning, and with advanced technology, each thing we do could wind up being broadcast to the whole world.

So thanks, Nancy, for taking care of our Customers. And thanks to each of you for calling the Employee News Line, even if it is a little bit late tonight. You guys are doing a great job, keep it up, persevere and have a great week!

Hey Gary, it’s “twittered.” Or, as one of our commenters points out, tweeted. ;-)