Ellen Cuozzo remembers the day her 23-year-old brother died like it was yesterday.
Before the norm of online travel planning and smartphones, Cuozzo, who is a nurse from Pleasanton, Calif., needed to get to the funeral from San Francisco to New York City, stat.
She was not looking forward to making impromptu and laborious travel arrangements requiring her to keep it together while dealing with reps who might or might not be empathetic. Her story, which she agreed to tell us now, comes at a propitious time: As airlines are dogged by bad publicity, her tale reminds us that being great is still attainable.
Cuozzo needn’t have worried because she was in the best of air travel hands. JetBlue’s response so impressed Cuozzo that she will never forget it. Maybe this is why JetBlue is still here despite industry mega mergers and fading customer service — and still yielding a more recent good news JetBlue story.
“My brother, John, had been in a coma for almost five years and our family hoped and prayed he would come out of it,” she added. “But it was not to be.”
With our Forum brimming with contemporary complaining, Cuozzo’s story made me think. All the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing can make us forget how good we occasionally do have it.
Back then, many customers walked into an actual airline ticket office or a travel agent’s place of business to purchase airfare — or bought a ticket over a phone mounted on the kitchen wall. I actually purchased my first airline ticket not long before that in a TWA office with — gasp — cash. (Yes, they had jets then. Stop it.) The smattering of cell phones on the market were pricey flip phones that only made garbled calls for the privileged few. And an e-boarding pass on your smartphone screen? Please.
Advanced purchase excursion fares (APEX) were the way to go since most of us mere mortals could simply not afford “walk-up” fares in emergencies. And it was in between this rock and hard place Cuozzo found herself when she asked JetBlue for a bereavement fare.
A subject of a popular Seinfeld episode, most airlines used to offer emergency fare discounts for attending funerals or to be with bereaved family with appropriate documentation of a loved one’s death. Now such fares are only available on a spotty basis as airlines become more “competitive.” But the airlines are not hurting.
A common misconception is that such fares are less than a standard advance purchase coach fare. They could be, but bereavement fares are intended to be not as formidable as those for a last-minute business traveler. JetBlue no longer offers such fares. In fairness to the airlines, and as opined on Seinfeld, the potential for misuse by customers (who are these people?) is significant, ruining it for the truly deserving — and perhaps too laborious to manage.
“The morning of John’s death, I called JetBlue on the phone to book my flight and was told to bring my brother’s obituary to the airport when I checked in,” Cuozzo went on. “After I did, and in the waiting area ready to board, the rep called various people to the podium. I was reading when I heard my name. The woman asked me a few questions about my bereavement fare thinking they probably had to confirm the legitimacy of the ticket.”
Unknown to Cuozzo, the rep simply wanted to express her condolences and say how sorry she was. Parental guidance is suggested as further reading is intended for mature (or immature) audiences only with ample tissues handy.
“My brother was an angel of a guy,” lamented Cuozzo. “Smart, funny, handsome. He died just before Mother’s Day, and I needed to travel over that weekend to join the wake and funeral. Right then at the podium, I burst into tears at the rep’s compassion but could not pull it together. I went into the ladies room to compose myself and when I returned, she called me up again to tell me how sorry she was upgrading me to premium seating.”
I have a confession to make. The Good News Guy is also sharing this story for the sake of serendipitous synchronicity. I learned about Cuozzo’s tale literally at the same time I had to fly down to my father’s funeral last month. My airline did not offer a bereavement fare (and most no longer do) but I appreciated the comfort and lower maintenance of arranging everything online anonymously and easily — unlike Cuozzo was able to do in the 90s.
“That flight to JFK was a blur but I will always remember the rep’s kindness,” she concluded.
The bigger lesson here is someone did something so thoughtful as part of their job that it stuck with a customer enough to spread the word even to this day, two decades later. Isn’t that what an airline (or any business for that matter) would want? If after so many years she still thinks of JetBlue that fondly, then maybe they are doing something right at a time when airlines are doing things wrong.
And maybe if we tell others about such things as Cuozzo did, air carriers may give compassionate customer service a second thought as a strategic business plan to win back more customers — the right way.