The experience of passengers like Nina Boal makes me optimistic about the future of air travel.
An information technology specialist for a government agency in Baltimore, Boal ran into trouble recently when she flew to her mother’s funeral in Chicago. Her fibromyalgia and severe arthritis made it difficult to board the aircraft.
Delta Air Lines staff bent over backward to make the flight as comfortable as possible, she says. It switched her seats to accommodate her mobility challenges, and its agents helped lift her into the seat. They even apologized for the difficulties, even though “there was nothing for them to apologize about,” she says. “Because of their assistance, I was able to get to my mother’s funeral.
Delta didn’t leave well enough alone.
After Boal returned to Baltimore, an airline representative phoned and apologized again, offering a dedicated number for disabled assistance the next time she flies. The airline also offered her a $100 flight credit.
“Not all airlines think only of profits,” Boal says. “There are some legacy airlines, like Delta, that truly want to help passengers get to where they need to, regardless of disabilities.”
But stories like Boal’s aren’t the only thing that make me hopeful. Hard numbers do, too. The industry’s customer-service scores, as tracked by the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, jumped 3.1 percent to their highest level in a decade last year. Granted, its aggregate score of 67 still leaves something to be desired, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.
I’ve also spent time talking with airline executives about their long-term service goals. Last year, I visited with United Airlines in Chicago and Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, and I was surprised by what I learned.
Let me start with my most recent visit with Delta in mid-December. The last time I’d dropped by its corporate headquarters, Delta had just merged with Northwest Airlines, and its customers were unhappy, to put it mildly. About 2 out of every 9 complaints to the Transportation Department in 2010 involved a Delta mainline flight, which was twice the number of grievances lodged against the second-most-complained-about carrier, American.
The executives I met with then seemed nervous. They insisted that most of my interviews take place off the record and spent a considerable amount of time apologizing. They blamed many of their problems on a difficult merger but outlined an ambitious plan which, they promised me, would improve customer service. This included initiatives to empower employees to help passengers, deploy more staff into key service positions and use technology to proactively help customers during flight delays.
The two years that followed weren’t easy, but I started noticing a significant drop in the number of complaints about Delta I received starting in early 2012. By the middle of the year, they’d all but vanished. So when I met with Allison Ausband, Delta’s vice president for reservations sales and customer care, we had a lot to talk about.
The most telling part of our interview came near the end, when I asked what customer service meant to Delta. Did it have the support of senior management? Ausband bolted out of her seat and rifled through a folder, then slid a stack of papers across the table toward me. “We have support at the highest level,” she said. “I meet with Richard Anderson [Delta’s chief executive] every month. We review every number.”