Friday, September 19, 2008

As Passengers Stop Flying, Airlines Try and Ramp Up Service

It's hard to talk about airline customer service without laughing, but the self fulfilling prophecy of service reductions and fees from the airlines has finally resulted in declining passengers. Last month saw a double digit drop in passenger volume and even the amazingly retarded CEO's of the airlines have figured out they better start delivering something to passengers before everyone decides just to stay home.


Delta Air Lines Inc.'s regional subsidiary Comair had the worst on-time performance in July among airlines surveyed by the Department of Transportation. From January through July, American Airlines' on-time arrival rate was the lowest among U.S. carriers, while UAL Corp.'s United Airlines' was second-lowest. Comair had the highest mishandled baggage rate in July, while the highest number of consumer complaints received by the DOT that month were about Delta. Comair's on-time performance from January through July ranked 17th out of 19 airlines, while Delta's ranked eighth.

The fourth-highest number of consumer complaints received by the DOT in July were about Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways, which said in a September 3 memo to employees that they would not be receiving a $50 bonus for the month because the airline's on-time performance did not place in the top three among the 10 largest U.S. carriers.
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Executives blame weather, congestion in the Northeast and air traffic control issues for some of the problems, but they also acknowledge company specific problems. They say there have been improvements since the latest DOT figures were released.

American, a unit of Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., is keeping planes on the ground longer in some cities before turning them for their next flight so that if something goes wrong, there is extra time to board passengers and baggage. It plans to block a limited number of seats from being sold on flights in key markets this Thanksgiving to give it flexibility in re-accommodating customers on planes that would otherwise be full.

The carrier also is refurbishing the interiors of its Boeing 757s, upgrading business class seats on international flights, adding leather headrests to coach seats on MD-80s and testing Wi-Fi service on some aircraft.

"There are huge costs when you have inconvenienced your customers," said Dan Garton, American's executive vice president of marketing.

Dorothy Boydston, a 48-year-old electrician from Hawaii, knows what Garton means.

On a recent trip from Santa Barbara, California, to Denver to see her daughter, Boydston had to spend a night at a Phoenix hotel at her own expense because she missed her US Airways connecting flight after, she said, an airline employee wrote the wrong gate number on her ticket. That came after she had to pay $15 to check a bag she tried to carry on the plane to Phoenix, when the airline told her there was no room in the overhead bins.

The next morning, she was still at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, on standby for another flight to Denver.

"I could have rented a car for what it's costing me," she said.

Asked if passengers should get better customer service in light of the higher fares and fees they are paying compared to a year ago, Boydston said, "What customer service? There's no customer service anymore."

One up side to the customer service slaughter at the airlines is that travel on Amtrak has doubled, especially on the northeast corridor where people are traveling by train from D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Connecticut.

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