Wednesday, February 24, 2010

$50 of Bad Publicity for US Airways

Long ago, or so I am told, there was a time when negotiating air travel logistics was a kinder affair. The airlines were pleased to have your business, and an airplane, to borrow a phrase from Three Guys Named Mike, was your home in the air. It is true that there weren't as many flights back then, and the flights took longer. However, one thing was for certain: the customer was valued by the airlines. Sadly, I was born well after this romantic period of commercial aviation had ended.

I'm more familiar with the air travel industry that does not focus on making passengers feel appreciated or even on getting passengers comfortably to their destinations. Today's airlines seem to be singularly focused on squeezing as much money as possible out of their customers and on achieving goals that will sound good on a billboard such as "#1 on time airline."

Nothing illustrates these points better than my recent experience with US Airways.

A recent work trip to State College, Pennsylvania ended uncharacteristically early, so I attempted to return home 2 hours prior to my scheduled flight. There wasn't a problem changing my first flight, but when I arrived at Philadelphia, I was told that I would have to pay $50 if I wanted to get on and earlier flight to Boston. I asked to go on standby, but since the flight was not sold out, the company's policies did not allow it. A courtesy transfer to an earlier flight was equally out of the question. This was regardless of the fact that I had Star Aliance Gold Status via United. I tried hanging around the gate with my sad-puppy-dog-eyes, but even that didn't work. The earlier flight took off carrying only 57 passengers, and I was still on the ground.

To the credit of the gate agent, she did attempt to upgrade me several times using different techniques, and she never lost her patience with me as she explained the policy to me. I got the feeling that she shared my frustration with the policy because it limited her ability to help customers.

The policy still seemed counter intuitive because the primary function of an airline should be to transport people in an efficient manner. Having not received a satisfactory explanation for this policy, I decided to take the matter up with the customer service counter. Unfortunately, when I arrived there I encountered a brusque man with less personality than a recorded message.

He repeated the policy with disinterest and offered no insight into the reasoning behind it. He even answered a call from his earpiece while talking to me. Sensing that I was getting nowhere with this drone, I headed back to my gate.

When I arrived, I saw an older man yelling at the gate agent to whom I had previously been speaking. He was yelling about the ugly business that US Airways was conducting and was intent on letting everyone passing by know about it.

When I encounter a scene like this, I'm always curious, but usually keep my distance. However, something was different this time, and I couldn't help but get involved. Maybe it was because the gate agent had honestly tried to help me, but mostly I think it was because of the man himself.

If I close my eyes and imagine an "airport yeller," I see someone whose priorities are very different from my own: a businessman in a tight suit wound up on too much caffeine spouting things like, "Do you know who I am?" and "I can have you fired for this!" This person feels that by berating someone, they are fulfilling some unwritten job requirement.

The man who I encountered definitely did not fit this mold. He was wearing casual clothes, and something about his face told me that his outburst was not born of greed but rather of a simple desire to get home to his family.

Since we had both been on the brunt end of US Airways' policies, I somehow felt that we were on the same team. This unspoken connection emboldened me to do something that I've never done before; I cautiously approached him.

I introduced myself and asked him what was going on. He told me that his name was Eddie and that his incoming flight had been delayed because of a security based ground stop in Philadelphia. Even though US Airways was aware of the delay and knew that Eddie would arrive within minutes of the flight's scheduled departure time, they did not hold the flight for him.

Eddie, a frequent traveler like me, informed me that this practice isn't uncommon with US Airways; they strive to make as many on time flights as possible, even if this means abandoning passengers who are delayed for security reasons and who can still make their flights within a reasonable window of time. All of this effort is not to provide the best possible travel experience to their customers but rather to be able to claim the title of "#1 on time airline."

As a result, Eddie and countless others have missed their flights because of a marketing campaign.

Eddie and I agreed that policies like this don't make sense. However, if US Airways could explain the reasoning behind the policies, I'm more than willing to publish the explanation here on my blog.

Eddie was given a first class ticket on the next available flight, and he asked the gate agent, at whom he had long since stopped yelling, to be nice to me and to try to get me on the next flight as well. A manager came over and was able to make my Star Alliance status register in the system, and I was able to get on the same flight as Eddie.

Before we boarded, Eddie and I talked about how the airlines don't care about inconveniencing their customers and how $50 is a steep price for what used to be a customary courtesy.

When I told Eddie that I have my own travel blog, his eyes lit up. He knew that US Airways had just bought themselves $50 worth of bad publicity.

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  1. I don't know how you maintain as much patience and composure as you do. It's simply amazing. Speaking of $50 bucks, we just flew to Las Vegas on Allegiant Air. The ticket prices (what their marketing airline is known for) was great. The catch: $50 to check a bag. Well, I had to attend a 4-day conference with nothing more than 1 carry-on bag and a purse. I normally need a bag just for my shoes!!! I refuse to pay $50. Wrinkle-free fabrics were my friend. Still, $50 to check a bag?!

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