What is keeping airlines from providing better customer service?
Another day, another video showing people getting mistreated on a U.S. airline goes viral.
This week, Delta got its turn. A family returning from Hawaii ultimately got thrown off their overbooked flight when the father refused to give up a seat his infant child was using, and a flight attendant threatened the parents with jail and having their kids hauled off to foster care.
The flight in question was not heading to Orlando, but since Delta is one of the major carriers serving the theme park capital, the incident surely will resonate with theme park-loving parents who've flown Delta with their children.
What lessons can we learn from this, and the other incidents that have been blowing up social media ever since United Airlines called the cops to haul a Louisville physician off his flight to make way for airline employees who needed to get to another city? The doctor recently settled with United for an undisclosed amount, though many of us are expecting the announcement that United will be renamed "Dr. Dao Airlines" any day now.
First, the flight attendant who threatened the customer ought to be fired, immediately. Threatening a customer — with jail, with violence, with taking their children away — ought to result in immediate termination. I don't care about the context. The customer service representative is not a criminal court judge, and never should pretend to act as one. If a customer poses an active threat that could result in a criminal conviction, the proper response is to call in authorities to deal with that. This customer posed no physical threat to anyone. At worst, he was trying to game the system to avoid a rebooking fee, but it's possible that he had no idea he was doing anything wrong and simply was trying to avoid having the airline take away a service he'd believed he had paid for.
When I look at all of these incidents I see a common theme of customer service personnel who haven't been trained or supported to provide actual customer service. Instead, I see frustrated individuals charged with enforcing rules even at the expense of creating a positive experience for customers.
Those two needs — maintaining order and providing service — do not need to be mutually exclusive, despite what overworked, underpaid, unsupported, and (as a result) cynical service industry employees might have grown to believe. But balancing the two requires skill that demands training, experience, and support. The number of incidents we are seeing involving major U.S. airlines suggests that all three are lacking within these companies.
Which brings me to the second point. From what I understand of this incident, the airline was right to ask the customer to give up the seat. Apparently, the infant was using a seat that the parent had bought for a much older sibling, who'd ended up taking another flight home. Airline seats aren't like baseball tickets. They're not transferrable to another person. The parent should have called the airline to rebook the seat from one child to the other in order to avoid having the seat labeled a no-show (and available for reassignment to another passenger) when the elder sibling didn't check in and board the flight.
But he didn't, and that created a customer service challenge for Delta employees. A common problem behind bad customer service is the insistence upon following minor, short-term rules at the expense of meeting major, long-term goals. The big picture here is getting that flight in the air safely on time, carrying as many paying passengers as possible, with no fights, no conflict and no incidents that require spending company time filling out paperwork to explain what went wrong.
Getting that to go when people and circumstances aren't conforming to rules and expectations is where the customer service magic happens. There wasn't any magic here.
What Delta needed was a representative who could have explained the situation in a way that made the customer feel supported and not on trial. Both the airline and the customer have a common goal of getting that entire family home on time. Delta, and other airlines, need to know that some people don't understand the difference between airline seats and baseball game seats. Delta's representative could have apologized for that misunderstanding (even though it's probably the customer's fault), then offered to refer the parent to a customer service supervisor who could explain the situation and work out something with the family. Maintain eye-level contact, then deliver the request with a smile and an understanding, supportive tone.
Now, they can exit the plane and have that conversation now — and miss their flight — or the parent can hold the child on his lap and they can get home on time, where they can have that conservation upon arrival. If the parent refuses both options, just walk away. Let the kid stay in the car seat, bump the oversold passenger, send the flight... and let the dad have a conversation with the airport police upon arrival. But everyone gets home on time and there's no fight... or threats. Delta, or any other business, needs to train and support its reps to get everyone to that point.
Here's where customer service businesses could learn something from computer programmers and developers. They make their living by anticipating all the ways that people can screw up using their programs and building in ways to have the program work around that. Hotels, airlines, and theme parks, need to do the same. This situation never happens if airlines did away with the unsafe practice of allowing lap children and simply insisted that every passenger, regardless of age, be ticketed and secure in an appropriate seat. That way, the parent here really would have bought a ticket for their infant child.
When my children were infants, I always bought them their own seats when we flew to Orlando. They were safer and more comfortable, and I was, too. I know that many parents enjoy the discount of not having to pay for their children under age 2, but at some point, you're going to have to pay for their tickets if you're going to keep flying as a family. Why not require it from the start?
If airlines wanted to give families with young children a price break (okay, hold on... have we all stopped laughing yet?), perhaps they could knock half the price off tickets for kids whose legs don't reach the seat in front of them yet. But given how much airlines have shrunk the leg room on their flights, I suspect that some fetuses could kick the back of the seat in front of their mom at this point, so that's probably not going to happen.
United has changed its policy of allowing employees to jump in at the last second and bump paying passengers from a flight, which led to the infamous brawl with the doctor. Several airlines have increased the amount they have authorized gate agents to offer people as compensation to give up seats on overbooked flights, to avoid involuntary bumps. Theme parks are developing virtual queuing systems that could end conflicts over line-jumping in the parks.
Design a more foolproof system, and it's easier for your representatives to provide good customer service within it... and easier for your customers to know how to get the great service that they want and need.
Next: Part two — What customers can do to get better service, even from those nasty airlines!
Deregulation has sent the airline industry downward since Regan decided airlines could monitor themselves. The current administration is following the same trend under the fiction that corporations will do the right thing because of pressure from competitors. Once you remove rules, it's the Wild West.
This is thanks to corrupt CEOs who claim they can afford to pay their workers a living wage when they don't.
The father was negligent in not booking a separate ticket for the two year old. The airline employee did not know Delta and NSA's rules that child car seats are the preferred way to seat toddlers and infants. So the issue is really the confrontation that made things worse. If they told you to jump, just jump. Listen to them and follow their stupid rules. You gotten this far. Just go a little further. I'm surprised the airline didn't take the initiative to rebook them on another flight. I lost an airline ticket when an airline went bankrupt. The main airline, American, refused to book the connecting flight even though they are responsible. Since then, I get travel insurance when possible. I'm not sure if travel insurance can reimburse this incident. This is why planning is so important. I always book a separate ticket for my kid.
This is another good example of making a road trip the best option if you can take a road trip from point A to point B. Other option is to fly Southewest if at all possible. They took a class or two in customer service like you said and I've had minimal problems. "Do what they say" is a hard approach for me to follow because I am disabled and can't move my right hand or foot. Southwest sees this and helps me get to point A to point B. That's all anyone asks of an airline and that's not what they are getting. A few years ago I was flying on another airline and had a small piece of luggage that could go on carry on but was large enough that it had to be stored on the overhead storage. I was traveling alone and got on the flight but couldn't get the luggage to the over head with just one hand. I was told by the flight attendant that it was not in her contract to lift anything to the overhead compartments and was advised to go off the plane pay the 50 dollars for checked baggage and maybe miss the flight. I just stood there baffled. I clearly could use only one hand and I struggle to get it up with several failed attempts until another passenger put the luggage up for me. I should have said to her "is it not in your contract to be a decent human being." Southwest doesn't charge you for bags or treat you like garbage. Two key factors I hold dear on my travel.
The answer is likely to be regulation. When left to their own devices, they will only do what serves them. The government / FAA needs to step in and regulate passenger rights.
Airlines are already heavily regulated, including compensation. Regulating service sounds like an awful idea.
Apple Butter, it's not that it's not in their contract to help you put your carry-on in the overhead bin, but rather they aren't covered for any injuries caused by said carry-on. Also, by not coming in contact with your bag, they can't be held liable for missing objects. So next time a flight attendant refuses to help you put your bag up, it's not because they're being mean and want to treat you like garbage, it's because they're doing it for their own safety. Next time just take a personal item and put it under your seat if you have difficulty putting a carry-on in the overhead, or just check-in your bag.
RE Apple Butter
After 9/11, US airlines cited security concerns to go authoritarian on passengers who question their treatment. Foreign airlines like Emirates usually try to do deal passengers fairly, so that's where my money goes. Of course, if you fly US domestic then you don't have a choice, and don't expect Congress to do much to protect passengers.
I think clearly the answer to the kinds of situations we've been seeing is to eliminate the ability of airlines to overbook flights; as much as I'm absolutely a free enterprise sort of person, this overbooking and bumping practice strikes me as fundamentally unfair and potentially onerous to the consumer.
Airlines have become so paranoid about the mere possibility of disruptive passengers that they treat someone like a criminal unless they meekly comply with everything an airline employee says. It's almost like a dictatorship: "do what we say, or else".
I'm glad it never happened to me. Think about it, been brought to the airport by a relative who left for work, having people waiting for you on the other side and having taken days off to enjoy a nice vacation. And all at once you are rejected from going on the plane your ticket is paid for months in advance. I would be very upset. If I already boarded the plane after all the waiting and bag checks I would refuse and they would have to drag me out. Seat is sold, money is taken, I want my flight (weather permitted).
I think a big thing that can help here is "back to the floor" days.
Brett Blake: Although it seems counter-intuitive, in most cases overbooking actually benefits the customer. In fact, if you've ever flown on a full flight on a ticket purchased 45 days or less before departure, there's a good chance you had the seat because the airline overbooked.
This guy sounds like a jerk. Your infant doesn't get a seat, moron. If it's that important to you buy a ticket.
Just for a clarification, the United incident was NOT the Chicago Police. It was Airport security. Not that the ending mattered, but it appears Dr. Dao was going to be handcuffed and taken off the plane or dragged off. It still was wrong on United's Part.
I think there are instances of poor customer service from virtually every single industry every minute of every day. The stories are coming from the airline industry right now, because of a current heightened awareness and the viral nature of the videos associated with the incidents. The customer service issues with airlines have nothing to do with deregulation or corporate consolidation. It has to do with simple supply and demand.
>>>This guy sounds like a jerk. Your infant doesn't get a seat, moron. If it's that important to you buy a ticket.
@Chad...Well, some of the nuance of this incident continues to be lost and diluted as it gets retold and distorted. First, the parents had a seat purchased, but it was in the name of the older child, who decided to fly on an earlier flight. The parents also never checked in the extra seat that they had purchased for the older child, so Delta sold the no-show to a person on standby. So, when the parents plopped into the seats, they placed the infant in the car seat in the unoccupied seat that they had purchased for the other child (assuming wrongly that the infant could sit there in the car seat). However, since that seat was given away to another passenger, the infant would have needed to sit in a parent's lap because there were no other seats available on the plane, which is perfectly allowable by FAA rules and aviation regulations around the world.
Do they overbook movie theaters when you have an actual seat and time. Or better yet for the sake of this site, how about if they overbook a theme park? You been planing to go to this theme park on this particular day for a half a year now for many variables. Maybe your whole family can get together on this day or maybe you can get off work or whatever. You have the ticket pre bought like many of us do. You get to the park early to maximize the time in said park. Then you get this from a customer service person, Sorry folks but we overbooked this park and since you bought the ticket in the last 45 days you have been bumped. What we can do is give you a voucher for tomorrow. Who does that? Airlines that's who. I don't care about algorithms or the probability that a person will make a flight or not. You don't overbook period. If you bought the seat than its yours for that particular time period. If you miss the plane than seat is going empty. It's greed that is in every case here. They overbook because they want to fill every last seat possible whether it disrupts paying customers or not.
Two words....ROAD TRIP!!!
RE Apple Butter
"Do they overbook movie theaters when you have an actual seat and time."
A lot of these comments appear to be written by United Airlines. Especially the snide, do as your told, ones.
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