What is keeping airlines from providing better customer service?

May 6, 2017, 12:39 PM · 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!

Replies (24)

May 6, 2017 at 12:55 PM · 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.
May 6, 2017 at 12:56 PM · This is thanks to corrupt CEOs who claim they can afford to pay their workers a living wage when they don't.
May 6, 2017 at 2:13 PM · 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.
May 6, 2017 at 3:20 PM · 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.
May 6, 2017 at 4:11 PM · 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.

Chance of that happening with the current administration? Unlikely!

May 6, 2017 at 4:45 PM · Airlines are already heavily regulated, including compensation. Regulating service sounds like an awful idea.
May 6, 2017 at 5:02 PM · 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.
May 6, 2017 at 6:44 PM · RE Apple Butter

This is why airlines such as not only Southwest, Jetblue but also Frontier, and Spirit stay in business despite the multiple complaints against the latter 2. It's because of the poor customer service attitude of the legacy U.S. carriers (American, Delta and United).

United, American and Delta should shut up and stop whining, moaning and complaining about the so called unfair advantage that Etihad, Qatar and Emirates have and step up their game.

You don't hear the European and Asian carriers grumble and groan at how they are at a disadvantage against the airlines from the middle east, they just buckle down and step up their game in flight service, entertainment and catering.

May 6, 2017 at 7:22 PM · 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.
May 6, 2017 at 8:31 PM · 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.

Short of eliminating overbooking, airlines should be required to compensate the bumped passenger(s) an amount several times over the price of their ticket, provide passage on another flight (free of charge), and - if no flight will take place until the next morning - provide lodging for the passenger(s) (again, free of charge). The airline representative's stance (in this family's video) of "That's not our problem" when asked what the family was supposed to do for the night is totally unacceptable.

May 6, 2017 at 11:14 PM · 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".
May 7, 2017 at 2:18 AM · 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).
May 7, 2017 at 12:52 PM · I think a big thing that can help here is "back to the floor" days.

I remember in that book that detailed the civil war in Disney at the end of the Eisner period (forgive me but I forget the title) they mentioned there that executives do have to spend time in the parks in costume (after having a rushed training period) so they can see an employee's-eye-view (Walt himself of course famously spent a lot of time in the park and was accessible to guests).

If Airline executives had to deal with the stuff that employees had to deal with every day, things would be better for everyone. They'd see how stupid revenue-raising policies get in the way of the customer experience, they'd see how disrespecting and mistreating the front line staff means they show up to work grumpy rather than enthused.

But they don't, because they are above all of that. Why go see for yourself when you can pay a consultant to tell you the bleeding obvious and spend the rest of the rest day wondering what colour to paint the plane?

May 7, 2017 at 4:03 PM · 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.

Example: Based on data and time-tested algorithms, an airline knows that 25 ticketed seats on a given flight will go unused. Reasons for that include: cancelation, ticket changes, no-shows, same-day misconnects, standbys moving to earlier flights. The number of unused seats will vary, with the last flights of the day usually having highest numbers.

Imagine airlines didn't overbook. That's 25 seats that aren't being sold. As most of the reasons for unused seats won't happen until the day of travel, that means those seats will probably remain empty. Certainly, in some cases the airline still gets the money. But misconnects due to delays will result in a loss of revenue. That loss will be recovered through higher ticket prices.

Additionally, 25 people who wanted to take that flight will be forced to either wait until the very last minute or simply find another option.

The recent stories are the exception, not the rule. The statistics prove that conclusion. According to the Department of Transportation, United (mainline) had 3,765 instances of involuntary denied boarding in 2016 out of 86.8 million customers. That's 0.0043% of customers.

Note: I spent over a decade working at hotels and a travel agency. One of my positions was as a hotel Revenue Manager. In that job, I was responsible for effectively overbooking the hotel to ensure all rooms were full on high-demand nights.

May 7, 2017 at 11:52 PM · This guy sounds like a jerk. Your infant doesn't get a seat, moron. If it's that important to you buy a ticket.

Self absorbed narcissistic "customers" are making the world extremely frustrating for people with common sense and it seems to be getting worse every day. Although not relevant to this situation, if people would get their head out of their butt they would realize that air travel is relatively cheap and efficient, and over booking is a contributing factor. If you want we can go back to the 70s where only rich people could fly.

May 8, 2017 at 4:58 AM · 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.

One rule that I did not see mentioned anywhere is that you have to follow Flight Attendant instructions. Period. This is non negotiable.

Also, airlines are likely going to ban people from taking videos on airplanes so I would try to use it more judiciously and in context.

May 8, 2017 at 10:09 AM · 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.

Airline passengers regularly demand to fly at cheaper and cheaper prices (airfares are actually lower today than they were 10 years ago), and airlines are trying to keep up with that demand. In doing so, they are having to cling to rules that give them control over their commodity (seats) in order to maximize their limited revenue. Passengers continue to accept these tightened rules and restrictions because they will always gravitate to the cheapest offer. This issue is heightened by the fact that a large percentage of airline passengers only fly once or twice a year, meaning they rarely encounter enforcement of some of the more arcane or obscure rules established by the FAA (yes, the regulation that people want to increase is the same federal authority that caused some of these instances in the first place), and are surprised when they find themselves on the wrong side of an argument with an airline employee.

So, what's the solution? Passengers need to sit down, shut up, and follow the instructions of the industry that is merely following the regulations that customers say they want. There are no little precious snowflakes out there, and those that think they are just ruining it for everyone else. If you think you can twist the meaning of a rule to suit your needs, assume you will be called out on it and find yourself back in the terminal or worse.

In the two highest profile incidents (United man dragged off plane and the Delta family removed for not purchasing infant ticket), the airlines were both in the right and following the rules established by the FAA. Certainly the optics are not good for those companies, most notably United, but both were well within their rights to manage their commodity. Until travelers are willing to pay more for better customer service, this is what you will get. So either pay for that first/business class seat, or enjoy your cramped sardine can with staff more interested in getting every last seat filled (and paid for at the maximum possible price) than your comfort or enjoyment. There's no more flying the "friendly skies".

May 8, 2017 at 11:18 AM · >>>This guy sounds like a jerk. Your infant doesn't get a seat, moron. If it's that important to you buy a ticket.

Well, I guess you're really showing it takes one to know one. The Infant should get a seat, its recommended safety proceedure, and I'm suprised any airline would accept one without one.

May 8, 2017 at 12:56 PM · @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.

I'm sure the whole incident would have been avoided had the parents notified Delta of the change in plans when they arrived at the airport to check in. If they had said up front that the one child was not flying with them, and they wanted to use the already paid-for seat for their infant in a car carrier, Delta probably would have made the switch right then and there (probably would have resulted in a change fee, but that's way cheaper than what they ended up with). However, the parents assumed wrongly that they could just use a seat that they never checked-in for, for whatever purpose they wanted, and tried to argue that their infant should be allowed to sit in a seat already assigned to another passenger. Delta was in the right, and even the video shows the parents trying to goad the staff to make a mistake by taking the "high and mighty" attitude.

FWIW, both the FAA and Delta recommend even children under 2 to have their own seat, but it is not required. With that said, the seat must be in the name of the child, and they're still required to check in with that ticket to confirm with the airline that a passenger who will be sitting in that seat is actually present for the flight.

May 9, 2017 at 1:08 AM · 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.

How bout cruises or better yet more specific roller coasters, does an announcer say whoops we overbooked this train so is there any volunteers to leave and ride the next train? If we don't get any volunteers than we'll have to make some people get off so some other people can get on. It's obsurd and so is flying with overbooking.

Just a note to the commenter that said it's in their right to not help me with the luggage because of the contract because of safety or liability. I get it but give me some options before saying it's not in your contract. Maybe storing for free as checked luggage or maybe asking another passenger if they can help me. Rather than just saying it's not in your contract and walking away. At least overbooking you have options.....you can "volunteer" to get off the place or get thrown out.

May 9, 2017 at 1:40 AM · Two words....ROAD TRIP!!!
May 9, 2017 at 2:11 AM · RE Apple Butter

Actually Cruise Lines and Hotels do overbook as well.

Overbooking is a common practice for airlines, cruise lines and hotels as long as there is always the possibility of no shows and inventory going unused.

As long as a product has fluctuating demand but fixed supply, overbooking will occur to maximize revenue.

In fact, in countries where there is actual strong demand for trains and buses, they overbook too.

Rule of thumb is this: if one is not paying FULL FARE, one's probability of being bumped increases (i.e. PAYING with Discount Fare or mileage points)

If one could book designated seats on roller coasters, overbooking will inevitable occur. (not that we should be giving amusement/theme parks such and idea =P

May 9, 2017 at 6:13 AM · "Do they overbook movie theaters when you have an actual seat and time."

I wouldn't be surprised if that starts happening in the near future. Traditionally, movie tickets in the US have been purchased from the theater box office just before the movie starts with open seating auditoriums. However, with pre-orders and assigned seating becoming more common in US movie theaters, I wouldn't doubt that movie theaters would start overbooking screenings to take advantage of people that buy tickets in advance and simply don't show up for one reason or another. I do know that for advanced screening (audience and critic screenings prior to the official release date), production and advertising companies typically send out 2-4 tickets for every seat available in the theater to ensure the auditorium is full. Advanced screening passes are typically free, so that's usually why they overbook by 2x or more, but I wouldn't put it past movie theaters to start doing the same with standard screenings. I could see a day where movie theaters would ask all theater goers to scan their ticket prior to the official start time, and if they didn't, those seats would be resold at the box office at a discount to maximize revenue. Obviously, that would only work for high demand, sold out movies, but I could envision such a policy being put into affect for the opening night screening of a movie like Star Wars. Not only would it allow theaters to maximize revenue, but it would give them a way to force customers to be in the auditorium when the trailers are running, increasing the cost theaters could charge for ads because of the guaranteed captive audience.

If people actually showed up when they pay for something, this idea of overbooking would rarely occur. The problem is, people often choose connections that are too tight to be made, change plans at the last moment, or simply don't bother to notify anyone when they're not going to show up, so companies that sell high demand commodities have no choice but to utilize these shrewd policies. Again, if the Delta family had simply notified the airline that they wanted to use the older child's seat for their infant, they would have never run into this issue, and the seat that nobody checked in for would not have been given to a standby passenger.

May 9, 2017 at 3:20 PM · A lot of these comments appear to be written by United Airlines. Especially the snide, do as your told, ones.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive