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What ever happened to caring about the customer?
Bill Roberts 

(Travel Watch's Publisher)

On and off, I have been involved in travel for over 25 years. During that time, many changes have taken place … some good, but most bad, … if you are a traveler. Here is some resent background on the industry so you can relate to this story.

I remember when Travel Agents searched out the best deals, booked flights, and got tickets for the average flyer. They could actually make a living at it, if they were good. The airlines depended on agencies for their livelihood. Good agents knew how to get things done. They knew where the bargains were and dealt with all of the problems and calls for you.

That is a thing of the past. About 10 years ago, the airlines began limiting the amount that they would pay agents for doing their jobs. First they cut the commission rates, and then they put a $50 cap on any ticket sold. This essentially killed the travel agency business, unless you were taking a tour or a cruise. Even these have become less profitable for the agencies. The businesses that used to provide a free service to the customer are now forced to charge a fee just to issue a ticket. This has basically killed the agency business because it took away the primary source of revenue it had.

Obviously there are good and bad with every change. For a while, tickets were cheaper. The airlines were actually able to sell the tickets for less because they almost no commission to pay. But the consumer has given up the convenience of making one call to a knowledgeable agent, giving them the times and dates, and having them do the work of finding the best rates and airlines to fly … and being paid by the airlines to do it. They were able to check almost all of the airlines at once. Now consumers have to either call each airline individually, or check out each airlines web site. Many airlines won’t even tell you the other competition in the market. They have told their employees to tell phone customers that they don’t have the information available.

Under normal circumstances, I think this would have eventually backfired on the airlines, but as it turned out, the Internet saved the airlines. With almost everyone now on line, people can pop on and check for flight availability and pricing in just a few minutes. They were also helped by companies like Priceline and Cheap Tickets. These companies make deals with the airlines to sell available seats at discounted prices. The problem is that these companies have very restrictive policies and give very little, if any service after the ticket is issued. In some cases, as with Priceline, you can’t even determine the carrier. As a matter of fact, in many cases the tickets are worthless if they aren’t used for the dates originally ticketed (which means that you have to take out flight cancellation insurance which eats up most of the savings-but is almost imperative with these types of companies). In one case, one of these companies wanted to charge me a $175 fee for changing the ticket because I was sick, and ordered not to fly by my doctor. The original ticket was only $298 to begin with. By going directly to the airline, I avoided all but $50 of the fee, but I had to go directly to the airport. They wouldn’t do a thing over the phone.

As a warning, things are going to get worse … much worse. If things go as they have for the last 15 years, the next step is that the airlines either eliminate, or more probably cut back on the telephone agents that we call for booking flights. Many already have, if the longer waiting times are any indication. And the people answering the phones have less authority to deal with problems that used to be handled with a minimum of hassle. They want people to go to the Internet because it costs them less. NOW UNDERSTAND THAT I AM NOT SAYING TO ANYONE THAT THEY AREN’T ENTITLED TO A PROFIT. That is why people go into business. I AM saying that people should understand what they are giving up, and the true cost of the product. Companies can only do what consumers allow them to do.

Just yesterday there was news report that many food and consumer product manufacturers have been dropping the amount of product that they are putting into their packages. They do this because it is less obvious than to raise the prices on their products. Consumers are more likely to ignore the small size difference than they are to realize that there was a price increase. The candy industry was famous in their use of this. They kept the pricing the same but made the bar smaller. Instead of a 15 oz. Box of cereal, they now have 14 ˝ oz at the same price. The report said that it was perfectly legal to do this because the size is required to be on the packages. But how many people that buy things, over and over again, really look at the size. Unless you are buying a box of diapers that used to have 44 diaper and now has only 38, you probably won’t even realize it. Can you really tell if you are getting 8oz of potato chips, or just 7 ˝oz? With the travel industry, they are doing the same thing, but consumers aren’t as aware of what they are giving up.

The events that are discussed here refer to Continental Airlines, but from stories that I heard from other passengers that were on the same odyssey, Continental wasn’t the only one that put their bottom line far above the customers best interests. And the really inane aspect of this incident was the nearsightedness on the part of management that led to it.

It all started last week, with the predictions of a huge snowstorm on the eastern seaboard, along with the massive overbooking of almost every airline flight from Dec. 23rd through Jan. 3rd on almost every airline. Add to that the 36 hour advanced warning of the storm, and the fact that no one really knew where it would hit, and you have a package for a traveler’s nightmare. Original estimates gave the Washington DC area a 90% chance of snow ranging from 3-14 inches depending on where in the area you were. The National Weather Service issued a snow advisory at around 4pm on Thursday 28th. This warning was taken very seriously by many of the airlines. Several even canceled their flights 24 hours in advance so that they could accommodate their customers and not have planes on the ground that couldn’t be used.

When the warning came on TV, I called Continental to check on alternatives. I was scheduled for a flight out of Reagan National at 3pm on Sat. 30th, but if the storm hit, I could be stuck in DC until the 4th or 5th. When I called, I was told that Continental was still planning to make all flights into and out of National Airport. After talking to several people up the ladder, I finally talked to a 3rd or 4th level supervisor named Larry Southard. I explained that I had a flight leaving on Saturday and that if the flight was canceled, there would be no way for me to get out until at least the 4th. I told him that was unacceptable. I also warned him that if they didn’t change my flight and that if it did snow, he should have his legal staff prepared to go to the wall. What I didn’t tell him is that I was involved with TravelWatch. I wanted him to make the change because I was a customer, not because I was in the industry.

He told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t his weather problem and that I would have no claim for weather delays (which I already knew). If I wanted to leave before the scheduled flight, it would cost me a bit over $1000. He specifically stated that until Continental officially canceled the flights, nothing would be done to assist me. He stated that if they changed everyone’s flights, and that if it didn’t snow, they would have empty planes to deal with (which of course was ridiculous because every flight was overbooked). He said, "That was Continental’s only concern." That was his concern, but as I found out later, it wasn’t everyone’s only concern.

The storm was to form on the coast of the Carolinas and come up the coast. The formation would cause very narrow bands of deepening snow, which meant that if the storm came up as little as 25 miles farther out to sea, it could mean that it could miss the DC area. This was considered very unlikely. As it tuned out, it did miss DC. The snow bands were even closer. In Philadelphia, the city got 8-12" but just 20 miles to the west, they got almost nothing. I got out on time, but the people in Phily and NYC were snowed in. They closed all the NYC area airports.

When I came to the ticket counter to check in, I spoke with one of the supervising agents and told her the story. She said, "You should have come to any of us. We were thanking anyone who wanted to leave early. We figured that anyone who got out early, was one less problem that we would have to deal with if the snow came. The flights were all overbooked anyway. The people up there (meaning those sitting at Continental’s offices and reservation centers) have no idea of what we are doing out here."

Even after all this time traveling, I learned something very important. If you need something done, go to the person that will be most adversely effected if it isn’t done.

If you plan to fly, remember that the airlines are giving less and less service for more and more money. Maybe the frequent flyer programs have given airlines some customer loyalty, but just think about the loyalty of a customer that knows that you care about them and will service them when they need it, and not just when it immediately helps the bottom line. Maybe, just maybe, one will make the other better. Price will always be a prime influence on consumer’s choices. You can never get everyone as a customer. But in a business that prided itself on the service to the customer, WHAT HAPPENED? Most airlines charge about the same amount for the same flight (though not always). When that is true, give the customer a reason to pick you. SERVICE.

The Cheap Guy

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Email:  Bill Roberts


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