Saturday, June 28, 2008

USAir Begins With No

When Allegheny Airlines became US Air, the expensive media campaign that introduced the "new" airline to its customer base used the phrase "US Air Begins With You" (or as we used to say in Philadelphia, "US Air Begins With Youse").

It was a great concept -- customer service. An airline putting you into its marketing strategy.

Well, I lived in South Jersey in those days. Did all my flying out of Philly International (a big hub for US Air) and I can tell you -- along with most of its other customers -- nothing changed. It was still Allegheny Airlines as usual.

Today, the airline industry -- not just US Airways, the more sophisticated name that evolved from US Air -- knows very little about customer focus. In fact, they think they have bigger problems to solve -- like the spiraling cost of fuel.

No doubt the price of fuel is a major problem, but so is the fact that airlines are proving they can not only be poor marketers, but lousy business people. Only Southwest Airlines is consistently profitable in part becayse it has hedged its bet by buying aviation fuel on the futures market and blunting the escalating cost. Southwest is also pretty good at customer service.

Now US Airways has decided to raise fares (that's to be expected when fuel prices soar), charge a small fee for the first bag checked (silly -- just add $15 on to the next fare increase), a higher charge for the next checked bag (silly times two) and they've decided to charge for water, soft drinks, snacks, food and everything else for non-first class or Dividend Preferred travelers.

They're still losing money.

And public confidence.

Just Saturday US Airways announced that it will eliminate curbside check-in at three dozen cities to save paying the vendor and it will retain curbside check-in by using employees only at the largest hubs and select cities. So, if you fly from and to the right cities you not only get the privilege of paying extra to check bags but you can even lug them inside and wait in line there for a customer service representative that hasn't yet been laid off.

Pity the handicapped or overweight or elderly -- guess US Airways wants them to suck it up.

After its merger with America West the unions have still not been integrated into one happy family and that means many unhappy US Airways employees.

Yet there are some outstanding ones -- the people who still treat customers like their are, well -- worth it. I had such a flight a few days ago from Minneapolis to Phoenix. The flight attendants were outstandingly friendly and helpful. When my wife and I passed on the first class meal (we were upgraded), two flight attendants later thanked us because they got to eat them.

A number of months ago I was on a flight that came this close to hitting another plane upon landing at Phoenix/Sky Harbor. That's why the captain pulled this 737 straight up into the air and banked left as the plane shook and all of us -- including the flight attendants -- sat in silence and shock.

When everything is said and done, you want a crew that will fly safely in a turbulent airline industry -- one imploding from bad business decisions and one in neglect from the FAA and federal government.

Thank God the managers were not flying the plane. They might have elected to risk the landing to save on fuel.

Some of the employees on my recent flight were dealing with the crowded overhead compartments that are seeing more luggage as passengers look to save the checked luggage fees. I asked the flight attendants if this was becoming a problem and they all agreed it was. No room in the overhead spaces -- too much demand. In such cases the airline checks them for free. So, why not try to get your bags on and save money if they don't make it.

Sounds like a winner to me.

These fools are charging for aisle seats and window locations on some airlines. More legroom is an upgrade on other airlines.

As one airline employee told me, "management doesn't know what goes on in their own airplanes". That's why they come up with such silly practices.

So, as most of us know who travel -- expect to hear "no" from the time you book your flight until the time you step off the plane. What has the business of no gotten the airlines? Unhappy customers and record losses. Keep in mind most airlines couldn't make money when fuel was cheaper and when the industry was deregulated to simulate a monopoly in some cities. Check their share price.

So, if airlines insist on boneheaded business practices, why try to stop them. They won't listen. Let's just come up with some more stupid airline tricks for laughs. These clueless managers may actually adopt them -- so be forewarned.

• Charge to use the restroom. Of course, first time is free -- it's on them. But the second and third times, you pay. Put the money in the lavatory door and open -- like in some European public bathrooms. Pity the passengers out of change on the flight from Mazatlan to the U.S. especially if they were drinking the water in Mexico.

• Assess an introduction fee to those who want to meet the passenger in front of them when their seat reclines -- especially dentists who can get a good look into their mouths. Great social networking tool.

• Charge extra for a copilot on each plane. Why are we forcing the airlines to spend all that money in the cockpit when they can cut the crew by 50% and their upfront expenses by almost that much. You want a copilot, you pay more. If not, it's the captain and the computer. Easy to do on an AirBus.

• Charge a fee for WiFi in the sky. Wait! They're already going to do this on American.

• Charge a hefty fee to be kept at least six rows from a baby spitting up, a kid or two screaming or any attention deficit person including a 20 year old with tattoos.

• The airline gets a finders fee for every overweight, out of shape business traveler who picks up another overweight out of shape business traveler. And, if you get a thin one, double the charge. Always remember, in the airline industry -- less is more.

Now, I am at peace.

I feel like an airline executive.

All cockamamie ideas to raise money and help our poor brethren at the airlines out in this dire emergency will be appreciated -- and maybe even adopted.

God forbid they just -- say, raise the price to cover their costs.

I'm just sayin'.

They might learn a lesson from a United pilot who was allegedly involved in an incident with other colleagues at Salt Lake City. The pilot went on the PA system and told the passengers he was too upset to safely fly them to Denver. Although the passengers were disappointed because some would presumably miss connections, news accounts said that they seemed to appreciate that the captain was honest with them.

And so, the lesson.

The business of yes begins with honesty.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

American Airlines To Test In-air Online Service

Normally, I get upset when a company charges for Internet access (think $15 a day at The Four Seasons when you are already paying $650 a night for the room) but the news that American Airlines is about to start testing a pay Internet service has me all excited.

Air travel today is simply painful - even when you buck up for the full-fare first class seat often costing $2,000 or more domestically. Flight attnedants are surly and often would rather bitch about union gripes than get you a fresh Diet Coke. Delays are everywhere. Seats are cramped. Flights are canceled all the time. And some airlines even have the balls to try to charge people to check a bag. Its just awful.

American Airlines, who is one of the two airlines I fly the most out of Los Angeles along with United - is onto something with this pay Internet service. With fuel costs high, we all understand that flights have to be more expensive. What flights do not have to be is less luxurious or less productive. Adding Internet service adds value to go along with the recent increases in price.

Online access is part of many private flights on some of the newer jets that have been retrofitted for the service. If you are rocking a Gulfstream 450 from Van Nuys to Teterboro or rocking the old Citation X from Napa to Maui - you might just find online access. The installation on a private plane costs about $300,000. When spending $80,000 to make that L.A. To NYC trip private - that almost should be expected but at $1,600 for a business class ticket on American - this could be something that gets business travelers truly tickled.

DirecTV and Wild Blue Satellite Internet

For several days I have been trying to schedule a satellite Internet installation.

Satellite is the last resort for high speed Internet if you cannot get DSL, cable or fiber optic. If you can avoid satellite Internet, do so at ALL COSTS! Some of the downside to satellite Internet are higher costs, longer contracts, punitive early termination fees, maximum throughput of 1.5 mbps down and 256 kbps up and potentially significant latency delays.

Given all that downside, what do you if satellite Internet is your last resort because you are in a rural area or do not fit the logistical profile for DSL, cable or fiber? The answer is, of course, you suck it up and get it. Fine, I did that and here is what happened.

My next step was to all my satellite company, DirecTV. Of course, they outsource this service to a company called Wild Blue. However, Wild Blue does not do the installation themselves. No, the installation is scheduled through a company called DSI Communications. But wait, they are not the ones that actually perform the installation. That is done through Ironwood Communications, wait, Mountain Communication, no, LC Communications. That is how many companies I had to speak with over the last few days, taking up no less than 5 hours of my time. I don't know about you, but my time is worth something. Something so simple should not be such a cluster f***.

Did I mention the installation date in their respective systems was different for DirecTV, DSI and LC Communication? Did I mention DirecTV said the installer would bring all the hardware only to find out it is actually being send via UPS and arriving at the subject property where there is nobody available to receive it?

DirecTV is the company that promotes their availability to facilitate this service. Consequently, they should do a MUCH BETTER JOB coordinating the logistics and workflow of these installations. They remind me of Verizon (perhaps in a subsequent post). Their left hand does not know what their right is doing. The end result is a seriously pissed of customer. I would have rather been connected to Mumbai or Manila where at least some guy will placate me, apologize profusely, and call me Mister.

Customer service in America is shameful. Does anybody want to do a good job anymore or make sure the guy who is actually paying the bills gets proper, courteous, EFFICIENT service?

If satellite Internet and DirecTV/Wild Blue is logistically your last option, consider going back to dialup. It will be significantly less frustrating!

God help this poor installer when he gets there...if he gets there.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Last Plane To Clarkesville (actually Charlottesville)

This week I made another one of my quick trips across the country. Leaving from Los Angeles on Wednesday to see my sports psychologist, Dr. Bob Rotella, in Charlottesville, Virginia for a day of discussion about putting and how to putt less frequently. Call me crazy if you will - but Dr. Bob is the king. He works with the best golfers in the world including major winners like Trevor Immelman (Master), Padriag Herrington (British Open) and Rocco Mediate (almost beat Tiger at this recent US Open) along with others like Ernie Els, Davis Love and Tom Kite. Oh yeah, and schmuck amateur golfers like me.

My trip from Los Angeles (LAX) to Washington (Dulles) was pretty uneventful until the landing which was in a thunderstorm. The co-pilot (that's who stereotypically lands) put that United Airlines 757 down pretty hard but no harm no fowl right? Well when we landed the plane was met by NO gated agent and the connecting flight on a commuter turbo prop plane was in an entirely different terminal and 11 passengers from LA had no less than 21 minutes to catch our flight.

We all waited patiently as this boat-like vehicle took us from the domestic United terminal to the commuter terminal only to then run like Orenthal J. Simpson in those old Hertz TV ads (I actually think he might have flown in those ads) to the gate to meet a middle-aged woman at the gate.

We all thought that we were in the clear as the door was open and the small plane was waiting. But NOOOOOOO.... This woman wasn't going to let us make the connection as she "closed out" the flight 30 second earlier and she was unwilling to go out and waive at the pilot as she admitted that there were many empty seats on the plane. The 11 of use pleaded with her to let us on the flight as she acted as if she legitimately didn't speak English while the door closed, the props spun up and the plane left for our connection in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Two very easy fixes could have been had assuming the airline cared to not have the 11 of us miss our flight. First, an agent meeting the LA flight could have called the other gate and held the plan an extra 30 seconds. Secondly, the woman at the gate could have done even a modicum of work to simply waive at the pilot who could have reopened the doors and loaded the plane up. The result was a wait of over four additional hours for which I opted to rent a car and drive myself and one of the other passengers 90 miles to our destination. It saved me about an hour with my golf guru which to me was worth the $350 the rental car cost me.

In a world where United Airlines thinks nothing of charging for a checked bag (not for first class but what are they thinking) - its time they look to actually taking care of their passengers more than their bottom line. Charge more for the tickets if you must but don't screw over your most loyal customers.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Welcome to a blog about the best and worst in customer service

Welcome to The Business of No - a blog about the best and WORST in the world of customer service.

Every been treated like crap at an airport? Ever been given a hotel room overlooking a grave yard? Ever been treated like Julia Roberts shopping on Rodeo Drive? Ever been told NO repeatedly when YOU are the customer? Ever been redirected to India for phone support? Ever been told to "just unplug the unit and the problem will go away?"

And how did it feel?

If you are like me - the crisis of customer service is beyond worrisome. Its an epidemic. And this blog sets out to be a place to talk about good customer service as well as the bad.

Feel free to post comments and or email us with your own stories.