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The International Writers Magazine: Commerce: Airlines - Preview of a Crisis - Archives

Economic Suicide without Frills
Joe David

Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a world almost completely forgotten by the 21st Century, airline travel was a pleasant adventure. The crew actually served food and drinks gratis, and passengers even had enough space to store legs and other needed bodily parts comfortably during the flight.
Fly Me

If you wanted anything special, someone would graciously try to provide it to you. Today it isn’t clear what will happen when asking for assistance. Old-fashion customer service has been abandoned. In its place are charming Barbie Doll Robots who are trained to listen to your out-of-the-ordinary concerns politely before letting you have it with a verbatim recitation of company policy. On one international flight passengers created pandemonium in the air for asking for water from the flight attendants out of turn.

For these 21st century darlings of aviation, service is packing the plane, strapping down passengers, and providing service in an inflexible sequence. Of course, everyone understands that serving in sequence can result in speed and efficiency, but sometimes it is necessary, to break the pattern by serving passengers out of sequence. During this one international flight, for example, I was grounded on board a full 747 flight for over an hour without air conditioning on a very hot day. When the plane was airborne, I and the other passengers began to cry for liquids. Unfortunately, the crew wasn’t trained to respond quickly to so many requests at once, and they reacted out of character (?) and snapped at the passengers and even brazenly reprimanded me, because I had the gall to approach the service cart near the front of the plane and request water – out of turn!

It frightens me to think how such airline employees will react when something critical occurs. You can’t always play by the book successfully if important chapters of your training have been carelessly omitted.

On my recent Continental Airlines shuttle flight between New York and Washington, DC, I got a glimpse of the future once again. During this trip, all flights had to be grounded because of heavy thunderstorms in the New York area. To be certain passengers on my flight didn’t take alternative transportation to their destination, the airlines held passengers captive on the plane for nearly four hours – into the dinner hour – and served them only water and peanuts. After being released from the plane at 7 p.m., the airline refused to return luggage, holding it instead for ransom (i.e., a pre-paid airline ticket the following day to their destination).

As expected under such circumstances, there was wide-spread confusion at the airport. Those passengers without hotel/motel space, for example, ended up spending the night at the departure area. Instead of being offered a quiet and safe area to rest for the night, passengers reportedly had to find a place on their own and hope they would not be evicted during the night by the security or the cleaning crew. Those few who did find a hotel room nearby had to use the hotel/motel listings at the departure point. Unfortunately, because of the amount of flights grounded on this particular day, the listed hotels/motels filled up quickly. Since the airlines never bothered providing passengers with the names and phone numbers of other nearby properties, many passengers who might have been able to pay for a room went without one for the night.

The true character of any business is often apparent during a crisis. At such moments, you will discover how management thinks (if they think). In the not-so-distant past when a major airline was grounded for mechanical or weather, a passenger wasn’t punished; instead, his discomfort was mitigated by refreshments or some gracious act of kindness. During my delay in Delhi two years ago, Air France treated all passengers to a pleasant meal at the airport until the plane that was to fly us to Paris finally made it to India (about three hours later). Today, a major airline like Continental faces delays by admitting it doesn’t have a passenger-friendly policy in place for such emergencies.

As far as I am concerned this is economic suicide. During the storm on that particular day, management in Houston admitted over nine thousand Continental passengers were inconvenienced, and all they could say in defense was that the airline didn’t have a relevant policy for such a common occurrence. (CEO Lawrence Kellner refused to comment directly.) This absence of a sensible plan for emergencies contributes, in my opinion, to a declining interest in flying (whenever acceptable choices are available). Having cute Barbie Doll Robots (service-trained in Bangladesh?) or an "unavailable" management team (educated in platitudes?) only accelerates it.

It is sad to note that those corporate leaders responsible for such sloppy management are the ones often profiting. While the underpaid and over-stressed service crew frustrates themselves playing by an incompletely written book, the management leaders are graciously offered golden parachutes (paid for generously by employee pension plans?) to some resort paradise, when things go wrong for them.

Most of us understand that life can take unexpected turns, but when it does, we hope those in position are there to assist us. But instead, creeping into all areas of business these days is a blatant absence of customer service. Unchecked, this absence of service will ultimately destroy a great industry – and send it off into oblivion like TWA and Pan Am, because of its questionable "management." I hope this won’t be the case for Continental Airlines, as well.
* Continental went to to great graveyard in the sky and was merged to death with United in 2011.
** How many airlines will disappear post-Covid-19 is yet to be played out.

© Joe David September 2008

Joe David is the author of four books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. His fifth book on Gourmet Getaways will be published early next year.

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