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Suicide without Frills
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.
If you wanted anything
special, someone would graciously try to provide it to you. Today it
isnt 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 wasnt 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 cant 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 didnt
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
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 wasnt 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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
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 wont 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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