Flying Is No Longer Fun

United PlaneI took my first flight when I was 6 months old.

My grandmother lived in Israel and my mom was determined to have me and my sister see her at least once a year. Over the past 35+ years, I’d estimate that I’ve flown several hundred roundtrips. It’s possible that I could be sensationalizing my experience, but I could have sworn that flying used to be fun.

That’s not the case any more. Unfortunately, flying is no longer fun.

For those that know me, you’d likely agree (I hope) that I’m generally a very positive person. I like to have fun and don’t take myself too seriously. I mean, my 4 favorite words are dude, awesome, love and pumped.

But I’ve had enough with the airlines.

I’m actually typing this blog post at 35,000 feet, aboard my United flight from Chicago (ORD) to Salt Lake City (SLC). Maybe I’m a bit grumpy considering I left SLC on the 7:20AM flight and returned 11 hours later. 45 minutes of driving, an hour & a half riding the train, 6 hours of flying, as well as a few hours of waiting … all for a 90-minute meeting (I’m hoping it was worth it!). However, I’m really just fed up with flying.

With the exception of Southwest Airlines, who I love, the airlines just don’t make flying fun anymore. I don’t even need to have fun on a flight, I just don’t want to hate it. I blogged about my terrible experience with Delta last year. A few weeks ago, I had yet another poor customer service interaction on a Delta flight. To my surprise, they emailed me a survey (see email survey) on April 10th. It turns out that the survey was an apology for the flight being delayed. I took the opportunity to submit some feedback. I figured that it could not hurt. They asked, right? Below is the text of the response I submitted:

I was not even aware that the flight was delayed. The reason I rated my experience as poor was due to the exchange I had with the flight attendants. While on the jetway, just about to board my flight, I was told that I had to check my bag as all of the overhead space was taken. 30 seconds later, when I arrived at my seat, I noticed that there was room for at least a dozen more bags. I rushed back to the front of the plane to retrieve my bag. The fight attendants were not only rude, but also did not care whatsoever that my bag was already gone. They did not make any effort to retrieve it. It was their error. No apologies. Nothing. So, even though I carried my (small) bag on, I had to check it. Mind you, not GATE check, but check it through to baggage. This extended my trip (on a flight that was already delayed) by an additional 20 minutes.

I complained via Twitter (@djwaldow) to both @delta & @deltaassist. To their credit, they replied and even apologized. We continued chatting via DM (private message). They offered me a choice of $25 or 500 miles in my account. I politely refused. I find this offer insulting. Buying me off does not fix the problem. I suggested that they use the $25 to train staff on how to be empathic to passengers or better yet, fix the system that is broken. We all know that since airlines (like Delta) have started to charge for bags, passengers bring on as much as they can to avoid the fees. This results in overheads being full, flight attendants having to gate check bags, and passengers being unhappy (like …. me!). There has to be another solution. I’d be happy to speak with someone about this directly. I can be reached via email – [email protected] – or cell – XXX.XXX.XXXX.

While I’m not surprised, I will say that I’m disappointed that nobody has contacted me in the 2 weeks since I sent this email.

My Recent (Negative) Experience With United

Fast forward to my most recent experience with an airline. United. Yesterday.

My meeting ended early in Chicago yesterday, so I tried to call United to see about flying standby on an earlier flight. Below is a recap of my experience.

  • Step 1: Went to ual.com on my iPad. 3 clicks later, I found their contact number. (Why is their number hidden? Hmmm. That’s an issue).
  • Step 2: I called the contact number, used a combination of numbers and voice replies until the system finally transferred me to an agent (2 minutes, 14 seconds later). I was “greeted” with a busy signal. Frustration starting to grow.
  • Step 3: I dialed the customer service number again. Learning from my mistake, I hit zero a bunch of times and listened as the automated system informed me they’d connect me with an agent (I still had to confirm with a “yes” that this is what I wanted to do). Again, busy signal. Frustration building.
  • Step 4: In order to rule out user error, I repeated step 3 … with the same result. Now I’m annoyed.
  • Step 5: I complained via Twitter. I mean, that’s what Twitter is for, right? (kidding, sort of). My expectations were quite low as I noticed that the last tweet from @unitedairlines was 2 days ago. Also, most of their tweets were in response to positive posts. Based on their low frequency, and the fact that I know people complain about airlines via Twitter all the time, I deduced that @unitedairlines was not all that active/responsive on Twitter.
  • Step 6: I went back to ual.com to find another number.
  • Step 7: I called the Mileage Plus number and was able to speak with a human (after hitting zero at least 17 times).
  • Step 8: I explained to the support rep that I was hoping to fly standby on an earlier flight. He told me to go to O’Hare and put my name on the standby list. He was not able to do this over the phone. Odd, right? I then asked if he could tell me if there was any open seats on the early flight. He could not tell me.
  • Step 9: I began to explain my frustrations with the busy signal, the fact that I’d been on the phone for 15+ minutes, and my general disdain for the (broken) process. I asked to how to file a formal complaint. I was told to go to ual.com. I asked to speak with his supervisor. After being on hold for 7 minutes, 7 seconds, I hung up.

The story ends with me going to O’Hare and eventually securing a ticket for the earlier flight. But, not after a brief “fight” with the prompts on the kiosk and talking with yet another agent on the phone.

The bottom line is that the process of flying is broken.

Worse, it’s a broken process that does not seem to be getting any better. I’d argue that it’s getting worse. I originally planned on walking through each of the steps above and detailing what was wrong and how the process could improve. However, I don’t think that’s necessary. If you’ve made it this far in this post, you get it. You understand that the process is broken. You can clearly see what’s wrong and I bet you have a few ideas about how it can be fixed.

I realize what many of you are thinking right now. Great. Thanks for the rant, DJ. Nothing new. Now how do you fix it? Totally fair question. I have another blog post teed up that offers 3 suggestions for how the airlines can fix some of their broken processes.

However, before posting, I’d like to crowdsource the answer a bit. If you have thoughts or suggestions on how to fix the process to make flying fun again, please share them in the comments below. Be sure to include your full name & a link to your blog or a site you’d like to pimp as I’ll include those details in my next post.

Go.

Photo: Flickr – chicagokoz

DJ Waldow
@djwaldow

55 comments
Bryan Howland
Bryan Howland

How about implementing a system where employees are rewarded based on customer satisfaction surveys? Reach out to passengers after they fly and survey them on their experiences. This way gate and flight attendants are incentivized to provide a better customer experience. Gather up the information at the end of the year and pay the consistently high performers more and get rid of the low performers.

Matthew Glidden
Matthew Glidden

I think airlines leave little latitude for flyers to act like humans, with our capacity for self-organizing and being considerate. How about boarding by name, for example, instead of seat assignment? What if people could self-identify as "chatty" and be seated near other people who want to talk? What about on-flight meetups for brainstorming or playing cards? There's so little done to address this, especially by the companies themselves, who own all that contact info and the "gateway" to being on the plane.

DJ Waldow
DJ Waldow

Yeah. I saw that article too about the losses major airlines are reporting. It's too bad that they are cutting back on customer service though. You'd think that's where they would spend more money and cut elsewhere. I know - easy for me to say...

Same thing with Eva as with your daughter. At 13 months old, she's flown over a dozen times. No wings!

Ami Chitwood
Ami Chitwood

Think about all the people who aren't going through these acrobatics to try and contact customer service, complain on social networking sites...have they realized this and decided it isn't worth the extraordinary efforts? I try and take an even mood on flying - I have such low expectations that I don't hate it nearly as much as others. I expect to wait in long lines, be treated like cattle, battle for the overhead space, be shoved into seat, bite nails hoping to make connection, and get to do it all over again on my return.

Mick
Mick

I guess from a slightly different perspective I fly trans-atlantic the majority of the time, and when I see United on the final booking confirmation I cringe. The main problem is the in flight service. On a 12 hour flight, United served a meal after 90 minutes which was just ok (certainly fine with airline standards), but then to serve a banana 8 hours later as the only other meal on order actually left me speechless. The staff are rude, not helpful in any way and when I register my comments after each flight as I do, I get offered miles. I'm starting to wonder just how many miles they give out.

Solutions.

A higher rotation or staff? More staff per flight? Is it the staff, or the airlines that are setting this poor standard of service? I find it hard to believe rudeness will be abolished with a higher salary.

I think airlines have to improve working environments. Having only the strip of walkway no more than 100 m long for 4 hours at a time can't be that enjoyable to begin with. How can they help comfort in the work place. A change of uniform possibly? Encourage a semi formal attitude? Allow more personality into the workplace. What makes a flight attendant tick?

I think a big problem is Airlines make it hard to talk to them. They don't offer clear ways to voice concerns. They need to allow travelers a clear way to communicate from the webpage, to the check in desk, to the cabin. Opinions have to be heard.

Mike Poynton
Mike Poynton

1. Look, if you're out of Absolut, please don't walk away with the cart! Just tell me! Chances are you have some Smirnoff in there. Or gin. Or rum. Or whiskey. Or...

2. If you don't have soda, please don't walk away with the cart! Tonic is just fine. Coke is just fine. Diet Coke is just fine. Ginger Ale is just fine. Diet Ginger Ale is just fine. But not water.

3. Stop the chick with the Graco before she boards the flight. It ain't fittin' in the overhead, and you knew that before she boarded.

4. Airline Rep.: "Your child has no reserved seat on this plane. I'm sorry, the flight is full. We have other flights departing tomorrow if you would like to re-book. The re-booking fee is only one million dollars."
Me: "Look, I have a receipt for the purchase of a seat for my +2 year old. Her second birthday passed while we were on vacation here in the U.S., which is why she was a lapchild on the first and second legs or our itinerary. I'm sorry it was purchased in Costa Rica and does not appear in your system. Can she at least travel as a lapchild on this flight?
Airline Rep.: "No"
Captain: [In this case the Captain of the flight was standing silently behind the airline rep. - whose gay lover had, apparently, really pissed him off - and nobly spoke up (to the airline rep's surprise) and said, "WE WILL HAVE A SEAT on this airpland for your daughter. DON'T WORRY"]
Me: "Thank you, Captain!" (Gotta love Pilots!!!!!!!!!!) (If this appears to be politically incorrect, so be it.)

5. Where are the blankets?

6. Why do they smell?

8. Peanuts, some sort of cheese, an unidentifiable grey protein mass, Oreo cookies, jelly beans, wheat(ish) crackers and raisins... For Chrisake, I'm not in college anymore doing bongs!

9. Really obese people... I mean, like 350-400 lbs. Two seats, one of them on the aisle. (If this appears to be politically incorrect, so be it. You think NASA would cram that gordo into one seat in the Space Shuttle? NFW!)

10. Bathroom monitors (coach only). People urinate on everything.

Christopher S. Penn
Christopher S. Penn

I had the most amazingly positive experience flying on Korean Airlines a couple of weeks ago. Incredibly courteous, well-mannered staff, great amenities even in economy (the meals were amazing!), timely flights, and instead of being nickled and dimed to death, every single thing that would be "extra" was included in the price.

Much more to say on this than can fit inside a blog post, but the number one reason why they can create this experience is that it's a flag carrier. Most other nations have a national carrier which receives some serious subsidization from the national government. Korean Air was founded by the South Korean government, and thus the airline itself acts as an ambassador of sorts for travelers coming to the nation. Flag carriers can compete on price while still offering great service because they have fewer profitability concerns than in the US market.

The easiest way to make everyone in the US step up their game would be to deregulate and allow foreign carriers to fly domestically, but that would never happen as it'd be both incredibly bad for PR and also wipe out the domestic US airlines entirely.

jimstorer
jimstorer

I think your Dad hit on one of the main points, but there's more there. It's ironic that your experiences on Southwest are so positive, because they're the ones killing the business models of the other guys you mentioned. They're trying to compete with a lean company (Southwest) and are doing it by cutting/cutting/cutting. That impacts service at every step of the way.

But you're looking for answers. Here are some of mine:

1. Empower the people on the front lines. It sounds like Delta's done that with the folks on Twitter, but $25 or 500 miles seems stingy. Give them something with teeth. If a gate agent knows there's a problem give them the resources to keep folks happy. I was on a flight recently that was delayed for several reasons and they gave away food, alcohol and movies. It doesn't work every time, but the bottom line is they need to give the folks in the trenches the tools to surprise and delight their customers.
2. Don't assume your customers are assholes. On most flights I take these days it feel like the crew is adversarial from the beginning. They expect us to be rude and obnoxious. This is a lowest common denominator problem. We're not all assholes and until they stop treating us like the few that are, we'll probably look/talk/walk a lot like them. Every once in a while I catch an attendant or gate agent when they're not on edge, when they don't have the veneer in place. Most of the time they're awesome people. But later in the flight, they've slipped back in the thick skin as they patrol the plane. They need to change how they're trained.
3. Think like a community manager. Each flight is like a small, perishable community with a shared goal. Leave the gate on time, get to the destination on time and have an enjoyable experience. Flight attendants/gate agents may not have control over those first two, but they sure can impact the third one. Try to connect with each passenger as a person (vs a seat) and cater to them. Recognize large groups as a unit and treat them differently. Got a guy who's drinking a lot of Diet Coke? Stop by with some extra ice. I think airlines have focused so much on efficiency lately they've lost sight of the fact they're in the service business. A business that services people.

Those are my three. Looking forward to yours.

Jim | @jimstorer

Scott Paley
Scott Paley

Nothing super new from what others have said, but it's about customer empathy, which costs little. You've brought up Southwest, so I'll mention JetBlue. They have consistently provided great service to me over many years now, to the point where I'm actually willing to pay a bit more to fly with them (not a huge amount more, but still...) Plus, it doesn't suck to have live TV on a flight.

KrisSpurley
KrisSpurley

What kills me is, doesn't the public view bad customer service as a reflection of their product? I feel less safe on a flight that results after a poorly handled conflict or botched transaction on the ground. When it works, it's wonderful. Solution starter: require all customer service agents and their managers/trainers to log XX hours of air travel time.

Dennis Jolley
Dennis Jolley

Agree completely. A sign of how bad flying is now? On a recent trip to ORD, I came back to the office nearly ecstatic - we were ONLY 45 minutes late taking off, and they notified us of the delay and apologized! Wow!

Bobby Riggins
Bobby Riggins

It's easy, bring back smoking, paisley seats, flight attendants wearing silly hats and ugly uniforms. :)

Seriously, I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know that the pilots and flight attendants are all overworked and underpaid. I don't think that flying will EVER be the same as it was pre-9/11...it's a different world now.

I live in Charlotte and mainly fly US Airways...I was on a flight back from Baltimore in January and our flight attendant bought our row a round of drinks b/c she was finally heading home. I'm not sure why my row got so lucky, but I'm a US Airways fan :)

Jerry
Jerry

Your points are well made DJ. Fixing the issue is tough but here are some thoughts from my experiences.

1. Communication/honesty - I have spent time at a gate (O'Hare in particular) with the estimated time of departure showing "on time" when there is no plane there 10 minutes before scheduled departure. When you ask what's going on: "We are still showing on time departure". I KNOW that's not true and they must as well. Another time I am pretty sure American cancelled my ORD to London flight because the plane wasn't full, but I was fed some story about technical problems that was never elaborated upon. We know there are security issues, logistical problems etc. but we can cope with the truth - we get it. That leads to.....

2. The best experiences I have had flying were when I was upgraded, or asked to do something and compensated immediately. For example: a few years ago I flew with American from London to Chicago, traveling alone. I was asked by a flight attendant if I would mind moving up about 5 rows, to a comparable seat, so a family could sit together. She disappeared to business class and brought me a bottle of Moet Champagne as a thank you for doing so. That is customer service and it makes you forgive a lot of little things. It shows empathy BUT IT HAS TO BE DONE ON THE SPOT. Offering you 500 miles to "go away" is, I agree, insulting.

3. I don't know enough about the logistics of flying to suggest procedural changes to the system. Actually, the basics of flying are pretty impressive - mostly they are pretty much on time, they rarely lose your bags, it's safe. However it is when it goes wrong that they struggle and put over the "We don't care" message deliberately or not.

Solution: Training and empowerment. I get that times are tough for airlines, but they would do much better allowing their staff to offer some form of compensation at the point of issue. Obviously they should also spend money on having more people to answer the phones - now that we can check in online perhaps they could re-deploy some of the check in staff to do that! :-)

Wwaldow
Wwaldow

As you know, I fly round trip almost every week. All the different crews have to follow the same rules, and basically have the same training. Stop trying to "change' the poorly performing personnel, and fire them....that is the ONLY solution. As an employer for over 40 years, I can tell you, I hire for smiles and personality......every other aspect of the job(no matter what job) you can 'train' the right person....and vice-versa, you can never train the wrong person.

Megan Block-Brewer
Megan Block-Brewer

Hi there. I would suggest trying out Virgin America, as their customer service as always been the best with me, and their on-board services are outstanding.

MicJohnson
MicJohnson

My suggestion for those airlines not named Southwest. Start caring about your EMPLOYEES, so they will start caring about US, your CUSTOMERS.

Great post, DJ. I don't have nearly the flying history that you do, but I'm getting to the point where I can't stand any business that takes me for granted as a customer. And there are A LOT of them. We're going through the process now in our society and culture of weeding out the bad from the good...in the long run, only the good will survive. I just wish that day would hurry up and get here.

P.S.--Lose the freaking baggage fees too. Pisses me off every single time and is one of many reasons why I choose Southwest as much as possible.

Dave Stevenson
Dave Stevenson

I'll take a slightly opposing view.

I think it's unfortunate that service levels of airlines are as they are, but we are somewhat to blame. When searching for flights, 90%+ of the general public will fly solely based on the lowest price. They have no brand loyalty. The airlines know this, so therefore they've lost the desire to spend more to differentiate. Look at AA a few years ago with their "more legroom in coach" push. Did it work? Not all all - and now they've added those seats back in because customers were not paying more to fly.

Now, airlines do reward loyalty thru their frequent flyer programs. I used to fly exclusively on Delta, and once you make the upper tiers of their program, flying is a much better experience. It is unfortunate that they do treat their loyal customers differently than the back-of-the-plane class, but I'm guessing you treat your best customers better than drive-by customers too.

Nigel
Nigel

The entire air transport system is an exercise in frustration and harassment. We put up with it as travelers because there isn't a suitable alternative. (High speed rail would help.)

It begins at the check-in and then we're forced to be treated like criminals going through security...from the youngest of your society to the oldest.

After that they've got us locked up like animals charging whatever they want and doing whatever they want. We have no power at that point. They take off when they want and land when they want.

It's a ridiculous system that will come apart at some point. But as long as the vast majority of travelers take their lumps and don't say anything about the invasions of privacy and decency, things will remain the way they are.

Josh Peters
Josh Peters

I haven't had what I could call a "good" flying experience in years, and the problems are different with all the airlines. Delta is, in my opinion, the worst of them all. I will pay more, drive farther, and do almost anything that is out of my way to avoid flying with them. The only time they begrudgingly get my service is when I just don't have another choice.

The best thing, IMHO, for all of them to do is a complete overhaul of how their companies work and the systems that are in place. The overhaul would start with "giving a crap" and then move on to daily procedures, operations, and even gate mapping so fewer people have to rush to their connecting flights.

Bgoranson
Bgoranson

Flying is just a way to cover a long distance in a shorter time than driving. Just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no fun in flying. Unless you have been upgraded to business class from coach on a 9 hour flight from Chicago to Frankfurt.