An Open Letter to the Airline Industry: Customer Service? Prove It.

Allison Sodha

Dear Airline Industry,

The time has come for you to start listening to travelers’ concerns. Not just hearing, but actually listening.

I have many years of personal and professional experience in the travel industry. My father was a pilot for a major U.S. carrier and my brother currently flies for another major U.S airline. I was raised around planes, understanding from a very young age about respecting other passengers, the flight crew, and airline representatives. Now a Certified Destination Specialist and the owner of a specialized travel company, I am very familiar with how air service was and what it has become. I have always been an advocate of the airline industry, but the time has come to really speak out about the mishandlings and sheer insolence. Let me also say that I write this letter openly in the hopes of, somehow, making a positive change. I am certain a carrier would prefer to receive twice as many compliments and half as many complaints.

Allow me to specify. The following are taken directly from the respective company websites:

United: We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.

Delta: Delta Air Lines intends to ensure that your air travel experience will encompass, to the best of our abilities, the most comprehensive customer service possible.

Hawaiian Airlines: At Hawaiian Airlines, our approach to customer service is simple: you’re our customer, and our goal is to provide you with the best service possible. So tell us: what can we do for you today?

I genuinely wish these statements were true. How much nicer the world would be if certain airlines actually cared about their customers. All their customers, and not just elite, business, and first class passengers.

Recently, a group of us flew from Portland to Orlando on Delta. Without exaggeration, I say that we should have felt so lucky to receive a bag of trail mix and a cup of soda. Or at least that is how the flight attendants made us feel. The attitude was derisory. When Delta incorrectly printed our boarding passes with seats not together, although we had selected our seats three months earlier, the agent was visibly not pleased with having to take time from her busy schedule to correct the error. When retrieving our stroller from baggage claim, it was broken. Delta did, however, compensate us for the cost of a new one.

In November, while flying on United from Delhi to Newark, I witnessed the worst customer service of any flight in all my years of travel. It would almost be comical, had the service not been so blatantly terrible. Racism, discrimination, and rudeness are just naming a few of the issues. I was appalled. One flight attendant did not smile for the entire 15-hour flight. Trust me, I noticed. I even tried to crack a joke when she served beverages. No luck. When I was waiting in line for the restroom, the flight attendants were sitting together and talking. They were actually making-fun of the accent of one passenger and laughing out loud. They also were discussing his hygiene and meal request, and how the meal may be contributing to his scent. And all of this was in public. Upon returning home, I contacted United to share my concerns. In recognition of the poor service, they offered us each a $150 travel voucher toward a future flight. Is this gesture an appropriate response? I appreciate the sentiment, but if the flight attendants continue to treat customers in this manner, United will run out of vouchers.

Las month, a client was flying from Toronto to Delhi via London. The segment from Toronto was on Air Canada, and Air India was servicing the flight from London – Delhi. After arriving in London, the clients were denied boarding on Air India. The gate agent told them that their ticket number and confirmation number were invalid. They were instructed to visit the Air Canada office to correct the issue, and return to the gate. The Air Canada agent pulled up the reservation and said the ticket number was correct and it was confirmed in the system. They were told to return to the gate and try again. Upon reaching, the agent said the same thing and once again denied boarding. They missed their flight.

To make an incredibly long and completely avoidable story short, Air India admitted their mistake and found the reservation but still refused to rebook the passengers on the later flight. There were five seats available in economy, but since they were in a different fare category, they would not reissue the tickets unless a supplement was paid. Sound familiar? After being on a call with various Air India offices for four hours, my air desk agreed to pay the difference in fare, just to get the clients on their way. To this, Air India responded that they could no longer make changes to the reservation since the clients had already departed from Toronto. The tickets were not reissued, the clients were forced to spend an overnight in London, and Air India would not provide a hotel voucher, meal voucher, or assistance. Finally Air India rebooked my clients on a flight the following day and issued an apology. Again, should I or my clients feel warm and fuzzy that Air India apologized? How about doing what you strive for, according to your company philosophy, and exceed customer expectations?

One final example: A few of my family members are flying to Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines – Portland to Maui via Honolulu. They booked their flights the same day on the same flights and received confirmation and seat assignments. A few weeks ago, only one of the parties was notified that their flight from Honolulu to Maui was cancelled and they were rebooked on a much later flight. The other party, which was not notified, was rebooked on a different flight. Party #1 was told there were no more seats on the flight of party #2. Transportation arrangements had been made for a van rental to accommodate the group. After several phone calls, they were made aware that there were the three needed seats available on the same flight. However, Hawaiian Air would NOT upgrade them to those seats without charging an additional fee. They even offered to refund the entire groups round trip tickets rather than allow the easy fix on the short hop from Honolulu to Maui. So much for their slogan of a SIMPLE approach toward customer service!

Unfortunately, my sentiments are all too common. Visit any online forum or ombudsman column and the complaints are fairly similar. I will just go ahead and say what most of us are thinking. Don’t value your job? Quit. Quitting not an option? Then reevaluate your position and understand that we, your customers, are not the ones who are making you unhappy… or disrespectful…or just plain rude. You are employed in a customer service industry, and if you are not having the patience to field and alleviate our (mostly valid) concerns, shame on you. I am fairly certain you would not act this way if your supervisor, director, or CEO was monitoring your behavior.

Here is another idea. Start treating your customers like you are one. If you were in our position, how would you react? If you were denied boarding, talked about behind your back, and humiliated, would you simply accept it? Given your ability to throw stones, I believe not.

I would also like to take the time to state that some airlines do an excellent job and it is very clear that customer service is the priority. I had a wonderful experience on ANA in October, when our United flight was rerouted via Tokyo due to Hurricane Sandy. The kindness, patience, and precision were perhaps the best I have experienced on an international carrier. Emirates is also high on my list, as well as Alaska Airlines. It is evident on these carriers that the employees care about the passenger experience, both on the ground and in the air.

As someone who was raised in the airline industry and has made a profession in the travel industry, it breaks my heart that this is what flying has become – simply a form of transport where the customer is lucky to receive basic courtesy and – Gasp! – even a thank you for their business.

Is it correct to assume that this corporate airline culture is coming from the top? Are CEO’s responsible for the decisions and actions of their employees? Would employees be making these decisions if it was not an airline policy? These are valid questions to start the conversation. I have actually considered not offering air ticketing with my tours because of all the time and trouble. However, my clients deserve inclusive packages and their needs are my primary responsibility.

Fortunately, I remain optimistic that the airlines can recover from this poor reputation and bounce back stronger than before. Customer Service. Let’s bring it back.

Happy Travels,

Allison Sodha

Topics: Transportation, Airlines

Allison Sodha

Written by Allison Sodha

As the President of Sodha Travel and author of Go! Girl Guides India, Allison has spent almost two decades exploring South Asia. She has a passion for creating experiences fueled by a deeper understanding of local communities.