Fear and loating in the skies -OR- How I stopped flying Delta and learned to love Orbitz
That time is gone.
If you've flown lately, you probably know that modern air travel is pretty much a rapid-delivery Greyhound experience, with the added bonus of a cavity search prior to departure. It's an industry both over-populated and badly run, dragging a 40-year legacy of bad decisions, worse governmental regulation, and unmet passenger expectations along behind it.
I'm not exactly a traveling salesman, but if you know me, you know that I spend some time away from home. The last several years have seen me flying ~100,000 miles annually. For my efforts, I have the coveted "Elite" status on two different airlines, and two different global alliances. But this is not a story about my travels. This is, instead, a story of loyalty and customer service. And a cautionary tale of how not to run a business, no matter how enticing the balance sheet might look.
For many years, I fed my business to Northwest Airlines. A generally mediocre carrier in the grand scheme, but one that flew most of the places I wanted to go, and generally had a fair price to go there. The airline might not have been the best run in the world, but they had a friendly upper-midwest attitude about them. When you became a loyal Elite, you could count on their help if you got into a jam. I once even had a NWA agent help me with a US Airways baggage issue, when I got re-routed after a cancellation and then US lost my bag. Their service was so good, in fact, that one year, Elite fliers banded together and threw a party for the customer service agents at NWA's lead facility in Chisholm MN. Say what you will about the airline business, but that sort of customer loyalty and appreciation is unusual in any business.
But like all things, there was a dark side to the business. It was losing market share to discount airlines, and unlike many of its competitors, it already offered a sub-par "hard product", with no in-flight entertainment or other perks that could be easily cut to save revenue. They declared bankruptcy, and engaged in a pretty serious bout of union-busting to cut costs in its maintenance division. Still, through all of those years, the customer-facing product was maintained. They updated their website and customer service tools even as they were screwing over their flight attendants and firing their mechanics. And so, quite rightly when you come down to it, customers stayed reasonably happy and loyal.
Then about 18 months ago, they sold out to Delta. Citing market efficiencies and opportunities to create "Best in Class" service for their customers, the two airlines merged.
Over the following 18 months, the two airlines desperately tried to merge their back-office operations to achieve the efficiencies promised to employees and investors. Because of some fairly hard-core difficulties in doing so, they devoted their efforts to completing things as rapidly as possible. Sort of the Band-Aid theory on change management... They changed their fare structure, they gutted their booking tools, they merged their customer service operations while neither Delta nor NWA employees had ample training on the others' systems.
Behind-the-scenes, things like maintenance requests and fuel load-in systems merged. Pilots could be scheduled, flight attendants got their cans of Coca-Cola aboard. And while the great and fiery Eye of Delta was turned inward, everyone sort of forgot that without customers, you don't have a business... In places where frequent fliers congregate, like FlyerTalk.com, customers starting publicly complaining about not being able to do simple tasks. Prices to Asia would double one day, and then those flights would be gone the next. Frequent Flier award tickets became unavailable for less than hundreds of thousands of miles per trip. Making changes to an itinerary or trying to upgrade a seat became either physically impossible, or fantastically expensive.
The same customer service agents whose customers had thrown them a party a few years before, were suddenly unable (by technology, or by policy) to even help customers in the top-tier of their Elite program with their problems. A phone call that used to take 5 minutes turned into a call that took 30 minutes on hold, followed by being transferred to 3 different people. A few months later, those top-tier customers couldn't even contact those agents, without a fantastic amount of either persistence or luck.
Right about here is where many of you are saying: "Yup, sounds pretty much like trying to buy an airline ticket these days." And sadly, you'd be correct. But the point of a loyalty program is to retain customers. No matter what business you're in, it's always easier to retain the customers you have than to go out and cultivate new ones. Particularly in a price-driven business, you rarely get a second chance to win market share lost to dissatisfaction.
If there's anything worse than providing inferior customer service to begin with, it's providing superior customer service, and then taking it away. While horror stories swirl in the news about thousands of travelers stranded somewhere, or flights canceled with the next chance of getting out days away, a certain quiet minority of travelers used to float through that system. Quietly bumping to the top of standby lists, being re-routed on partner flights, or catching a routing through a different city that others didn't think about.
Not about to let those benefits go into that dark night, Elites began to rebel. Other airlines smelled blood in the water, and made it easy to do so. Continental started matching elite status level-by-level, and giving airport club members significant discounts to defect. American and United did much the same. (I jumped ship back for Continental in December after a Delta agent told me that it was impossible to book a ticket I found for $785 for less than $1100. I booked it 5 minutes later on Orbitz, while on the phone with her, to prove that it wasn't. They then refused to honor their own "Best Fare Guarantee", because it was "an error". An error which apparently then persisted for another 2 weeks, as I made sure that all of my traveling companions booked that fare too... it was the last flight I took on Delta.)
Now the airline discussion forums online are abuzz with ex-Delta fliers learning the ropes of their new "home" airlines. Star Alliance is inducting three new airlines this calendar year, and their award mileage requirements to most places in the world are about half of Delta's. The complaints on the Delta forums have become shrill and desperate... but also quieter, as many long-time contributors no longer post there. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in February that the combined market share of Northwest/Delta fell more than 10% in 2009 from prior years, while budget carriers grew and other legacies like Continental remained closer to flat.
The last straw for me came early this morning, when a Delta rep came out in public with an announcement saying, essentially: We realize that there's been some problems, and hope you'll bear with us as we make changes to an online booking tool that won't actually fix our underlying availability issues, and we don't have an ETA even for this yet, but this is progress, right? You'll stay loyal, right?
Wrong. Air travelers are increasingly pawns in a bureaucratic nightmare of a game, where fear-mongering, tax-hiding and propaganda play larger roles than customer service or product delivery. Faced with that reality, those who have to get on planes frequently for whatever reason expect a bit more than the average vacationer who gets on an airplane once every few years. A little bit of abuse can be tolerated if it's attached to the reward of a 2-week vacation somewhere sunny... But when a company pisses on your head and tries to tell you that it's raining, as you travel for work every week or month, it becomes a little hard to bear. Loyalty is like integrity. Once you've lost it, it's pretty much gone forever. The Delta/Northwest merger will likely end up in the business textbooks of how not to run a customer service operation.
I leave tomorrow for Boston. My upgrade on Continental has already cleared, and the agent I spoke with to fix a problem on my account addressed me by name, spoke fluent English, and solved my problem in less than 3 minutes.
I like where this is going. Here's to the start of a beautiful new relationship.