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On the Demise of Air Travel

August 26, 2010

As a consumer, I’m always pleased by the thoughtful little gestures and services provided by businesses who make customer satisfaction a top priority. The towels wrested into the shape of a heart or an animal to greet me on my hotel room bed. The complimentary hot breakfast buffets. The service with a smile. Those are the touches that make me a repeat customer and keep me coming back.

So why does it feel like customer satisfaction is a concept that’s going the way of the dinosaur?

Case in point: I primarily fly Continental. I’ve pretty much always flown Continental. With a hub in Newark a mere 45 minutes or so from my home in New Jersey, flying Continental is convenient. When I book flights for my mom in Fort Lauderdale to visit me, I book with Continental. Yesterday morning, I had to take my mom to the airport for her flight back to her home in Fort Lauderdale. While checking her in, the self-service machine asked if she wanted a seat with extra legroom. The cost? 39 bucks. No thanks. She’d just returned from an extended trip abroad so she had a larger suitcase that she’d need to check. The tab? 25 bucks. We hadn’t paid attention to the weight of her suitcase (souvenirs and all) so imagine our surprise when we put her checked bag on the scale and it came up to a whopping 66 lbs! We didn’t really have time to transfer her stuff to another bag and Continental charges you an extra 50 smackeroos for bags weighing over 50 lbs. Cha-ching, suckas!

I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of all of the forces that drive the market in the airline industry, but surely there’s a better way. It’s not lost on me that businesses are in business precisely to make a profit—you can’t stay in business otherwise. You’ve got quarterly revenue targets to hit and shareholders to satisfy, but is it truly necessary to strip the air travel experience of all its dignity? Surely, doing good business and providing excellent customer service aren’t mutually exclusive? I don’t see why they have to be.

There are still airlines out there that make customer satisfaction job #1. My mother’s recent trip aboard a Turkish Airlines flight reminded me of the things I miss about air travel on a whole. She brought this little “freebie” back from her flight.

What’s in it?

A pair of socks. An eye mask. Ear plugs. A toothbrush and some toothpaste. Lip balm. LIP BALM!!!

It’s not that I need these things. I already have these things. But this little care package is more than just a tangible thing. It’s symbolic of those thoughtful little gestures I mentioned earlier. The pillow and blanket on every seat. The complimentary set of headphones. One free checked bag. The airline’s willingness and desire to make each passenger’s experience a pleasure. Instead, passengers are finding themselves nickel-and-dimed at every turn.

What happened?

I guess I know the story. Deregulation led to increased competition which led to cheaper flights which led to cutting costs. I get it. But I still bemoan the loss of the things that made traveling by air so special.

Sigh.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 1:14 pm

    Amen! It’s the little things that resonate with me too. And I despise what the airlines are doing to nickel and dime us to death. I have a favorite airline in Southwest. No checked bag fees for the first two bags. Unfortunately, they don’t fly everywhere, I would fly them everytime if I could.

    • August 27, 2010 3:08 pm

      @Sandy–Here, here! I too would fly Southwest if I could. I’m almost to the point where I’m willing to pay $50 extra per round trip ticket to see at least some of the courtesies restored. Happy travels!

  2. August 28, 2010 11:48 am

    I take the silver lining approach on this. Price is number one for me. People travel for different reasons. I don’t have to fly as part of my job. If I’m flying to reach a destination where I’m going to have some fun, look at art. I know when I get there and back my life will be enriched by the overall experience, I can put up with a lot if the price is right, and I only go at times when I can get a deep discount flight. I travel not for leisure, but adventure. I don’t want a bag that weighs more than 50 pounds, because my bag is back pack without the wheels, and I’m going to be the one packing it. It splits in two parts, and counts as my carry-ons. I’ll be packing it across connecting airports, up stairs of cheap hotels and hostels, through the train stations. I pack some old clothes I can donate or throw away at my destination, so that there’s room at the end for a few souvenir T-shirts. That’s my humble take.

    • August 28, 2010 5:18 pm

      @Roy–I’m not particularly high maintenance either. I don’t really need all of the amenities when flying. But it’s the constant and insidious charging for the “extras” that’s starting to get to me. I say just charge the $50 and get over with it. I do see your point though. If you only pack what you carry-on, why not have the option of paying 50 bucks less? P.S. Good idea to take old clothes…

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