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Departments: First Word


The Not-So-Friendly Skies
Quality at U.S. airlines continues to decline.

Scott Paton

’m writing this month’s editorial aboard a United Airlines A320 jet en route from San Francisco to Orlando, Florida, a five-hour flight. I’m wedged into seat 17D with my wife and son asleep in the seats next to me. It’s been a frantic morning, made no less frustrating by the poor quality I’ve received from United.

It’s tough for me to write discouraging remarks about United. It’s long been my airline of choice. During the last 20 years or so, I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles on the airline. And when United entered bankruptcy, I was more determined than ever to fly it; clearly United needed the support of its loyal customers.

I naively assumed that bankruptcy would force United to try harder--to become more customer-focused. Unfortunately, United has instead implemented policies and procedures that alienate loyal customers like me. The events surrounding Sept. 11 and the economic downturn have forced nearly all airlines to cut back, causing at least some customer dissatisfaction. United’s reaction to the situation and its trip to bankruptcy court has left its service quality sorely lacking.

For example, on my last two trips I was forced to pay $25 extra at check-in because my luggage was overweight. The surly agent informed me how much United had to pay in workers’ compensation insurance because of “thoughtless travelers” like me. “Thoughtless travelers” like me? A traveler who has spent tens of thousands of dollars with the airline?

When booking this trip, I clicked the box on United’s online reservation system to let it know that one of the travelers was 2 years old. Nevertheless, My wife, son and I were not seated together. I called United several days in advance of our departure to see if we could get seat assignments. “We don’t do that until less than 24 hours before departure,” I was told as if I should be fully aware of the airline’s inane policy. “Call back tomorrow.” I did. “We hold a certain number of seats for gate assignment,” I was told this time. “You’ll have to do it when you check in.” So they have the capability to seat us together, they were just unwilling to do it. When we arrived at the airport in Sacramento we were told, “Sorry, you’ll have to check at the gate.” At the gate an exasperated agent told us, “You should have requested seats together when you made your reservation. I can’t do anything for you here. You’ll have to check with the gate in San Francisco.”

I could go on and on. OK, maybe I will: Lines at check-in have gotten ridiculously long; wide-body aircraft have been replaced with small and uncomfortable regional jets, 737s and A319/320s, even on transcontinental routes; and meals have all but disappeared.

I admit that I’m no economist and I’ll never understand airline economics, but I do know lousy service when I receive it. I also know the standard answer to all my grumbling: Low-fare carriers like Southwest and JetBlue have forced the major carriers to resort to these Draconian tactics to survive. Nonsense. I cannot and will not believe that the only way to respond to a more efficient competitor is to lower the quality of your product, alienating your customers and employees.

The major airlines have been complaining about deregulation and low-fare start-ups for more than 20 years. Instead of complaining and slashing service, maybe they should try to improve the quality of the service they provide.

P.S. After I wrote the first draft of this I thought I was too hard on United. However, that was before we arrived in Orlando and our luggage didn’t. Argh!