Monday, August 13

Stranding Passengers: US Airways

You can always tell the true quality of a company by how it handles a crisis, big or small. I learned a lot about US Airways, which became the fifth largest carrier in the United States after merging with America West this year, while I was stranded in Philadelphia on my way to New Haven, Conn. last Thursday.

At least 20 flights were cancelled for “weather” and US Airways in Philadelphia quickly buckled under the strain of wayward passengers. It didn’t help that the customer service line was staffed by only two or three people to assist a line that spanned several city blocks.

Adding to the confusion was one US Airways passenger service agent who, instead of assisting passengers, attempted to convince them to get out of line and rebook their own flights by calling a 1-800 number.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” he crowed, attempting to relieve himself of any and all accountability. “I’m telling you what I would do.”

But then he would return every few minutes, berating those passengers who took down the 1-800 number in desperation or politeness but were still unwilling to relinquish their position. (Some didn’t leave the line, simply because the agent lacked credibility.)

For me, there was only one reason to stay. While leaving Las Vegas, the Transportation Security Administration agents had mishandled the tray that contained all of my personal electronics. While my laptop and camera survived, my cell phone was less fortunate — split at the seam, with all audio functions rendered inoperable. Text messaging my way out of being stranded proved futile beyond notifying those expecting me that I might not make it.

As it turned out, staying in line for more than 4 and a half hours proved to be the wiser decision anyway. I was given a new boarding pass, allowing me to enter or leave the airport (other passengers were less fortunate the next morning). And, while waiting in line, the airlines had booked me on what they said was the next available flight to New Haven (about 9:30 a.m. the next morning), arranging for my baggage to be checked through on the same flight.

I also to learned that all the airport hotels were booked full, making it futile to do as the agent suggested. So rather than spending the night at the very accommodating Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale as planned, I would be semi-sleeping in Terminal F at the Philadelphia International Airport.

“If I were you, I would give up on alternative flights and make plans to stay in Philadelphia,” the customer service agent had said. “Get out of line, get your bags at baggage claim, and find a hotel. You’re not going anywhere tonight and there are no guarantees that you’ll be getting out tomorrow either.”

There was another benefit to not listening to him or several other customer service agents who may have had the fa├žade of knowing what to do, but proved just as confused as the passengers.

The 1-800 number they handed out was overloaded with calls and frequently disconnected. If you did get through, there was a possibility you would override your status on the next available flight. And, there was another 4-hour mass of people attempting to retrieve their bags in baggage claim, ranging from parents who ran out of formula to seniors who packed enough medication for a delay but not enough for what could be a day or two.

Even more perplexing was the sheer lack of empathy for passengers. Some service agents taunted them with looks of amusement, noting to each other that they would be headed home in an hour or thank goodness they had to check in departing flights that were apparently unhindered by “weather.”

Given that 34.14 percent of all America West dba US Airways flights were delayed and 2.29 percent were cancelled in 1997 (39.07 percent delayed and 3.08 percent in Philadelphia), weather is often the explanation for the airline, but seldom the cause. More likely, US Airways has adopted the America West approach to air travel, which means it lands and takes off at the airport as “space is available.”

In fact, the US Airways crew was so used to delays and cancelled flights, they handed a pre-written letter to passengers after the first three hours. While it might have read “Once again, we wish to extend you our sincere apology, and trust that you will consider the unforeseen nature of the cause of this travel interruption and understand our team will work as quickly as possible to assist you with your new travel plans,” the real message was the medium: it was a fifth generation photocopy with a 1-800 number written in by hand. It also said, though not in writing, don’t expect credit, hotel accommodations, or meal per diem tonight.

I did not, but what I did expect was some semblance of customer service. And since US Airways seems incapable of mapping out an appropriate plan of action when such instances occur almost 40 percent of the time, I’ll post what they could have done tomorrow as well as how I, as a passenger stranded overnight in an airport, managed to avoid succumbing to the chaos and growing negativity caused by not the passengers as much as US Airways personnel.

Yes, I managed to maintain a smile even when my luggage wasn't waiting at the New Haven baggage claim as promised. My cousin's wedding, the only reason to be in New Haven after everything other reason had to be cancelled, was now only six hours away.



Sweet Tea on 8/13/07, 9:02 AM said...

Sorry about the problems, Rich. I've heard a couple of other stories similar to yours. US Airways stories that is.
How you stayed calm is certainly commendable.

Unknown on 8/13/07, 9:14 AM said...

It's a shame, but your experience is pretty much the same across all airlines. If you're not in the top tier of their frequent flier programs, they're just not interested in making you happy.

If you find yourself trapped due to weather in a Northeastern city, get your bags and switch to Amtrak. You could have been at your destination in less time that you waited in line, and a first class Acela seat is far more comfortable and less expensive than the seat you were waiting for.

Rich on 8/13/07, 11:12 AM said...

Thanks JS and Boondoggie,

I appreciate it. While I would not volunteer to do it again, I welcome all experiences, good and bad.

Looking at the TransStats, which is published by the Bureau of Transportation, US Airways suffers 10 percent more delays than other airlines on arrivals. Boondoggie is right in that no airline has a stellar record nowadays. (And had it not been for the lack of a working cell phone, I may have rented a car to reach my destination.)

However, many of these customer service issues, especially given the general attitude of the passenger service agents, could have been avoided. There were easy and workable solutions that could have helped streamlined the process and made every customer leave with a neutral or positive experience as opposed to many of them promising never to fly the airline again. As we maintain a solution oriented blog, I'll point them out tomorrow. The cost would have been negligible.

As for "weather," it seemed to have little or no impact on other carriers. In addition, passenger experience in Philadelphia violated virtually every customer service policy claimed by US Airways.

Having been the stepson of a passenger service agent (who flew standby until I was 18) and travel as frequently as I do, I've learned to take it in stride (and will provide a few tips tomorrow). However, in this case, some missteps as well as the general lack of empathy on the part of the US Airways team created a much bigger problem and negative chain reaction than there needed to be.

If I were Doug Parker, chairman and CEO of US Airways, I would be embarrassed by the total breakdown in communication and customer service in Philadelphia. And, I might change the tagline from "Fly with us" to "Wait with us."

And if I were the U.S. Department of Transportation, I would seriously reconsider the airlines' bid for daily service to China. US Airways seems to have a hard enough time managing the flights they currently have in operation.

So while I might still be smiling, I also know that many passengers were not. And for their sake, I hope US Airways begins to take at least a few steps to putting service were their policy claims to be.

All my best,

Rich on 8/13/07, 12:34 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"Last year, the airline hired hundreds of baggage handlers to manage increased traffic and high turnover among ramp workers. [Philadephia.]

US Airways has 1,664 ramp employees at Philadelphia, and managers at the airport say dismissing even 100 or more would not seriously affect baggage handling, Andrea Rader, a US Airways Group Inc. spokeswoman said.

For the first six months of 2007, the airline had the worst record for lost and damaged bags among major U.S. airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation." — The Associated Press

Unknown on 8/14/07, 10:36 AM said...

Hey Rich. That's terrible man. I'm surprised that the airline didn't give you any where to stay. When I was going to Hawaii a few years ago, our plane got canceled in LA and they actually gave us 2 rooms to stay at overnight, along with of course transportation back and forth.

And we're not frequent fliers, and we just paid for coach, but some reason they were nice to us.

Rich on 8/14/07, 11:26 AM said...

Thanks Brian. I appreciate it.

Although I will be writing US Airways to seek some reimbursement (though from what I have read, redemption is not something the airlines believes in), I made the best of it. It's not that difficult for me, given the sheer volume of crisis communication situations I have been part of over last few years.

The reason we didn't get any service on this occasion is two-fold: 1. US Airways does not accept responsibility for anything consider "weather" related, which is all things. 2. Had they given one person special treatment, they would have had to offer hundreds more the same level of service, which they felt was too great of a cost.

The real cost will hit them later. I cannot count the number of people who swore never to fly the airline again.

While I only flew them because they are the only carrier to fly into New Haven direct, most passengers fly US Airways because they are sometimes $50 less than other carriers (they have reduced costs associated with flying into airports on stand by so to speak). But what most passengers do not know is that they have the worst service record of all airlines, even in their home base, receiving 10 times the number of complaints as Southwest Airlines.

Even more remarkable, no airline has yet to take them to task with the simplest of messages: $50 off your airfare isn't a bargain if you don't arrive.

For me, the cost associated with my overnight: $200 for a hotel in New Haven (because I had to hold the room, even though I was in Philly) and several meals. Of course, this doesn't even consider the fatigue, etc. nor that they lied.

The reason my bags were temporarily "lost" is simple. They flew out the night I was stranded and were already waiting at the New Haven Airport, which means simply this: the next available flight was not the one I took the next morning.

All my best,


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