Monday, April 21, 2008

Speaking of Airlines...

This seems too rich a vein to leave just yet... With (insert name of any major airline) canceling (insert ungodly number of) flights every day, there are plenty of people gathering first-hand experience of an airline's "service profile" right now.

Here's one from the vault. It's a little number I like to call... "Treat your customers like POW's: Keep them cold, in the dark and on the floor."

In 2006, I was scheduled to fly out of Dulles on JetBlue, along with two co-workers, on a 9pm flight to Oakland, CA. When we got to the airport approximately one hour before the flight, we could see that the flight was delayed by about an hour, due to weather delays in the northeast. No problem, we could manage an extra hour in Dulles. They have bars.

10 pm rolls around, and I'm no aeronautical genius, but the total lack of a giant blue thing with wings outside our gate suggested that we were not about to begin pre-boarding. Finally, a new estimate: 11:30 departure. One of the gate attendants announces over the loudspeaker that the pilot missed his connection and would be on the next flight out. Hence the additional delay.

11:30. Still no plane, and no further updates from JetBlue's gate attendants, who were beginning to get that "last sentries at the Saigon embassy" look in their eyes. A crowd of restless business commuters begin to close in on the check-in desk, holding briefcases, cups of coffee, crying babies... basically anything that could be used as a weapon.

Midnight. Up steps the more senior looking gate attendant. He announces that there in fact will be no plane. There never was a plane. Or rather, there never was a pilot. Or rather, there was a pilot, but never any practical way to get him from JFK to Dulles. JetBlue didn't want to announce (admit) it until they were sure. Also, as it turns out, until it was late enough that there was no way to make alternate travel plans.

Thank you for choosing JetBlue!

Our Plan B was genius:
  1. Call Southwest airlines (you know I love to do that) and
  2. Buy three tickets to From BWI to OAK (by way of Kansas City), departing Baltimore in 8 hours.
  3. Take a $125 taxi ride to BWI, and spend the night on the floor.
Note: There are no comfortable seats, much less couches, in the outer terminal of BWI, and they close the inner terminal, where the gates and comfy seats are, during the wee hours. My stalwart companions and I spent an uncomfortable but not altogether unpleasant night on a patch of carpet behind an elevator. (Believe it or not, we actually got looks of jealousy from other, less well situated refugees.) We passed the time reminiscing about pre-Bush America and watching Apocolypse Now (seemed appropriate) on my portable DVD player.

Good times.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why do I love calling Southwest Airlines?

I have no great explanation for this... but I always look forward to calling Southwest Airlines. Not that I call them often; maybe 4 or 5 times a year. But I know that when I do, I'll be treated well. The CSR will be friendly and courteous, and will take his or her time and be genuinely helpful.

As a result, I kind of look forward to the conversation. I get happy when I'm dialing 1-800-IFLYSWA. How awesome is that!?

Okay, it's also pathetic. Fair enough. But still... kudos to Southwest for establishing the bar for all CSRs.

Now, if we could get just a li'l more legroom...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How to lose a customer for life

I don't carry an American Express card. Did once. Don't any more. Here's why:

My wife and I took an extended trip to Ireland. We happened to have a large amount of cash in our bank account at the time (due to an inheritance), and we decided against carrying travelers checks in favor of using our AMEX card, which, we'd been told, had no spending limit.

We visited the Emerald Isle for about three weeks and had a bonny old time. We racked up a debt of several thousand dollars on our card, which we intended to pay off in full on our return to the States. But at some point before returning, our AMEX card started getting rejected. The account had been frozen. This caused us a bit of hassle, since there was (at that time) no easy way to access the cash sitting in our savings account stateside.

On returning to the States, I called AMEX. The first person I spoke to immediately transferred me to someone "more senior." (I guess some big skull and crossbones popped up on her screen when she accessed our account.) The not-very-friendly more senior person -- let's call him Brad -- explained to me that my card had been suspended due to an unusually high volume of activity over the past few weeks.

Yes, I explained, we'd been in Europe and used the card for almost everything we did. We have plenty of cash and will pay the balance in full before the statement due date. (Note that, according to our statement, payment wasn't due for another week.)

Brad then adopted a slightly hostile tone and explained to me that the card would remain suspended until they received payment.

This bothered me. We had not been informed of any spending limit. We had not ever failed to pay the balance in full by the statement's due date, including in this instance. And we had explained that the recent activity was both legitimate and completed.

Nope, Brad could not help us. The card could not be used until they received some payment. (He emphasized some even though I'd indicated we would be paying the full balance.) OK, fine, I said, you'll receive full payment and instructions to close our account.

Brad seemed fine with that, so I considered the matter final.

Still, my do-gooder instincts compelled me to write a letter accompanying our payment, explaining the situation and offering to re-consider the decision to close the account if someone would contact me to discuss it with us. Nobody ever did.


But then, a month later, I got a form letter "from" the CEO of AMEX, expressing his sadness that we'd decided to close the account, and asking if there was anything AMEX could do to keep our business. Provided was an SASE to send comments. So I sent the same letter back in the SASE.

Never got a reply.

That was thirteen years ago. I've been shredding offers from AMEX ever since.

What should they have done differently?

I started to make another list, but why bother? We both know...