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Airlines: Why some will soar, other will nosedive

Why Some Will Soar; Others Will Nosedive

Courtney Caldwell


The struggle continues. The travel industry, it seems, was hit the hardest by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. People feared getting on planes and stopped traveling for quite some time. While all travel businesses suffered to different degrees, it was the airline industry that took the biggest nosedive.

The war in Iraq will cause yet another downturn. Some analysts predict a $500 billion loss this year in the travel industry alone as a result. Many businesses will simply close their doors, others will claim bankruptcy in a last ditch effort at salvation. Some will offer deals beyond your wildest dreams to keep you in the air and visiting their resorts, deals that may be too good to pass up. And some are even willing to negotiate, so don't be afraid to ask.

So why then, with all the devastating losses over the past eighteen months and the impending losses from war, are some of the major airlines still charging pre-9/11 ticket fares and not offering better deals? Logically, one might expect that quantity over quality in this case would work best. In other words, why not lower airfares within reason and offer a discounted airfare coupon to ensure repeat business? Wouldn't this increase odds of filling all seats at the discounted fare as opposed to just some of them at the higher price? Not only would this be good business, and feed the bottom line during a crisis situation, it would also build a better relationship with the public.

Since 9/11, like many people, I've followed what airlines have been doing to save their companies. Northwest, known as an underdog in most circles, has actually been doing an outstanding job at offering reduced fares, special deals, and great connections. Because their main hub is in Detroit, where our offices are based, I use them frequently. Since 9/11 they've never been better or more consistent as far as staying on schedule. It's clear they're working hard at building customer relationships, including a friendlier attitude towards frustrated travelers.

One rising star emerging from the dust is Spirit Air, a no-frills airline that wasn't even a consideration prior to 9/11 for most people. Suddenly, there they were with amazing deals and new destination schedules. I've used them several time since 9/11 and find them to be very accommodating and friendly and their airfares are downright amazing. Did you know that an upgrade to first class is only $40, depending on availability of course? Sure, they don't offer meals or anything fancy, but hell, even the big airlines don't offer meals anymore for flights less than 4 hours.

Southwest Airlines became one of the few, if not the only one, to become profitable after 9/11. Part of the reason was because many people felt that Southwest was not a likely target by terrorists but more importantly, they remained true to their mission. Excellent fares, a very friendly staff, with increased route schedules as well. Like Spirit, they offer no frills and no meals, but think about it...when was the last time you got a great meal on an airplane anyway? Even first class meals, if you're lucky enough to get one anymore, leave little to be desired.

United Airlines has claimed bankruptcy since 9/11, a move to help them reorganize and save the company. American Airlines also filed chapter 11 but has since recovered. One reason they were hit the hardest was because it was their jetliners that were used by the terrorists. Naturally, Americans picked up on the symbolism right away and stopped using them. The lack of business led them straight down the path of bankruptcy and plummeting stock. So, why then are these two airlines still charging the highest airfares?

Wouldn't it make sense for these two airlines to work the hardest at offering the best deals to lure customers back? Isn't it better business to lower airfares, offers specials, and provide the best damn customer service you could ever imagine? Isn't it smarter to fill all seats at a lower price than few seats at the higher price, especially if the outcome bolsters the bottom line? Isn't it wiser to appear more humble than arrogant?

Speaking of arrogant, another issue larger airlines still suffer from is attitude. Giving the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the snappy repertoire and grim faces of most gate agents lately is simply the fear of job loss. But wouldn't it make more sense if they tried harder to please? While it wouldn't be fair to lump all employees in at all airlines, I must remind airline executives that we are a society that tends to live by the bad apple rule, right or wrong. Suffice it to say, the underdogs seem to be racking up more frequent flyer miles in the customer service department than the big dogs. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned here.

As a customer, would you return to the business that treated you with disrespect and rudeness, even if you got a better deal? Most people wouldn't and don't.

On a recent flight to Chicago, I flew United Airlines. Upon returning to Detroit, I arrived at the airport to standby for an earlier flight. Still sort of sleepy and on automatic pilot, I checked my luggage and forget to mention I wanted to go standby on the earlier flight, hence the luggage got checked on the later flight. I explained my fumble to the gate agent and asked if they could get it transferred to the earlier standby flight.

Rymot, a name that stuck out due to its uniqueness, rudely and gruffly replied that I had to fly with my luggage, therefore, could not get it transferred, although there were two hours to accomplish this.

Taken aback by her condescending attitude and tone of voice, I leaned into the counter to discretely let her know that her behavior was unwarranted and unacceptable especially in light of all the challenges and bankruptcy United was facing. As I walked away she replied loudly enough for all to hear, "It's people like you that have caused our bankruptcy." Now there's a company I want to do business with again.

Point being, in light of all the losses and challenges the airlines are facing, especially United and American, customer service and good deals should be a priority. Customers tend to support those companies who offer both in generous portions. And there's nothing better than a repeat customer.

Like most people, I want good service, and yes I want a good deal but not at the expense of being treated like a dog. I'd rather pay a little more if it means a kinder, gentler attitude in this already rough tumble world we live in.

If the big boys want to get back in the game, then perhaps they should take a lesson from Northwest, Southwest and Spirit Air, because whatever they're doing, they're doing it well. And while at it, perhaps the big boys should add a refresher course in customer service 101 on how the bad apple rule works. It only takes one.