By Travel columnist
updated 12/21/2005 5:37:04 PM ET 2005-12-21T22:37:04

I have come to think that America’s favorite pastime is complaining about airline service — especially service on the network carriers.

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It amazes me how long we hold on to the misadventures that occur during our travels, yet how quickly we forget the times when a gate agent straightened out a missed connection or a flight attendant went beyond the call of duty to ensure a comfortable flight. Like rubberneckers at the scene of a grisly accident, travelers become transfixed each time they hear stories of evil airlines treating a customer badly.

Of course, sometimes there are real lapses in service. Just the other week, a reader told me about a trip with five family members to the Big Island of Hawaii on a network carrier. According to the writer, both the outbound and return flights were utter chaos. Not only did the cabin smell of urine (both times) but his Thanksgiving Day flight also served no meal (he was offered a turkey sandwich, but it would cost him $3).

Worse, the fellow’s return flight was canceled, which involved hours waiting at an airport then boarding a bus to an unknown hotel without any guidance from airport agents. When the traveler finally returned home, he found his luggage was damaged; his claim for compensation was denied because the damage involved the handle and another attachment on the bottom of the suitcase.

OK, this flight deserves criticisms. But is bad service the norm?

Well, maybe. According to the Department of Transportation, complaints about U.S. airlines have jumped more than 29 percent this year, due mostly to canceled flights and baggage problems. One explanation for this increase is that more people are flying — more than 481.2 million people this year, a 3 percent increase over last year.

So I wondered: Is it really the big network carriers that are doing a bad job, or is it all kinds of carriers? According to the DOT’s “Air Travel Consumer Report,” Southwest Airlines and JetBlue had 0.18 and 0.29 complaints per 100,000 passengers while every network airline except Continental Airlines (0.94) was in triple digits, from Northwest Airlines at 1.00 to US Airways at 1.91.

Convincing evidence? I don’t think so. I think we just like to complain.

The disdain for network carriers that is evident in the press and among many people stems from past experiences when travelers felt they were being gouged by airlines with high last-minute fares and excessive fees. To this, I offer a simple observation: Airlines operate in a free and open competitive marketplace. If the market supported such fares in the past, then it was pure economics working — not the evil airlines gouging customers. They charged the prices the market would bear at the time. Thanks to discounters, airlines are now adjusting prices to meet new market conditions.

It also seems that those who complain the most are the ones who fly the least.

That makes sense if you think about it. If you took only one flight this year and it was a bad experience, you’d be more likely to complain than would the traveler flying 30 flights with three bad experiences. In one case, you’ve got 100 percent trouble, while in the other, you have a bad experience only 10 percent of the time. People who have good experiences 90 percent of the time have a better understanding that travel is not always perfect.

This still leaves one wondering why the complaints are more common with network carriers.

I believe it’s all about perception. When flying a network airline, travelers have grander expectations than they do when they fly a budget carrier. When flying Southwest or JetBlue, people adjust their attitudes to lower expectations. Psychologists call this the expectancy value.

I think travelers still expect United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and America Airlines to give them red-carpet service even while the passengers are paying unprofitable fares. Moreover, when something goes wrong, travelers expect a free first class ticket anywhere in the world, even if they’ve paid less than $200 for their flight.

I hate to sound unsympathetic, but there is a disconnect here.

The only path to getting better service is through a longstanding relationship of loyalty with an airline. Of course in situations of really terrible service, everyone should be compensated, but for common events, the fact is this: People who get compensated are those who have a vested stake in the company.

Think about it: With limited resources, airlines are most likely to make their best customers whole. As mercenary as it sounds, those who contribute more to the airline’s bottom line will get first dibs on goodwill gestures when things go wrong.

From a business perspective, this is sound practice. If you’re already giving customers loss-leading prices and you’re teetering on the brink of bankruptcy (or are already there), your limited resources have to be used wisely. If you know that one customer has only a 1 percent likelihood of returning to your business, while another has a 90 percent likelihood of returning, you are going to take care of the customer with the higher expected rate of return.

Remember the fellow with the truly terrible trip to Hawaii? He was a loyal customer of the airline — a frequent flier and a member of the airline’s preferred-customer club. In the end he got his due: a personal letter of apology in his mailbox and 20,000 miles in his frequent-flier account.

Even if you’re new to the loyalty game, you can still win with a smile. Last week I was rerouted to an American Airlines flight because of mechanical problems on my regular carrier. Now, I have only flown American Airlines once before, but I noticed that the gate agent working three flights was harried. I told her with a smile that this is only the beginning of her troubles, as Christmas is just around the corner. I then expressed my appreciation for her help. At first she handed me a boarding pass for a middle seat in the back of the plane, but then she glanced at it and said, “That’s not a very good seat. Try this one.” It was a first class seat, won through simple sympathy and courtesy.

When it comes to air travel, we like to blame other people when what we really need to do is take responsibility for our own travel experiences. You can do this by managing your expectations, by funneling more of your business to one travel provider, and by extending simple courtesies. Loyalty will give you the leverage you need to guarantee quality service, and a smile will win you friends.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Widzer's forum.

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