Image: Kate Hanni
Sarah Orr  /  Napa Valley Register via AP file
After being stuck on a grounded plane for more than eight hours, Kate Hanni of Napa, Calif., became a vocal activist pushing for a travelers' bill of rights. Being vocal is just one way travelers can stop the customer-service slide, columnist Chris Elliott writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/10/2007 9:52:19 AM ET 2007-09-10T13:52:19

It isn’t your imagination. The service is getting worse.

Almost every measure of performance, from the federal government’s numbers to independent surveys by the likes of the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, suggests that when it comes to travel, customer service is circling the drain.

The most recent Michigan study even found that people think they get better service from the Internal Revenue Service than their airline. The tax collector running an air carrier? Imagine that.

Neglecting customers is nothing new to the travel industry. But what is new are the numbers the travel business — particularly hotels and airlines — is putting on the board this year, despite all that. The U.S. airline industry is expected to earn $4 billion in 2007, its best year since before 9/11, and possibly ever. Hotels will rack up $27.4 billion in profits.

Kind of makes you wonder if one of the most basic rules of business — the one that says good customer service translates into good earnings — is quietly being voided by the travel industry. The answer is yes, and if something isn’t done about this profit paradox, customer service might get much, much worse.

It doesn’t have to. Here are five things you can do right now to stop the customer-service slide:

Don’t reward bad service with your business.
As a consumer advocate, I see a lot of e-mails that end with, “I’LL NEVER FLY ON YOUR AIRLINE AGAIN!” But that’s quickly forgotten the next time travelers are shopping for a flight and find that the cheapest fare is offered by the airline they’ve sworn to never patronize again.

The travel business knows we’re bluffing. If we weren’t, then the airlines with the worst numbers would be flying empty planes (if you’re wondering which carriers those are, here are the latest figures reported by the government ). And the hotels with the worst customer-service records would be getting turned into condos.

It’s time to make good on our promises and boycott the bad travel companies.

Complain about substandard service.
How often have you heard this: A travel industry insider is asked about declining service levels and amenities. To which he says, “For what you paid for your ticket, what did you expect?”

Translation: shut up and be happy. You’re getting what you deserve. But just because travelers ask for lower prices (who wouldn’t?) doesn’t mean they expect awful service. The travel industry’s apologists have made their customers feel guilty for demanding competitive prices and competent service. As a result, many passengers feel shy about complaining.

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Instead, they sheepishly accept shoddy service. But if enough travelers felt otherwise, they’d complain. And it would be far more difficult for travel companies to delude themselves into thinking they were doing a good job. (I have a whole section on my Web site that shows you how to file an effective complaint.)

Tell your friends when something goes wrong.
Travel companies are secretly relieved when you send a complaint to them — and no one else. Their worst nightmare? That you tell all of your friends, and that they tell their friends. And now, thanks to the Internet and a little phenomenon called social networking, you can spread the word even faster through Web sites such as Trip Advisor and IgoUgo. If you’re really ticked off, take a few snapshots and post them on Flickr or shoot a quick video and download it to YouTube.

Your opinion is important. Those aren’t just empty words printed on a guest comment card that collects dust in the corner of your room, or the rhetoric used by a bored hotel clerk. It’s a new reality the travel industry is only now beginning to fully understand.

Call the cops.
The travel industry’s second-biggest fear, behind telling your friends about your lousy experience, is telling the government about your lousy experience. Why are they less afraid of the cops than your friends? Mostly because local, state and federal authorities stay out of the affairs of airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and hotels.

For example, if you write to the Department of Transportation with an airline complaint, chances are it will just acknowledge your letter and add it to its monthly report. It doesn’t have the resources to investigate every complaint. Still, you should tell them. (I have a list of every relevant regulatory agency on my site).

The reason: times are changing. There’s a move to increase the Transportation Department's Office of Aviation Enforcement & Proceedings budget $2.5 million next year, which could add 25 staffers to the division, and increase enforcement actions. In other words, the cops are on their way.

Become an activist.
If none of the above seems like enough, consider turning things up a notch by becoming a full-time crusader for better customer service. That’s what Kate Hanni, a Napa, Calif., real estate broker did after she was trapped on an American Airlines flight for nine hours earlier this year. Hanni took her fight to Capitol Hill, where she’s been pushing for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.

Last month, when I caught up with her in Washington, she told me she was dedicated to the cause for the long haul, but could use a little help. That’s true. Although there are many other self-described consumer advocates, many have hidden agendas and are funded by the very companies they’re trying to change. Unless more concerned travelers like Hanni come forward and try to change the industry, bad service may become a standard.

Bad customer service isn’t inevitable. But unless more people vote with their wallets and speak up when things go wrong, we might one day look back on the first decade of the 21st century as the Golden Age of customer service.

I’ll be taking a closer look at what makes the travel business tick in a new weekly column that will appear here. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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