Inconsistency – Why People Hate Airlines

SadPeople absolutely love to hate airlines, but why is it that some airlines anger people a lot more than others?

I always hear the argument that successful airlines are those that underpromise and overdeliver. Take a look at Southwest Airlines. When you buy a ticket, you expect a seat and you expect to get to your destination, but that’s about it. When they sling a snack box at you and have flight attendants that actually smile, you’re thrilled at how the experience exceeded your expectations.

Of course, that type of scenario leads to far fewer complaints than those airlines that overpromise and underdeliver. In fact, in August, the most recent month available from the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report, Southwest had a very low .15 complaints per 100,000 passengers. That translates into 13 whole complaints sent to the DOT that month, but if they were perfect at underpromising and overdelivering, they wouldn’t have had any at all, right?

The root of the problem is related to consistency, or rather, lack thereof. Every company sets expectations. In Southwest’s case, they usually set expectations low enough that most inconsistencies tend to fall on the positive side, but on at least 13 occasions last month, it went far enough the other way that people felt compelled to write complaints to the DOT. That means there were plenty more people who weren’t pleased but didn’t bother to complain (at least, not to the government). Airlines that promise more will likely find inconsistencies more often having a negative impact than at an airline like Southwest.

So while airlines can try to promise less, that’s not a business model that suits everyone. Many airlines pride themselves on service promises that are much more difficult to meet. What those airlines can do is try to find a way to be more consistent and actually fulfill their promises. Common sense tells me that the easiest way to provide consistent service is to keep your rules as simple as possible. The legacy airlines have done an excellent job of adding crazy exceptions and complexities into their rules that make consistency almost impossible.

Let’s look at baggage check-in for an obvious example. Delta says that bags must be checked no later than 30 minutes before departure except in Atlanta, Denver, Vegas, LA, and Orlando where it’s 45 minutes and in San Juan, St Thomas, and St Croix where it’s 60 minutes. Oh, and that’s just for domestic travel. If you’re going internationally, you have to check your bags 60 minutes prior except in Bogota, Nassau, Providenciales, and St Lucia where it’s 2 hours, Moscow where it’s 3 hours, and Istanbul where it’s inexplicably 3 hours and 15 minutes.

You’ll be surprised to know that even golden boy Southwest has fallen into this trap. It’s a 30 minute cutoff everywhere except for Baltimore, Chicago/Midway, Denver, Vegas, LA, Phoenix, Orlando, and Washington/Dulles where it’s 45 minutes. So why the added complexity? My guess is that this is an example of good intentions gone wrong thanks to anchoring on previous policies.

Undoubtedly the baggage cutoff time was 30 minutes at all airports in the past. At some point, the powers-that-be realized that some airports required more time to reliably get bags on the plane. The seemingly logical response was to inconvenience as few customers as possible, so they just bumped up the cutoff to 45 minutes prior at the few airports that needed it. I can see how this makes sense in a vacuum, but when realizing that it has to be communicated internally and externally along with thousands of other policies around the airline’s network, it doesn’t seem to be worth it. Contrast this with Frontier Airlines which has a 45 minute cutoff for all bags in all cities. A uniform policy that’s easy to communicate makes it far easier to remain consistent.

Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to think that just simplifying policies will solve the problem entirely. Big airlines are bound to have a more difficult time with consistency by nature. The larger and more diverse the organization, the more difficult it is to keep everyone acting according to policy, regardless of how simple it is.

A thread in FlyerTalk today is actually what prompted me to write about this issue. The thread details how someone flying on United out of Los Angeles wanted to check a bottle of expensive wine and was denied. He was told that it was “a LAX-only rule, and it was instituted because someone checked wine without wrapping it properly, the bottle broke, leaked out of the suitcase staining other peoples’ suitcases, and [United] was held liable for the damage. The [Customer Service Rep] next to her then remarked ‘I had no idea we had that rule!’. Grrr…”

Really, it’s the very large size of the airline that allows something like this to even occur. A smaller airline would have more oversight over its airport operations – that would help eliminate random policies implemented by individual airports without approval from above. And if this is just a rumor and not an actual policy, smaller airlines would be able to diffuse those rumors much more quickly.

So is the solution to only fly small airlines that can be consistent? Yeah, right. That’s probably not possible, and even if it were, most people wouldn’t be willing to forgo the frequent flier benefits the big guys offer. What’s realistic is for airlines and customers to meet in the middle. Customers need to be more patient in dealing with airlines, and airlines need to work to simplify their policies to remove as much inconsistency as possible.

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22 Comments on "Inconsistency – Why People Hate Airlines"

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Anonymous
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When I worked for DL, ticket counter, gates, the norm for getting bags on the plane was 15-20 minutes.

But then again, in 1991, Delta had a dedicated happy work force, not high school dropouts that man the ticket and gate locations now………..

Mark Benson
Guest
Great blog… how about getting this one around? The airlines are the only business in the world that can abuse thousands of people as a matter of policy, and when they complain too loudly, Airlines bring the full force of law down on the complainer. I’ve seen people kicked off planes, abused at the gate — literally berated and yelled at by gate agents who knew they really have all the power in the relationship — with no recourse. In this case, the death of a mother of three is just more collateral damage for the “yield managers” at US… Read more »
Mark Benson
Guest

I’ll be interested to see why you think so. She makes a compelling case that the sector is, for a variety of financial and infrastrustural reasons, in meltdown. US Airways abuses the traveling public as a management-level policy decision: it’s their business model, so to speak; the only way to make the numbers work.

The breaches of promises and damaged people are an afterthought. Phoenix is a metaphor for this sad state of affairs. Remember, all this poor woman wanted to do is get to Tucson…

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[…] after reading this opinion piece in the Washington Post yesterday and getting comments about it on another post, I decided to say something. See, you can blame airlines for a lot of things, but blaming them for […]

JAMES PENCE
Guest

I was told the other day that JetBLue will be charging more money for a little more leg room. Since I book all the reservations for our world wide company I have put a postit on my computer reminding me not to use JetBlue. I was approache by our CEO that “that was it” with using that Airline. Whats next, renting the seat belt during the flight. Woops!, shouldn’t give them any ideas.

Randy
Guest

Conversation overheard between gate agent and manager

(Further confirmation that airlines deserve to go bankrupt for how they treat their customers)

Agent: This passenger left his cell phone and I picked up when he called it. I let him know he could come back to this gate or we could send it to lost and found and how to retreive it.

Manager: Never do that again. Don’t answer the phone, it makes us liable in case we lose it between when they call and when they come back for it.

Hondo
Guest
I have worked for Delta for the last 10 years prior to going to other and better things. I don’t think it’s that people hate the airlines in general, I don’t think people like change period. Yes, I know it’s a pain in the butt with the new rules and what not but lets really look at the whole picture to what people are angry all the time – I am a private pilot and own my own place but don’t fly as much as I like with the cost of Jet A around $5.50 a gal and cost just… Read more »
Jimmy
Guest

Hondo: I decided long ago to do just that, drive instead of fly. Its such a hassle to fly anywhere, with the airlines cutting back, the TSA and the extra fees for bags, cokes, even seating. Not to mention the rude and “don’t give a flip” attitude of airline employees. It may take longer, but I’m more comfortable.

Randy
Guest

Hondo,

You must be paid by the airlines to lurk in blogs like this and defend them. Who else would write so many words defending an industry so screwed up. If I ran my company like the airlines, treated customers like the airlines treat us, I’d be in bankruptcy too.

Randy
Guest

Jimmy,

So right. Does it even take longer – at least much longer – especially if you have a connection? I fly around the east coast mostly. If you count from the time you walk out the door and drive to the airport until the minute you hit your hotel – it’s often just an hour or 2 longer. And I arrive in such a better mood.

Hondo
Guest

Randy,

I do not work for an airline anymore…I think you missed that where I said I went on to better things

I think alot of you guys are reading too much into this and are missing the point but then agian I don’t think any of you realize the ecomonics of how things run in the airlines, it’s pretty disturbing.

Jimmy, I agree about driving…I rather drive than fly, but I also have my own C172, just find a small airport, park it, get a rental car and drive away…lol

NKK
Guest
I flew with Delta Airline on 1st July 2008 to Rio De Janeiro. What a waste of my money. At Atlanta airport a so called “passport check” was done pre boarding. Two Delta airline employees were doing this. They issuing contradicting orders to the boarding customers which resulted in absolute chaos. When my turn came the African American Delta Airlines employee 1) Could not find my visa for Brazil and 2) Decided to tear/rip my TN registration from my passport. Upon my question why are you doing this he replied ” You don’t need this. You can get it back… Read more »
Cameron
Guest

Well, let me add Frontier Airlines to the list of illogical airlines. I’ve just spent thirty minutes on the phone trying to change a $160 ticket. I’ve found the flight I want, which is $200, but they want to charge me $190 for ($150 change fee, $40 for the difference in price). Are you kidding me? One thing I always loved about Southwest is that you can change your tickets without any change fee. Any empty seat is an empty seat, right?

I definitely never want to fly Frontier again.

Harristottle
Guest
Delta strands people all over the nation, childern from their parents, dividing groups, and people from their luggage. Basically, if you misplace your boarding pass, you are screwed, if you check in online but need to print a boarding pass you are screwed, this policy is to screw customers when they have oversold flights. Delta not only implements a policy to screw customers on overbooked flights but they then attempt to charge same day flight prices to book a later flight with them. Within 45 minutes of a flight, Delta freezes all computers to screw any customer needing assistance. The… Read more »
Donald
Guest
@ Anonymous: The airlines sell a service at less than their cost of doing business. The customer’s expectations can’t be met at that price and they complain. Rightly so, the passenger isn’t responsible for the price he pays. When someone buys something they pay the price marked. Is a can of corn worth 99 cents, I don’t know, I just pay it because it’s the price. If the cost of an airline seat is offered at $500. that’s the price I pay. If it’s $99. then that’s what I will pay however I my expectations for service are not lower.… Read more »
anonymous
Guest

If overbooking is a widespread airline policy, then why the occupation rate of the planes involved in the 9/11 attacks were so low? (about a quarter to a third of their total capacity).
Any clues anyone?
Thanks for replying.

DL Employee
Guest
All of you are just feeding off of one another. Remember, the second you step foot in our Lobby at Delta near the Kiosks you are a guest in OUR home. Those planes sitting outside at the back of the building… Our planes. Remember, you are in our home, we are providing the service, flying is not a right, it is a privilege. Advice: Don’t arrive to the airport when you are ready. Be there at our recommended times. Miss the cutoff and travelling International, or just ABSOLUTELY have to be somewhere for what you booked your ticket…. SO?!?!?! Get… Read more »
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