Inconsistency – Why People Hate Airlines

Customer Service

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.

22 comments on “Inconsistency – Why People Hate Airlines

  1. 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………..

  2. 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 Airways.

    Washington Post

    October 14, 2007

    A.L. Bardach

    I am haunted by the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.

    I didn’t know the mother of three who died shackled to a bench in the Phoenix airport on Sept. 28, en route to an alcohol treatment center in Tucson. I don’t know, beyond what I read in the newspapers, what troubles weighed on her. But I do know this: Based on my own recent flight experiences, hers was a death foretold.

    [Message truncated to restrict to fair use excerpt of article]

  3. I actually saw this article and may still comment on it. I find it to be an extremely irresponsible piece of journalism.

  4. 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…

  5. I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about it, but your interest in the subject has convinced me to do it. Look for a new post on this in the morning.

  6. 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.

  7. James – I’m a little confused why you would avoid JetBlue for charging for more legroom. They’re basic legroom is still 2 to 3 inches more than most other airlines. They’re now charging if you want an additional 4 inches on top of that. I personally don’t see a problem with it at all.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 as much for the airlines to fill up a plane…guess who is going to pay for it? The consumer! And now they are charging for things like checked baggage and a pre paid seat…even now you have to pay for a coke and chips on a plane! Yeah, that would get someone a little upset. Now let’s not forget TSA….3oz or less of liquids and Gels plus now you have to get to a small airport at least 2 hours early just to get to your gate on time to deal with security. Now with most airports allowing you to check in up to 45 mins before departure, it’s not like the old days anymore folks….I know this might sound harsh to say but “Get over it”. It’s a viscous circle that has caused this…9/11, the high cost in fuel, TSA, more people are flying with fewer flights that equals to this madness. But people have love-hate relationships with any company these days, even I will admit that but come on guys…Far as the Customer Service side of this, yes, the airlines can do a lot better with in reason like being a little bit more nice and telling you more information but you can’t ask them to do something that they can’t do – check your bag past the cut off, get you on a oversold flight and never demand anything. You really can’t blame the airlines 100% for this, it falls back to the TSA, the DOT and the Economy. Make you kind of wish Amtrak was still ever so popular….but if you really hate the airlines so much, there is always driving. Sorry if this sounds harsh but really, there is a lot more politics to as why there is madness.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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 when you come back”. At this stage I was not going to argue with him because the boarding was allready late and for fear of intimidation and getting Tazered I decided to not pursue this matter. The TN was still valid till end of August 2008. What right does an airline employee have to remove documentation from a passenger’s passport??? I will pursue this matter further my company’s lawyers.
    I will never fly Delta airlines again and if possible I will not go to the United States Of No Civil liberties again.
    Now I know why people fly planes into your buildings.
    Just remember in history all empires come to a fall

  15. NKK – To call you an ignorant and racist prick would be treating you too kindly, so I won’t even bother. Everyone has had problems when they fly, and while people certainly have a right to complain about it, your reaction is the most offensive I’ve seen.

    To think that your one bad encounter with a Delta employee somehow is a sign that the killing of thousands of innocent people was perfectly understandable is absurd, to say the least. The unnecessary inclusion of the employee’s race implies that not only are you insensitive and self-centered, but you are also racist, especially since you have presented no evidence to show that race was somehow involved here.

    I suggest thinking before you write next time.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 heartless policy probably results in a huge yearly bonus for some numbskull manager with no empathy or concern behond his on well being who stomped on his coworkers to attain his position. The world would be better off without this person, yet money flows into his pockets from the management of Delta Airlines. Delta is the devil and it shows.

  18. @ 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.
    Only a few airlines will survive and the price will be raised to where it should be (Cost of service plus profit) just like any other product or service. Those who can’t afford it will drive, take the train or the bus.
    As I recall, that’s the way it used to be!

  19. 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.

  20. anonymous wrote:

    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.

    The attackers on 9/11 specifically planned for flights that would have low loads because it would be easier for them to commandeer the flights. That’s why they chose early Tuesday morning flights in September – that’s about as low as it gets. Since that time, load factors have climbed dramatically as flights have been cut further.

  21. 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.


    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 a ticket on the way to the airport, car problems, whatever…. We CANNOT override the cutoff which is established to help ensure an on-time departure. EVEN IF WE COULD, WE WOULDN’T… THERE WOULD BE PLENTY OF OTHER PASSENGERS THAT *ARE* ON BOARD, THAT DID MAKE IT ON TIME THAT HAVE PLACES TO BE, AND WE WILL NOT JEOPARDIZE THEM MISSING A POSSIBLE SHORTER CONNECTION TIME.

    Use a Kiosk (REQUIRED—do not insist on having an Agent check you in—we have spent millions of dollars on those things to help the operation—use it, even if you are travelling International).

    If you check-in online and printed your boarding pass at home, but are also checking bags which you paid (or not) online as well—-KIOSK!!! You have only checked-in for your flight and paid for your bags online…. Bags can only be checked-in at the airport. Again, use a Kiosk. Press Delta, then Start, then Confirmation #. If you checked-in online you can still reprint a boarding pass on a Kiosk. Before you get an Agent, utilize all the functions of finding your itinerary we have programmed for you to use: ANY debit or credit card with your name on it (will not charge), confirmation #, ticket #, SkyMiles #, or passport swipe. Only after using all of these options without success should you then seek help. And do not get frustrated with the Agent… Just because a Kiosk cannot find your itinerary does not mean your record does not exist.
    There is a lot you do not know about that goes on when using a Kiosk behind the scenes automatically. Whoever booked your travel (whether you or travel agency) could have made a mistake that needs to be fixed, and could be one of the MANY possibilities of why it won’t let you check-in on a Kiosk. Nonetheless, you still need to use it. Again, you are in our home, take what we say (not saying you can’t ask non-repetitive questions though, we want to help you).

    Ever wonder why Agents in Atlanta seem different in regards to Customer Service than at other airports? Well, I hope you could have figured that one out… People that just don’t understand and are willing to say anything they can to get on a flight they missed the cutoff for (i.e.) is one reason. They deal with it and everything else, day after day.

    Arriving to check-in, check bags (or both) at 30 minutes to your flight departure? Get over the fact quickly you need to be rebooked, and yes there is a rebook fee since you were late ($50, except Plat/Gold, silver pays).

    Bag over 50 pounds? There will be a $90 fee. STOP! Your overweight bag now further affects the weight and balance of the aircraft. The aircraft now weighs more, and so will the fuel consumption.

    Yes! We have fees for everything, but there is always a reason. We are not bad people out to get everyone. I cannot says this enough… You are a GUEST in our home! Fees, your inability (regardless of your best reason) to make the 30 minute check in policy has nothing to do with the Airport Agents. We are told the laws, and we enforce them.

    “We make no bones about telling a customer when they are wrong. We will not tolerate bad treatment of our people.”

    I have always wanted to work in the airline industry since I was 5 years old. If you know what Publix is, you know the Customer Service. I use to work for them while also working with Delta. I am pursuing a PhD in Airline Management. I also have a minor in Psychology. I am passionate about the airline industry, but as said in one comment above, you have to realize and ACCEPT the economy also has a lot to do with things, of course.

    We really do love our Customers. Believe it or not, I am excited to come to work each day. I wake up at 2:30am each day and say to myself.. “I am going to see family”, but then Customers who really don’t know what they are talking about, but SINCERELY think they do, try to ruin my day, or attempt to. I am just a proud Agent with Delta Air Lines. I work the Lobby, the Kiosks, Bag Tags, Ticketing, Baggage Service, and Gates. I don’t set the rules, I just make sure they are applied. I come to work, and all I do is try to get people where they want to go SAFELY. People get upset with me without realizing that the airport Customer Service agents have nothing to do with what you do not like. Mechanical delay…(WANT TO SAY DELTA SUCKS!!!!????), go ahead, but it happens. Weather delay and miss your connection and need rebooking with no more flights available??? Too bad…. That has to do with mother nature, and we don’t put people in bad weather in the air.

    Just do what we say and accept it, or don’t accept it and go with the flow. You are in our home, you are on our airplanes. We really do appreciate you, but you must keep an open mind.

    Thank you, good day, and I sincerely hope you will fly with us. We really do appreciate you (when you’re respectful).

    With someone who also loved Psychology… I also must say this… Some people may really take this message to heart… Something may happen at the airport where you have to wait hours in a line, then you may think back on this message and just remain patient….THEN, after a certain amount of hours go by in a line (just an example, and is not what we are known for), some of you may STILL then start to become ERRATIC. Everything is always about perception. I hope all of you can make some sense about the meaning of this message.

    Again, and honestly, I hope to see you soon.

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