Airlines Are Tempting Fate With Awful Customer Service

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

We've often used this space to decry more regulation of industry. But maybe it's time to do something -- anything -- about the airline industry.

For those flying this summer, it's not your imagination: The skies are, indeed, getting more unfriendly.

Let's be clear. We're not writing this only because the Advertising Age delegation to Cannes spent most of its time without luggage. We're writing this because dozens of people traveling to Cannes spent most, if not all, of their time there without luggage.

We're also writing this because the airlines announced going into the summer that they'd be overbooking flights. This came on top of the fact that on-time performance for planes is at an all-time low. In what other business can a company basically say, "Give us your money and we'll pretty much guarantee you'll get stranded at some point"?

We could go on.

Of course the airlines will always have something to blame: weather, security, rising fuel costs, unions. Hundreds of other business sectors have found ways to navigate a post-9/11 world, manage their labor relations and cover their fuel costs without unduly burdening customers. And they manage to do so without being bailed out by the taxpayers every 10 years.

And there's absolutely no excuse for the treatment passengers receive during and after many of these airline incidents. Too often, the response to everything from lost luggage to canceled flights seems to be a shrug and a "Hey, you knew what you were getting into."

The millions of post-bankruptcy dollars being dumped into account reviews and ad campaigns would be better spent on old-fashioned competence and customer service. But that's unlikely. "Airlines have given up on the idea of customer service," said Ed Keller, director of Landor Associates.

One of the gold standards of customer service is to treat each customer as if she were your wife. If airlines can't bother to do that, perhaps they should at least treat each passenger as if she were a reporter who'll return home to write a scathing critique. Perhaps bad PR is the only language the industry understands. That, or regulation.

And when the regulators cast their eye on the airlines, the industry will find it's treated so many with such callous disregard that there'll be no one to stand by its side.
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