Not knowing wife’s name gets her stuck in China

ChinaWhen you take the SAT, you get 200 points for spelling your name right. Ever wonder why? Well, you should ask Wen Ling Lian and her husband, Robert Schlund. Lian left Wayne, Michigan for China, on a trip to visit her family. While in flight, she saw that her name had an “e” stuck on the end of it. Though not a problem in the United States, she knew it would be when she tried to leave China later. Fortunately, a resolution was found in blaming a company that hadn’t done anything wrong.

So, here’s the deal. Lian was on the ground in China and running out of time. Her name was wrong on her ticket, the result of an error made by her husband when making the ticket purchase with online travel agency CheapOair. By the time Lian and Schlund realized what had happened, of course, nothing could be done … except to buy another ticket. CheapOair could not change the name on the ticket, as it’s a matter of airline policy that tickets are non-transferable after purchase – meaning that the name can’t be changed. The online travel agency can’t make the change without the airline’s consent.

But, this didn’t stop Schlund from trying. Rather than spring for the new ticket to get his wife home, which would have cost him a few hundred dollars – or even contact the airline, China Eastern Air – he decided to pass the buck. After claiming that the online travel agency wouldn’t help him – an absurd notion given the fact that it does not have access or ability to do so without airline consent – and never even bothering to contact the airline, he decided to turn to a consumer advocate the media. Schlund shared his sob story with WDIV – Detroit’s “Ruth to the Rescue,” still refusing to take responsibility for not knowing his wife’s name … and to think I used to catch hell for not remembering anniversaries!

%Gallery-76818%Well, this is where a new problem arises: the broadcast isn’t accurate. CheapOair, which got Lian a new ticket at its own expense even though her husband had made the mistake (eating
$200, according to a spokesperson for the online travel agency, despite making a mere $4 on the original transaction), had no obligation to do anything at all. Nonetheless, in a moment of chest-thumping, “Ruth to the Rescue” claims to have affected a remedy because she got involved. Really, she was an accomplice to injustice, as a company was compelled to pay for the obvious mistakes of a customer. Also, the loaded report emphasizes that the ticket was purchased in October, which is wholly irrelevant since the passenger didn’t notice the problem until the plane was in the sky.

So, the net effect was that the only party that could have made the change wasn’t contacted by the passenger. The party that could not do anything to help – the online travel agency – was put in the hot seat publicly and forced to assume an expense unnecessarily.

Is corporate greed the culprit? I doubt it. I’ve spent $4 on a cup of coffee for a colleague and didn’t ask for a dime in return. So, I don’t see CheapOair risking its brand for that amount. And, the company had earned the cash, a sum insufficient to bear Abraham Lincoln’s likeness. Instead, it’s a case of inattention and irresponsibility on the part of a customer.

When I reached out to CheapOair about this, I learned not only about the net $196 loss it sustained in order to cope with the effects of a customer who had made a mistake and found a platform but also that the company expended several man-hours across several departments to address media inquiries (including mine), a fact that any business mind could identify immediately. Schlund’s mistake caused a cost of several thousand dollars to be assumed by a company that hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Our hands were tied on the original issue,” said the spokesperson, after explaining the technical process by which data is captured from the website and sent to the airlines (explained at a high level, not in technical-ese, for my benefit, I confess). “We literally could not do anything – we physically aren’t able to change the customer’s name in the system,” she continued, “without a code supplied by the airline. We have an entire department that tries to secure these and other waivers for our customers, but it’s ultimately up to the carrier.” She added, “We sympathize with Mr. Schlund; we really do. But, we can’t change what we can’t access. It really is that simple.”

Now, I’m not a fan of the airline industry – anyone who has read my work knows that. I routinely bemoan the paucity of customer service in the space. But, we have to be realistic. Asking these businesses do the impossible for us just isn’t an option. And, as customers, we do have to be ready to take responsibility for our own buying decisions. We have enough to complain about already – there’s no need to invent more.

[photo by autumn_bliss via Flickr]

The slow demise of Amtrak customer service

amtrak customer serviceIt is a breathing, filthy mass of humanity in here. Groups of youth are sprawled across the floor, some on computers or smart phones, some eating fast food and others staring forlornly off in the distance, slowly rocking back and forth. A group of ten-odd Amish mill about in quiet companionship, belongings folded solemnly into hard luggage from a generation past. Feverishly, a woman swipes her credit card through the vending machine and stabs at the blue-illuminated lights. *Invalid* it says. *Invalid*.

This is the south Amtrak lounge at Chicago‘s Union Station.

Three hours into our delay with no updates from the staff, it strikes me that if this were the airline industry, then people would be up in arms. Bloggers would be furiously stroking their mustaches and writing angry letters to the executives deep inside of Amtrak ranks, while pundits in the community would be making ombudsman calls. Some sad politician would draft up the the Rail Sanity Act of 2011, only to get it shot down by a filibuster.

Instead, it seems like these Amtrak passengers have accepted their fate and that in a solemn, desperate way they’re starting to bond together and power through it. Somewhere along the way, Americans have just come to accept the fact that Amtrak isn’t reliable and that customer service here doesn’t equal customer service at a hotel or on an airline or cruise ship.

What would be ideal is if Amtrak passengers took a step in the direction of airline passengers — and vice versa. If airline passengers realized how damn hard the industry was trying and what the real effect of weather and logistics was then maybe they’d better appreciate the art of flying. On the flip side, if train customers were more vociferous about the atrocities that they experience then maybe quality could improve. To begin with, complaints and comments should be made on their comments page here.

[flickr image via haydnseek]

Delta Air Lines sends frontline staff back to charm school

We’ve all been there – standing face to face with an airline employee that has the customer service skills of a can of beans, completely unwilling to provide any form of assistance in a time of need.

According to the Vice President of Delta, his airline completely fit that description when they so badly failed at customer support last summer.

To fix things, he’s sending 11,000 of his staff to be retrained. Everyone that is directly involved with customers, from gate and baggage agents, to ticket agents and supervisors will be sent to charm school.

One of the driving forces behind this speedy retraining project is the number of complaints about Delta Air Lines sent to the Department of Transportation. Delta beat every other airline in the nation – a first place hardly worth bragging about. Add to that scoring second to last in on-time arrivals and baggage handling, and you see why they are spending $2 billion on improving things.

With role-play games and other hands-on lessons, the staff will be retrained on how to deal with complaints, how to explain baggage fees to customers and tips on how to put the focus back on the customer.

According to the Wall Street Journal, these are the core elements of the retraining plan:

  • Make it personal. Focus on the person in front of you, not the long line of people. Greet each one memorably.
  • Be empathetic. Put yourself on the other side of the counter.
  • Listen, ask, listen again. Customers tune out routine announcements. Agents tune out customers.
  • Solve together. Involve customers in solutions by offering choices.
  • Be there. It’s a lot easier to check out than check in. ‘If you don’t remember your last three customers, you are just processing,’ said Delta facilitator Michael Hazelton.

To me, these are all things staff should have been doing all along, and retraining them in such basic things seems rather odd. Also, retraining staff to greet customers won’t help if the policies at the airline are the bigger issue – and without providing staff available options to be empowered and override rules, customers will still be aggravated when things go sour.

Question is – is this all too little too late? Have you switched carriers because of lousy service from Delta Air Lines?

%Poll-59588%

[Photo: AP]

Are you an impotent traveler?

travelerThe endless people crowded at gate areas over the next week or so will probably feel what it means to be an impotent traveler. When you’re at the mercy of the airlines, there’s little you can do to affect change. Sure, they can’t control the weather, and legitimate problems do arise from time to time (no business is perfect). But, when you want information, have a legitimate grievance or would just benefit from some solid customer service, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. Expectations for airlines are so low that there’s really little incentive to change.

Of course, it’s not just the airlines, according to the Daily Mail: “Along with airlines, this group includes train companies, mobile phone and computer suppliers, broadband providers and cable and satellite TV firms.” The article adds, “The normal rules of the marketplace do not apply in their case. They know they have become indispensable.”

There are times when we’re just not in the driver’s seat, and there is little we can do about it. If you need some ideas on how to overcome travel impotence, check out our tips on how to be effective in making your voice heard.

[photo by nesnet via Flickr]

The 10 easiest ways to improve air travel this holiday season

holiday season air travelIt’s time for you to drag your screaming kids, annoying spouse and endless amounts of overstuffed bags through the airport, as you find your way over the river and through the woods. Thanksgiving is behind us, and that’s the really ugly time to travel, but Christmas is no picnic either. The gate areas and bars will be crowded, and it’s going to be awfully hard for you to be happy while darting from Point A to Point B.

How nice it would be if we could all follow some fairly specific rules designed to keep each other from blowing up – and make all our travel experiences far more efficient. Just under a week after I started at Gadling, two years ago, I wrote six ways to “[m]ake your flight (and mine) easier this holiday season.” As we approach Christmas, this list is definitely worth another look.

In the 700+ days since writing that post, I’ve done more flying and more travel writing. Consequently, I’ve accumulated a bit more knowledge … and a handful of additional pet peeves. A lot has changed since late 2008. The global financial crisis, originally putting severe pressure on the travel market, has given way to something of a recovery, forcing airlines and online travel agents to compete head to head for your business. And, even though ticket prices are up 13 percent year over year, they are still far below peak levels — and may be at their lowest in 15 years. In some environments, pricing is even flat year over year.

So, it makes sense to revisit this issue. Below, you’ll find 10 ways to make holiday travel a lot better for everyone:

%Gallery-7858%

1. Know what you’re getting into: be ready for poor service, big crowds and unreasonable people (from passengers to crew members). It is what it is. Lamenting the social injustices committed will get you nowhere, and you’ll become the barrier to progress that you so despise already.

2. Pay the damned extra baggage fee: the overhead bins will be full. Even though airlines are adding capacity as the travel market recovers, they’re not being generous. So, be realistic about the size of the bags you try to cram overhead or under seat – and expect the rest of the people on the plane to have the same overhead plan. If everyone were more realistic from the start, flying would be much, much easier.

3. Bring stuff to keep the kids busy: don’t expect young children to be reasonable – they’re young children. I have enough trouble staying reasonable, and by all chronological measures, I’ve been an adult for a while. If you have kids, it is your job to entertain them (or help them entertain themselves). It may take a village, but you left that at home.

The problem with people today is they have to be entertained 24/7. That’s why they’re at their worst on the airplane.less than a minute ago via web

Also, check this out from a couple of years ago:

Forget every rule of good parenting. Sometimes, you need to let your kid cry to learn a lesson. Here’s the problem: we don’t need to learn that lesson, too. Do what it takes to keep your kid under control. If that means coloring books, candy or … dare I say it … active parenting, do it. Do what it takes. Your round trip involves two days of your kid’s childhood. Whatever you do for the sake of expediency will not make a lasting impression.

4. Pay attention to the flight attendants (for a change): look, do you want to be responsible for creating the next Steven Slater? Of course not. Even if you are forced to deal with unreasonable requests demands from them – not to mention horrid customer service – it’s a lot easier just to play ball. Save your fights for truth, justice and the American way for a flying season that isn’t insanely busy. In the end, doing battle with a nutty flight attendant is only going to keep you from getting to your destination and away from the plane as soon as possible, so it makes sense to sacrifice your principles.

Add to this my advice from a while back:

Know when to quit. We all love to scream at airline employees, and we know they are lying to us. When they say that weather caused the problem on a sunny day, when they say that there are no more exit row seats, when they say the flight is overbooked … we just know it’s bullshit. So, we fight. Sometimes, it works. Appeasement in the form of flight vouchers, hotel stays and free meals sometimes flow. But, at a certain point, you need to know when to stop. If you’re on a full flight of people with super-triple-platinum status (and you’re not), don’t expect to get a damned thing. Accept that you will lose.

Fighting the good fight is okay, but at a certain point, you lose the crowd’s sympathy. Be aware that people who look like serial killers don’t often get what they want (or need).

5. Keep your mouth shut: don’t share your life story with gate agents, TSA employees or anyone else. Nobody cares. Even if you do forge a momentary connection, it will have evaporated by the time you’re stuffing a stale Nathan’s hotdog into your once-talking mouth.

6. Step into the damned body scanner: the whole “opt-out” thing didn’t work right before Thanksgiving. So, it’s time to give up on this. You’ll live. There were no reports of people growing extra heads because they went through the body scanners a month ago. And, the odds do seem awfully low that your pictures will wind up on some strange airline-fetish porn site.

Seriously, just deal. Okay?

7. Be smart at the security checkpoint: this is an important one, because it’s so easy to cause the line to back up. I’m just going to plug in my suggestions from Christmas 2008:

Don’t prepare for the security stop when you’ve already bellied up to the X-ray machine. While you’re in line, do the following:

1. Pull your laptop out of your bag (if you have one)
2. Take your ID (license or passport) out of your pocket, bag, etc.; hold it with your boarding pass
3. Empty your pockets into your carry-on; do the same with your watch, cell phone and any heavy jewelry
4. Remove your shoes, and carry them on top of your laptop
5. Repeat #4 with your coat and hat

Now, you have a stack of personal belongings on top of your laptop. Carry them like you did your books back in grade school. You can drop the laptop into one bin for the X-ray machine, pick up the clothing and drop them in the next bin. It’s fast. It’s easy. It doesn’t leave you screwing around while people are waiting.

8. Look at the rules in advance: know what you can get through airport security and what you’ll have to check or leave behind. We’re in the internet age, so it’s not like you need to fax a request to the TSA or drive to the airport to scope out the signs. And, I’ll even make it easy for you: here’s the TSA list of prohibited items.

9. BYOB on the plane: whether it’s burgers or booze, take care of it ahead of time. Make your purchases at the food court or pack them at home. If you don’t be ready for whatever is being served on the plane. Have the appropriate form of payment ready. Keep in mind that airline food tends not to be terribly healthy, so if you want to keep your arteries clear (or clog them even more aggressively), take control of your culinary future.

10. Stay flexible: some situations will be within your control, but many will not. Understand what you can change and what you’ll have to live with, and the process will get a lot easier for you.

[photo by The Consumerist via Flickr]