Zagat survey: five ways customers say they hate airlines … in their own words

airport and airline customer service takes a beating in Zagat surveyIt’s almost sport for customers to describe how much they hate airlines. Sure, there are a few that do well from time to time, occasionally delivering high levels of service or eschewing ancillary fees. But, the overwhelming trend tends to be one of customer dissatisfaction.

Zagat, which is in the business of measuring and publishing value and taste, has taken a shot defining the highs and lows of the airline business, and the results aren’t all that positive. Well, let’s be frank: there’s nothing pleasant about flying.

The survey results aren’t all that shocking, and you can get them here from Zagat. What’s more fun is the stuff Zagat wouldn’t print … on the advice of its lawyers, the company announcement claims with an implied smirk.

How bad can it be? Let’s look at five insights from the Zagat airline survey … with customer claws bared in all their gory glory:1. Akin to an execution: Zagat’s surveyors seemed to spend a lot of time talking about death. One noted, “The only thing missing is a blindfold and a cigarette.” Another said, “At least they haven’t killed me yet.” Get the message? In case you don’t, one called air travel, “A violation of the Geneva Convention.”

2. Service with a scowl: again, it’s not much of a shock that customer service didn’t score all that high. One surveyor summed it up: “Unwelcome aboard!” But, if you think that’s the most creative, you’re out of your mind. I did enjoy the comment, “My bags get better service, but they pay extra.” Nothing, however, beats one disgruntled contributor who asked, “Who made them mad at their customers?”

3. Not even money can buy you happiness: do you think the rich have it better? Well, not in the skies they don’t! According to one Zagat surveyor, “The only difference between economy and business classes is a shrimp on your salad.”

4. Training is key: and this is what led one to muse, “Flight attendants seem to have trained with Frau Blucher.” Yes, but what instruction guide was used? That’s where another chimed in: “Staff must use Orwell’s 1984 as a training manual.” Ouch.

5. Get comfortable? Get real: the fact that passengers don’t get a lot of space didn’t escape notice. One surveyor says, “I don’t love getting up-close-and-personal with the head of the person in front of me.” Notes another, “Seats make an iron maiden seem comfortable.” It gets worse: “Like a cattle car, except the cows are mercifully slaughtered at trip’s end.”

[photo by joiseyshowaa via Flickr]

Delta says customer service isn’t dependent upon costs

It looks like Delta has some strong thoughts on airfare and customer service. The airline identified as the worst in the United States is now saying that customer service shouldn’t be related to operating expenses – well, at least that’s the implication of the new ad the airline is running on New York City subways: “Customer service shouldn’t fluctuate with the price of oil.”

The fact that airlines generally aren’t famous for customer service is well-established, and many excuses reasons are given, ranging from regulatory constraints to a lack of cooperation from passengers. Of course, cost always comes into the equation, too. Despite a strong year for air carriers in 2010, history shows that this is a volatile industry, and it’s always necessary to keep an eye on expenses.

It isn’t unusual to see airline industry employees cite cheap flights as a reason for the decline in customer service: what else do passengers expect, right?
This is what makes Delta’s move so interesting. A direct statement that service shouldn’t be constrained by underlying expenses (and thus profit margins), the ad I saw on the 3 train yesterday morning takes a bold stand. Delta is taking conventional wisdom head-on (well, airline industry conventional wisdom) in a very public way.

It should be interesting to see if this leads to a change in the airline industry employee population’s position on the relationship between cheap tickets and passenger expectations. For Delta employees, leaning on the traditional rationale results in a direct contradiction with the company’s stated message. Though the sentiment may not trickle down to employees of other carriers, their being vocal about the informal “expense-to-service” ratio inherently puts them at a disadvantage relative to Delta’s claim. The subtlety may not reach the average consumer (especially those who don’t come into contact with Delta’s ads), but the implication is clear.

Doubtless, it makes sense to draw distinctions between advertisements and expectations, and any change at Delta based on this messaging will take time to implement (let’s be realistic – big companies do tend to move slowly). Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how this situation unfolds.

So, tell us what you think: do you think customer service expectations in the airline business should be linked to the price you pay for a seat? Leave a comment below!

Airlines not alone in poor customer service studies

The Airline Quality Rating report was released last week, exposing the five worst airlines in the United States. It’s fun to beat up on the airlines … as it is to beat up on other companies and industries notorious for poor customer service. So, this made me wonder just how the airlines stack up against everyone else.

Back in August, the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated hundreds of companies and came out with the results. Some airlines are in there, of course, but they aren’t alone. I took a look at the bottom of the barrel – 18 companies featured by Business Insider – and saw that the airlines were well-represented but far from dominant.

Telecommunications companies led the pack, accounting for a third of the list, with airlines next – four companies accounting for 22 percent. Banking followed with 17 percent. Strangely, social networking contributed two companies, with both Facebook and MySpace getting poor marks for customer service. Insurance, restaurants and utilities each contributed a company.

The airlines that got the nod will look pretty familiar: in fact, they’re four of the five identified in the Airline Quality Rating report. American Airlines took the #12 spot, immediately behind Facebook and MySapce. Delta and US Airways took the next two positions, with United Airlines at #17.

The worst company for customer service was AT&T Mobility, with DirecTV and Citibank behind it.

North Korea: flight attendants redefine customer service

There’s no shortage of gripes among both business and leisure travelers about the level of service we receive from the airlines. We’ve all had our shares of miserable customer service experiences, from bad experiences with orange juice to getting bumped by the beverage cart. Yet, nothing compares to what you experience on Air Koryo, it seems.

There’s only one airline that flies in and out of North Korea. From Beijing to Pyongyang and back, Air Koryo takes care of everything you need. Yet, unique characteristics of the hiring process lead to a vastly different experience from that found here in the United States. The planes are described as “rickety,” and one can assume there will be little more than the basics (well, this part is just like home).

%Gallery-105693%Randy Schmidt, cameraman and editor for CBS News, recounts his recent exchange with a flight attendant on Air Koryo:

“Where are you from?” the North Korean flight attendant asks me.

“I’m American, but I live in Japan.”

“I hate America! I hate Japan! What would you like to drink today, sir?” she said.

Perhaps it was because the flight was international, but at least the guy got a beverage!

Schmidt further observes:

The comment is not personal. North Koreans are schooled to believe that America and Japan are enemies, but that hatred is directed at the governments of those countries, not at individuals.

[photo via Wikipedia]

Sex over service? Airlines try vixen pitch with passengers

It’s no secret that airline customer service is generally perceived to be as pleasant as a root canal. I was thinking about this over the weekend, as I walked home from Penn Station, after catching Amtrak’s Acela back from Boston. I had a fantastic trip (up and back) and was hung up on the contrasts to air travel.

Later that night, I met a friend for a glass of wine and talked through the issue, particularly the airline side of it. It feels like most of the major carriers aren’t making an effort to repair public exception, with notable exceptions like JetBlue. In almost any other industry, routine public perception being so low would trigger a crisis-caliber response.

Not the airlines, though …

I got my answer today, with a story that passed through my Twitter stream: sex sells. Instead of trying to build and maintain a solid image, an airline could just give up, and try to win new passengers the old fashioned way. And indeed, it is the old fashioned way, as anyone who remembers National Airlines’ 1971 commercial with flight attendant Cheryl Fioravente’s invitation: “Fly me.”

[Image credit: Flickr/Rachel Kramer Bussel]

Cathay Pacific isn’t going to that extreme, but it is making an effort to seduce passengers with shots of eye-candy that has yet to hit The Big 3-0. The flight attendants, uniformly hot in uniform and not, pose alongside quotes that could read from a customer service manual or a personal ad: “I just like to listen more than talk” and “Nothing beats a smile for turning strangers into friends.”

Who wouldn’t want to hear that at boarding?

The Wall Street Journal notes that this is a departure from the advertising of the past few decades, in which airlines have sacrificed the sensual in favor of the practical: “comfort, convenience, low fares and fine in-flight dining.”

Of course, that approach hasn’t really been working too well, especially the comfort and convenience aspects. In addition to dealing with an abysmal image, the industry has to contend with tighter market conditions as a result of the post-financial crisis recession. There isn’t as much disposable income to go around, and passengers have to choose between flying and other forms of recreation. Business travelers can be more discriminating, when destinations permit.

Cathay Pacific isn’t alone: Air France has headed into sexier territory with its latest ad campaign, which the WSJ describes as having a “blonde model wearing a pink corset, its strings apparently being loosened by a miniature plane taking off.” The U.S. carriers aren’t there yet, but the overseas trend nonetheless makes me wonder if the approach should be on their radar.

It’s pretty clear that something needs to change for an industry that struggles to make a right move in the public’s eye, even in cases where such ire is unwarranted. Maybe it is best to stop trying to look good … and focus on superficial beauty instead.