Much has been made of the PR disaster that is domestic airline customer service lately. Amid the seemingly endless parade horror stories, how could we forget Leggings-Gate, or bloody Bump-Gate, or that time United may or may not have killed an adorable (and famous) pet bunny? The list goes on and on.
You can bet the airlines are keenly aware that their customer-service disasters are your top trending news these days. (It would be hard to miss.) And writing from my recent experience, my perception is the airlines are actually working extra hard to win back customers' good favor in the midst of all of the drama.
Consider my recent travel experience on two domestic airlines: United and Delta.
Last week, I flew from Los Angeles to Honolulu on United with my husband and our two-year-old twins. (And yes, I had top of mind the recent story of the Southern California family being threatened with jail time on their Maui to LAX flight with their one- and two-year-old kids in tow.) The 777 was an attractive, updated plane, and the experience was all-around positive. It was a relief — as you can imagine, flying with two toddlers requires a good bit of steeling one's self — and all was well as we began our descent.
That's right around the time there came an announcement from the flight crew, something like: "We understand some of you have had difficulty accessing entertainment. Please accept our sincere apology and access this particular website to get your token of our appreciation."
Keep in mind, I'd personally experienced no difficulty, and had watched two movies successfully through United's streaming system on my own Apple device. (13 Hours, guys — get there. John Krasinski is ripped!)
Still? In the end, we collected 20,000 miles — 5,000 apiece — without saying a word. (We could have also opted for a $100 travel voucher apiece, but those expire and our miles never do, given we keep our account continually active with our United MileagePlus credit cards.)
And that was just the beginning of the positive customer-service experience.
On the first morning of our trip, I got violently ill. I'll spare you too graphic a description of my stomach flu, but it sent me running from the beach to our Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina hotel suite — literally, running through the lobby — where I'd spend the next 27 hours praying for mercy on the bathroom floor between retch sessions. What I saw of Oahu was in faint beams of light through closed shutters. The only hope to recoup any amount of vacation from our short trip would be if I recovered quickly and if no one else in my family got the bug.
And then my daughter got it.
As we braced for the possibility that my son and husband might also catch the highly contagious illness, and have to fly five hours home like that, I called Delta.
I explained that my family had become sick and that I was looking into the possibility of shifting our flights one day later — and that no one wanted us on any plane in our current contagious state, that much was for sure.
In round numbers, we'd paid $1,200 in total, or about $300 per ticket — for that flight leg. The Delta phone agent explained to me that the change fees would also be about $1,200 total — equivalent to the ticket prices — but that she'd speak with a supervisor. She asked if we'd seen a doctor; I said we had not. In other words, we had no proof we were sick.
The agent came back on the phone, with a first offer: She could waive the administrative fees, which would bring each changed ticket to $108, or about $450 in total.
I saw my window of opportunity. I asked if I could speak directly to the supervisor. This happened fairly quickly, and in no time the total change fees were reduced to $0. Not a dime.
We were reassigned the next day, all seated together on a full flight, in seats that turned out to be in an ideal configuration for our family with young kids.
If our trip was far from flawless given unexpected illness, at least the experience of changing the flights — which indeed resulted in getting one proper vacation day out of the whole thing — was effortless.
I was impressed. The bottom line from my personal experience? Now's actually a very good time to be a domestic airline passenger, as airlines are desperate for some goodwill and good press. (And you may not even have to be the subject of a viral video to see results.)
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