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jwagon
08-22-2007, 10:32 PM
This is a copy of a letter I've written to Northwest Airlines.

Ms. Kristen Shovlin
Drector, Customer Care Department
Northwest Airlines
P.O. Box 19m08
Minot, ND 58702
USA

August 17, 2007

Dear Ms. Shovlin,

This is in regard to flight #1691 and #1695 from RDU to DTW on 8/17/07.

I’m sitting here on Flight #1695, so angry that my hands shake while I type. I arrived at the airport this morning at the airport in Morrisville, NC (RDU Airport), in plenty of time to check in, endure “security” screening and board Flight #1691, bound for Detroit, my final destination for today.
At first, things looked good. The airplane was at the gate and ready, good weather, boarding proceeding smoothly. About ten minutes after we were settled in our seats preparing for departure, we noticed some people exiting the plane. Kind of unusual, and so the Captain, to his credit, explained why this was occurring. After all passengers were boarded, he said, some “wires were pulled out”, causing some anomalous lighting and electrical issues, and they needed to figure out why before we took off.

Question #1: How does this happen? Don’t you guys inspect aircraft for mechanical problems prior to boarding? The captain hinted that it might’ve happened after we boarded, but that only begs the question.

However, no estimate of how long this troubleshooting endeavor would take was provided.

Question #2: Why is this? Flight #1691 was a DC-9. I’m no expert in aircraft history, but I have to believe that DC-9s have been in service since the early 1970s, if not before. I’m sure your airline has been using them for nearly as long, right? So for an aircraft that has been employed by your company on how many tens or hundreds of thousands of flights, why is it a complete mystery as to how long it will take to troubleshoot a simple wiring/lighting issue? I drive a 2002 Subaru. Five years old. When I bring it to a mechanic, he can tell me within +/- 15 minutes not only how long it will take to figure out what is wrong, but exactly how long it will take to fix. Why can’t you do the same with a 30+ year-old aircraft?

So, we sat. And sat. And sat. The Captain periodically interrupted our growing aggravation to repeat the fact that he had no idea how long it was going to take for the mechanic to track down this issue. After several such announcements and about two hours, the Captain announced that some people’s connections out of Detroit were starting to be jeopardized by the delay, and said that people could get off the aircraft to speak with gate agents about rebooking or re-routing. Eventually, about 90% of the passengers did so. Since my final destination was Detroit, I just sat patiently on the plane.

After about another half hour of sitting there, watching the mechanic and the flight crew confer and troubleshoot, I began to get a pounding headache. I got some aspirin out of my bag and walked to the front of the plane, where the flight attendants were sitting, reading magazines and whatnot. I asked one of them for water. As she poured me a glass, she said to me, “You do know that this flight is cancelled, right?”

Actually, I didn’t know.

Question #3: Why was no announcement made on the plane that the flight was cancelled?

The result of not informing me of the cancellation meant that I was practically last in line to rebook. The gate agents in charge of this were clearly overwhelmed by the mass of people trying to re-route and rebook their trips. One agent named Tyrone even said out loud, “I can’t handle this,” and literally just walked off.

Question #4: Why don’t you psychologically screen your gate agents so they can handle the stress of rebooking a cancelled flight? From what I understand, you have lots of such flights.

So, I waited in line. My line had about 9-10 people in it by the time I got there. Each person took about ten minutes to rebook. This seems extremely long to me; most of this time seems to be spent with an agent staring at the computer screen, waiting. Maybe you should consider upgrading your computer system, because it obviously is inadequate.

After waiting nearly an hour to move through only about half the line, the gate agent made her first announcement: “All you people in line waiting to rebook for flight #1691 need to get out of line and go use the courtesy phones to rebook. I have another flight to get out of here.” Now mind you, the courtesy phones were not open until only moments before. They were all closed up in a corner.

Question #5: Why was this? Why weren’t courtesy rebooking phones made available immediately, and why didn’t the gate agents inform us that this would be a better and faster option than standing in line?

So I used the phone and rebooked within about two minutes. To your credit, that process was quick. But the woman on the phone informed me that I’d have to stand in line again to get a new boarding pass for the flight she rebooked me on, which was leaving shortly. “Which line,” I asked. “Any agent should be able to print out a boarding pass,” she replied.

Guess what? That is apparently not true. I waited in another line for about twenty minutes, and when I got to the front, the woman gave me some kind of coupon, not a boarding pass. I asked, “What’s this?” She told me it was a document that allowed me to get a boarding pass at the gate that my flight was leaving from. I’d purposely avoided that line, since a) it was the same line I’d been in before using the phone, and b) it was huge.
But, I dutifully went and stood in my third long line of the afternoon, and when I got to the front, placed my “coupon” or whatever it was on the counter using my broken arm, which has a big red cast on it, and asked the woman for a boarding pass. Without a word, she printed out a boarding pass and gave it to me. When I boarded the plane, in my big red cast, I discovered that the seat she assigned me was a window seat in an exit row. In my fatigued, irritated state, I didn’t think anything of this, I just hurried to put my bag under the seat and get situated, since I was among the last to board. But a few minutes after I got settled, a flight attended appeared, snapping her fingers at me. Seriously, snapping her fingers at me? Am I a dog? She’s barking at me, “You need to come out of there.” I was stunned from welling anger, and so I couldn’t even remotely imagine what the problem was. I asked her what the problem was, but she just kept snapping and waving and repeating, “You need to come out of there.” I started to get my bags out, but then I sat back and demanded that she explain why I had to get up, since after all, I had a boarding pass with that seat number on it. She just repeated herself again. Finally a fellow passenger intervened by pointing to my cast, and I switched seats with some guy. I guess I should’ve realized that my cast was the problem, but it’s been on for over a month and it doesn’t really limit me, so it just didn’t occur to me. But the real questions are:

Question #6: If it’s a regulation that a person with a cast on his arm can’t sit in that row, why did the gate agent give me that seat, when she clearly could see I had a cast?

Question #7: Why was your flight attendant talking to me like a misbehaving dog? Not that this treatment is ever acceptable, but it becomes even more enraging when it is merely the last in a series of inconveniences and indignities perpetrated by your airline on myself and the other passengers.

In summary, besides the obvious fragility and lack of common courtesy of the people you have working at your gates, the questionable competence of your mechanics and pilots, and your rude flight attendants, the most fundamental problem your airline has is communication.

Basic communication skills, among many other benefits, demonstrate respect and common decency towards other human beings. Your airline completely lacks these simple virtues. I can stomach it when a hot dog vendor in lower Manhattan treats me as poorly as your airline did today. But a hot dog costs $3.50, and then encounter lasts two minutes or less. A ticket to even a nonstop destination--your own hub, Detroit--costs me over $250 on average, and the hassle of flying is a minimum 5-6 hour affair now on the best day. The least you could do is treat me like you give a **** about the quality of my flying experience. If you don’t, how about pretending that you do? I can guarantee that even the appearance that someone is actually concerned about my level of frustration, confusion and inconvenience goes a very long way to cultivating loyal, happy customers.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was booked to fly from RDU to Burlington, VT on December 24 on Delta Airlines. That year, there was a significant snowstorm in the midwest, affecting Cincinnati, among other cities. Cincinnati, as you probably know, is a Delta hub, and so the entire Delta schedule throughout much of the country. The check-in counter was mass chaos. Flights were being delayed and cancelled every few minutes. Nobody knew where to go or what to do, whether their airplane would be at the gate that day, etc. Suddenly, one Delta employee climbed onto the counter, literally rising above the chaos, and began shouting instructions. She informed people about the status of their flights, flight by flight, and directed people to cluster in groups based on their destination, and then had other agents attend to those groups in order based on the priority of their collective situation. It was impressive, and almost stunning, to see an airline employee take charge of an unfortunate situation, and single-handedly reel the situation back under control. But the best part about it was also the most simple: By simply communicating to this mass of stressed-out people, she induced a level of calm among us that was unimaginable only minutes before.

Eventually, my flight’s group was checked in, we made it through security, and arrived at our gate. During checkin, the agent informed us that there was a significant chance of further delays and possibly even cancellations, and that connections would be tenuous at best--again, note the communication, which served to manage our expectations--a simple business skill.

When I arrived at the gate, the gate agent asked me where my final destination was, and as soon as she heard the answer, she said, “Look. You might get to Boston tonight (my intermediate stop), or we might be able to route you through another airport, but you’re going to be so late to wherever we send you from here, that you are very unlikely to make a connection to Burlington. Which means you’ll have to spend the night and likely part of the next day in that airport. You can chance it if you want, or I can rebook you, or I can give you a refund.” Since I was only going for a couple days, I opted for the refund. And though I missed spending the winter holiday with my family, I actually felt satisfied--even lucky, as I left the airport. I missed Christmas, but you know what? Nobody bull****ted, patronized, insulted or lied to me all day that day, and as a result, I didn’t spend my holiday sleeping on a grimy carpet in some airport, eating nasty airport food and defecating in a filthy airport restroom. All of this, because Delta was forthright and honest with me, in spite of the fact that they--in the short term--lost money on me that day.

But guess who I always, always, always choose to book with first when I fly now? Can you guess? I’m going to tell you, because based on how your airline treated me today, I think it’s possible that you don’t understand the point of this story and/or are so dull that you really can’t guess that it is Delta that I choose to fly with when I have a choice.

Northwest Airlines is an embarrassment to an industry that is itself an embarrassment to all service industries everywhere. I will never fly with you again.

Good luck,

cc: U.S. Department of Transportation
cc: http://www.airlinecomplaints.org/