Never a Free Lunch

I believe two things.  First, we are entitled to a high degree of customer service every time we interact with a business.  Second, most complaints about poor service are born of unreasonably high expectations, ignorance, poor logic, or some combination of the three.

When I worked at the Residence Inn I faced a number of severely irate guests who we’d had to “walk” – that is, offer them a free night’s stay at another hotel because we’d overbooked.  They were furious that we couldn’t honor their reservation, even though without asking we were paying for their stay elsewhere.  Why not take the free room in peace?

I tried booking a ticket on LimoLiner for my return trip from New York last week.  It’s a luxury bus service I’ve never tried before featuring on-board Internet, meals, entertainment, and other amenities.  Unfortunately they called and e-mailed eight hours before the trip to announce the bus had broken down and they’d be refunding my ticket.  I could find alternate transportation, or I could get a free ride from them on a “replacement vehicle.”

I opted for the free ride, rather than take time out of my stay to call Amtrak.  Admittedly I regret that decision, and would have been much happier on the train, even if it took time to arrange.  The woman sitting behind me, however, talked on the phone as though she’d been tied to the roof and dragged home in the pouring rain.  She’ll never ride LimoLiner again.  Me, I’ll give them another try – I’ll just be sure to make alternate arrangements if they cancel another trip on me, which they made it easy to do by notifying me well in advance and automatically refunding my ticket.

There are legitimate customer concerns.  Vincent Ferrari’s infamous AOL cancellation recording two years ago got huge attention online (with a splash of NBC fame) by showing how hard it can be to achieve even a simple account cancellation.  The infamous Verizon Math call illustrates the need for billing agents to know basic arithmetic.  Anybody you ask will have a story about how hard it was to understand the thick accent of a “support specialist” overseas.

Screaming and yelling about routine failures leaves us no ammunition when a genuine problem occurs.  If LimoLiner had canceled my trip outright and left me stranded in New York, unable to find an alternate route home (unlikely as that is), how could I have expressed the severity of the problem or my displeasure when screaming over the phone would have instantly lumped me together with the whiners out to score a free lunch?

No, Seriously, What’s the Deal With It?

I believe two things.

First, the airlines deserve to be skewered for a variety of reasons. Even before 9/11 there was a certain decline in service, and now added security (especially after the London attacks that brought us the “3-2-1” rules for liquids in carry-ons) has us stressed just about the process of going to the airport, much less getting on the plane.

Second, the reasons most people choose to gripe about airlines are unconsidered and counterproductive. The more time we spend griping about dumb things the less we have to gripe about things that matter.
For instance, is it really so hard to understand why we get the mantra, “In preparation for landing, please ensure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position?” If something happens during landing (which is when 45% of all airplane accidents occur), you’ll want to leave the plane in a hurry. You won’t particularly want your tray table blocking your exit, and I certainly don’t want your reclined seat blocking mine.

And what’s the deal with airline food? We know by now (thanks to Science) that our sense of taste is diminished at high altitudes. So why task the airline with cooking food in advance to prepare in tiny airplane galleys for hundreds of people at once? Of course it won’t end well for anybody! Either go without food for a few hours – a reasonable request between mealtimes – or buy something at the airport before leaving. The “Street Pricing Policy” at Logan and other airports nationwide even dictates that you won’t overpay for food at the airport.

So what should we be griping about, if not classic bits of comedian fodder? The airlines’ only real responsibility: getting us to our destinations on time.

We cannot reasonably demand perfection, of course. Too many variables impact flight schedules. Passengers on a flight from Dulles to Miami might insist weather is no factor when it’s beautiful and sunny along the entire coast, until they reflect that the plane they’re waiting for started its day in San Francisco, where it’s raining and windy. And is there anybody aboard who, upon learning of a mechanical failure, would say, “Eh. Let’s go anyway.

Instead of pushing for perfection of scheduling, the airlines should be prepared to work around delays. In particular, when that poor San Francisco flight gets delayed all the way across the country, the passengers waiting for the plane in Dulles shouldn’t be affected. Surely some airplane is available in Dulles; let them board that one. Put the people from that plane on whichever one is ready next. Then when the San Francisco plane shows up (eventually) you’ll be caught up, possibly without introducing any extra delays at all.

Of course, this only works with interchangeable aircraft. We can’t take 285 passengers from a Boeing 777 and put them on a 114-seat Boeing 737. For many airlines, though, this is a reasonable restriction. Ted (the United Airlines spinoff) operates every flight on an Airbus A320, for example. Other airlines use only two or three types of equipment.

Ground crews shouldn’t be heavily impacted by such a policy. The decision to use a certain aircraft would have to be made somewhat in advance, giving crews enough time to get luggage and fuel aboard normally. Catering won’t be affected at all, since there should be no catering in the first place.

The real burden of this system would fall to passengers. Instead of going straight to a single gate, we’d have to check, say, an hour before departure to see which gate has our flight. This is similar to how trains leave from Penn Station in New York. You have no idea which track will host your train until it arrives and it’s time to board. True, this won’t work in all airport configurations (e.g., some airports have small clusters of gates, and going between clusters requires leaving the sterile area). At many airports it would still work fine.

And of course this isn’t a flawless system. It’s a “spherical chickens in a vacuum” solution to suppose we can just mix and match flights freely. Sometimes the crew from one flight is needed for another; sometimes the physical plane needs to end up in a certain city for maintenance. But this is the era of computer modeling. Are we really saying there’s nothing we can do?

A Tip for American Airlines

“American Airlines, which lost a federal lawsuit filed by skycaps at Logan International Airport over tips they earn, ratcheted up the feud yesterday by imposing a ban on tips at the Boston airport.” – Boston Globe, 2 May 2008

Let me quickly recap the events.

Back in 2004, American Airlines started charging a fee of $2 per bag for checking in bags at the curb. This fee went to the airline, and not its skycaps, but the traveling public tended not to draw the distinction, and tipped less.

True, signs at the curb informed travelers that the fee didn’t include a gratuity, but those signs used comically small lettering. Other signs at airports discuss things like the legal penalties for taking explosive devices onto a 480-ton Boeing 747 with 415 other passengers aboard, so we can forgive a hurried traveler for not paying adequate attention to American’s tiny lettering about gratuities.

Other travelers may have read and disregarded the notice, having already decided what they were willing to pay for curbside check-in. “I’ll pay $5 for this,” such miserly people thought, “even if 40% of it now goes in the airline’s pocket.”

American Airlines advances the reasonable belief that decreasing tips had more to do with decreasing air travel overall than with any fee or airline policy.

The reason isn’t important. Tips fell, and skycaps were angry. Skycaps took the airline to court, and got a verdict in their favor last month. American has to repay $325,000 in lost tips to nine employees.

That was April 17.

Two weeks later, we find that American has prohibited tipping of any kind and has promised disciplinary action to any skycap who accepts money from a passenger.

They raised skycaps’ pay above minimum wage to make the whole thing legal, but the move is still mean-spirited and below the belt. Penalizing skycaps at Logan – and only at Logan – comes off as childish.

I won’t be flying American anymore.

On Heckling

I believe two things.

First, as a patron of the arts I’m entitled to certain expectations. If I attended a musical where main characters forgot the lyrics halfway through a song I’d complain afterward.

Second, no member of the audience may make any sound after the curtain rises until it falls again. That time belongs exclusively to the performers, no matter how objectionable their work. Complaints get voiced after a show.

I attended yesterday’s Eddie from Ohio concert in Somerville, where we had the pleasure of a persistent heckler. This group (one of my all-time favorites) is well known for telling stories during their shows. Even on their CDs we can hear their often elaborate introductions to songs. At yesterday’s show, for instance, we were treated to a hilarious ad hoc rendition of the popular Great Day that played on the lyrics being misheard as “Great Dane.” It was so funny that singer Julie Murphy Wells couldn’t go on to the next song; they skipped over it.

This is what live music should be. There’s great joy in hearing music created live on stage, but we also want a small taste of having “met” the performers, so we can step outside their CD and recognize that we’re seeing them in person. When Celtic Woman came to Boston last June they so faithfully executed the over-produced staging they could as effectively have projected their DVD on a movie screen.

One patron at last night’s show disagreed with me. When the group launched into the introduction to one song he shouted, emphatically, “You’re here to sing!”

Well! Are they, now! When they brushed it off he persisted, shouting out again. He was silenced only when bass player Michael Clem drew enthusiastic cheers with his quip, “I hope you’re drunk… because stupid is forever.”

I respect that he just wants to hear the music – our opinions differ, and that’s fine. The difference is I didn’t jump up during Celtic Woman’s performance and shout, “You’re here to talk!” Just because you don’t understand a performance (and the introduction to a song is every bit a part of the performance) doesn’t mean other people don’t. We were all enjoying it.

A heckler at the Blast! performance in Lowell on Thursday similarly seemed to miss the point of the show. It’s very playful, bringing performers out into the audience and showcasing musical battles on stage. In Everybody Loves the Blues, the trumpet player performs a brief solo. When it seems he’s finished the other musicians inhale dramatically, getting ready to play again, but the trumpet just launches into another elaborate riff. Then another. And another. Our resident heckler that night missed the spirit of the piece entirely, shouting for the soloist to cut it out.

Last year we gained brief national notoriety when two Boston Pops patrons got into a fistfight because one wouldn’t shut up during the show. What will it take before we recognize that once the curtain rises on a performance – any performance – the performers literally have the stage for as long as they want it?

As Aaron Sorkin put it in The American President, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his voice that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

Government vs. Almighty Nature

Yesterday’s snowfall produced some traffic headaches, as I’ve already mocked. Bill Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth, was quoted on WCVB TV today as saying, “The fact that this was a relatively modest snow storm, well predicted, points to the failure of leadership, the failure of direction, the lack of coordination, the lack of metropolitan planning. We can’t have … this is unacceptable.”

Let’s briefly recap the events of yesterday as they unfolded. First, it snowed a lot in a short period of time. As a consequence the roads were messy, and it was difficult to drive on them. As a consequence, traffic was terrible, and it took people a long time to get home.

In six years in Vermont this happened to me twice – 18 minute commutes turned into two hour marathon crawls. Twice. In six years. My coworkers today confirmed anecdotally that a “once in three years” frequency is about par for Boston.

Beacon Hill could conduct a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of the “unacceptable” answer to the question, “What happens when thousands of people try driving simultaneously on icy, snowy, slushy roads in the midst of a blizzard?” What I’m anxious to find out isn’t how long this investigation lasts, but rather how long before somebody proposes building more tunnels.