Speaking of Free Airline tickets...

I'm headed to the international conference of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) in Dallas. It's 8:20 on Saturday morning and I'm flying on a frequent flyer (Continental OnePass) ticket because I've got 270,000 miles in their program. The scheduled departure is for 9:00 with a Dallas arrival at 2:05.

The flight was booked in November because history has shown the difficulty of getting "free" seats. What's interesting is that I don't consider them free -- my business requires me to fly a lot and my credit cards will show that flying certainly isn't cheap but you earn free miles for trips. Better customers also fly more and thus earn more "free" trips. But the airline personnel often make you feel that you are taking advantage of them. Does any of this sound familiar?

Each year, my attendance at this training conference seems snakebit -- something usually goes wrong. Last year, USAir lost my clothing (for the second time going to ASTD; Boston 1989 was the first. Trying to get their (former) Boston Station Manager to followup, I was told, "Frank is too busy to talk to customers (with complaints)" by his secretary. Interesting thought, huh?)

Things happen to me when I attend ASTD.

This time, I arrive at the GSP counter and wait because the counter agents are taking a long time with each customer. As I get to the front, one says to another customer, "Didn't they call you about the cancellation?" Oh Boy. Now I understand why it's taking so long; the failure of the people in reservations / customer service to call the customers of record on the canceled flight causes the counter agents fits and causes long waits by others. Instead of a lot of staff people helping, it's only a couple of counter agents.

My turn comes and I show my Frequent Flyer ticket. The agent says that this particular flight was canceled. I ask when and he says "in March." Today is June 3.

The explanation message in Record Locator is that Reservations tried to call me at the number in my OnePass Account and that it didn't work. The problem was then sent to the local office. But my name was now missing the OnePass Account Number so the local people couldn't access my information because of computer security. He said They should have included this in the file and since they didn't, the local people didn't do anything thinking I would call to confirm it. (Right: 20 / 20 hindsight says I should always confirm my reservation with airlines. After all, one shouldn't expect computer systems to work should one? Isn't the ultimate responsibility always on the consumer? After all, it's our money. Right. )

He can get me to Dallas at 6:00 PM, not exactly convenient since my wife dropped me off and has gone home. It's also 4 hours later than scheduled and desired. He mentions that an earlier flight with space was available if I had checked.

Asked if he can transfer me to another carrier on Rule 263 or some such thing, he says he can't because it's a "free" ticket. Recognize the irony of the customer's dilemma -- You fly the airline a lot, accumulate enough miles to earn a "free ticket" and then they don't care enough meet their commitment of service, to call beforehand or give an appropriate transfer. It's not like I caused any of these problems, is it?

But it's also not his fault; They should have called me.

It turns out that Delta has a flight that arrives at 1:00, an hour earlier than my scheduled and canceled flight. Since today is the day for the pre-conference workshops and a number of my friends are delivering sessions, it was really important for me to get to the conference center by 3:30 or 4:00. At one session, they are using my team development exercise and I really wanted to be there in case anyone wanted to purchase the program or get more information. That's how I make a living.

So I walk to Delta. Their rep is new. She's having trouble with the system taking the information. She's trying, but systems are pretty complicated and she's been on the job 10 days. I tell her about the situation and we laugh about how screwed up things can be. I mention that I'm speaking at the quality conference, how I fly a lot, etc.

She give me the ticket, checks the bags to DFW and hands me the coupons (instead of Free, it now cost me $445).* Interestingly, she then puts Priority Handling tags on the bags so that they will get to Baggage Claim expeditiously. She also puts me in an Emergency Exit row so I'll have extra leg room. And as she gives me the ticket, she mentions that she's included 2 free drink coupons for the flight. Nice. She understands this Service Thing. She's concerned about the service failure, even when it is not Delta's. I head back to the Continental counter to confirm that the return flight is still booked. This now becomes interesting.

Seems that the old return flight at 1:30 has been changed to 11:30 AM. The counter agent failed to notice this. So if I didn't check again, I would have arrived late for that flight. I also know that Continental will cancel the return flight when I don't show up for the initial leg (remember, I am now flying to Dallas on Delta). When I mention this to him, he tells me that he will put a note in my Record Locator file (must be pretty large by now) to NOT cancel the flight and that we have already had numerous problems on this ticket. But he mentions that I should also check when I get there. Does this seem like a good idea to you, too?

In looking at the Record Locator comments, it seems like someone at Mission Control "tried" to call me but had inaccurate records. (Check the information on file --) Note that they did send the ticket t the right address. Since they couldn't contact me by phone, they simply put a note in the file that the GSP personnel should contact me. But they didn't put my OnePass number and the GSP personnel can't access the computer files with the information without the number, so said the counter agent.

So nobody followed up. The flight cancels in March and by June, nothing happened and no correction occurred.

There is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it. But Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. The end result was that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

Net Net, it's always up to the passenger to manage their travel affairs. Pity the irregular traveler who doesn't know how things really work. The airlines claim no responsibility for customer service (and apparently not for customer retention.) Apparently, these free tickets aren't earned, they represent a gift from the benevolent airlines to the (unassuming) public who they depend on for long term business success.


Can I hear a Thump Thump as their wagon rolls along?

Any wonder why I have lots of miles unused with Continental?

Seems like they always screw up. My wife used some of my points for a recent trip to Minnesota. They canceled the return leg to GSP and she wound up taking an extra 6 hours in transit. This wouldn't have been a Big Problem except for the fact that my 12 and 10 year old children were unsupervised and along at home. I had left to Nashville to deliver a program, assuming that she would pick them up at school. So she negotiated with neighbors to pick them up and watch over them -- at our cost of LD telephone and the like. (She did take another flight this past weekend to Newark and back and there was only a 30 minute delay on the return. Amazing.)

But enough sour grapes, on with the wagon. Back to MY story.

The Delta flights run smoothly. I get to the conference, go into the session just at the completion of my team building / quality game on organizational collaboration and learning, and get a few minutes in front of the 60 attendees. I then arrange to meet some people for dinner and head to the hotel. The Wyndham Anatole does pretty much everything right for the 6 days. The room rate is good but the annoying little dings for using the coffee maker ($3.29 with tax) and the telephone ($.75 local, $.50 long distance -- didn't the major hotels already eliminate this when the $28 / nite ones did? Don't you find them annoying?).

On Thursday, I call to confirm that my return leg is canceled. And I'm right. Briefly, the situation is explained to Sharon Wilson in Salt Lake City. It's amazing... She really understands and seems both interested in helping and concerned about the failure. She puts me on hold for a couple of minutes and comes back on the line to explain that they are rebooking me into First Class for much of the flight home. She apologizes for the airline and seems like a neat person to deal with.

The return flights are relatively uneventful. One average disinterested crew and one enthusiastic one. On arriving in Greensboro, we transition to the commuter lounge and we talk with Willard Scott, who is heading home to DC. We then get on the plane and sit down. After a long wait, the pilot comes on over the intercom to say that we're waiting for a passenger connecting from Laguardia who is landing now. We wait 22 minutes. Then the attendant begins to shut the door. We're puzzled. Turns out that the passenger was not even on the flight!


How can they run an airline that way? They don't even know who is on board. But we start a discussion as to whether that customer's baggage was on board and the potential for sabotage since the airline's policies and procedures seem so sloppy. Overall, it seems like Continental has lots of opportunities for improvement in systems and procedures.

On arrival home, I call the 800 reservations number to check on my account information. This in itself is an interesting adventure. Look at a local phone book in Dallas and you'll not find an 800 number for this. So, if you call them from a phone booth it costs $.25. Call from the hotel room and it is $.75. Ask the Concierge to call and its free but then you're not sure what you got.

Hint: Look at the ticket jacket -- it always has an 800 number! (A scary thought: Am I sounding a bit like Humberto Cruz?? Naaa. He would have taken the later flight and asked for a free ticket later.)

Sure enough, The OnePass Customer Service Center has an old telephone number. And when I ask if she can update the information, I am given another number to call, a toll number in Houston. So it costs me even more time and long-distance charges to correct this information. Does this seem like a good way to develop customer loyalty? (Answer: No).

Note: Last time I looked, telephones do not have Square Wheels but airlines seem to have a virtual monopoly on them.

I call the account, go through their security-oriented clearance process, locate my PIN, change my telephone number, ask to speak to a supervisor and then get disconnected after a 60 second hold time.

Humberto wouldn't, but I call back, ask for the Operations Manager and after a brief hold, talk to a gentleman whose major thrust was that The OnePass Customer Service Center is not responsible, that they serve only as a clearing house for information, that they only handle the account records, blah, blah, blah. (Obviously a caring bunch!) When I mention that he sounds a bit defensive, he takes the moment to point out that he is only a representative; Continental's recent restructuring has eliminated all management personnel in the OnePass Center. Interesting.

Sometimes top management don't get the message about what is really happening. Information gets filtered as it moves up the chain of command. And customers don't generally complain, especially in detail, they just move on to another preferred carrier. Eventually, they cycle back to the original offender. If one airline would consistently deliver on its commitments, my guess is that the customers would stick there. But it's an issue of feedback and reflection on reality.

My experience is that management doesn't get the real picture; we call it Delusions of Grandeur and it looks like this:

The role I like to play is often like the role of the mirror. I like to feed information to the top in the hope that corrective action can be taken. The rope that pulls the wagon forward can be very very long and communications between the back and front can get pretty stretched, even when they do all share The Vision.

And in the midst of all the changes going on today as companies try to respond to the global competitive demands of the consumer, sometimes it feels like everyone is busy, but they aren't getting some of the key things accomplished.

Can you hear the distinct sounds of a wagon rolling along? Can you hear the sounds of lost loyalty, low perceived value and the cost of human capital? Can you see a management team that seems a bit isolated from the reality of the customer? And this was for a mostly FREE trip. Think how angry I'd be if I'd paid real money!

Interesting coincidence. At the very point in polishing this story for final printing, the United Parcel Service (UPS) guy showed up at the door with a package. It was from the Continental Company Store. ?????

I opened it to find a nice card from C. Zollinger saying, "A sweet taste to replace the bad taste we left with you" and a bag of mints. Thus, I completed this story with the taste of mint in my mouth.

But I still have the bad taste of a $445 ticket. Good effort. Too little, too late, though.

It's now been 5 years or so since I've flown my last Continental Airlines flight. Mostly, they are not really convenient. But when I've got another choice...

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