FI Road Rage: Where Did You Go, Customer Service?

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FI Road Rage is a series of rants that enable the author to blow off some steam and return to a relative state of normalcy.

What has happened to customer service for the average traveler?

Hardly a day goes by without reading another article in the news or on a travel blog about a horrible yet avoidable customer service disaster like the recent six hour flight from Boston to LAX that turned into a 30 hour nightmare on Alaska Airlines.

In the last couple weeks our family has experienced simply unacceptable customer service from two elements that make up most trips: airlines and hotels. What is troubling is that these types of experiences seem to be occurring to travelers with greater frequency.

American Airlines

Background

In April our family is traveling to Costa Rica for Spring Break. Are we excited? You bet! After our first international trip with the kids to London and Amsterdam last March we decided to travel internationally again this year; this time to a warmer clime.

It turns out that lots of other people also find Costa Rica attractive for Spring Break, which drives airline ticket prices through the roof. By the time we purchased our tickets in July, 10 months prior to our trip, economy tickets from PHL on American Airlines were already $1100 per person. First/Business class tickets were only $200 more per person. So we decided to go for the larger seats, Admirals Club access, free drinks, and somewhat better food and purchased First/Business class tickets.

Costa Rica volcano viewed from a resort
Costa Rica – Woo hoo! American Airlines – Ugh

A couple days ago American wrote to say that our itinerary had changed. That’s pretty standard, especially when you buy tickets so far in advance. Airlines revise their routes periodically and shift timetables accordingly. The changes weren’t huge but there were some disappointing parts:

  • Our 7AM flight on the way out was moved to 6:30AM but our layover in Charlotte was extended so that even with the earlier start we were now scheduled to arrive in Costa Rica later than our original arrival time
  • They extended the layover on our flight back through Miami from 3.5 hours to 4.5 hours

Dealing With American

I thought it was telling that in the email I received from American they listed all of the changes to our itinerary but did not mention to call them if we wanted to discuss any of the changes. In the past, as a traveler on Delta, they would provide a link to approve the changes or a phone number to discuss them.

I looked into the updated schedules and found that there was another flight on the way back from MIA to PHL that would shorten our layover by 1.5 hours instead of extending it by an hour. I checked out the seats on that flight and found that the majority of the first class cabin was available. So I decided to call American to try and switch over to the earlier flight.

And that’s where the fun began…

7:00 – I call American’s customer service line. The automated system tells me that all agents were busy and the hold time is 47 minutes to 1 hour and 5 minutes?!. Instead of waiting on hold I choose the option to receive a call back

8:09 – I finally get a call from an agent. I explain to her the situation and she says that she has to discuss this with her manager. She puts me on hold

8:31 – After listening to hold music for 22 minutes the call drops. Note that the agent did not ask for a callback number if we got disconnected like most companies that care about their customers do

8:55 – I call American again only to find out that the wait time is now between 53 minutes and 1 hour and 13 minutes. Really??? How is that ever an acceptable hold time for any company? Note that this was not a night where there was extreme weather in any particular part of the country. I choose the call back option again

10:11 – I receive a call back from a very pleasant agent. I again explain our situation and ask her to switch to the earlier flight. She politely tells me that she cannot do that because there are no seats on that flight available in the fare class we purchased our tickets and so we have to stay in the flight to which they assigned us

Rant

Here are my issues with that interaction with American:

  1. Who makes a paying customer wait over an hour on hold twice to talk to an agent? 5-10 minutes I understand when it’s a busy day. They clearly have call record data going back years that they can use to forecast call volume. That is clearly a case of not caring enough to pay for the staff to adequately handle to volume
  2. We paid over $5,000 for four people to fly first/business class round trip to Central America. We didn’t spend $500 on four Basic Economy tickets nor did we spend miles or points to get the flights for free. Maybe that could factor into the equation?
  3. American assigned us to a flight that we did not choose. Given that the earlier flight we wanted had twice as many first class seats as the one we were assigned to there is no way that the fare class we purchased was available in the later flight either when we were assigned to it. So basically the agent just used that as an excuse
  4. As I just mentioned the earlier flight had twice as many first class seats and almost all of them were available on the seat map. It would have been easy to move us into that flight and give us a more reasonable connection

It would not have cost American anything to move us to the earlier flight. They likely would have ended up reselling the seats we were giving up on the later flight since there were less first class seats on that plane. Instead, they used a “company policy” line and fare class deception to make excuses.

I’m not the only one experiencing this with American. Ben, aka Lucky, over at the super popular One Mile at a Time blog has had a running set of posts over the last 6-12 months about the decline of customer service at American. I found his post, “Has Service at American Hit Rock Bottom” to be especially timely given my own situation.

I may call them again and try my luck. Just have to find another free 3.5 hour block in my schedule…

Marriott

Background

I will preface this by saying that I’ve been a long time Marriott loyalist. According to my Marriott Rewards profile I’ve racked up 197 nights since joining the program. Yes, I realize that some pro travel bloggers knock out 197 nights in 2 years or less, but I have a day job, kids in school, and have not been traveling much recently for work so 197 nights for me is impressive enough.

A couple weeks ago we took the kids to New York City for their first visit. We thought it was a bit amusing that we’ve traveled with them to London and Amsterdam, but they still hadn’t seen the Big Apple.

Busy 5th Avenue in New York City during the holiday season
The craziness that is 5th Avenue in New York on a Saturday in December

We thoroughly enjoyed the city and seeing all of the sights, which included a wonderful performance of School of Rock on Broadway and managing to be at the top of the Empire State Building during the only time it was sunny during our three days there.

If only we could say the same about our hotel stay. We chose a Marriott chain hotel near Penn Station since we were taking New Jersey Transit in and out of the city. The location of the hotel saved any consideration of how to get from the station to the hotel since we could easily walk there.

FI Road Tip: If you are coming from southeast PA or south Jersey into Manhattan, New Jersey Transit is a great option. It’s 50-90% cheaper than Amtrak and if you hop on at Hamilton station, five minutes from the PA state line, you can park your car in the garage and be in Midtown Manhattan 60-90 minutes later.

Our Hotel Stay

Check-In

I checked in two days prior to our arrival via the Marriott mobile app and let them know that we’d be arriving early. Selecting a time earlier than check-in doesn’t guarantee that your room will be ready, but it does give them a heads up that you will not be a late check-in.

When we arrived in NYC we immediately went to drop our bags at the hotel. Since it was 11AM and check-in was not until 3PM we expected that our room would not be ready. We were correct. So we left our bags with the bellman and went out to explore the city.

A 3:15PM we arrived back at the hotel. I went up to the front desk to check-in. The person working behind the desk informed me that there were no rooms of our type available unless we wanted to take an accessible room. I told her we would wait for a non-accessible room and she claimed that it should be ready “in a couple minutes.”

Marriott hotel lobby nicely decorated for the holidays
Our room at the Marriott for our first half hour there

20 minutes later…the four of us were still sitting in the lobby with our bags. We were not alone. The lobby started to fill up with others waiting for their rooms which would be ready in “a couple minutes.”

Finally, at 3:40PM a different employee called me up to the desk and we received the keys to our room. We proceeded up to the hotel and enjoyed the rest of our evening.

Housekeeping

The next day we left the hotel a little after 8AM and returned around 4:30PM. When you check in and are staying for more than one night Marriott gives you an option to choose to skip housekeeping. In return they offer you 250 or 500 points per day (varies by brand). Since we had kids with us, I chose housekeeping over the points. However, when we returned to our room it looked the same as when we left 8.5 hours earlier.

I called down to the front desk and inquired as to why our room had not been cleaned. The staff member informed me that housekeeping works until 7PM and so they had not reached our room yet. They offered to bring us some towels, which I accepted. Additionally, they did credit my account the 250 points since we never did get our room cleaned.

Rant

Where to begin…

  1. When check-in time at the hotel is 3PM then it is 3PM. Not 3:15 and certainly not 3:40. I even took the time to tell the hotel two days early that we’d be there before 3:00, which apparently did not translate to planning on their part. And if it’s going to be 30 minutes before my room is ready don’t tell me it will just be a couple minutes and then look at my family and I sitting right in front of you for the next half hour without providing an update
  2. It’s fine if you have your housekeeping staff working until 7:00. However, when you have a guest at the hotel it is unlikely that they want their room to be cleaned between 5:00 and 7:00 in the evening. Clearly, between the check-in fiasco and not cleaning the room the next day the housekeeping staff is not big enough to keep up with the size of the hotel
  3. Not once from the time I checked in to the time I checked out did anyone acknowledge my Gold Elite status with Marriott. Yes, I know that sounds snobby, however, I saw plenty of other guests at least carrying Elite Member hotel keys so they clearly took the time to recognize other guests’ statuses
  4. When I checked out, the person at the front desk didn’t ask about my stay. As I handed her our room keys and told her I was checking out of our room, she looked up, said “OK”, and that was the extent of our interaction

Irony

A couple days after our stay I received the standard automated Marriott survey request via email. So I took the time to write an honest review. There were actually some parts of the hotel I really liked. The lobby was small but inviting and very nicely decorated for the holiday. The room was quite spacious for Manhattan standards, well appointed, and quite clean at check-in. I mentioned all of that in my review (give credit where credit is due as the saying goes).

Needless to say the majority of my review hit on the issues we had during our stay. A day after submitting my review I received an email from one of the hotel’s assistant manager’s apologizing for the issues and asking me to call her to discuss my stay in more detail.

I called the hotel and asked for the assistant manager. The person that answered the phone went to get her and when she went to transfer me…she hung up.

I chuckled since, after the service we received during our stay, to be hung up on was the only appropriate way to put an ending on it all.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I don’t feel like I was asking that much from American and Marriott. It feels like being able to switch to a comparable flight or getting to check into a room at the check-in time are reasonable requests when paying substantial amounts of money for flight and lodging services.

So where does customer service go from here? Unfortunately, the trend does not appear to be leaning toward better service, especially from large companies. With companies growing ever larger through mergers and acquisitions there are fewer options available to people. Sure, I could technically fly out of a different airport every time I fly to avoid American’s hub at PHL but is that really feasible? Lodging definitely provides more options and I’m a big fan of AirBNB, however, hotel chains have started to move into that territory as well.

The ironic part is that there are companies out there that show that great customer service does lead to better company performance. The best example is Amazon. Part of the reason they’ve grown to the size they are today is because of their customer service. Speak to anyone who has shopped at Amazon and you’ll likely hear a story about how Amazon shipped something even faster than they expected or accepted a return without asking a single question. Travel-wise, Southwest Airlines is renowned in the US for being an airline that has great customer service and doesn’t spend its time trying to figure out how to nickel-and-dime every customer. Let’s hope it stays that way after the passing of their founder, Herb Kelleher.

Will those shining lights of customer service cause the laggards to improve their game or will the chase for ever growing profits lead them down the same path as American, Marriott, and many others like them?

Thank you for indulging me in my rant. I feel better now.

Have you had any particularly positive or negative customer service experiences recently while traveling? Let me know in the comments.

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