Now, I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the utter destruction airlines do to their reputations through a lackadaisical, indifferent or, occasionally, hostile approach to customer satisfaction and service.

Everybody’s got a story. Granted, a lot of frustration expressed by travellers can be the fault not of the airline, but an entire system that includes an increasingly overloaded, technologically stunted air traffic control infrastructure. And the weather. Which is nobody’s fault.

However, it’s the self-inflicted stuff that makes me shake my head.

Today, I flew to Charlotte, N.C. on U.S. Airways out of Albany, N.Y. on a flight that was overbooked. Overbooked by whom, you ask? Excellent question — by the airline, who sold all the seats on the plane. Plus one. Make a note of that: the airline.

Their solution? It started out pretty standard — looking for volunteers to surrender their seat on this flight, to be booked on another flight and compensated with a free, round-trip ticket anywhere U.S. Airways flies in the continental United States, blah, blah, blah.

And then, the kicker, straight out of what three-ring-customer-service-policy-manual-binder I’ll never know: “…and we won’t be boarding this flight until someone volunteers to give up their seat.”

And for good measure, they reminded us several times in the next fifteen minutes that they were willing to wait absolutely as long as it took for someone to step forward.

That’s right — punish your hostagescustomers for your mistake by delaying their flight, threatening them, marinating them in stress, and generally annoying them. Because you, dear airline, sold every seat on the plane. Plus one.

I haven’t encountered any other business that, when it makes an error, as a matter of policy and without a hint of irony or clarity about what they’re really doing, makes its customers uncomfortable, annoyed,  and inconvenienced. You may correct me if I’m wrong.

Now, I know they can’t board a plane that is short a seat or two. I know they prefer to have volunteers. But I increasingly suspect that at the heart of why everyone loves to hate airline customer service is a lack of human sensitivity and finesse in what is at heart a hospitality business that causes these ham-fisted approaches to problem-solving to be used.

And they fail to recognize it at their own peril. Because nearly every customer on that flight recognized it today, and understood very clearly that they were being punished and stressed for the airline’s mistake.

I will say this: the gate agent was pleasant, and hard working in an often thankless job. But she didn’t seem to comprehend the message she was sending. Or, maybe she did and was just doing what she was told to do.

Nonetheless, the consequences were not small. The plane boarded late, missed its “clear time” (a departure clearance window issued by air traffic control) from Albany, causing the flight to fall victim to a “ground stop” (a halt to all departures using a particular slice of airspace) due to excessively heavy air traffic using the airspace over and adjacent to the New York metropolitan area. We departed nearly 90 minutes late, wreaking havoc with three-quarters of the passenger’s connecting travel plans in Charlotte.

As the U.S. Airways website declares, “Customers First.” Indeed.

AuthorJoseph Fusco