Friday, December 31, 2010

Notional Customer Service

As Snowgate - triggered by days of storms that shut down airports in Britain and western Europe, Russia and the eastern and central United States - continues to unfold, one thing is massively clear: Airlines and airports were unprepared for extreme weather, although extreme weather is not uncommon. Beyond that, airline tenants at stricken airports couldn't even come close to addressing the needs of stranded passengers - customer service was purely notional.

Layoffs and service cutbacks underlay the latest crisis, at least in the U.S., as explained in a helpful backgrounder from the Associated Press, which I read in the Washington Post. It reads in part:

"Travelers calling to rebook flights earlier this week in huge numbers were put on hold for hours or told to call back later because the major airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

"For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs - nearly one-fourth of its 2,600 reservations workers - in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs. American Airlines cut about 500 when it closed its center in Connecticut.

"United Airlines has 10,000 customer-service and reservations employees, down from about 15,000 in the early 2000s, according to Rich Delaney, president of the machinists' union, which represents the workers. United once had 17 reservations offices; it now has three, he said.''

There's more, as explained by the AP and published in the Post:

"The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.''

Finally, reports David Koenig, the AP's lead writer on the piece:

"As the airlines cut call center jobs in recent years, they also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week's storm.''

According to media reports, U.S. carriers cancelled nearly 10,000 flights from Dec. 25 through Dec. 28, grounding an estimated 1 million travelers - just in the United States.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Shape of Things to Come

Are you ready for some air rage? How about ground rage?

Both are likely to intensify in the years ahead, thanks in large part to the proliferation of mobile personal electronic devices and the desire of travelers to use them anytime, anywhere - including commercial flights.

This thought suggested to me when I read today about a 68-year man who slugged a teenage boy who refused to turn off his iPhone on a Southwest Airlines flight; the airline had announced the time to turn off all electronic devices had arrived, just as the aircraft prepared to takeoff from Las Vegas. After the plane landed, in Boise, the slugger was arrested for resorting to violence and allegedly leaving a mark on the slugee. He facesa maximum sentence of six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000 USD.

This is exactly the type of thing many of us - led by flight attendants, who will inevitably have to adjudicate when someone wants to use a personal cell phone in flight and someone else wants to read or sleep - have been afraid of. The problem is only becoming more fraught as the number of devices grows and traditional reluctance to intrude on the privacy of others erodes under the need for constant stimulus and pressure to keep working and stay in touch with home and office.

Regardless of what laws eventually govern the use of personal devices, every airline - and every travel provider such as railroad lines and subways - has got to set policies for when such use is and isn't acceptable. And then stick to those policies.

The alternative is more tension, more blackguard oaths and maybe even more violence, both between passengers and between passengers and staff. Let's try to get this right now, while ground-rules are still being set.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flinn's Funny Travel Tales

Every year, it returns: The Year in Review, the Top Ten Stories of the Year or some variation of that hardy perennial of journalism, The Year-End List. The question is not: Are you going to have to write such a story. The question is: How are you going to handle it when you draw this assignment?

This year, the San Francisco Chronicle's former travel editor, John Flinn, contributed a very funny freelance piece to the paper, published Dec. 26 ( Flinn is a funny writer and his "Top Weird Travel Stories of 2010'' is recommended reading if you want a good laugh.

One example:

"Watch what you say about the food on Ryanair, the Irish ultra-low-fare airline. In July, according to the Aviation Herald, a passenger was taken off a flight in handcuffs after he complained that a sandwich he bought on the plane "tasted like rubber.' The flight crew said he became unruly; police on the ground released him immediately with no charges.''

One more:

"In Liverpool, England, two women were arrested in April for trying to check the body of a dead relative in for a flight to Germany. Curt Willi Jarant, 91, was wearing sunglasses when his widow and stepdaughter rolled him up to the check-in counter in a wheelchair, according to the BBC. When the man couldn't be roused to answer security questions, the airline staff grew suspicious and called police. The women said they thought he was asleep.''

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Wages of Whistleblowing

No good deed goes unpunished.

That's the message I take away from the reported U.S. federal investigation of a commercial airline pilot who recently posted video footage of lax security at San Francisco International Airport, in hopes of improving the safety and security of travelers at airports around the United States. The mobile-phone video, posted on YouTube and since taken down, showed ground crews at SFO swiping cards at an apparently unguarded door to enter secure areas while airlineflight crews and passengers were subject to much more rigorous scrutiny. This, the unidentified pilot charged, creates an enormous loophole for would-be terrorists bent on attacking aircraft and airports.

In response, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration claimed that the pilot - who flies for an unidentified airline - has compromised safety by showing terrorists just how to penetrate security. The pilot's license to carry a firearm in the cockpit - a post-Sept. 11 measure - was revoked and his firearm was confiscated by federal agents.

All this has been done to a guy who was just trying to point out a glaring weakness - one that homicidal fanatics and religious and political extremists almost certainly already know about.

Airport ground crews at U.S. and international airports have ready access to sensitive areas - get a job at an airport and if you are homicidally inclined, you now have a great opportunity to do your worst. Along with unscreened freight on cargo aircraft, airport ground crews are the greatest weakness in aviation security. After years of lobbying by security-minded aviation-industry experts, cargo loaded in the belly of U.S. passenger planes is finally being screened. M0st cargo, however, flies on cargo planes. That's another area in need of serious revision.

There is ample evidence that terrorists are still intent on destroying lives and disrupting commercial civil aviation any way they can. Anyone who can help prevent them from doing that should be thanked, not punished. But the instinct of bureaucrats everywhere - guard your turf and cover your behind - has overriden common sense.

That is one reason travelers still remain at risk, more than nine years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Information, Please

As Snowgate - the winter disruption of air and rail travel in Britian and continental Europe - cascades into its fifth day Wednesday, media reports from Europe make clear that one of the worst aspects of distrupted travel continues, too: The lack of timely, reliable information from airports, airlines and train operators to their customers.

Some of this can't be helped. Sometimes operators don't know when service will get back to normal. A decision on a particular flight hasn't been made pending a review of weather-related conditions. But that is cold comfort to stranded travelers, whose misery is often compounded by a seeming indifference to their need for information.

I know this situation well and as such my sympathies go out to my fellow travelers camping out in airport terminals and shuffling in queues outside icy train stations. It does typically snow in Europe in December, so the insufficent planing and allocation of things like snowplows and de-icying equipment is hard to understand.

Back in 2006, I was returning to California from Berlin by way of Frankfurt. I blithely assumed all would be well, in spite of the snow swirling around the airport. Wrong! We boarded a United Airlines plane at the terminal gate and sat there waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Liquid blue de-icying was sprayed on parked planes, as flight attendants served a meal and United even showed an entire movie. No one knew when or if we would be departing. Finally, the airport shut down as the snow intensified, and we deplaned. The flight was cancelled.

Inside the terminal, I joined a long line waiting to book a hotel room for the night. About midway to the help desk, the public address system crackled with a call for United customers to meet an airline representative on another floor of the terminal for important news of tomorrow's remedial plan. Several dozens of us pulled ourselves out of the queue and went to the appointed spot.

No one from United ever showed up.

I and the other strapped passengers drifted back to the hotel desk - at the end of a now-longer line, as the clock approached midnight. Eventually, I spent the night at a no-frills hotel aptly called the Terminal Hotel across the street from the main Frankfurt rail station. I caught a flight home the next morning.

United Airlines and Frankfurt airport did not cause the snow emergency, but the lack of timely and useful information to stressed travelers like myself made a bad situation even worse.

Travel-industry companies, please copy: You can give a big boost to your customer relations by striving to come up with good information and sharing it as soon as possible with your customers. It will make them feel a bit better and make you look better in the eyes of the traveling public.

Otherwise, everyone is stuck with a dreadful situation like Snowgate 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Julian Assange, Traveling Man

WikiLeaks founder and media figure Julian Assange, granted bail in London today on sex crime charges filed in Sweden, has promised not to flee the English country estate of one of his rich friends for parts unknown while he appeals a Swedish extradition request. In the past, Assange has been something of a nomad, but now the former computer hacker - best known for releasing stolen Pentagon and U.S. State Department documents to the news media and posting them online - says he's staying put. He will wander no more. We'll see.

I have no idea whether Assange is innocent or guilty of the alleged sex crimes, leaving that for the courts to decide. The charges may, as Bianca Jagger, Michael Moore and other show-biz and media supporters claim, political in nature - retaliation for his WikiLeaks actions. Or not. In any case, his well-heeled supporters paid the $310,ooo USD bail, after publicly complaining that he was incarcerated in brutal conditions. Imagine, the U.K. authorities didn't even allow Assange to use a laptop in his cell! The gulag must be next.

Something that is much more certain is that Assange, a globe-trotting Australian who claims to be a journalist, has caused a good deal of harm by releasing classified documents that include names, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information about individuals who worked with U.S. officials around the world. Harm can come not just to secretive U.S. government policies, but to flesh-and-blood people who may have been sacrified to an abstract ideal of total transparency. Sometimes secrets are there for a reason.

Whatever else Assange may be, he is no journalist. Take it from a long-time practitioner of the form, he is not even close. Journalists don't just deal in leaked documents - justified in some circumstances - but also do research, i.e., reporting. They talk to a variety of people, including people whose viewpoints may conflict with their own, cross-reference information from diverse sources, and try to organize and present that information without predetermined conclusions. Assange and his loose network of borderless computer mavens do none of these things.

Assange may be an information-wants-to-be-free Internet idealist, or he may be, as angry U.S. officials charge, an attention-seeking opportunist motivated by anti-U.S. animus. News reportsindicate the U.s. may charge him under the Espionage Act. For now at least, he isn't suffering too greatly, as indicated from this account in today's Washington Post:

"He was then driven off an an armored vehicle by Vaughn Smith, the London restaurateur and former war correspondent who will host Assange at his 600-acre Ellington Hall estate northeast of London under what the British press has dubbed 'mansion arrest.' Before heading to the country, Assange stopped off for a celebratory martini with friends and well-wishers in central London.''

Ah, the martyr's life: Mansions and martinis.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

906 Million Reasons

There are 964 million reasons why airlines in the United States - which pioneered added fees for everything from checking luggage, to changing reservations, to securing extra legroom - are unlikely to roll back those policies - or even, in some cases, fully disclose them in advance to air travelers.

That's how many dollars - $906.4 million to be more precise - the 20 leading U.S. carriers earned in revenue in the third quarter of 2010 just by charging for checked bags. Only Southwest Airlines, with its "Bags Fly Free'' policy, is bucking the trend.

In the first three quarters of this year, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics cited in the Los Angeles Times, "The top carriers pocketed $2.6 billion in baggage fees and $1.7 billion in fees to cancel or change reservations.''

Airlines are charging fees on top of basic air fares because most U.S. carrriers have lost money over most of the past decade, and consumers, accustomed to low fares from low-cost carriers, have resisted airlines' attempts to raise air fares, which once were all-inclusive. First-class, business-class and elite mileage plan members are typically exempt from such fees, but of course more people fly economy than travel at the front of the plane.

When we see the math, we also see it's highly unlikey that such lucrative fees will go away anytime soon.

Some air travel consumer groups are trying to get airlines to fully disclose all fees in advance - clearly and simply, not buried in the fine print of their contracts of carriage. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel planners, says failure to do so makes it very tough to know the real cost of air travel till it's too late and the money has been spent.

This push received an unexpected boost from a respected airline veteran and aviation wise man, former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall, last week. Speaking to the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world's airlines, Crandall put it this way:

''... the industry has objected to consumer efforts to display a complete list of ancillary charges in every distribution channel in which a carrier participates ... I think the industry courts unnecessary customer discontent and risks its good name and reputation by opposing a request entirely consistent with normal retail practice. We all need to recognise, I think, that operationally attractive positions that are inconsistent with customer welfare and satisfaction are, in the long run, likely to be detrimental to our individual and collective well-being.''

The title of Crandall's speech: "The Customer is the Focus of Everything.''

Sounds like common sense to me. If you have to charge fees to make a profit, charge fees. But at least let people know what they are, so they can plan their travel accordingly. This is Customer Service 101.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 2011 SAS Crew Guide

One of the gifts of the season just arrived, earmarking some great places to go in the New Year:

It is the 2011 Crew Guide, the seventh edition of a handy paperback guidebook to some of the planet's most interesting places. Uniquely, the book is written by well-traveled members of airline flight crews such as flight attendants, pilots and pursers. Originally the writers were all with Scandinavian Airlines but SAS contributors are now supplemented by writers from nine other carriers such as SAS Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and United Airlines.

The Crew Guide breaks down tips and advice into self-explanatory categories: Eat, Buy, Sleep, See, Recover. New this year are mini-profiles of photogenic crew members, matched to cities they know well. The Crew Guide is necessarily more suggestive than definitive, as the 22 cities included in its pages have to be served by at least one of the 10 participating airlines. Bangkok, Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels and the like are included - and all are worthy choices -but other worthies such as Cape Town and Buenos Aires aren't in the 351-page book.

I was just in Beijing and Tokyo, so I gravitated first to entries about those cities. The 20-page section on Beijing is good, with outstanding restaurants such as The Courtyard and 1949 Hidden City's Noodle Bar making the cut, along with some lively markets. Tokyo, as dynamic and fascinating a metropolis as any on the planet, gets just 10 pages, though an informed contributor correctly points out that some of the best dining in town takes place under the arches of the Japanese capital's railroad bridges.

The 2011 edition of the Crew Guide continues the series' infatuation with New York City - which, at 42 pages, gets just two pages fewer than Beijing, Tokyo and London combined. Mind you, I like the Big Apple, but unlike Tokyo and Beijing, it is a city whose future is behind it, and the greatest-city-in-the-world routine is debatable.

That said, this is a engaging and helpful book, well worth the 15 euros (about $20 USD) being charged for it. Wherever you roam, advice such as this from SAS crew member Dandi Si, in Beijing, will stand you in good stead when you're trying not to look like a - perish the thought! - tourist:

"Rucksacks, walking boots, and professional outdoor equipment are signs of a newcomer,'' Si says. "As too are cameras around the neck.''

You have been warned.

No, the FAs on your next flight won't be selling the book, but you can buy a copy online at

Monday, December 6, 2010

24/7 in Hong Kong

There are numerous candidates for the city that never sleeps designation, but just a very few - Cairo, New York, Tokyo - come close to matching Hong Kong. The place is just vibrant, whether for shopping, eating or working.

I'm back for my first visit in more than a year. Flew in last night with Cathay Pacific Airways - which, incidently, just announced new serice from HK to Chicago starting Sept. 1, 2011, and a third daily nonstop between New York JFK. and HK starting next spring. I'm beavering away here at the Regal Airport Hotel's business center, trying to work up to the frenetic pace of this city.

This time around, I'll be checking out a new hotel or two, going back to old favorites and, of course, trying to catch up with Hong Kong's frenetic and varied food scene.

Reports to follow. Now, I'm venturing out into the great city. There's nothing quite like being in a subtropical climate, in a metropolis bedecked in Christmas lights and electric snowflakes.