USAir vs Air-Taxi Customer Service - No Contest

Posted by William Herp on Fri, Feb 22, 2013


I’d just begun to put my shoes back on after passing through the time-wasting, privacy-violating ordeal of a TSA airport screening at Salt Lake City, Utah, when my phone began to ring. It wasn’t good news.

I’d traveled on a Wednesday to Park City, a beautiful ski resort 45 minutes outside Salt Lake City, for an Entrepreneurs Organization national conference and visit with customers there - we have an Eclipse jet based at Heber City, Utah, 13 miles from Park City.  Even though I’m the founder and CEO of Linear Air, the nations most successful on-demand air taxi service, I made the reasonable choice to fly commercially rather than aboard one of  Linear Air’s Eclipse Jets from my home base at Hanscom Field outside Boston.  The Eclipse air-taxi is optimal for trips of a couple hours or less.  A trip of that length would have required an Eclipse to make a couple of fuel stops along the way, and because I was going to be in Park City for three nights, flying one of our Eclipse Jets to Utah would have meant taking it out of revenue-producing service for four whole days.  The shareholders would approve.

As it turns out, that was bad call that I would come to regret.

I was scheduled to fly home Saturday afternoon, after the conference ended. Aware of Nemo, the big Nor'easter storm back home in New England, I had checked on Friday and again Saturday morning to see if Logan Airport, which Massport had closed on Friday would be re-opening on Saturday. It was. I then checked to see if the plane I was to fly from my connection in Phoenix might be caught in the storm-caused delays. It was coming in from Portland, OR where the weather was fine. So I drove the 45 minutes from Park City to the Salt Lake City airport, expecting to get home as scheduled, around 8 pm local.

Silly me. That phone call was from USAirways' automated system telling me my flight to Boston was cancelled. Since I’d already made it through security I decided to stroll down to my gate to see if the agent there could help me make other arrangements. When I arrived at the gate the agent was announcing the bad the news over the PA to other waiting passengers. As you might expect, there was plenty of anger and a bit of cursing. And rather quickly a long line had formed at the counter.

Undaunted, I simply hit the re-dial button my phone and called the  USAirways automated passenger information system, and with about a 10 minute wait got to a real live agent. So far so good.  But after a few minutes of checking for available seats to Boston she told me the best she could do would be to put me on a flight out of Phoenix that would arrive TUESDAY morning.  Red-eyes flights really blow under any conditions. But I’m 50 now and I knew that recovering from that Red-eye would also kill my entire Tuesday. There had to be a better solution.

So while I kept the agent on the phone I jumped online and went to Kayak, the popular travel aggregator and our partner, and found a connecting flight via Chicago. But the United agent couldn’t book it because it included an overnight layover – something her computer system prevented her from booking. She then found a connection for me arriving on Monday into Philadelphia (at which point I would have been on my own), but the system wouldn’t let her book that one either. Then, at my urging she looked into the possibility of flying me backwards, to San Francisco, and getting me on a transcontinental flight to Boston. But the flight to San Francisco actually would have been aboard United, soon to be partner in shoddy service but currently a mere code-share partner, and the computer blocked her ability to book code-share flights.

I gave up on USAir at that point and went to Delta, which operates a small hub at Salt Lake City and therefore has lots more departing flights and seats there every day. Delta was able to accommodate me with a flight to San Francisco – if I could get to the gate before it departed in 30 minutes, and if I forked over the rather princely sum of $458.90 for a flight of less than an hour. I had no choice, so I paid the high price and sprinted to the Delta gate. Then, after spending Saturday night with one of my brothers in the Bay Area, I got a one-way flight to Boston on Virgin America (which cost only slight more than the short Delta flight the day before $551.90), and landed at Boston on Sunday night, 24 hours late, but 60 hours ahead of USAir and well-rested to boot.

But the saga continues.  Unfortunately, the USAir agent couldn’t confirm the refund on the portion of the ticket I didn’t use because the airline cancelled my flight. Instead she gave me a web address to check in eight days to see how much the airline would refund to me.

As of today, the  USAir  refund website shows a $200.58 credit to my card against a $399.70 RT fare,  plus a $62 seat upgrade charge on the cancelled flight. The link to send an email regarding refunds was broken, so I filled out the web form to send a general query.  We'll see.

The whole experience, driven as it was by USAirways' complex and seemingly senseless rules designed to put the airline’s own needs ahead of those of its customers, was maddening. And it made me all-the-more certain that we at Linear Air are taking the right approach to customer service by making it relentlessly customer-centric. We actually treat people like, well, people; not merely butts in seats.

Yes, Linear Air’s operations can be upset by bad weather just like those of the big airlines. So I can’t promise our customers that they’ll never be subjected to the hassles and frustration of a weather delay. But because our service is optimized around our customer’s individualized travel needs rather than around the company’s service network, operational and computer system limitations, we have unequaled ability to find creative ways to get our customers to their destinations just as soon as weather conditions allow. And we can do it while putting our passenger through the absolute minimum amount of hassle and frustration possible. We think that’s a huge advantage not only for us, as a business, but for our customers. We hope you do too, and that you’ll give us a chance to serve you real soon.

See you onboard.



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