A client was very upset with me. We had sold him software a few weeks ago and he called because he needed help. When I explained to him that all of our services are at an hourly rate he was shocked. "You mean I have to pay you to help me with this lousy software?" he yelled on the phone. "I've never heard of such a thing before! This is outrageous!" I get this infrequently from "shocked" clients who've "never heard of this thing before."
And each time this happens I know exactly how the airline industry feels.
This week the airlines are coming under more attack. A recent survey found that Americans are hating industry because even though flights are "more on-time" people are still dissatisfied with the customer service. Christopher Moraff, in a great piece, shares his own airline story, concluding that:
... flying has become a necessary evil, a special circle in Hell where penitents are forced to pay for the privilege of enduring austere regulations, humiliating security procedures, cramped seats, high fees and the loss of amenities -- such as hot meals, cocktails and in-flight entertainment -- that were once de rigueur on even the shortest flights.
So let me get this straight: these airlines who are managing tens of thousand of flights each day and getting you and me to our destination safely and more on time than ever are receiving complaints because they charge for a beer and don't provide a movie? And to think that those living just a mere 150 years before had to travel five days in a horse-drawn carriage, eat bread and mutton and share a dirty bed together just to get from Philly to Boston. Oh, the horror! Our lives are terrible!
Sometimes customers, particularly those customers with little experience using a product, expect more than reality. My customer above "thought" that when he bought his software from me then all training and services would be part of the price. Putting aside that he signed a contract with me that clearly outlined the charges for our services (people don't read these things, do they?), anyone who frequently buys technology knows this is not the norm. It's the same with traveling. Infrequent travelers, brainwashed by too many commercials and celebrity reality shows, expect to be treated like royalty the minute they check in. But business travelers like me know the truth.
The truth is this: Since January 1, 2013 I've flown 22 times to Denver, Los Angeles, Orlando, Boston, London, New Orleans and other cities. I am a US Airways frequent flier too. And you know what? The airlines are good. The airline industry is good. US Airways is good. People, stop complaining. I'm not saying things are perfect. Yes, the seats could be wider. Sometimes mistakes are made. Occasionally you'll get a surly flight attendant. The food isn't great. The fight for baggage space is exhausting. The entire process of flying is exhausting.
But the truth is that each of my 22 flights got me to my destinations and back to Philadelphia safely and pretty much on time. It's amazing that with all the flights going on at the moment that I'm writing this there are still a remote number of accidents. The airlines have gotten this down to a science: the same plane that I took to San Diego is then used to transport customers to Seattle, back to San Diego and then back to Philadelphia all in the same day. Safely. One of my flights was cancelled (after we boarded) because of a mechanical problem. Good! I was late. But I wasn't falling out of the sky mid-flight either. The maintenance people on the ground and in flight operations at these airlines are competent.
Even as a frequent flier, I'm still amazed by flying. I am still comforted each time by an experienced pilot who explains the details of the flight and who somehow manages to find smooth air almost all the time. They have landed my planes in high winds, fog, rain and sleet. I have taken off in six inches of snow in Salt Lake City. I get nervous when I drive someone else's kids in the back of our minivan after a soccer game. These guys move 300 people a thousand miles at 36,000 feet like it's nothing. It's not nothing. It's impressive. The next time you fly try to make it a point to say thank you to one of them on the way out.
The flight attendants have their bad days, I'll admit. But ugh... what a job. They are stuck in these metallic tubes for hours enduring the worst of mother nature and human nature. They stay mostly in hotels, away from their families. They endure pay cuts and are forced to apply advanced geometric concepts to help passengers figure out ways to stuff their over-sized bags into the overhead baggage space that seems to run out of room within minutes of boarding.
I admit that when I fly US Airways I'm treated pretty close to royalty (and I know that the treatment could be better on other airlines too, but I'm fine). I'm TSA pre-certified so I avoid all the security lines at the airport. I frequently get upgraded to first class. I have priority boarding so I never have to worry where my carry-on will go. If I have to change a flight at the airport because I'm early or there's a delay I'm allowed to with no questions asked. I get on the plane first and off the plane first.
If you ask any business traveler like me about flying most will answer the same way: I hate to fly, but it's more because of the other passengers than the airlines. I see this all time: people who bring smelly food on the plane, fuss with their too-many bags and hold everyone else up, throw back their seat into my lap without at least asking first or blast their own music through their headphones so loud it's heard three rows behind me. I see people drinking scotch at 8 a.m. and snoring like a leaf-blowing machine on a fall day. I look at the mess we leave when we depart the plane. I once read a book about flying written by a former flight attendant who claimed that the farty, pungent, human smell that comes out of the first opened doors of a transatlantic flight is second to none. I believe that.
Do you want to have a good flight? Here's my advice: join a frequent flier program. Book well in advance so you get the seat (and maybe even the price) you want. Check in the night before and have all your paperwork ready to go. Get to the airport three (yes three -- bring a book or an iPad) hours in advance so you've got plenty of time to get through security, eat, chill out and not arrive at the gate sweaty from running. Don't bring food on board. Be nice to the people at the gate. Be nice to the flight attendants on board and be nice to your fellow passengers. Don't try to stuff a piano in the overhead compartment. Get out of people's way and do your business quickly. Now sit in your seat and shut the hell up. Let the airline people do their job. Oh, and by the way... please lose a few pounds.
Will the experience be like a movie star's? No. Because you're not a movie star. Read the contract. You're a customer paying an agreed on fee for an agreed upon service, which is to get you to your destination safely and with reasonable comfort. If you want more, than pay more or fly more. But please don't be like my recently frustrated client who expected the world after buying his software from us. Any experienced person will tell you that's not the way it works.
A version of this column appeared on The Philly Post.