Sunday, February 15, 2009

CheckPOINT - February 20, 2009 - Was Ryanair really ahead of the curve?

by Jeff Gerstl (Travel Hub Radio) Special--

I read last week that United Airlines is going to drop its customer complaint and compliment line. The phone line, currently based in India, will be going offline altogether by the end of April. The number is currently being removed from the website and all literature over the next couple of months. The airline is going to force customers to instead write the letters of complaints (compliments, in parentheses because this happens so rarely) via e-mail or snail mail.

In the airline industry, many times when one airline makes what they believe to be a "cost-cutting" move, the other airlines almost immediately follow suit. It happened long ago when airlines began cutting travel agent commissions, eventually to zero. It happened when someone came up with the "fuel surcharge." It happened when airlines began taking away free food and onboard amenities. It most recently happened when airlines began charging for checked bags (my sincere thanks to Southwest Airlines for not taking these privileges away). Now, United pulls a customer complaint line. Not only does this take jobs away (from India or otherwise), it allows United to control the entire complaint/compliment process. They can even choose to not respond if they wish.

According to the article I read, American Airlines and Delta, which are the two largest airlines in the US, also do not manage customer complaints and comments via telephone, directing passengers to write via mail or e-mail. And now that Delta has taken over Northwest, also a major airline, that means that Northwest won't have this service much longer. Continental Airlines, an airline that I probably have the most respect for, will continue (for now) to include a Customer Care Department to handle these issues. Is there any wonder that Southwest Airlines, which treats their customers much better, does so well against the legacy carriers?

I am reminded of Europe's Ryanair when I hear about this. For those that don't know, Ryanair is a very low-cost carrier based in Ireland. They offer very low cost fares throughout Europe. However, they don't offer much else. They have been criticized as being rude to the customers, all the way up to CEO Michael O'Leary, who has been known to shout at passengers that they should feel lucky that they pay such low fares to travel and essentially to "shut it." One controversial move had no way to contact the airline except to use a Premium rate phone number, fax, or post mail. They didn't even offer an e-mail address. Eventually British Parliament forced Ryanair to offer e-mail access as well.

Ryanair also led the way in Europe with "extra fees." They always charged extra for checked baggage, added airport taxes, and even surcharges for using a credit or debit card to pay for flights. Although they claim to be one of the most popular airlines, due to their low fares, they also hold a reputation as being a real "bad boy" when it comes to operations. To a lesser extent, London-based low-cost carrier EasyJet also doesn't hold the best customer service reputation, but they score several marks higher than Ryanair. I also hold respect for them because I was in e-mail contact at one point with EasyJet Founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou to appear on Travel Hub Radio as a guest. We could never nail down an interview time however.

So maybe, unfortunately, Ryanair is on to something. We are increasingly being asked to bend over further and further as the major airlines claim their profits are shrinking and are feeling bolder to add charges for everything. Now the airlines get to keep the fares relatively low, and screw us with the extra charges, and lack of service. Who is the winner in air travel now?

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