The Friendly Skies are Still a Customer Service Nightmare

You would think United Airlines would have learned their lesson from Dave Carroll’s song “United Breaks Guitars.” Long story short: corporate giant treats customer like dirt, customer vents frustration by writing a song and the video goes viral, corporate giant begs forgiveness. Epilogue: corporate giant goes right back to treating people like dirt.

Right now United is going through a merger with Continental. You might want to steer clear of both of these behemoths for the foreseeable future. I had the misfortune of traveling on Continited over the summer and it was just one more example of what is quickly becoming a mantra of mine… Customer service is dead.

I think the economy has got everyone freaked out, and I’m sure the employees at Unitinental are no exception. But there’s no excuse for yelling at a customer who’s trying to help find a seat for a person in a wheelchair (saw it happen at O’Hare). If I had to guess, I would say that the fear of losing one’s job, combined with the sense of entitlement that seems to plague a generation, results in a kind of customer service that thinks the customer is supposed to serve the company. What would happen if we were all so thankful just to have a job that we decided to actually see our jobs as service to others?

Forty dollars a pound. That’s what my socks and underwear are worth. Forty dollars a pound. Apparently, when they saw me coming with my huge George Bailey suitcase, they decided to change the fee for overweight luggage from $50 to $200. So I was five pounds over the limit, and since I was not able to repack in the airport they extorted $200 from me, holding my travel plans hostage. Now, let’s think about this. If I had been able to take five pounds of whatever out of my checked bag and put it in my carry-on, then they would not have charged me. So obviously, this has nothing to do with overall weight since they must realize it’s all going on the same plane. All it really does is make everyone try to cram all their stuff in the overhead bin, which creates problems for boarding. So for the return flight, I bought a luggage scale (15 euros) and made sure my suitcase was under the limit. Guess what – it was only two-thirds full! And my carry-on weighed about 100 lbs. I swear, if anyone had given me a hard time about the weight, I was ready to dump my dirty laundry on the ticket counter and tell them they could keep it, since it would cost less than $200 to replace three weeks worth of socks and underwear.

So when I got back home, I tried (foolishly) to call customer service to figure out how to combine my frequent flyer accounts for the two airlines. The person on the phone actually tried to get rid of me and told me to go to the website. But guess what – yeah, that’s right – the website didn’t work. After inputting all the info, no go – error message. This is why the first word out of my mouth whenever I get a computer on the phone is “REPRESENTATIVE!” Here’s a tip: just repeat the word REPRESENTATIVE or OPERATOR until you get a real person. You deserve to speak to a real person. Not to mention the fact that real people are losing their jobs to these machines – not for better service, but as a shortcut for the company to make more money. Let’s reject this, and tell them we deserve better.

OK, before I go too far down the road to Whinersville, I want to circle back to this idea: What happened to servanthood? If our jobs are supposed to be the home for our hands, then is it too idealistic to think about work as “lending a hand”? What if people saw their job as the way God is calling them to connect to other human beings and serve them, rather than simply as the way they begrudgingly earn a paycheck? Am I just being naïve? I don’t even think you have to like your job to see it as service – in fact, back in the days when I was in a job I didn’t like, it was choosing to approach it as a service to God and others that got me up every morning. If I didn’t see my job in terms of the human element, I think the only alternative would have been to become bitter, angry and mean. Which brings me back to United Airlines. Those people actually seemed to take delight in charging me $200 for my extra five pounds – gotcha! It was like they took a perverse comfort in the hope that my $200 might keep the company afloat for one more day.

And before you think Southwest Airlines is any better, the last time I flew Southwest, their no seat assignments policy ended up with me almost getting kicked off the plane when some jerk wouldn’t change seats with me so I could sit next to my wife. Apparently the mean and stingy vibe is now contagious so that even the customers treat each other like dirt. (Note to the Jerk: When you got home and told your wife about the incident, did she take your side? Just asking…)

Let’s make a pact to treat each other with generosity, rather than stingyness. Stingyness will not save your job, in fact it might have the opposite effect. Let’s not let fear motivate our behavior. I would like to say that to the corporations, too, but we already know they aren’t listening to us. If any CEOs are reading this, I challenge you… no, I triple-dog-dare you, to have enough faith in people to treat us with respect, believing that your company will actually flourish if you think of yourself as being in service to humanity.

I’ll finish with a couple of observations from Spiritual Blueprint. These come from lessons I’ve learned in my own life. First of all, it doesn’t pay to chase after money. If your motivation for doing something is only about money, then it’s time to question whether it’s the right thing to do. Second (and related to the first), life is not about accomplishing some goal, or acquiring some amount of something. It’s not about the end goal, it’s about the process – or to put it another way, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. That’s why it’s more important to treat people with a sense of servanthood along the way, than to live a stingy life so you can get to some plateau of acquisition. Rather than letting fear drive you to selfishness, let gratitude drive you to generosity. I’m not saying I do it right all the time, or that I’m never susceptible to the stingy contagion. But I’m praying that God will help me try to do better to resist the selfishness, and choose generosity instead.

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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