Saturday, November 20, 2010

Continental Airlines Takes a Nosedive

So, a blog's reach must exceed its grasp, or what's it good for?  And one of the functions of blogging, and I might go so far as to say that one of the duties of a practicing blogist, is to report to the public on problems related to the consumer goods and services that dominate our culture and environment.  To that end, this post is about Continental Airlines, which is in the process of merging with United Airlines, and turning into one of the largest, if not the largest in the industry.

Living in New Jersey as I do, I usually use Newark-Liberty Airport, where Continental is king of the hill, and that is the airline that I most often use.  At least, that was the airline that I most often used.

And last week I traveled from Newark to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the National Communication Association.  The return flight boarded at 11:00 AM west coast time, and landed after 8:00 PM east coast time.  In other words, we were in the air during at least one meal time, and arguably two.

Now, as you may know, the new policy is not to offer free meals on these flights.  They say no free meals on flights under 6 hours, which sounds rational but conveniently cuts out most transcontinental travel in the United States.  So they offer a menu and food for sale, hamburgers, salads, sandwiches, and snacks.

That's bad, but that's not what motivated this post.  We're all getting the treatment from airlines, like paying a fee for checking your bags, that's old news.  And I noticed Continental now offers seats with extra leg room in coach for an extra $69!!!  Maybe they'll start to offer better quality air for passengers willing to pay a fee?

But no, what motivated this post is the fact that on the flight from San Francisco to Newark they not only charged for lunch, but didn't have enough food to go around.  And of course, you get no information about what's going on before you leave, it's not until you're imprisoned up in the air that you're informed of the situation.

Look, it's bad enough that Continental Airlines offers not so much as a complimentary peanut to eat anymore.  That's more of an insult than an injury.  But to represent that they have lunch items for sale, and then not to have them available, well, what do we call that?  False advertising?  Bait and switch?

You see, when the flight attendant with the food cart got to my row, she informed me that all she had was snacks.  This included two kinds of snack boxes.  And you might say, Lance, the snack boxes are not very good, but they're something, right?  And I'd say, sure, that's true, but wouldn't you expect to be informed of what's in the snack boxes before purchasing them?  Well, it seems that whoever prepared the flight for take off neglected to provide menus in the seat pockets, not a one.  And the flight attendant did not know what was in the box, and wouldn't open one up so I could see what was in it before purchasing it.  Pig in a poke?

So, all of this is pretty bad, but corporate malfeasance is nothing new, right?  But what was over the top is that this flight attendant was angry!  She was angry with Continental about the situation, and made that clear enough, but she directed that anger at me, as I was, I gather, asking the same questions and expressing the same complaints as a couple dozen people had already done in the rows ahead of me.  I'm sure the situation was very unpleasant for her, but she was rude and nasty to me, and when I pay good money for a seat on a cramped and uncomfortable flight, I expect a little better.  Talk about insult to injury, this was just too much. 

I won't go into the specifics of our exchange, they're not important.  And I'm sure she was stressed, tired, etc.  But for me, the bottom line is that when you are taking a paycheck from a company, then you have to take responsibility for what the company does.  You are that company's representative, period.

So, I wound up purchasing one of the two types of snack boxes sight unseen, as I had no alternative.  And to be honest, I felt pretty nauseous afterward.  

I did complain about the flight attendant's behavior to the head flight attendant, a fellow named Don, and while he had already heard her side of the story, he listened to me, acknowledged that her behavior is not always the best, was entirely polite and friendly, and bought me a drink to make up for the way she acted.  Thank you Don, you really salvaged a bad experience for me!

Now, don't get me wrong.  The flight attendant with the food cart may have been a bad apple, but the source of her irritability and anger was Continental Airlines.  Continental Airlines created a situation where it was impossible to satisfy its customers, and where its employees had to bear the brunt of consumer dissatisfaction in a context that they were unprepared to deal with.

The bottom line is information.  Tell me what the situation is.  If you're not going to offer us anything, say so, say it in large letters on the boarding pass, have your personnel announce it at the gate, make it clear, spell it out, so we have a chance to prepare.  If you don't have enough for everyone and may run out, say so, print it on the ticket and boarding pass, send me an email, call me up, announce it at the gate, let us know what the situation is.  We have a right to know, and YOU have an obligation to tell us.

That's the bare minimum, of course.  And with merger mania, the fact is that we do not have all that much of a choice in airlines.  But after hearing folks rave about JetBlue, I really have to rethink my travel preferences.

I should add that my flight home was delayed due to high winds in New Jersey, something we've been experiencing in the New York Metropolitan Area with increasing frequency in the last couple of years.  It's downright scary to see such climate change, and what with strange weather, volcano eruptions and the like, air travel is becoming not only less pleasant and less reliable, but less possible!

My tip for the future, therefore, is invest in high-speed railways!  As I read in a comic book as a kid, good old terra firma, the more firmer, the less terror!

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