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Customer service travels well - Peter Funt

As Labor Day approaches, and with it the end of the vacation season, many Americans are so stressed by the rigors of travel that they're happy to have a vacation from vacations.

Anyone who's taken a plane ride recently knows how unpleasant the process has become -- and we didn't need a beer-toting, emergency-exiting, JetBlue flight attendant to confirm it. Although most airlines are reporting an upswing in passenger volume, customer service seems to have reached a record low.

The nation's hotel chains, which took a similar beating when the economy tanked, are also seeing modest improvement in occupancy. But here's the twist: customer service -- particularly among mid-priced hotels -- is soaring and may be nearing an all-time high.

Why are these two cornerstones of the travel business so diametrically different when it comes to pleasing customers? How is it that most hotel chains are battling to gain customers by serving them well, while major airlines seem audacious enough to seek passengers while treating them poorly?

Most of my flying is on United Airlines, simply because it dominates the routes out of the small airport near my home in Central California. I'm often compelled to fly United despite its customer service, not because of it.

On the road, I've become a big fan of Hilton's Hampton Inn brand, not because of limited choices, but because I'm so impressed by the level of service and value I've experienced at many of Hampton's 1,700 locations. The customer service dynamic is dramatically different between these two areas of the travel world.

For a clear example of how the industries have diverged, look no further than the "points" or "mileage" award programs. The concept of earning free service by collecting points was invented by airlines roughly 30 years ago. Today, the airline programs are a mess, with trillions of unused miles and great frustration among fliers, who accumulate points and then find how increasingly difficult it is to use them.

The Hilton Honors system on the other hand is simple, convenient and, best of all, it works. With very few exceptions, the hotel industry has not crippled its award programs with too many blackout dates or other restrictions. As a result, the programs foster consumer loyalty for all the right reasons.

Another profound example is in ticky-tack charges. Airlines seem sold on the notion that charging separate fees for everything from luggage to pillows to boarding priority results in greater revenue, which earnings reports indicate it has. But, at what expense? Most fliers are fuming.

Hotels, meanwhile, are trending in the opposite direction. Wi-Fi connections, for example, were available at many hotels for an extra charge; now the industry has wised up and provided free Internet. The latest survey by J.D. Power and Associates shows increased satisfaction among North American hotel guests in every category measured.

The top five hotel perks according to the survey are: free Internet, free breakfast, choice of bedding, pillow-top mattresses and free parking. Hampton Inn, like most of its mid-priced competitors, offers all these and more. Newspapers, toothpaste, coffee 24/7, a brown-bag snack for your journey -- it's all included in the basic rate.

J.D. Power also reports a slight increase in satisfaction among airline passengers in the first half of 2010, but except for perennial standout Alaska Airlines, the uptick seems to reflect surrender by consumers rather than a vote of approval. It may be marginally less annoying to ride a plane than it was last year -- although this summer's crowded conditions may change that -- but nearly one-half of passengers surveyed say that prices for in-flight beverages and food, checked baggage, and preferred seating are unreasonably high.

Consolidation of airlines has left fliers with little leverage. Other factors impacting air travel, from security to yo-yoing fuel prices, make it tough on carriers as well as their passengers. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the airlines' approach to customer service -- and it's vividly clear when compared with the strides taken by hotel chains.

Someone once said, "getting there is half the fun," but nowadays the travel industry is changing the equation.

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.