“Yes,” she says. “That’s how we feel.”
When I visited with United in August, they were roughly in the same place that Delta had found itself in back in 2010. United’s merger with Continental was fraught with difficulties, including a disastrous integration of reservation systems, and the complaints were piling up. Almost every executive I met with, with the possible exception of United’s head chef, issued similar pro-forma apologies.
Scott O’Leary, United’s managing director of customer solutions, said that the integration had been “hard,” adding, “We are not running a good operation.” But in a lengthy interview, he outlined plans similar to Delta’s for improving United’s customer service. United is using a combination of technology, extra staff and policy changes to make your next flight go more smoothly. A new program called IROP 2.0 (that’s airline-speak for irregular operations) was just rolling out as the summer wound down.
Change, O’Leary cautioned, “won’t happen overnight.”
That August, 467 complaints were filed against United with the Transportation Department, more than twice as many as the next airline, American. In September, the number fell to 211 complaints. And in October, it slid to 203. That’s the right direction.
A skeptic might say that I’m just witnessing the normal hiccups and convulsions that happen during an airline merger, a phenomenon that will just repeat itself if American Airlines and US Airways hook up. A cynic might point out that Delta has every reason to treat disabled customers like Boal as deities. After all, didn’t the Department of Transportation fine Delta a record $2 million for “egregious” violations of its disability rules in 2011?
Both would have a point. But I see something else unfolding here. It’s a realization that airlines can’t take their customers for granted, even the ones flying on discounted fares. Delta appropriately refers to these leisure travelers as “essential” passengers.
Maybe — just maybe — airlines have realized that the passengers in the back of the plane are important, too. Maybe in 2013 they want to make all their customers happy, not just the ones with platinum cards.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.