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Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Listening to other people's consumer grievances tends to be a drag -- important to them, but not really the kind of thing you want to hear about. But if you would indulge me for a moment (or just move on to something more interesting), I experienced such profound consumer exasperation today that I need to vent:

A couple months ago, I purchased a $399 round-trip fare on Northwest Airlines from DC to Minneapolis for reunion weekend. This week, my colleagues at work asked me to go to Indianapolis for some meetings the two days prior to my Minnesota trip. I wouldn't be able to get back to DC in time to make my flight to Minneapolis, but the travel folks at work said I could just fly to Minneapolis instead of flying home. Works out well -- I waste half my flight, but no harm.

Then I call NWA to tell them I no longer need the outbound half of my flight, and things just go downhill. The friendly rep tells me that because I'm not showing up for the outbound leg, my ticket gets cancelled and I won't be able to fly the return leg. So I need to alter my reservation to make it a one-way flight, which will cost me...$785. Yes, $785. To make my two-way $399 round-trip into a one-way. He explains all the reasons (short notice, one-ways priced differently from round trips, new fuel surcharges, etc) this is true. I tell him that while I understand, it just doesn't seem reasonable.

For the first time ever in my life, I pull the "Can I speak to a manager?" thing. I talk to Scott, to whom I make the following "business case" for not charging me to change to a one-way:
- I bought a service, and am now trying to use only half of it, but this for some reason costs almost three times as much as using the entire service.
- If NWA changes my ticket to one-way, they can resell the seat I'm no longer using, but keep my money for the whole fare.
- I was about to book a business trip on NWA (the only direct flights to Indy from DC), but if I can't change this conflicting personal trip, I cannot book this second, revenue-generating trip.
- Furthermore, if they refuse to be reasonable, I will remain extremely disgruntled for an extended period of time, not likely to leap at the chance to fly NWA again.

I did not yell, and I was not even unpleasant -- I just laid out a rational case. Scott did not acknowledge my arguments, and told me that he had no authority to override what the system said. He said he could transfer me to the Customer Care Center, where they did have authority to make exceptions, but he didn't see a reason why they would do so in my case. I told him to transfer me, and I spent 20 minutes exploring the branches of the phone tree but never found anything other than automated messages referring me to the website or the reservations phone number. I might have gotten snippy at that point if there had been anyone to talk to.

So, I'm not going to the work meetings in Indianapolis, Northwest lost a few hundred dollars in revenue, and I developed enough hard feelings to extend to NWA and their merger partner, Delta.

Sorry, I won't post any other consumer rants. But this totally ruined my afternoon.


hannah said...

That's a major bummer, Teague. Really frustrating.

lj said...

I completely understand your frustration, Teague--feel free to rant. Sadly, I can't say I'm surprised. Similar things probably happen hundreds, if not thousands, of times every day. Airlines are completely psychotic to begin with (Hannah has a really great story, about how it was twice as expensive to fly from B to C as to was to fly from A to B to C -- same B-C flight), and now they're apparently shocked, *shocked* that the price of jet fuel has gone up. They had no idea that would happen! Plus there's the fact that no human you talk to at a company that size is really functioning as a human, but only as a powerless automaton.

I would be interested to hear the opinions of economists or anyone who had studied the airline industry carefully and objectively. Is there a fundamental reason that it's so insane, or is there a better way if someone was to start from scratch? Why do all airlines seem to go bankrupt, and why do we bail them out? Is this industry a refutation of the belief that free markets should behave in a rational and efficient manner, or does a rational and efficient market just look a lot weirder than I would naively expect?

As you can see, I'm not much good at restraining consumer rants myself (good thing I don't have a blog). It seems like I've had a ridiculous and incredibly frustrating experience with every large company I've had to deal with in the last couple of years. Has it always been this way and I'm only noticing now that I'm a member of the "real world," or is our society going downhill due to the dehumanizing power of them new-fangled computers and automated call centers, or am I just a cranky grumpface who needs to chill out?

Probably some of each. In any case, in the last couple of years I've driven several trips that I might have once flown.

lj said...

Oh, I also meant to say: it's really fortunate that your boss was okay with you not going to those meetings. And I'm very glad that you'll still be coming out for reunion.

teague said...

I thought a lot about the question of why the airline business is so wacky while I was working for the mechanics' union. The primary theory that I settled on is that the economics of the industry are distorted by the huge capital investment needed, and to some extent, by the sheer size of the operations of the big airlines. By which I mean that the sunk costs in aircraft, terminals, jetways, etc give an incentive to keep operating even if the underlying business doesn't make sense. This can be seen in action when GE, which leases a lot of planes and jet engines, keeps giving airlines successively more lenient terms on their debt because they don't want them to shut down and skip out on their debt entirely. The incentives are similar for unions, politicians, executives -- shutting down is the least attractive option, so they do whatever they need to in order to kick the crisis down the road a little bit.

I also think the allure of the airline industry (what's left of it, anyway) draws more people/companies into the business than there would otherwise be.

But yeah, the business is totally weird. Like when American Airlines sends out a press release announcing that they're taking away the pillows on all their planes to save $600,000/year -- in what other industry do companies tout cutbacks in amenities to the public?