Podcast #91 — Can’t Patch Planes Forever; Saving Customers With A Personal Touch

Let's seeeeeeeeeeeeeee ....

Let's seeeeeeeeeeeeeee .... © Stefan Sonntag / Flickr

Was off the road for two weeks for my kids’ graduations, but now back in the security lines with a mix of domestic and international travel. Listener suggestions include dining at local music clubs to avoid the “eating alone” stigma, and using mini-USB hubs to power your gadgets without carrying a basketful of international plug adapters. I’m impressed by how a couple of TSA screeners deal with a silly carry-on. I’m not impressed though by how American Airline’s old MD-80′s keep delaying my travels. And, after a lousy Avis rental return experience, an employee reaches out and wins me back. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #91:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • I’ve actually been in town more than not since the last episode.  Both my kids had graduations – my son from high school, my daughter from middle school. I decided it would be a good thing to be around for those.
  • Of course, nothing comes for free, so my packed travel schedule in May was “paying forward” for two weeks off the road in at the beginning of June.  And then I was back at it last week – back down to Phoenix for triple digit highs, 105° F every afternoon. Yes, I know that it’s a dry heat, but then again, so is an oven.  Then out to London for a customer meeting – out tomorrow night — Sunday night (I hate flying out Sunday nights – blows your entire weekend), back Tuesday afternoon – but then instead of heading home, I’ll pick up a flight down to Austin, TX for the last two days of a travel technology conference.
  • Then home, and then back to the UK — but this time combining leisure and business.  We fly from Chicago to Manchester – on an American 757 which I have to say I’m dreading – head over for an afternoon in my dad’s hometown Southport – kinda halfway between Liverpool and Blackpool on the Irish Sea – then up to the Lake District for a couple of days of hiking, drive around the west coast of Scotland for a couple of days, head over to Edinburgh for a couple of days, take the train down to London, and then I’ll work in London for a few days while the rest of the family sightsees around. Looking at my TripIt page, I have no other travel planned – an oversight that I’m sure will be fixed soon.

Following Up

  • Robert Fenerty left a good suggestion at the TravelCommons website on the “Table for One; Eating Alone” blog post
    • “When I’m on the road, I seek out live jazz. I can sit at a table for 90 minutes, order food and wine, and relax. In Chicago, I visit Bandera, where the servers don’t hover and the private little booths reduce the “look at that guy” factor to a bare minimum. In Europe, jazz is easier to find than in most U.S. cities, but if you find the hip part of town and you can usually find jazz. But don’t ask the concierge at your hotel, because they don’t know what jazz is.”
  • That’s a great suggestion – find a live music club, linger, and enjoy yourself.  Because, really, how often do you get to do that at home – especially if you have kids.  I always enjoy taking out-of-town guests to blues clubs in Chicago.  My favorite is B.L.U.E.S – a small place in the North Side Lincoln Park neighborhood.  On the weekends, the place is packed, but during the weekdays, you can get a seat at the bar, comfortably drink a couple of beers – sometimes with the band during breaks– and enjoy the music without the scrum of the weekend crowds.  And I guess that that’s the other great thing about Robert’s suggestion – you’re going during the week – no crowds to get between you and appreciating the music.  Great idea!
  • Steve Soechtig, a long time TravelCommons listener posted this suggestion after last month’s epsisode
    • “Loved the post and particularly the idea of bringing a small power strip plus a voltage adapter for devices.  That’s clever.
    • I’d throw one more thing out there, as a benefit to Apple.  The interchangeable external power adapter allows me to plug my Macbook into EU, UK, and AUS power outlets (so far), and I have a micro 4 port USB adapter that I plug into the laptop – effectively giving me charging for the mobile, the iPad (yes, I still travel with both), and the headset.  Just a thought, as the USB adapter is probably 4″ x 1/2″ by 1/4″.  Very small.
    • Only other comment I’d make is “USAir?  Are you crazy???”
  • Thanks Steve.  I like the idea of the 4-port USB hub for charging. I’ve been looking for a power strip that has both outlets and USB ports, but have yet to find one. Your solution sounds more compact than mine. The only reason I might stay with the power strip is that 220v play – everything just seems to charge so much faster when you move from 110v here in the US to 220v overseas.
  • And US Air? Momentary lapse of judgment.  Will never happen again. Sympathies to listeners in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.
  • And, on a complete sidetrack, speaking of power strips, I have to tell you that I was hugely impressed during last month’s Google IO conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center — every 3rd seat had a power strip zip-tied to the chair leg.  Talk about customer service; talk about catering to your audience’s most primal needs…
  • However, I do think that I’ve just about hit my limit on electronic gadgets. On my trip to Phoenix this past week, I brought all my portable gadgets – my iPhone 4, my iPad 2, my Motorola Droid 2, and my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 running Android 3.1 – because I needed to load our new mobile apps for booth demos at the trade show.  Along with my MacBook Air and my Motorola wireless Bluetooth headphones for my morning workouts and my Jabra Bluetooth headset, I felt like spent all my time charging devices.  The power strip in my office was completely full all the time, as was my travel power strip and most of the outlets in my hotel room.  I kinda felt like the gadget version of Mr Creosote from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life – one more gadget, just a small wafer of a device, and I’d take down the power grid for all of Arizona
  • OK, now God only knows that there’s no love lost between me and the TSA, and I make no bones about it on this podcast.  And, for their part, the TSA usually does a great job of providing fodder for my mill. Last month’s YouTube video of a TSA agent patting down an infant was only the latest of a long line of headshakers.
  • However, to give credit where credit is due, many TSA agents are thoughtful, pragmatic people, not on a power trip, and just trying to get to the other end of the day while keeping some sort of grip on their job, their pay check, and their sanity.  I saw a couple of these sorts of guys in ORD earlier this week when having to make an overnight trip to Dallas.
  • The X-Ray reader saw something odd, so one of the screeners did a manual search of this one guy’s bag. The screener pulls out an 18 inch long, 1 inch diameter metal rod wrapped in brown paper. The screener says “I’m sorry but you can’t carry this on. It can be used as a weapon”, and then swings it once, as if to punctuate what is a completely obvious point to the rest of us in line. Remember, we’re in the status line – the frequent traveler line. The guy looks surprised. The rest of us looking at him like “Really? This think is 100x more dangerous than a police baton. What the hell were you thinking trying to check this on?”
  • The screener calmly and professionally explained that he could either go back out and check his bag or leave his 5-lb metal baton behind.  He left it behind. Two of the screeners swung it a couple of time and said the same thing those of us in line did –“You really thought you could carry that on? Really?”
  • Reminds me of the Oklahoma man arrested at ORD for trying to carry a loaded gun. Said he thought he needed it for self-defense in Chicago. Again, really? Reading stories like these reminds me to be a bit more patient with the TSA guy at the front telling/yelling at everyone to empty their pockets before going through the metal detector. In spite of 10 years of going through this drill, there are still clueless idiots out there who either don’t think the rules apply to them – or just don’t think – period.
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Virtual Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at travelcommons.com.

Can’t Patch Planes Forever

  • In the last episode, I talked about the differences in the business class experience between airlines, that the commodity view of air travel – a seat on one airline flying from Point A to Point B is the same, is interchangeable with any other airline flying that route – is just wrong. There are real differences between airline services – the question is how much you’re willing to pay.
  • While taxiing out of Madrid last month, I saw three Ryanair planes at adjacent gates. Ryanair always makes me shake my head. Who places such a low value on their time and general well-being that they’re willing to put up with an airline that makes it clear they think very little of their customers? Spirit Airlines in the US strikes me the same way – we’ll give you lower prices, but you’ll pay for it – financially and psychically — in so many other ways. Obviously a lot of people are willing to accept a lot for a low-price ticket – or a lot of people don’t know how to calculate the full cost of their experience.
  • Taking yet another maintenance delay on an American Airlines MD-80 last month drove this point home to me again.  5-7 years ago, when many of the US airlines were declaring bankruptcy to clean up their balance sheets – United, Continental, Northwest – American was proud that it stayed out of Chapter 11 and didn’t wipe out its stockholders – many of which were, of course, the executive management team. There was a price for that, though.  To conserve cash, they delayed buying new planes – a new Boeing 737 can cost $50-70 million depending on your negotiating skills. But today, the airline is still flying planes from the mid to late-80’s – when I first started flying American. When you’re boarding one of those MD-80’s, look on the left-hand side of the door opening. There’s a small metal plate – on it is stamped the date the plane was manufactured.  I look at it every time. I see lots of 1988s, ‘89’s, ‘92’s and nothing much after that.
  • So here we are in 2011 – is it any wonder I’m seeing a lot of maintenance delays? Flipping through my calendar, 75% of my recent flights on American MD-80’s have been delayed.  Flights on their new 737-800’s have been fine; the record on the MD-80’s has been horrid.  Last month’s flight from ORD to Ft Myers, FL is a typical example.  They board the plane. Departure time approaches and it’s eerily quiet – none of the “please take your seats, we need to leave” hectoring from the flight attendants. Then the captain keys his mike. I know what he’s going to say before he says it – “We saw something on the pre-flight walkaround and are having maintenance come out to look at it.”  This is an instant 30-minute delay, probably longer, with a 50% chance of them taking the plane out of service.
  • Now mind you, this was a 7:25am flight; the plane had been sitting at the gate for a while – it didn’t just arrive – so why is maintenance only just coming out now, at departure time?  And why didn’t someone do a walkaround earlier?  With these old MD-80’s, you’d think you’d want to get a jump on it.
  • This time, the delay was an hour and 15 minutes, which is right at about the average I’ve been experiencing.  Some have been shorter – when they just need to “re-boot” the plane – and some have been longer – when they need to go back to the hanger and find another plane.  But this flight was a bit of a tipping point for me – after this flight, I started paying attention to equipment on American flights.  Every American MD-80 flight I looked at, I added an hour to the flight time.  If American isn’t going to do something to about their MD-80 delays – like spend more on preventative maintenance – then I’ll do something myself, like manually adjusting their flight times to factor in expected maintenance delays.
  • Doing this, the American MD-80 flights start to look like connecting flights – they take a lot longer than competitors’ flights and there’s more risk – cancellations from mechanicals look the same as missing a connection. As I’ve said in past episodes, I’ve done some rough calculus on the value of my time and I’m willing to pay $200 more for a direct flight to avoid the risk of missing a connection. I’m now at the same place with American MD-80 flights – it makes sense to pay $200 more for a flight that I have more confidence will get me to where I need to be on time.  Indeed, I did just this when booking next week’s trip to Austin, TX.  I paid $150 more to fly back to Chicago on United rather than an American MD-80.
  • Now I’m not arguing about the need to fix planes before flying.  Like every other passenger, I want to get to my destination safely.  But I also want to get there on time.  I do a lot of flying.  The cumulative amount of time spent waiting for American to fix their old planes – I’ll never get that time back.

Saving Customers With A Personal Touch

  • On my prior trip to Phoenix – in May, when the highs were only 90° F – I had a lousy rental return experience with Avis. Parking the car in the return lot, I counted 20 people waiting to be checked in – and 2 Avis check-in people.  I didn’t have that much time to wait – especially with how far away PHX put the consolidated car rental facility — so I left the keys in the car and headed for the bus.  I like the way Avis immediately sends an electronic receipt, so I knew I wasn’t missing much except the wait.  While in the terminal wolfing down a salad before my flight, the electronic receipt hit my iPhone. I quickly glanced at it, and then looked at it much harder. The Avis employee who checked in my rental marked the fuel as empty even though I filled it up on my way to the airport, leaving the fuel gauge solidly on F.  I immediately called the number on the receipt and was routed to some customer service agent who asked me to fax the gas pump receipt.  Tough to do in PHX Terminal 3, so I told him that I would have it done the following Monday.  Time passed and I heard nothing from Avis.
  • Except an e-mail asking me to click through to a survey about my last rental. How timely. I ignore a lot of these requests – they usually ask way too many questions – but this one, I was more than willing to invest some time.  As you might guess, my scores tended to the low side.  Asked for specifics, I wrote that there was an empty Coke can in the car when I picked it up and that they had charged me to refill a completely full gas tank.
  • I have to tell you that I was surprised when, a couple weeks later, I received an e-mail from Michael Wu, production manager for Avis at PHX.  It was a very nice personal note – not some rote thing – thanking me for filling out the survey.  He said –
    • “I sincerely apologize that the inside of the vehicle being dirty with a coke soda can in the back seat and that this was left unnoticed and was not clean correctly before your rental. I will be following this matter up with the agent who cleaned the vehicle and the driver that is responsible for parking the vehicle on the readyline. I also want to apologize for the vehicles and not living up to your expectations.”
  • OK, appreciate that, I wrote him in a reply, “but have to tell you that the empty Coke can in the back seat wasn’t the worst part of my rental experience.  It was the car return.”  And then I went on to describe the incorrect fuel charge and lack of any remedial action.  “The result,” I ended my note with, “is that Avis made an unearned $12.99 on this rental, but has lost my business going forward.  I’m currently in SW Florida driving a Hertz rental car, and will be back in Phoenix in mid-June and have reserved a Hertz car for that trip rather than an Avis car.”
  • I admit that it felt good to send that note to a real person, not just in a “Do you have anything else to tell us” comment box on a web survey. Mr Wu didn’t let me down.  Two days later, he came back with a follow-up
    • “I’m truly sorry that you were put into such a bad situation and went through all the trouble trying to get this resolved, without any resolution or follow up.
    • “I will personally adjust the fuel charge and a little extra for all the inconvenience. I will also forward this to proper management so that they are aware about issues in returns and the follow up.
    • I will also like to extend to you, a personal offer for the next time you happen to rent from Avis. Just need you to e-mail me your reservation number for Avis and I’ll personally make sure your vehicle is clean (coke can free) and ready for you. I will also add a free upgrade and money off coupons for all your trouble.
    • Once again I sincerely apologize and hopeful for the opportunity to better serve your car rental need in the near future.
  • And the following week, the credit showed up on my Amex.  Now I have to rent from Avis the next time I’m in PHX. Mr Wu goes out of his way to fix the problem, follows up twice, and offers to take care of my next rental personally.
  • I’ve always said that, at its core, the travel experience is a person-to-person one. No matter how much cost-cutting technology companies put in the middle – kiosks, mobile check-ins – the moments we remember are how we’re treated by other people.  A flight attendant with a snarky retort to your question; a gate agent who went out of her way to re-book you off a cancelled flight – these are what we remember. And so I have to rent my next car not from Mr Wu – who just happens to work for Avis.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #91
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from me — an the GarageBand app on my iPad2
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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3 Comments.

  1. What you say about Ryanair reminds me of how Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell described them: “Ryanair is what flying would be like if it was illegal”. I think that says it all.

  2. Looks like this power adapter has most of the specs I laid out in this episode, but the website and data sheet aren’t clear about support for 220v…

    http://aluratek.com/mini-surge-dual-usb-charging-station

  3. Glad to see American Airlines upgrading their fleet — http://www.aa.com/i18n/urls/aanews.jsp. Too bad they’re waiting until 2013 to start their plan…