Customer Service Counts, So Why Do Airline Suck at It?

Maybe it’s just the airlines I fly, but lately I’ve been really unimpressed with the level and quality of service from them. Just this past Friday I was scheduled to do a shoot in Canada. I arrive a little over an hour before my flight, I’m getting checked in, and the ticket agent asks me for my passport.

“I don’t have one,” I say. “But we checked with the Canadian-US Consulate website and it specifically states that US Citizens entering Canada do not need a passport. A valid citizenship ID and birth certificate will suffice.”

“Sorry sir. But that law changed nine months ago.” Says the agent.

“I know about the law, but there are exceptions. And this is one of them.”

We went back and forth like this for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, my deadline to check in is ticking away. I tell her I have the website up on my iPhone right now and I read her the rule. She recites the law. I ask to see a supervisor.

“She’ll tell you the same thing.”

“May I please speak with her anyway.”

“I’ll see if I can get her.”

Huh? You’ll see if you can get her? WTF! Arghhh! Another 5 minutes pass before she actually picks up the phone to call the supervisor.

Meanwhile, she and the other agent banter back and forth, periodically telling themselves, “Didn’t that law change 9 months ago?” “Yep, uh, huh. Sure did. That law changed like 9-10 months ago. Gotta have  passport.” Okay. I get the idea. I need a passport. You don’t have to keep repeating it to yourself to prove you’re right.

They then got a brilliant idea. They decide to look it up in the computer to actually see if I may be right, that there may be an exception for US citizens entering Canada (friggin’ brilliant!). They find something that talks about an exception, but she tells me it’s related to the Department of Immigration, and only applies to employees of that department.  I’m thinking, “What! Are you kidding me?”

About 20-30 minutes later, a supervisor finally comes out. We go through the whole rigmarole again, and she finds the same screen the first two agents find. I ask if I can look. She lets me. Right there in that ugly green and black monitor it clear reads:

Department of Immigration Services Exception to the Passport Rule: U.S. Citizens entering Canada may do so without a passport if they have any of the following: valid U.S. citizenship ID and original birth certificate.

By now, I’ve missed my flight. The supervisor (who admittedly is much more sensitive) agrees to let me on the next flight. She then attempts to check me in, but unfortunately, their system is hard-coded so that “birth certificate” is no longer a check-in option. Which means she can’t check me on ANY flight. No trip to Canada. My flight was at 11:42. By the time I finished with them and taking the shuttle back home, it was 4 pm.


This just happens to be one of those freaks of nature where there was no one really “at fault” per se. Both my client and I checked on the passport rule weeks ago when the ticket was purchased. (In retrospect I probably should have gotten one anyway.) And in the end, neither of those agents would have been able to get me on that flight. Regardless, what got me so upset was that these two agents could have cared less that I was starting to panic about missing my flight. They moved like molasses when it came to getting someone who could help me, and all they could do was remind me how much of an idiot I apparently was for not knowing the law.

Sometimes it’s just the little things that count in giving great customer service. Like smiling. Being friendly. Showing that you care. All of that would have gone a long way to assuage my feelings and help me in this situation. (Especially since in this case I was indeed correct.)


Is it just me, or is anyone else whose flown recently been annoyed at all the extra costs associated with flying. Extra money to check in a bag. You now have to pay for the peanuts. And a couple of weeks ago, I was on a flight where you had to pay $7 for a blanket and pillow. Goodness gracious, what has this world come to?

I get that fuel prices and the plight of the economy have required extra costs. But you know what, just build them into the price of the ticket for crying out loud. I know it may be psychological, but I’d MUCH prefer that than having to whip out my credit card again to pay for a bag. Doesn’t just about everybody check in at least one bag? And come on, $7 to rent a pillow!


Now, after bashing the airline, I must confess that my customer service sucks too. That’s right. We have not offered the level of service to our clients that I WANT my company to be known for. This experience has opened up my eyes to how vital it is to have not just good or okay service, but AMAZING service. It’s time for some house cleaning. I’m not afraid to point out and look for areas where someone may be saying on their blog, “that Ron Dawson sucks!”

Have you looked at the level of service to your clients lately? Perhaps it’s time.

4 thoughts on “Customer Service Counts, So Why Do Airline Suck at It?

  1. Wow, this is so true. Southwest is the ONLY airline (that I know of) that actually tries to make life easier for their passengers that don’t fly first class.

    Like a wise old janitor once told me, “If they don’t catch the excitement of your service, you ain’t doing a good ’nuff job, son.”

  2. Yeah, I gotta say Southwest has been awesome for me. I’m usually able to get A boarding passes, the flight attendants are friendly and fun, they offer more than just peanuts, and you can check two bags with no additional cost! That said, I’m off to work on keeping my customers happy!

  3. I left the airline industry after many years to take up photogrpahy full time so I understand both sides of your issue here. This situation would not have been a situation at all had you gotten your passport. The travel industry and governments have been out beating the drums about how you were going to have to have a passport to travel by air by a specific date. If you were driving over the Canada-US border the date was different, I don’t get that part. I left the airline industry before this change but there have been other rule changes and sometimes I think that you put a airline ticket into a persons hands and they lose all levels of intelligence that they may have had. Because the passenger did not find out about the rule it all of a sudden becomes the airlines problem and the passenger just thinks that we could look the other way for them, they are after all special. A mistake by you the passenger does not constitute an emergency for me. It was amazing to see the number of people that just chose to ignore the whole passport thing. Talking to my airline friends they were dealing with dozens of cases a day when the rule change came into being.

    I do agree that allot of airport agents could use a little fire under their butt to make them move faster but that is human nature and is not unique to airline customer service. In this industry though there are always very definite time lines that have to be worked towards (like the airplane departing).

    There are several passenger’s rights associations in North America. I know for a fact that the airlines worked with them when it came time to how to levy additional charges. The person that would never use an airline’s pillow did not want the charges built into his ticket for a service he would not use. The industry has very low returns (I wouldn’t even participate in the share purchase program). It takes a ton of cash to run one of these and faces unique problems. They can only sell that seat on a specific day once. If it leaves empty, it still costs them to provide it with no opportunity to recoup it. If the grocery store doesn’t sell that can of peaches on the shelf today they still have the opportunity to do it tomorrow. The long and the short of it is that after consultation with the various passengers groups it was decided to provide these services with per passenger charge on demand. It always surprised me how many people liked to steal the pillows and blankets when we provided them free of charge.

    I hope that this sheds some light on the other side and by all means, get your passport.

  4. @s simpson – I was hoping someone from the airline industry would comment. I hear where you’re coming from. But as I wrote, my issue wasn’t that I couldn’t get on the flight. My issue was HOW they dealth with my situation. I don’t care how many gov’t regulations or marketing tests there are that determine what should be charged and how much, an agent can still ACT like they care: eg smile, work diligently to get a supervisor, etc.

    As many people have commented her and on my Facebook page, Southwest still happens to offer great service.

    Regarding all the extra costs. Maybe it’s okay to charge for something like pillows, but I think enough people check at least one bag that it would be best to build those costs into every ticket. It’s a perception issue. And if you offer amazing service on top of it, people are willing to pay a little more.

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