This Week’s Column: It’s All About Customer Service

I spend a lot of time in airplanes this time of year. In the first eight weeks of the year, I’ve spent less than two full weeks in my own bed. With trips to national farm conventions, and last month’s adventure in the Hawaiian Islands, I’m ready to adopt the Johnny Cash classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” as my theme song. What I’ve learned over all these tens of thousands of miles is pretty simple: Southwest Airlines may be the only major airline in the country that understands how to run an airline.



Customer service is everything in business, and unfortunately, it’s typically the biggest area of disappointment for a customer. Think about the horror stories or water cooler jokes told about calling customer service phone numbers for help, only to be placed on hold for interminable periods of time, or worse yet, transferred to an overseas call center and battling the language barrier. Likewise, how many disappointing interactions have you had with service “professionals” in the food service industry? Or when dealing with your local utility or telephone company?



Every industry has its share of bad actors in customer service, but the airline industry is notoriously one of the worst. From booking, to check-in, to security screening, to boarding, the process of air travel today is as unpleasant, perhaps, as it has ever been.



Except, it seems, when flying Southwest.



I just got off of a lengthy flight from Columbus to Orange County, Calif. for the annual Commodity Classic Convention and Trade Show. My flight left at 7 a.m. and took me through St. Louis and Phoenix. Even at over five hours in the air, I’m pretty happy with my experience. The biggest reason I’m a fan? Consistent quality.



When I fly Southwest, I know exactly what to expect: friendly airline staff, on time departures and arrivals (I’ve been on a late flight only once in the last three years with SWA), an extremely smooth check-in and boarding process, zero checked baggage fees, and a clean, comfortable Boeing 737.



On the other hand, last week when flying a major airline from Columbus to Hawaii, I encountered none of the above. The airline staff was what I’ll charitably call grumpy, the boarding process was disjointed, the time to board the plane was exacerbated by an excessive fee on checked luggage, the plane departed an hour late and arrived two hours late, and the variance in quality and comfort of the aircraft was maddening. Over the course of two mainland to Hawaii and three inter-island flights, my wife and I spent more than $200 in checked bag fees, and our return flight from Maui to LAX was on the most uncomfortable 757 Boeing ever built (circa 1984).



Being in the airline business is tough. The price of fuel, the heavy taxes levied on air travel, and the influence of several unions, combined over years to drive many airlines out of business, and to push the survivors into making bad business decisions.



Take the checked bag fee situation, for example. Launched during the run-up in fuel prices a few years back, these fees are non-ticketed charges, meaning they don’t necessarily show up when a customer is pricing a fare. While most of us are now hip to factoring in these “extra” fees when pricing tickets, the airline can still advertise cheaper fares than they’re truthfully charging. This is also why fares are often quoted or advertised before taxes and other fees.



The real error in checked bag fees, however, is that these fees actually, in my mind, cost airlines money in the form of lost customers and unforced delays. The loss of customers is easier to understand and explain: because of these fees (and the other reasons I mention above, I almost refuse to fly any airline other than Southwest. Three or four years ago, I flew four or five different airlines in the course of a year, depending on cost of fare and availability of a direct flight to my destination. Today, I will fly a more segmented schedule with more stops and more time in the air simply to stay loyal to Southwest.



Beyond destruction of customer loyalty, however, airlines charging exorbitant baggage fees are also ruining their own timeliness. By encouraging customers to carry everything possible onto the plane, the boarding time is nearly doubled. Customers carry on bags that four years ago would have been checked without hesitation; these bags take up more space in overhead storage, meaning there is almost never enough storage for every customer on the plane. Customers are then forced to check bags they should have checked in the first place. Naturally, they aren’t charged at this point in the process, meaning customers who wisely check large bags are penalized for doing the very thing that would keep the planes on time. Delays cost airlines money, and by encouraging customers to do things that take more time boarding planes, airlines create “unforced delays” for themselves, costing themselves more money.



Travel today is no longer the great treat it was 30 and 40 years ago. It is a painful and cumbersome process, and is despised by a significant portion of the populace. It is not an easy business to be in, and the landscape is littered with the carcasses of failed businesses that couldn’t hack the challenges. There is one carrier, however, who “gets it,” and consistently delivers a quality product at a great value. That’s why they continue to get my business, and the loyalty of millions of Americans.