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Opinion: You Can't Get There from Here

By John O. Towler, PhD |

... Or how a Spanish airline drives their customers crazy

You would think that the airlines, having been damaged by the events of September 11, would be doing everything they can to attract and retain customers. One would also think that customer service would be a top priority. Airlines are more or less the same and the most important thing that distinguishes them is the quality of service they provide. This is more than smiling flight attendants. It includes how easy it is to make bookings, get tickets and deal with representatives. However, there are some airlines who haven't a clue about customer service and one particular Spanish airline is a good example.

Our problems began a year ago when the airline's frequent flyer program, managed to lose all my wife's points. They didn't know why they were lost but they did know that they couldn't be replaced. We were not amused. In January we wrote their office in Miami asking them to credit us with the airline points we had earned by flying with one of their partners. We never got a reply. Nor did our letters of February, March or April.

After several telephone calls, they finally told us that I had 2600 points and Lorna had 1100 points, or at least we would once their head office in Spain entered them into their computers. Wonderful! We were going to Spain and wanted to fly from Malaga to Milan. My points would fly us from Madrid to Milan and Lorna's points would get her from Malaga to Madrid. We would buy the other tickets. Sounds simple, right? Well not with this airline.

Next we heard that the head office had not entered the right number of points. I was short by 28 points and Lorna was short by 5. Not to worry said Miami, they would either give us the points we needed or allow us to combine our points. Miami booked the flights but couldn't get the tickets to us in time, however, they gave us a confirmation number and said that we could pick them up in Spain. But when I arrived in Spain and called the head office, the confirmation Miami had made wasn't valid and the head office could not and would not make reservations. Would I please call Miami. The fact that we were already in Spain seemed to be irrelevant.

Back home, our son contacted Miami for us and we got an email from, you guessed it, Spain. It said all was in order and gave us a new confirmation number. Hurray! I called the head office and they said Go to a travel agent and get your tickets, but you must do it within two days. The next morning we dashed off to the nearest travel agent where we found a diminutive senorita who was charming but helpless. After an hour of phone calls to Madrid, we were told that the only place we could pick up the tickets would be the airport in Malaga. The fact that we didn't want to and didn't have the time to drive there and back (a three hour journey) seemed quite puzzling to them. After all, they said, Don't you have a car? We had already arranged to go to Granada and I remembered that there was a branch office nearby. More phone calls. Would that office be OK? Yes! Hurray again!

Arriving in Granada, we went to the dark, dreary and slightly foreboding branch office and the process began again. They had good news. The confirmation was OK, but we didn't have enough points!! But Miami said we would have the right number or that we could combine our points. No way. said Jose. Apparently it didn't matter what Miami had said, nor what my email from them said. The head office had ruled. However, the Spanish are unfailingly polite and the staff kindly suggested that if we wanted to straighten this out, we should go to Miami. I barely stopped my wife from leaping over the desk to attack them and we left without any tickets.

We never did get to Milan and our frequent flyer points will probably disappear again. The thought of trying to get them back and use them sends us into the depths of despair. We have enjoyed flying this airline, but the customer service problems you encounter simply aren't worth it. Can they correct their problems? Perhaps, but they desperately need to change their attitude. We have been involved in customer service testing, training and the design of customer service systems for years and frankly, we aren't optimistic.

This kind of lack of attention starts at the top with an administration that either fails to appreciate the importance of customer service or who simply doesn't care. This is a dangerous attitude when the competition is doing anything it can to win and keep customers. If they expect to maintain market share, they need to emphasize customer service. The best airlines know that customer service is essential. They test their people for the ability to provide it, weed out the ones who cannot or will not and train their people in how to provide it. The Spanish airline does none of this. Yet anything they do would be an improvement on what is happening now, but don't hold your breath.

Canadian, Eh!

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