29 March 2016

What the American airline industry can learn from the British train industry

It is no secret that air travel is not what it used to be. It is not even what it was when I first flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1997. It is also no secret that my air travels rarely go well. Of my last 15 flights, only one has departed on schedule. I recently flew from Philadelphia to Rome, but my checked bag was sent to Paris and took another 48 hours to reach me. On that same flight, a flight attendant dropped a meal tray on me and spilled my Dr Pepper all over me and the woman next to me without offering any apology whatever. These are just a few reasons why my friends know never to fly with me, but simply to meet me wherever we might be going.

We've all likely been there, sitting at the gate waiting for information as to why our flight is delayed, hoping for real, honest answers, only to have our flight continually delayed over the course of four or five hours only to be cancelled (which we knew would happen all along). The airlines - for reasons I do not understand - seem bent on making air travel as frustrating as possible while refusing to acknowledge one simple reality of human nature: We can handle great inconveniences quite well, if accurate and honest information is shared from the beginning and real updates to the situation are given. However, if games are played and information is accurately or honestly shared, we get frustrated, irritated, and even angry.

Yesterday I concluded my visit with the parish priest of Ss. John and Columba Parish in Rosyth and of St. Peter in Chains Parish in Inverkeithing (Scotland) and took the train from Inverkeithing to London with the principle goal of visiting the grave of J.R.R. Tolkien in Oxford. I had planned to return yesterday to Rome to work on the corrections I expected my thesis director would make, but - to my surprise and delight - he had only a few grammatical corrections to suggest and said the paper is good to go so I altered my plans to fulfill a pilgrimage of sorts I've long wanted to make.

All went well making my way on the train from Inverkeithing to Edinburgh and on to Newark, where we made an unscheduled stop for a few minutes. I thought we were simply waiting for a train ahead of us to pain or some such thing until the conductor announced to us we had stopped because of lines down on the track (because, I think, of storm Katie) between Peterborough and London. He apologized for the delay, explained that workmen were on the scene, and said he might as well tell us the bad news at that time: We would like likely be delayed for as much as an hour. He then told us that this would qualify us for a full refund on our tickets if we applied on line.

I was stunned. Never had an airline been so straightforward in communicating the situation. Never had an airline offered even so much as a food voucher without my having to request it first. I heard no grumbling on the train. We were all disappointed, of course, but pleased at the honesty of the conductor.

After a couple of updates without much new information to share, about an hour later, the conductor had more bad news for us: We would likely be delayed for a total of 180 minutes, but they were looking at rerouting us through Cambridge so our delay would not be even greater. He again reminded us that we qualified for a full refund of our ticket price. At this point, lots of passengers from other trains came onto ours, filling it up (it had only been about a quarter full). Still, there was no grumbling whatever because of the honesty the conductor shared us.

Once we arrived in London (three hours later) we were met by agents of the trains service distributing bottles of water, chocolate bars, and cards telling us how and where to apply for our refunds, all with apologizes for the delay which was really quite beyond their control. I couldn't believe it. If I find myself back in the U.K. in the future, I'll certainly consider using this train service again because their customer relations are very good.

I've applied for my refund, which can either be received as a voucher or as a check. The only disappointing part of the process is that there is no option for the refund to be applied directly to my credit card. Still, I'll call later today and ask if this isn't possible.

Now, if only the airlines would do likewise, offering immediate, clear, explanations with apologies, but I won't hold my breath waiting for them to follow suit.

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