AOL Mystery Flyer Comes Home

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lrargerich, flickr

Over the past few weeks, I flew on ten different airlines, from coast to coast -- Florida to California, with lots of stops in between, everywhere from Portland, Oregon to New York City. Making my merry way across the U.S.A.

Enroute, I graded the airlines on one thing: the friendliness factor.

As you've seen in my report cards, this was a random experiment in friendliness; every airline got several opportunities to turn on the affability. My project wasn't about the friendliness of strangers, per se, but the friendliness of airline employees -- a group of individuals working not only in the transportation and transportation safety business, but also in the business of customer service. That includes everyone from the agent who answers the phone when you call with a ticketing question, to the flight attendant passing through the aisle with the beverage cart.

Miss some of the action? Start at the beginning or catch up with the airline report cards:

JetBlue

US Airways

Spirit Airlines

Delta Airlines

AirTran

American Airlines

Alaska Airlines

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines

Continental
I've been following the comments readers have left on my stories and report cards. It has been wonderful to get all the feedback and to see the conversations that have been sparked among those who commented. One thing is clear: this experiment, my flying as a passenger on a commercial airline and reporting my experience, is an act that incites strong feelings.

Some readers felt I was a high-maintenance passenger (and I'm being euphemistic here), with my requests for extra beverages -- or perhaps because I dared to ask for water prior to takeoff, to soothe a sore throat or pop a pill.

My goal throughout this process was to represent an average member of the flying public -- perhaps not an independent one ready and able to handle self check-in, but a passenger who feels it should be okay to have a few questions or requests when shelling out good money to fly one airline over another.

Not once did I ring a call button with a ridiculous request; not once did I stomp my feet about my bag being deemed too large for an overhead bin. Not once, in fact, did I complain or behave rudely to anyone.

My goal was to ask the common questions that flight attendants are likely to receive on any given leg of a flight.

And that's just what I did, on my very best behavior, with every interaction I had with an airline employee. By nature, I'm like anyone -- not always a beaming Betty. But for this project, I was the epitome of the friendliness and congeniality that I hoped to see in return.

With nearly all other perks absent from the flying equation these days, I wanted to know if there was a price for nice, and as it turns out, there is. It follows the golden rule: treat others how you wish to be treated, and for the most part, it will be returned. That single mantra has been confirmed throughout my travels.

Of course, there was the rare occasion where my friendly requests were not met with any measurable warmth, like the time I asked a United Airlines flight attendant on a flight from Chicago to Orlando for a glass of water before takeoff (bottles of water were clearly visible behind her, alongside cups in the back galley). She virtually sneered while informing me that the galley was closed. Then she grudgingly poured me a cup and physically tried to scoot me back to my seat. (The plane had just started boarding, and I was waiting to use the lavatory.) Then there was the time I was boarding a full flight from Dallas to San Francisco, when an American Airlines agent nudged me a bit too sternly down the aisle after deeming my carryon bag overstuffed -- in not very friendly terms. I realize that agents are under a lot of pressure to make an on-time departure, but should simple human friendliness be sacrificed in the rush?

Instances like these are where the randomness of this project needs to emphasized. Since I flew only one time on each carrier, I was only exposed to one group of individuals to represent the airline as a whole. And I certainly realize it's possible to have a bad day. But here's the bottom line: when you're in the customer service business, and you're treated with respect and a pleasant attitude, you should provide the same in return.

So who was nicest? Well, many of the airlines. In fact, I had pleasant encounters with all of the airlines. The flight attendants aboard American Airlines were among the most professional and friendly of the bunch, not even scolding when I wandered into first class to request a glass of water prior to takeoff (it was the galley closest to my seat).

Southwest Airlines and JetBlue had reputations for friendliness that preceded them. I had heard so many good things that I wondered if they could live up to the happy hype. They did. The JetBlue flight attendants had a way of interacting with passengers that was both relaxed and professional -- no harping about turning off your cell phone. They had a pleasant demeanor that just made you want to turn it off at first mention! My flight with JetBlue from Orlando to Richmond was delayed, and we had to change terminals at the airport, but passengers were consistently kept up to date with what was happening. Later, I even received an email voucher for $25, as an apology for my hour-long flight delay. Now that's an airline that cares about keeping its passengers!

On Southwest Airlines, the relaxed, warm, and caring vibe from the flight attendants made me feel comfortable asking questions about the logistics of my destination airport, requesting a drink -- or whatever. I observed a flight attendant on my Southwest flight patiently listen to the worries of the passenger in front of me (he feared he wouldn't make his connection). The way she assuaged his cares reminded me of what a psychologist would do: she acknowledged his fear of missing his flight, then convinced him that it was not likely to happen because the terminal was quite manageable. She assured him that everything would be fine. He smiled and thanked her, looking noticeably calmer after the few minutes she spent with him.

The legacy carrier that surprised me most when it came to friendliness was Continental Airlines. The flight attendants were all smiles, and again, had that relaxed air that puts passengers at ease and makes a flight an overall pleasant experience. The Continental flight attendants were immediately helpful when they noticed passengers struggling with carryons. At the end of my flight, the passenger deplaning in front of me even said to the FAs: "You all have such a pleasant demeanor -- and that was such a nice flight." My thoughts exactly.

(I did ask a couple of flight attendants what they thought of the United-Continental merger, and their response was measurably cool. One said: "Nobody asked us what we wanted." I can only hope for the best.)

So, based on my experiences of the past few weeks, here are my picks for Miss Congeniality:

A two-way tie between Southwest Airlines and Jetblue in the budget airline category, with Continental Airlines taking the crown among legacy carriers.

As for what happens to me now, I'm an object in motion who will stay in motion. And I'm staying undercover, too -- remaining Miss Congeniality myself while continuing my travels.

I've learned that a little niceness goes a long way. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make my flying experience as pleasant as possible.

Now I'm making this experiment international. Europe is calling my name, so tomorrow I'll set off for the continent on a budget airline. As I fly, I'll be keeping an eye on the friendliness factor. I'm also going to be sharing more with you about the flight experience, from the comfort of the seats to the in-flight food and amenities.

When you least expect it, I'm going to pop up in places all over the globe, perhaps on airlines you've never heard of.

One thing is certain: not all airlines are created equal. Come along as I do my best to enjoy the ride, wherever it takes me.



See how the competition stacks up:

JetBlue
US Airways
Spirit
Delta
AirTran
American
Alaska
Southwest
United
Continental
Operators response to pre-flight requests
4
4
5
3
4
5
4
4
Friendliness of ticketing agent
5
4
4
3
4
4
5
4
4
5
Friendliness of gate agent prior to departure
4
3
3
3
2
4
5
5
4
Friendliness of flight attendants
5
3
5
4
5
5
5
5
General interactions between airlines and passengers
5
4
3
4
5
5
5
4
5
Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival
5
5
4
4
3
4
5
4
N/A
5
Average
4.7
3.8
3.6
3.8
3.4
4
4.6
4.7
3.9
4.7


A note about the ratings:
How it works: After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:
1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
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