In a week that saw United Airlines (UAL) place dead last in a customer service ranking of the major airlines, a picture surfaced that gives some idea of how the airline earned that dubious distinction.
A member of travel forum FlyerTalk posted this picture, which he says he snapped in the lavatory of a United Airlines flight.
"Apparently, they ran out in one lav half-way home and couldn't bother to transfer a roll from another," writes the poster. As you can see, a member of the flight crew seems to have hacked together a holder out of duct tape and filled it with cocktail napkins -- which, appropriately enough, bear the slogan "Fly by the tips of your fingers."
And this was no short flight, either: He notes that this took place on a San Francisco-to-London trip. While having to use napkins as toilet paper isn't the end of the world, it's still hard to imagine an airline like JetBlue (JBLU) running out of toilet paper and having to resort to such college-dorm-style innovation.
It's that sort of lax approach to basic customer service that's led to United once again ranking dead last in the American Customer Service Index. The quarterly ranking of various consumer-facing industries and companies found that while the airline industry as a whole has slightly improved, it still rates poorly among consumers, with only TV and internet providers performing worse. And within the industry, there was United in dead last once again, with an aggregate score of 62 points out of 100. JetBlue and Southwest (LUV) led the category, scoring 83 and 81 points, respectively.
The index is compiled through thousands of phone and email surveys, and each company score is the product of 250 interviews.
Of course, United's problems don't begin and end with toilet paper. A recent ranking of airline performance that accounted for on-time arrivals, customer complaints and baggage handling likewise ranked the airline dead last.
We've reached out to the airline for comment and will update this article if we get a response.
Update (3:45 p.m. ET): A United spokesperson responds to the mishap:
"The aircraft ran low on toilet tissue and our crew improvised and provided customers with paper napkins. We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back."
As for the airline's poor customer-service ranking, the spokesperson says that United's operation performance has improved significantly since fall 2012 and that customer complaints are down this year.
5 Ways the Latest Data Can Help You Save on Your Next Getaway
Here's Why United Was Just Named America's Worst Airline
First the bad news: Airfares are up across the board. There is, however, one notable exception: Toronto. Our neighbor to the north is actually less expensive to get to than it was this time last year; 3 percent less. Travel in April for shoulder-season prices.
Staying in-country this summer? August is the month to go, when prices drop compared to June and July. Travelers who can wait until September will find even bigger savings, as the average domestic airfare plummets to $269.97. And the added benefit of waiting a few weeks? The crowds disperse as school heads back into session.
If overcrowded flights and sweaty seatmates aren't appealing, consider skipping summer travel altogether. Fly instead in one of the less popular months to increase your odds of getting a little elbow room and some space to recline.
The study showed that only 5 percent of searchers were interested in flying in January, a mere 6 percent in February, and only 7 percent in September and October. April, November, and December each came in at 8 percent of search queries.
Another bonus to flying in the off-season? February and March had the lowest fares for international travel, hovering around a $950 average. But hold off on booking: 21 to 35 days ahead of departure offers the best rates.
Some destinations are growing in popularity faster than they're growing in price, and still make for excellent, and excellently priced, getaways.
In the U.S., Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, and Denver topped the list of popular destinations in 2012. Punta Cana, Santo Domingo, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Nashville each saw an increase in visitors in 2012, without the accompanying rate spike that usually accompanies such popularity.
The exception is London. That destination saw a nearly 30 percent increase in fares due to last summer's Olympics. While some of those price hikes will abate in 2013, the U.K. metropolis will always be a more expensive destination, and perfect for those off-season, less expensive (albeit colder) trips.
Whenever an airline enters a new market, it usually runs introductory fare specials. As the airline industry gets more competitive, more and more international carriers are breaking into the U.S. market for more than simply transcontinental landings. Do a little sleuthing on these new-to-you airlines and discover new rates to the same-old places -- or even someplace new to go.
Recently, Mexico-based Aeromar introduced its first international flight to McAllen, Texas. Hawaiian Airlines broke Air New Zealand's lock on its homeland by introducing service to Auckland. And AirTran is now flying from Denver to San Jose del Cabo.
While there are some tips and tricks for avoiding an overly onerous airfare, it will still usually be a major factor in the cost of any getaway. To find savings in other ways, skip expensive hotels in favor of alternative accommodations like home-sharing or house exchanges, use mass transportation and city passes for savings on getting around when available, and minimize the number of meals you eat in restaurants.