Who Flies the Friendliest Skies?
SC Fiasco, flickr
No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question:
Is there a price for nice?
By now, most airlines have snatched up our blankets and put those free pillows to rest. Want a drink? That will be five dollars -- "Exact change only" or "Sorry, we're a cash-free airline" -- thank you very much (or not). On some airlines, you can't even count on water being free. And checking your bag, as we all know, probably comes with a fee.
Airlines are adding insult to injury to even their loyal customers, gouging frequent fliers with new co-pays when they "buy" tickets or upgrades with miles. (Example: upgrading an economy class ticket to Hawaii to business class on United Airlines now costs Mileage Plus members 17,500 miles plus a co-pay of $300.)
There could be even more bad news ahead.
In Europe, budget carrier Ryanair will soon start charging passengers for the pleasure of using those cramped and germ-laden lavatories -- a bold move that's been criticized across the industry, but is very likely to come to pass.
Here in America, the latest pay-for-your-carry-on insult from Spirit Airlines rings like a harbinger of outrageous costs yet to come. (When even senators are fighting back with the recent Free of Fees for Carry-On Act, you know that things have surely reached a new low.)
But as I see it, there's no need to further drive home the bad news.
As AOL's Mystery Flyer, I'm setting out in search of good news.
Who, among our major carriers, would win Miss Congeniality?
With everything else stripped bare, service with a smile and a helpful attitude is the only way airlines can truly differentiate themselves to the flying public. The friendliness of the face they put forth to you -- the paying passenger -- can go a long way in easing the stress and discomfort of air travel.
From check-in and boarding to interactions with airline staff, both onboard and when catching a connection, I'm going to take a close look at the entire flying experience.
The airlines I will be flying are:
1. United Airlines
2. Continental Airlines
3. Delta Airlines
4. Southwest Airlines
7. American Airlines
8. US Airways
9. Alaska Airlines
10. Spirit Airlines
I'd like to think there's some truth to the idea that treating others as you'd like to be treated is still worth something, even in the high-stress world of air travel. So I will be unfailingly polite. Even if I'm confronted with a Debbie Downer-type along the way (you know, the flight attendants who snap at you as if you're a willful kindergartner), count on me to remain as upbeat as possible throughout the whole experience.
But I'm not just going to sit quietly in my cramped seat.
I'll be creating as many interactions with airline personnel as possible, and I'll be rating each airline on how typical passenger requests are handled. I will:
1. Request a seat change when I call the airline's toll-free customer service line prior to departure.
2. See how friendly the ticketing agent is during the check-in process at the airport.
3. See how the gate agent reacts to my request for a seat change prior to departure.
4. Make multiple requests during my flight, for a blanket, an extra beverage -- and just about anything else I can think of.
5. Observe interactions between other passengers and airline personnel.
6. Upon arrival, ask the nearest gate agent how to find a connecting flight.
It is my mission to give the airlines every opportunity to treat me with the friendliness that I believe every paying passenger deserves. The point isn't getting what I ask for each time, it's how my request is handled. For example, if I ask for an extra beverage and there are none, what will the flight attendant say -- and how will he or she say it?
So please, come along and see just how far all my niceness gets me.
I'll be tweeting regularly to let you know how it feels to be an anonymous coach-flying passenger in today's un-glamorous world of air travel.
When it comes to packing, I plan to travel light. A regulation-size carry-on will be my only accomplice, but I'll make sure it's packed to capacity. Will I find space in those crowded overhead bins? And how will the flight attendants assist me if there is no space?
If you have your own ideas for how I can better investigate the no-frills flying experience, I'm all ears. My cell phone will be on at all times -- except when I'm told to turn it off. But boarding is about to start...so do get back to me soon with your thoughts!
Here's hoping the friendly skies can be more than just a myth.
Airline Report Cards
See the results as they come in:
See how the competition stacks up:
Note: Ratings are based on a 5 point scale.