AOL Mystery Flyer: AirTran Airways Report Card

PhillipC, 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?

Read on to see how AirTran scored on Wednesday morning's flight from Orlando to Atlanta:

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
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
3/5: I was met with a pleasant surprise when I called AirTran before my departure. I was able to secure an exit row seat at no charge, since those remaining seats free up 24 hours before departure. The customer service agent who helped me switch my seat was efficient, though her responses were somewhat robotic. Any question I asked, she either answered, "That is correct," or, "Yes, Ma'am," "No Ma'am," with a mechanical cadence. Not unfriendly at all, just very neutral and programmed. But I hung up feeling happy as a clam, knowing I'd have room to stretch out on my flight.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
4/5: When I arrived at AirTran departures at the Orlando airport, I asked to be directed to the full-service check in line. An agent pointed me toward the self-check-in kiosks. When it was my turn at a kiosk, there was no one behind the counter, so I told an agent standing nearby that I wanted help checking in. She said, "That's what I am here for." She was very patient as I asked for help changing my seat on the screen (I decided not to go with the exit row, opting for an aisle at the rear of the plane so I could be the first to board and be assured of having room for my carry-on in the overhead bins). When I printed out the ticket, I noticed I was in boarding zone four. I told her I preferred to be in boarding zone three, so she went behind the counter to make the change, switching me to a window seat in the last row, which bumped me to the earlier boarding zone. She displayed no irritation at this, despite the growing line of passengers behind me. I told her I had to make a connection in Atlanta, and she assured me I would not have to go through security and could check in with another airline directly at the gate since I had only a carry-on bag.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
3/5: There was no one waiting in line at the departure gate, so I approached the agent to inquire, yet again, about changing my seat, preferring to be on the aisle after all. She obliged this request, handed me my ticket and continued typing away at her computer. I had the feeling she was ready for me to move on, but I asked her if Internet would be available on the flight, and she said it would, without looking up to talk to me. I asked the price and she said didn't know. At this point, a flight attendant standing nearby chimed in, saying he guessed it would be about $9 (it turned out to be less than $5); he told me a promotional code so I could get 20 percent off (AirTran20). Nice touch. The gate agent was not unfriendly, just very neutral, but I felt a bit annoyed that she wouldn't look up from her computer to answer my questions. Her attitude made me feel that she was annoyed by my questions, though they were the kind of queries passengers might normally make.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
4/5: A flight attendant was busy with a trash bag when I boarded, but made a point to look up and greet me. The flight was mostly full, and it was a slow amble down the aisle to the very last row, where I was seated. Two flight attendants were right behind me in the rear galley, and I overheard their conversation. I was surprised they were talking so openly about everything from frustrations with their jobs (the one FA told the other, "I had so many complaints last year, I was sure I was going to be let go,") to the frustrations of male cellulite.

They were also complaining to each other about how they felt dissed by the captain, who hadn't acknowledged them when they entered the plane (seems like I'm not the only one judging friendliness). (I later realized the male FA was flying standby on the flight, but I couldn't know that at first because he was dressed in his uniform.) The female FA was obviously working, but the duo seemed to be spending most of their time chatting, while passengers maneuvered to cram their stuff into the overhead bins. When a passenger looked like he or she was really struggling, the on-duty FA would jump in to help, with a smile. At one point before taking off, I interrupted their conversation to ask for a glass of water (for my imaginary pill) and she said she'd get it for me when she could get to the front of the plane. Once the aisle cleared, she went to the front of the plane and returned with a cup of water. I appreciated that she remembered my request. During the flight, I asked for additional beverages several times and she was happy to get them. I also asked questions about the in-flight Internet, which was cutting in and out. She couldn't help but was apologetic. I also asked her about connecting information in Atlanta, and she was very helpful. At one point, I walked to the front of the plane to request a coffee refill and she said she would bring it to me. But she never had the chance, as the cleanup for landing started shortly thereafter. She apologized for this later.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
3½/5: I was careful to observe the boarding process, and it seemed to me that the FAs were less than helpful with aiding passengers in finding space in the overhead bins. Passengers were mostly left to fend for themselves, and some looked quite frustrated. The beverage service was more efficient than friendly, but I did see a few smiles here and there. It was a very low-key flight, and things went smoothly even though there was a certain lack of cheer in the service.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
3/5: When I arrived in Atlanta the scene was hectic. There was an AirTran agent right outside of our arrival gate helping passengers with connecting information. She was very busy, and I waited in line to ask her where to find my plane. It threw her off a bit that my flight was on another airline, but she quickly determined the gate and sent me on my way with an efficient hand wave.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
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