AOL Mystery Flyer: Continental Airlines Report Card

rkimpeljr, 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 Continental Airlines scored on Friday's flight from Tampa to Newark:

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.
4/5: The evening before my flight, I called the reservations line to ask about my seat. The agent told me that a seat had not yet been assigned, and that I would need to go online to check in, at which point I'd be given a seat. I told her I would not have Internet access before my flight and asked if she could check in for me. She said that was not a problem. She checked me in and informed me that I had a window seat at the back of the plane. I asked her a number of questions about in-flight snacks (free drinks and a complimentary small snack would be provided on the flight to New York) and onboard Internet (not available). All of my questions were answered with patience and a friendly tone.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
5/5: When I arrived at the Tampa airport for my flight, there was no one in line at the self- check-in kiosks. The only agent behind the counter was helping First Class passengers check in. As I stood there pondering where to go, an agent approached me and asked if I planned to check my bag. He led me to the check-in counter, where I thought he would ask me to check myself in; the airlines usually encourage this, since it makes their jobs easier. Instead, he surprised me by asking for a credit card or my ID so he could help me check in. It was a touch I think many passengers would appreciate. Even if you prefer to check yourself in, it's nice to have options! He went through all the questions with me, as I declined the upgrade to first and the roomier exit row seats (for a fee). He was patient and friendly as I asked about onboard snacks and drinks and entertainment, and he wished me a good flight. A friendly, efficient check-in that was as good as it gets.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
4/5: I approached the counter at the departure gate just as the general boarding process was getting started. There were two agents; the one closest to me was busy typing something but was aware of my presence. Instead of ignoring me until she finished what she was doing, she looked up at me and said: "I'll be right with you." It's the little touches like these that make a passenger feel valued. I knew she was busy, but I also knew that she wasn't ignoring me. Passengers deserve to be acknowledged.

I asked about a seat change, and she said that wasn't possible because the flight was full. I gave her my ticket to confirm that my frequent flier number was noted (it was), and asked if there were any seats with electrical outlets, and if mine had one. I could see that she was thinking, trying to visualize the plane's interior. "I can't believe I don't remember," she said finally. "I think there are outlets, but I'm not sure." I appreciated her taking the time to patiently answer my questions, while multi-tasking during the boarding process.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
5/5: Similar to what I did when I boarded the United flight a week before, I approached the flight attendant at the back of the plane after stowing my baggage to ask for a drink. The boarding process was only about halfway through, so it was still an acceptable time to be up and about. I could see a bottle of water and cups right behind the FA in the back gallery (as they had also been on the United flight). The difference on this flight was how my request was handled. The FA asked me what I'd like to drink; when I said, "water, please," she poured me a glass, with a smile that said I was no burden at all.

About ten minutes after we'd taken off, I got up and went to the back of the plane, where the FAs were in their jump seats. I asked if it was okay to use the lavatory; they said it was no problem as the seatbelt sign was now off.

About an hour later, I went to the back again and asked the FAs, who were in the middle of their own chat, about transport into New York City from Newark. They could have said they weren't sure and advised me to ask at the airport; instead they took the time to give me their personal suggestions, explaining that taking the bus or train would save me a lot of money, and that it was an easy thing to do.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
5/5: During boarding, the FAs were very involved with helping passengers find space for luggage when they appeared to be struggling. One FA offered to hold a man's coffee cup while he loaded a pet kennel with a kitten inside under the seat. Passengers were piling up behind him, but the FA's demeanor set a calm and pleasant tone to what could have become a stressful scene. During the beverage service, I watched the various FAs as they interacted with passengers, always greeting them with a smile. Later, during the second round of drinks, when one FA dropped some sugar packets near me, she explained that she and her crew were on their last flight of a three-day run, and that she was exhausted. She joked that there had been 'a lot of craziness' the past few days, with various passenger requests. Despite being tired, she still had a smile on her face, managing to be both empathetic and friendly, and doing her job with a smile and good attitude.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
5/5: There was no one greeting the flight when I arrived at Newark, a bit surprising as I had thought that many people would be connecting at this hub. The nearest gate was busy with a long line of passengers, so I went to the nearby Continental Customer Service counter, where no one was waiting in line. The agent greeted me as I approached and answered my questions about purchasing a ticket for another flight. When I then asked her how to get into the city by public transport, she said there was a bus and a train, and told me where to catch them. She was friendly and helpful throughout, and suggested the Newark Airport Express Bus as her preferred method over the train. ("It feels safer to me," she said.)
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