Monday, March 13, 2006

No (Sky)Team Work with the Star(less) Alliance

After living without electricity for a week in Brussels due to a "change of account" problem with the Electrabel utility (please see my "Bedlam in Belgium" blog posting for details) I thought I had experienced truly poor customer service but then it was topped by my return flight from Vienna this past weekend.

On March 10th I checked on flight options to catch an earlier flight from Vienna (via Amsterdam) to Minneapolis on March 11th by stopping by the KLM/Air France office across from the Hotel Sacher (lunch in their "Blaue Bar" is worth a visit) in Vienna. I was informed that "your 11 am flight has been cancelled so you are re-routed through Paris and New York City (one extra stop but no refund on the ticket price)............" and I would have gotten to arrive nearly 4 hours later in Minneapolis (again, no refund on original ticket price) so I replied, "ah, your change will not work for me so what else can you offer?"

So my return flight evolve into a 7:20 am flight from Vienna to Amsterdam via Austrian Airlines and then on to Minneapolis via KLM (Dutch airlines which recently merged with Air France) in partnership with Northwest Airlines (which by the way still owes the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) of Minnesota a $239 million "loan" from 1992!!!!) via the "SkyTeam" alliance but Austrian Airlines is a member of the "Star Alliance".

Now these airline alliances/code sharing agreements should be an ideally seamless experience for the customer but it is still very messy from my experience. After I received my new ticket in the "KLM" ticket jacket cover I actually thought I was supposed to go to the KLM check in lane at the Vienna airport not Austrian Airlines so that was not discussed at the office so after standing in line for 20 minutes the KLM (SkyTeam) person directed me across Terminal 1 to the Austrian Airlines desk (Star Alliance). When the Austrian Airlines ticket agent asked if I had luggage I said "yes" and placed it on the conveyor belt then the agent advanced the belt immediately WITHOUT adding my checked luggage routing tag!!!! She assured me she would leave her desk and tag my luggage before the flight for pick up in Minneapolis.

Ultimately I arrived in Minneapolis on time but -- SURPRISE SURPRISE -- my luggage decided to take a later flight perhaps opting to enjoy the night life in Amsterdam. Upon arrival in Minneapolis Northwest Airlines (at 1 pm) had an immediate answer for me when I went to lost luggage telling me my bag would arrive on the next flight and that I should get my bag around 7:30 pm.

Since I never heard from anyone I called the luggage status toll free line which stated my luggage had arrived and that I would be contacted by the delivery service soon. After waiting I called again then called the "for a live person" toll free line to find out that this line is only manned from 8 am until 4 pm from Monday through Friday which clearly did not help an idiot customer like me who decided to fly on a Saturday!!! How could I plan such a trip that did not conform to these office hours??!!

Finally at 11 pm on Saturday night the delivery service called me (woke me up actually since it was 6 am European time due to my jet lag) to inform me that Northwest Airlines got my bag to them 10 minutes too late so I would receive the bag sometime on Sunday morning.

On Sunday no one called regarding my bag but I found it sitting on my porch so I declared victory!!

These various airline alliances -- Sky Team and Star Alliance -- are probably good ideas on paper but are not perfected in operational terms. Perhaps this is completely naive but I would propose governments do to things to improve the airline industry:

1.) Get out of the way and let airlines merge however they want to streamline travel, save on fuel costs, etc. Getting out of the way includes the sale of airline stock and the stopping of subsidies by governments such as the Italian governments bailing out of Alitalia. Perhaps Alitalia should have put up for sale, closed, etc. versus keeping a dead horse alive.

2.) Break up the monopoly positions incumbent airlines have via the airport slots they have in their possession. If Northwest Airlines owes the MAC $239 million then lets strip them of some airport slots to provide more slots (perhaps even free for a set time) to would-be competitors such as Southwest Airlines.

The air industry feels broken so let's give free market solutions a try to improve customer service.

Off to the train station,


1 comment:

Ann said...

My dear friend and traveler,

Your biggest mistake was walking yourself into that downtown ticket office. Why did you not call your travel agent? :-)