Speaking of inconsideration, let`s begin with my original trip, United Flight 209, on April 16 from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles. Although I was aware of the policy, my trip began on a bad note when I went to check my bag and was told that it would cost me $15. After grudgingly paying the fee, I remembered why I studiously avoided flying United and USAirways when practical. In the case of USAir, they came up with the stupid idea - since abandoned - of charging for sodas and water. That`s on top of their decision to charge for ticketed luggage as well. When it becomes necessary to fly on either USAir or United, I make a point of traveling with carry-on luggage and either eating before boarding the plane or carrying food with me. Airline food, an oxymoron in the U.S., is bad enough. And having to pay for it is even worse.
I left D.C. at 2:40 P.M., EDST, arriving in L.A. almost six hours later. On that cross-country flight, we were offered free non-alcoholic beverages in economy class and given the option of purchasing what they called food. I was hungry, but as a matter of principle, I refused to purchase anything. On a flight that long - or any shorter one, for that matter - I would have preferred United Airlines increasing their ticket price by $20 or $25 and skipping the ordeal of paying to check one suitcase and not even offering flyers free peanuts on a flight that lasted nearly six hours.
After uniting with Rev. Jackson and his team during a 5 hour, 51-minute layover at LAX, we boarded Thai Airways flight 795 for a 16-hour ride to Bangkok and transferred to another plane for a 2-hour flight to Kuala Lampur, or KL as they call it. In L.A., we upgraded to business class and Iflyoften enough to know the difference in the level of service offeredin economy and that offered to customers in business or first class. And there is a difference. While there should be a difference in what`s offered to passengers paying higher prices to ride, there should not be a difference in the quality of customer service. And there was.
This is not to say that U.S. flight attendants were not polite. In general, most of them are. But it was the extent that Thai employees went to provide that extra effort that most impressed me. For example, about three-fourths of the way to Bangkok, I got up to use the toilet. Both were occupied. I was standing near a flight attendant who was eating some soup in the work area. I threw my head back to squeeze a lubricant into my tired eyes and at the bat of an eye -- literally - she had put down her food and handed me a paper towel. I was both grateful and impressed. A couple of minutes later, another flight attendant informed me that the lavatory on the other side of the plane was available.
Those were two small gestures clearly left a good impression on me. When you combine that with the exceptional service flight attendants provided throughout the flight, I am not surprised that many U.S. airlines are in trouble.
Not all U.S. carriers provide poor service. Southwest is a perfect example. They don`t charge for sodas, as USAir tried for a while, and they don`t charge for checking baggage unless it exceeds certain levels. Now that they have eliminated their cattle call check-in procedures and added more non-stop flights, they stand head-and-shoulders above most of the competition. Because of their service and frequent flyer program, I also like Delta Airlines. They don`t charge to check luggage and never attempted to charge for non-alcoholic beverages. No airline will survive long in this environment if they consistently offer poor service. If they want to improve their service, they should take lessons from Thai Airways.
Compare the attentiveness of the Thai flight attendant who handed me a paper towel with an incident I witnessed on United flight 922 on Saturday, April 25, from Chicago to Dulles. The flight was delayed for an hour because the pilot was confused about whether he needed additional paperwork in order to store an oxygen container in the belly of the plane for an elderly passenger.
A passenger sitting in row 17 or 18, asked a flight attendant, "What`s causing the delay?" The attendant curtly replied, "I don`t know, I`m not in the cockpit. I don`t have any more information than you have."
I believe that had we been on the Thai airline, a flight attendant would have politely offered to investigate and return with an answer. Until those in the U.S. service sector offer significantly improved service, they will continue to lose jobs to those companies that know how to satisfy their customers.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.