Assignment: Is This Any Way to Run an Airline?

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The following letters are detailed accounts of an actual service encounter that involved numerous service failures and the company’s response. Read Part I of the letter first, which presents the customer’s letter to World Airlines. Answer the discussion questions listed at the end of Part 1. Next, read Part II, the airline’s response, and address the questions at the end of Part II.

Part I: Customer’s Letter to World Airlines

July 23, 2015

Dear Customer Service Manager:

Through the Carolina Motor Club, my wife and I booked round-trip, first-class and clipper-class seats on the following World Airlines flights on the dates indicated:

1 July World Airlines 3072 Charlotte to Kennedy

1 July World Airlines 86 Kennedy to Munich

21 July World Airlines 87 Munich to Kennedy

21 July World Airlines 3073 Kennedy to Charlotte

We additionally booked connecting flights to and from Wilmington and Charlotte on Trans Air flights 263 (on 1 July) and 2208 (on 21 July).

The outbound flights 3072 and 86 seemed pleasant enough, especially since World Airlines had upgraded our clipper-class seats on flight 86 to first class. However, mid-flight on 86 we discovered that we had been food poisoned on flight 3072, apparently by the seafood salad that was served in first class that day (it seemed warm to us and we hesitated to eat it, but unfortunately did so anyway). My wife was so ill that, trying to get to the restroom to throw up, she passed out cold, hitting her head, and, we discovered over the next few days, apparently damaging her back. The flight attendants were very concerned and immediately tried to help her, but there was nothing they could do except help her clean herself up and get the food off her from the food trays she hit. In addition to the nausea and diarrhea, she had a large knot on her head and headaches for several days. Her lower back has been in constant pain ever since. I, too, was very ill for several days. A nice start for a vacation! But it gets worse.

During the long layover between flights at Kennedy, there was a tremendous rainstorm, and our baggage apparently was left out in it; a situation that we discovered when we arrived at our first night’s lodging and discovered ALL of our clothing was literally wringing wet. In addition, four art prints we were bringing as gifts for friends were ruined.

The return flights were better only in that we did not get poisoned; instead we did not get fed! Flight 87 out of Munich was apparently shorthanded and, due to our seating location, the flight attendant who had to do double duty always got to us last. We had to ask for drinks; there were no hot towels left for us; the meals ran out and we were given no choice but an overdone piece of gray meat with tomato sauce on it. We tasted it, but it was odd tasting and, given our experience on flight 3072, we were afraid to eat it.

Flight 87 was delayed in boarding due to the slowness in cleaning the aircraft (according to an announcement made) and also due to the late arrival of the crew. In addition, the flight was further delayed due to a heavy rainstorm, which backed up traffic for takeoff. However, had the flight boarded on time it would not have lost its takeoff priority and could likely have taken off two hours sooner than it did. We might have been able to make our connection in Charlotte. Onboard the flight, the plane was the dirtiest and in the most disrepair of any aircraft I have ever flown on—peeling wall coverings, litter on the floor, overhead bins taped shut with duct tape, etc. As a first-class passenger I asked for some cold beer while we were waiting for the rest of the passengers to board; it was warm. We were quite hungry, having not eaten much in the past 12 hours, and asked for some peanuts; there were none—the plane had not been stocked. I asked for a pillow and blanket for my wife—there was none. What a great first-class section! There were only three flight attendants for the whole plane, and I felt sorry for the pregnant one who had to do double duty in first class and the rear cabin. She was very sympathetic to the poor conditions. I don’t see how you keep employees when they are treated like that.

Due to the excess delay at Kennedy, Flight 87 was very late and we could not make our connection from Charlotte to Wilmington. As it turned out, we would have barely been able to make it if the flight had been on time, because World Airlines had changed not only the flight numbers, but also the flight times on the Kennedy-Charlotte leg of our journey—AND WE WERE NEVER NOTIFIED OF THIS CHANGE UNTIL WE ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT! I deplaned in Raleigh to try to alert the people meeting us in Wilmington that we would not be in that night; however, it was too late and they had already gone to the airport. The gate attendant at Raleigh assured me that World Airlines would put us up for the night in Charlotte, so I returned to the plane. However, when we arrived in Charlotte, the World Airlines representative refused to take care of us, stating that, since we had not booked the Wilmington-Charlotte portion of our trip through World Airlines, “it is not our problem.” Furthermore, he tried to wash his hands of it, saying we had an “illegal connection” due to the times between flights, and that he wouldn’t provide lodging and meals. After I pointed out to him at least three times that the connection was not illegal when booked and World Airlines changed its flight times without notifying us, and further made it clear that not only was I not going to go away, but that there was going to be a lot more said about the matter, he finally capitulated and gave us a voucher.

After traveling for 24 hours, receiving lousy service, poor food, no amenities, it is a real pleasure to run into an argumentative SOB like your agent in Charlotte. He should be fired!!! As first-class passengers we have been treated like cattle! But, it does not end here.

Upon arriving in Wilmington the next morning, only two of our four bags arrived with us. We had to initiate a baggage trace action. Our missing bags were finally delivered to our house around 3 p.m. on July 23rd. And, SURPRISE, they were left out in the rain at Kennedy again and EVERYTHING was so wet that water poured out of the pockets. I poured water out of the hairdryer. All of our paper purchases, maps, guidebooks, photos, souvenir brochures, etc., are ruined. I don’t know yet if the dryer, radio, electric toothbrush, voltage converters, etc., will work—they are drying out as this is being written. In addition, my brand new bag now has a hole in the bottom of a corner where it was obvious that World Airline baggage handlers dragged it on the tarmac (obviously a water-logged duffle bag-size piece of luggage is too heavy to lift).

As near as I can figure, we have lost at least a roll of color prints (irreplaceable); approximately $100 in travel guides and tour books, many souvenir booklets, brochures, menus, etc.; $100 in art prints; $50 in damage to luggage; an unknown amount in electronics that may not work; a lot of enjoyment due to pain and suffering resulting from illness and injury (bill for x-rays enclosed); and all sense of humor and patience for such inexcusable treatment by an airline.

If there is to be any compensation for what we have suffered, it should be in monetary form. There is no recapturing the lost time and pleasure on the vacation. The art, books, etc. (except for the photos) can be replaced…assuming we should make such a trip again. But if we do, you can be assured we would not choose World Airlines.

In closing, I am particularly angry and adamant about this whole fiasco as we wanted this vacation to be special and treated ourselves to the luxury of first-class treatment… which we got everywhere except on World Airlines…it is almost unbelievable how poorly we were treated by your airline, almost a perfect negative case study in customer service. I have purposely tried to mention every little nitpicky thing I can recall because I want you to realize just how totally bad this whole experience has been!

In disgust,

  1. Q. Customer

Source: Richard A. Engdahl and K. Douglas Hoffman, “World Airlines: A Customer Service Air Disaster,” in Carol A. Anderson, ed., Retailing: Concepts, Strategy, and Information (Minneapolis/St. Paul: West, 1993) pp. 215-218.

Part I Discussion Questions

1. In general, is the above complaint letter: (1) instrumental or noninstrumental; and (2) ostensive or reflexive? Please explain your answer.
2. Identify the service failures that occurred and classify each failure according to the four main failure categories presented in Figure 13.3.
3. Select three of the service failures identified above and discuss the possible attributions for these failures in terms of locus, stability, and controllability.
4. Discuss the recovery strategy or strategies you would recommend to offset the customer’s complaint.

Part 2: World Airline’s Response

The following is World Airline’s actual response to the customer’s letter. The first letter was written by the Claims Manager, and the second by the Customer Relations Manager.

September 25, 2015

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Customer:

This letter confirms the settlement agreed upon during our phone conversation just concluded.

Accordingly, we have prepared and enclosed (in duplicate) a General Release for $2,000. Both you and your wife should sign in the presence of a Notary Public, have your signatures notarized, and return the Original to this office, keeping the copy for your records. As soon as we receive the notarized Release, we will forward our draft for $2,000.

Again, our sincerest apologies to Mrs. Customer. It will be most helpful for our Customer Relations staff if you included with the Release copies of all available travel documents.

Very truly yours,

Claims Manager

October 12, 2015

Dear Mr. Customer:

Let me begin by apologizing for this delayed response and all of the unfortunate incidents that you described in your letter. Although we try to make our flights as enjoyable as possible, we obviously failed on this occasion.

Our claims manager informs me that you have worked out a potential settlement for the matter regarding the food poisoning. We regret you were not able to enjoy the food service on the other flights on your itinerary because of it. I assure you that such incidents are a rare occurrence, and that much time and effort is expended to ensure that our catering is of the finest quality.

Fewer things can be more irritating than faulty baggage handling. Only in an ideal world could we say that baggage will never again be damaged. Still, we are striving to ensure baggage is handled in such a way that if damage should occur, it will be minimized.

Flight disruptions caused by weather conditions can be particularly frustrating since, despite advanced technology, accurate forecasts for resumption of full operations cannot always be obtained as rapidly as one would wish. These disruptions are, of course, beyond the airlines’ control. Safety is paramount in such situations and we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused.

We make every reasonable effort to lessen the inconvenience to passengers who are affected by schedule changes. Our practice is, in fact, to advise passengers of such changes when we have a local contact for them and time permits. We also try to obtain satisfactory alternative reservations. We are reviewing our schedule change requirements with all personnel concerned and will take whatever corrective measures are necessary to ensure that a similar problem does not arise in the future.

You made it clear in your letter that the interior of our aircraft was not attractive. We know that aircraft appearance is a reflection of our professionalism. We regret that our airplane did not measure up to our standards, since we place great emphasis on cabin maintenance and cleanliness. Please be assured that this particular matter is being investigated by the responsible management, and corrective action will be taken.

As tangible evidence of our concern over your unpleasant trip, I have enclosed two travel vouchers, which may be exchanged for two first-class tickets anywhere that World Airlines flies. Once again, please accept our humble apology. We hope for the opportunity to restore your faith in World Airlines by providing you with completely carefree travel.

Sincerely,

Customer Relations Manager

Part II Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the recovery strategies that were offered by the company to offset the customer’s complaint. Classify the recovery strategies based on the recovery strategy categories provided in this chapter.
  2. Discuss the adequacy of the recovery strategies offered in terms of meeting the customer’s distributive, procedural, and interactional justice needs.
  3. Explain what the company and its employees can learn from this complaint letter.

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