The Real Reason People Hate Airlines (People Hate Comcast For This Too)

Have you ever tried to get your cable fixed by calling Comcast? Or have you ever tried to get advice from the IRS 800 number? Most large organizations become sclerotic. The people hired to field calls may be judged not on whether they help customers, but how quickly they get rid of customers (average time per call). At the very least, they probably aren’t evaluated on whether or not they solve a customer’s problem.

There are a few exceptions. Costco isn’t as return-friendly with every item the way they used to be. Whenever my late grandfather wanted a new computer he’d come up with something wrong with the one he’d purchased at Costco. Back then they were ‘no questions asked.’ Sears was that way, too.

Companies usually start off trying to reduce costs, make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of. Two decades ago Delta became known for “No Waivers, No Favors” the customer was always wrong and got nothing. Greg Brenneman was President and COO of Continental Airlines, and later became CEO of PwC Consulting and then of Burger King. Writing about how he and Gordon Bethune turned around Continental Airlines he offers this anecdote,

We also told our employees we believed in them. They knew how to treat customers right, and we moved quickly to let them do just that.

In the past, any time an employee provided a benefit for a customer that was considered unacceptable, the bankers and lawyers running Continental would write a rule documenting the proper action. Over the years, these rules were accumulated into a book about nine inches thick known as the Thou Shalt Not book.

Employees couldn’t possibly know the entire contents of the book. When in doubt, everyone knew it was advised just to let the customers fend for themselves.

In early 1995, we took the Thou Shalt Not book to a company parking lot. We got a 55-gallon drum, tossed the book inside, and poured gasoline all over it. In front of a crowd of employees, we lit a match to it.

Our message was this: Continental is your company to make great. Go do it—now.

Doing what’s right isn’t the same as doing whatever customers want. But it does mean cutting through the bureaucracy rather than leaving customers yelling at a faceless corporation. A few companies, like T-Mobile, have turned around their brands by trying to offer value and solve problems. This usually involves the Chief Executive spending time with employees, making themselves available, and demonstrating from the top what good is supposed to look like.

Sometimes even companies with long-lasting great reputations fall into the trap of bureaucratic morass. I think this Southwest Airlines story from several years ago perfectly encapsulates why people hate airlines (and Comcast).

  • A Southwest Airlines passenger had her bag stolen. It wasn’t at baggage claim when she arrived in Denver, even though Southwest showed it having been on her flight and unloaded.

  • Security footage showed the bag being taken.

  • The thief was actually apprehended by police.

  • The passenger submitted a claim to the airline for her lost bag and it was denied. All she was told for the reason is “a discrepancy.”

After news coverage shamed Southwest they said they’d reconsider the claim, but it shouldn’t take news coverage when there’s video and a police report.

By the way this is why I don’t buying insurance against small events. The insurance issuer usually makes money by not paying claims, so they make the claims process so excruciating that customers give up. The payout needs to be big enough to make the process of getting it worthwhile (‘juice has to be worth the squeeze’).

On the other hand though I’ll fight tooth and nail with credit card insurance coverage over small claims. I didn’t pay extra for the coverage, and there’s something about the thrill of the chase and value in the victory over a bureaucracy designed almost perfectly to sap your soul that makes the effort worthwhile.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary — Well, I can tell you first hand that United sure as hell does’nt give one iota about its customers. We had the absoulte worst travel experience ever with them this week, and they compensated us ZERO. The favor will be returned when the opportunities arise. I have a long memory.

  2. I had to speak to multiple people when I called Spectrum (they were comcast at one time). When I had issues with my t.v. I was repeating the same information over and over. I did give up on an insurance claim at another company for the reason that was mentioned. Dealing with it was excruciating. I couldn’t see I was losing much so i did give up. My mom told me another agency was that way. They wanted to make it so difficult you would give up. I didn’t give up on that one. No issues so far with airlines.

  3. @Gene — United has been markedly more stingy and indifferent towards customer compensation, based on my own anecdata, than pre pandemic.

  4. “Costco isn’t as return-friendly with every item the way they used to be. Whenever my late grandfather wanted a new computer he’d come up with something wrong with the one he’d purchased at Costco. Back then they were ‘no questions asked.’ Sears was that way, too.”

    These aren’t the best examples. The former is an example of a customer trying to defraud a company – Costco should’ve sent a letter to your grandfather stating “we’re sorry our products don’t ever seem to meet your needs and we recommend you shop elsewhere” and then cancelled your grandfather’s membership. And the latter is of a company (Sears) that is no longer in business – frankly, nobody should be imitating whatever Sears did if they want to remain open.

  5. @Gary T-Mobile lays off over 67% of its highly regarded customer service crew.
    When customer service gets good enough, corporations like to slash and burn.

  6. Lufthansa is like “Great Benefits Insurance” in the movie “The Rainmaker”. Deny, deny, deny. I submitted a claim for being charged twice for a return trip from Malta and thier responses clearly show they never bothered to read my issue in it’s entirety or are just purposely stonewalling me (more likely).

  7. Loss of customer service is rampant in the US. The cause is lack of competition and consolidation of major industries

  8. I think airlines are jaded by the volume of ineligible or downright fraudulent claims they receive as well. When there is any doubt about the facts of the case, the safest default is usually to say no and then actually investigate the issue only if the passenger cared to follow up or escalate. I speak from experience from having managed this process on the airline side.

    For example, anytime there was a social media post or news report about a delayed flight or similar disruption, my airline would be inundated with claims from passengers who claimed to be on the flight, often more claims than the capacity of the aircraft! 90% of these claims were just bogus and made up, but it took a lot of time and effort to sort through and figure out which were actual passengers and which were just opportunists hoping to score a discount voucher or whatever. If you didn’t write to us from the same email that was on your PNR (or if the complaint didn’t come through the travel agent or corporate travel rep), you would probably be denied to begin with and only if you followed up would someone actually start looking into the facts of your claim.

    It was a lot easier in Gordon and Greg’s days when you couldn’t spam airlines with fraudulent claims at the rate of hundreds an hour.

  9. Please add Cox Cable to your list of Most Miserable Customer non-Support!!

  10. I don’t hate airlines, I hate the ones who lie and stand by it. That is the reason that I have United as a last resort only. I actually like a lot of eastern Asia airlines because they have always treated me right.

  11. Great article. Btw not all insurance companies are like that. My insurer State Farm is a mutual company owned for the benefit of the insured customers. Needless to say their service is excellent.

  12. Worked for DL for nearly 20 years, 70’s -90’s, most of it in passenger services. We were taught a really simple and easy lesson to use in dealing with disputes with customers-if they have a reasonable and legitimate complaint, the company will always back you if you have the customers best interests at heart. Within reason of course-if a flight was late and someone wanted a refund, sorry. But if they said they were quoted a certain fare or maybe the had one piece of excess baggage, give them a break. But the beancounters took over DL like every other carrier and the late CE Woolman’s philosophy of “put yourself in their position on the other side of the ticket counter” disappeared.

  13. I have to say, I think American Airlines was terrific during the pandemic at refunding tickets, etc. Especially when compared to all the nonsense you heard about Air Canada.

  14. @Terry – yes, American refunded tickets when they cancelled flights. Many airlines did not. In the U.S. initially that was United and JetBlue especially, until DOT got involved. Many foreign carriers, like Air Canada and TAP Air Portugal, continued to be bad actors.

  15. @Carol Lewis – Comcast (and Cox) have long had a bad reputation, so perhaps this is not surprising. I, too, have Spectrum, and they’ve been great. Perhaps it’s because I’m in Florida and they used to be BrightHouse.

  16. Costco took back botha 10 year old tandem kayak that leaked water and a portable generator that leaked oil, both with no hassle, so they are very much in my good graces.

    But I completely hear you on airlines. I’ve never made a credit card insurance claim. Do they require fighting tooth and nail? Correct me if I’m wrong but it’s basically Amex and then everyone else uses Asurion, right? Are they both equally bad?

  17. The IRS 800 number is actually pretty good. Generally my interactions with the IRS have been fairly positive, if the mistake is a minor and clearly unintentional one (comes up a lot in my line of business) they will work with you to get it resolved in a reasonable way. We should be so lucky that the airlines copy from their playbook.

  18. Sean M. has it right about the airlines. Deny all claims without investigating. Make the customer suffer. Out of 100% of refund claims only 10% are payed out. Sounds about right for a fraudulent airline.

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