The Reason People Hate Airlines Is The Same Reason They Hate Most Large Bureaucracies

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 bueraucracy 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 recent Southwest Airlines story 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. I think it’s a two way street. A large company is much less agile and when they become dysfunctional the employees can’t help customers with common sense approaches. I used to work for a large international company and started having problems with the clients I called on. They complained that the billing department wasn’t helping them with minor issues. I couldn’t figure it out for weeks until I dig deep enough to find out that the billing call center had moved from Canada to Poland. This wouldn’t have been a problem as our Polish staff spoke fluent English but the US customers couldn’t get through to them Because that office was only open for daytime business hours. On the other side of large corporations have you ever had terrible service from front line employees who just don’t care. Take McDonalds as an example. This huge corporation can be crippled by one bad worker in the trenches regardless of how organized they are. With airlines you also have Union attitude issues (At times), weather, mechanical, local government and outsourced vendors.

  2. Unless it was a SWA employee that took the bag I don’t think SWA should be responsible for a stolen bag.

  3. @ Lori

    I agree. I understand it was delivered to the carosel, at that point SWA has no further responsibility.

    I’m sure they pay the airport a ton of money, perhaps some positive bag match security should be provided. I remember when it used to be.

  4. Comcast has what’s debatably the most toxic work environment of any major domestic corporation. Personal dealings aside, I’ve known about a dozen people who worked there over the years and none were shy about disclosing just how horrible Comcast is to both customers and staff. As you state, a big part of the problem is the disconnect between the executives and the front line. If the top brass doesn’t know what it’s like on both sides of the front line, how can they possibly make good decisions? That’s why for airlines, I think that bigwigs and their families should be forced to sit in regular economy seats at all times.

  5. I’ve had Comcast for 10 years, and while I’ve had my moments, on the whole, they’re better than they used to be or their reputation suggests.

    Although… after having a competent tech support person tell me I needed to return my box, I was like “ok”. The customer service center near my residence had really crappy hours. So I decided to head to a different office after work, which was completely in the opposite direction but open a bit later.

    I show up with my box, and after waiting in line a bit, the rep tells me that they can’t process the return there and I have to go to my limited-hours branch for service. I just looked at the rep and said, “I’m going to tell you something that I know you hear every day, but it’s not going to stop me from telling you again.” I pause for a minute, and said, “Comcast sucks.”

    One problem airline managers have is that they are not *customers* of their own product. They don’t buy tickets, they rarely (if ever) check bags, and they are most certainly not elites. So large parts of the overall “experience” they are completely out of touch with.

  6. @Christian

    It’s not just the seat they sit in, it’s the whole end-to-end process. They don’t buy tickets, so they don’t have to deal with that part of the process. And since most of their bookings are last minute, they don’t have to worry about schedule changes. If they want a seat on a different flight, it’s theirs for the taking without paying a change fee. Because they don’t check bags, they don’t have to deal with the hassles of the checkin counter, potentially long waits at the baggage claim, or the hassles of a “lost” bag.

  7. @Dan – You may be right. Maybe there is no effective way for executives to truly experience their own airline as a customer. I still stick with my argument about families of bigwigs being forced to fly regular economy though. At least that way, the spouse and kids of the exec will give the person an earful about delays, mishandled bags, Oasis configurations, poor service, food quality and options, and slimline seats. If nothing else it’s worth a shot since the current system sure isn’t working.

  8. I think this pretty much sums up the issue — in small organizations, leadership can /demonstrate/ how they think customer service should work, so it’s pretty clear to front line staff and their managers what they should do. As an organization grows, there is a loss of that connection, so rules are developed that have the benefit of maintaining consistency at the cost of flexibility. Then the lawyers and accountants get involved and turn what began as common-sense rules into an un-navigable morass.

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