Monday, July 21, 2008

Continental Airlines Experiences: Or How I Came to Get a Lecture on Beverage Service Procedures

(I should start by saying I had a very nice conversation with a very nice man at Continental Airlines Customer Care center last night. He was courteous, professional and assured me Continental is working to make sure all customers have a positive experience. He outlined procedures they follow for unfortunate situations and thanked me for letting them know about my experience. Please proceed now with the What Happened Was...)

I know the airways are a stressful place these days, and I know flight attendants have been empowered to deal with unruly customers with a firm hand, but I didn't really expect an intense lecture in how beverage service is conducted when I asked if I might have a tasty beverage to wash down my tasty micro-char-grilled cheeseburger on my recent flight. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

I'd really planned on getting a chunk read on a great new book I found, The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson, but figured I'd really delve into it after lunch. Didn't realize I wouldn't be in the mood after lunch.

So the flight attendant with the burgers passed by, slipped me a burger and a salad and moved on. I waited a while, thinking I might get drink and meal in some proximity. But beverage service takes longer than tossing out tasty micro-char-grilled cheeseburgers, so I decided to go on with the eating.

I know, I know, I'm lucky I was getting a meal at all, but I did pay $50 more for three pounds of extra weight in my luggage, so we were probably square.

Drink Up
So anyway, the beverage cart moves along the aisle and the flight attendant on one end of the cart took the orders for the row across from me and then the cart rolled past and I thought they might be taking orders behind me. So passengers in front of me, passengers to the left of me, passengers possibly behind me all seemed to be getting their tasty beverages.

I looked back to see if they might have overlooked me. I'm quiet and retiring. It happens.

"There's a man looking at your tush," said the flight attendant at the far end of the drink cart.

My boss is the customer service expert, but I perceive that usually in those matters employees are encouraged to say things such as: "There's a passenger looking back like he might want something." But you roll with what you get.

The flight attendant nearest me asked if I needed anything.

"I was just wondering if you had forgotten our row," I said. I was on the aisle. I appointed myself spokesman.

"I was waiting on THAT row," the flight attendant informed me, tersely indicating the row across from me.

I had noticed that fact. They were sipping sodas. It actually played a role in the development of the hypothesis that I might have been forgotten.

"I wasn't trying to be difficult," I said calmly. I think they may be authorized to taser you if you talk back these days.

The flight attendant proceeded to inform me about beverage dispersal procedures. In detail. I didn't really need detail in an emphatic voice.

"If I had been behind you, THAT would have meant I'd forgotten you," she concluded Again with the terse and an implied, "Are you happy now!?"

Please reference the other attendant's comment above. She WAS behind me when I looked back prompting the indelicate remark.

"Now what would you like?"

This moment to be on another airline, I thought, as I very likely will be on my next flight.

"A Sprite."

I think there was a little more lecture involved because she worked back to the: "Now you've made me forget what you wanted."

The only things I said in the whole exchange was "Did you miss our row?" and "I wasn't trying to be difficult." Oh and: "A Sprite." Didn't know I was practicing the power to cloud anyone's minds with such invocations.

I never raised my voice. I was not unduly demanding. I just asked a question of a representative of the service and hospitality industry on a full but, at least from what I saw, calm flight.

"A Sprite," I repeated. She gave it to me.

I declined all other drink offers for the remainder of the flight, read a little of my book and soothed out to the music of Mediaeval Baebes on my iPod.

Can I Get Some Service Recovery Here?
I kind of waited around for the service recovery. In customer service--per my boss who is Disney Institute trained--that's what you practice when there's been a customer who's been mistreated. Neither the flight attendant who was strident nor the other flight attendant, who should have been close enough to hear the redressing, stopped to say anything like "Sorry, we're having a busy day" or anything like it.

The only other contact came when Christine asked for our arrival gate because we were facing a tight connection. We decided she should ask since I hadn't exactly established a rapport. She was sitting behind me, so they didn't really know we were together.

The flight attendant didn't offer to check. She just said: "The pilot will make that announcement 20 minutes before landing."

He didn't, incidentally. The flight attendant Christine had spoken with didn't follow up.

The flight attendant who had lectured me didn't say good bye when I passed her on the way out.

So it goes. The ground crew in Houston was stellar in helping us get to our tight connection at least, with radios buzzing between shuttle drivers and gate attendants to make sure we weren't left behind. Kudos to them.

As I mentioned in the foreword, the customer service guy I spoke to later on the phone assured me that's not the kind of service Continental wants to provide and that they have procedures.

Work hard, fly right.

22 comments:

Steve Malley said...

Ouch.

I hear Continental has some of the worst service in the industry. Me, I try to stay on Southwest or other little guys whenever possible.

Like everything else here, New Zealand's domestic service tends to be breezy and informal: peel yourself a cold one and pass the rest of the six-pack to the other passengers.

Charles Gramlich said...

As sorry as I am to hear of your ordeal, I'm actually glad this kind of thing happens to people other than me. I'm fairly mild mannered myself in public, and a couple of times I've had women show what to me seems a bizarre hate-on-sight response to what I thought of as an innocent question or comment. Too weird.

Lana Gramlich said...

A lot of airlines are cutting everything from their flights these days; food, drinks, movies. My manager's flying to Hawaii & later to England--none of the above supplied (not to mention the $50 fee you brought up in your post.)
Customer service? I believe its already in the process of being fossilized. I do have to give some kudos to Delta, however, for shooting me a $250 voucher in response to a letter of very slight complaint (related to my move to Louisiana, actually.)
I'm like you, though. I tend to be retiring & quiet. I want as little to do with any & all airport/airline staff as I can get away with. In our Orwellian world, I figure that's the safest bet. <:(

rolandmann said...

Lucky you!
I had a serious issue with Delta some weeks ago. I must say, however, that the Customer Service rep was very kind and apologetic and issued me a flight voucher.

Jamie said...

Umm. I'd have to take issue with your claim that you're "probably even" on getting a meal since you paid $50 for overweight luggage.

It seems to be lost on most U.S. travelers these days, but Continental is the only airline in America that provides free meals to Coach passengers. If you'd been flying on any other carrier, you'd have paid that overweight charge for your luggage and still got nothing to eat. (If you'd been on U.S. Airways, you'd also have paid $2 for that Sprite.)

That doesn't excuse the poor service, but keep things in perspective, huh?

---

Oh, and BTW to Steve Malley: Continental is ranked #1 for customer service out of the U.S. legacy (network) carriers. They certainly do not have "some of the worst service in the industry."

Chriostopher said...

Im thinking there may have been some tongue in cheek communication that may have been lost on our poorly treated passenger. If the quality of some of the above written passages are any indication of ability to submit and receive messages, I may be correct.

With that in mind, i hardly think this situation, in its worst case, warrants a call to a customer service representative. I do feel there are bigger fish to fry in this mad mad world.

And finally, Continental simply is the best of the US based network carriers out there. There is no question about it. Award after award proves this time and again.

Sorry you took the inflite comments so roughly.

Sidney said...

Hmm, Jamie, you almost sound like a Continental spokesman. ;-)

Matt said...

"I hear Continental has some of the worst service in the industry. Me, I try to stay on Southwest or other little guys whenever possible."

Who told you that? CO is the only major airline (minus Delta but that will change with the merger) that doesn't charge for a first checked bag. One of the few (if not the only) that serves free meals in coach. I find it a little funny that you say CO has the worst service and then follow that up with saying that you stick to Southwest...

Sidney said...

Yeah, messages are tough to submit and receive sometimes, Chriostopher. I've been known to omit an apostrophe here or there, fail to capitalize first-person singular pronouns, drop the hyphens from compound adjectives and commit other grammatical errors. However, I'm fairly confident there wasn't much humor intended in my "inflite" experience.

Shauna Roberts said...

Wow, I didn't expect your post to bring out so many Continental customer service people. And if I had, I would have expected them to apologize, not insult you while hiding behind non-Continental identities. I'll make a note not to fly Continental. What happened to you and then your wife was rudeness and disdain, pure and simple. Bllllhh to Continental.

Avery DeBow said...

I think being treated like a stupid, unruly child after asking a polite, innocent question most certainly warrants a complaint call. Not calling is passive acceptance of bad service. Acceptance means a blank check for it to continue.

Good for you, Sidney.

Sidney said...

Maybe they're just shareholders. They certainly seemed versed in factoids and talking points that I can't randomly summon up on any business, though they're actually probably spouting fallacies.

A "free" drink and a "free" microwave hamburger don't really do much for me if the atmosphere they're served in is unpleasant.

These trying times are times all businesses need to look more at customer service.

While there are cost-cutting measures such as removing in-flight video and cutting back food service that are necessary, having your hospitality personnel smile rather than snarl should be a no-brainer.

Thanks for the thoughts, Avery and Shauna.

Anonymous said...

I AM a flight attendant for Continental Airlines. I'm wondering if your flight had been pleasant and uneventful would you have written something nice about us?! I am good at my job and I love it. I do not feel that this flight attendant had a right to be rude and I'll apologize to you. However, one flight attendant does not make up our entire airline. We do have outstanding service and have received many awards. That information is not hard to find. Hopefully on your next flight with us(if there is one)you will have a crew that is more polite. Unfortunately there are rude FA's on every airline!!!

Sidney said...

I applaud you, Anonymous Flight Attendant, and those who deliver good service every day. I know many people in many fields who work hard to put on a good face even in trying circumstances and deliver good service.

They summon up qualities I sometimes lack, but the stories we tell around the modern campfire on blogs and message boards--just as in days of old--are about the deviations in the status quo, the extraordinary events.

I'm happy, too, that Continental has won awards. The continuous citing of those matters here becomes a Spotlight Fallacy, however, I believe.

Until this experience by and large Continental had been a Lovemark for me. I'd flown them many time with few hitches, and I've chosen them fairly consistently in recent years over other airlines.

Not one but three flight attendants on my flight displayed varying levels of discourtesy to either me or my wife. The one who launched into the diatribe was just the standout.

I know these are tough times for airlines but whether it was a corporate policy overworking the group, an unfortunate assembly of staff members or whatever the reason, it's not the direction Continental or any airline wants to go, I'm certain.

I paid a high ticket price, a total of $100 in overage fees and I had one flight attendant make a snide remark, one decline to help my wife with a request and one address me with a harsh, extended--if subdued--tirade.

Microwaved burgers, previous awards, behavior of other flight attendants are all irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

You are a total douchebag- first flight attendants don't have to say goodbye- if it was I would have rammed the serving in your ass- because you are such a big asshole it would have fit nicely- perhaps been even too loose

Anonymous said...

You are a total douchebag- first flight attendants don't have to say goodbye- if it was I would have rammed the serving in your ass- because you are such a big asshole it would have fit nicely- perhaps been even too loose

Anonymous said...

You are a total douchebag- first flight attendants don't have to say goodbye- if it was I would have rammed the serving in your ass- because you are such a big asshole it would have fit nicely- perhaps been even too loose

Anonymous said...

You are a total douchebag- first flight attendants don't have to say goodbye- if it was I would have rammed the serving in your ass- because you are such a big asshole it would have fit nicely- perhaps been even too loose

Shauna Roberts said...

Shame on you, Anonymous.

Sidney said...

Thanks for the prop Shauna. The only thing I might add is this, illustrating how iconic the usual pleasant good bye is.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how two sides of the same story can be so very different. I recently had the pleasure to fly with the said flight attendant. As a fairly new Flight Attendant (with only 10 yrs experience) I have to say the flight attendant in question provided stellar service, was efficient and caring at the same time. Our job is always a demanding one, full of curve balls and it is our ability to deal with those curve balls which make either a good or bad flight attendant.

There can sometimes be times when humor and friendliness is perceived as something altogether different. I am very sorry that the conversation you perceived to have happened offended you, as is the flight attendant in question, but to at least clarify what actually took place as perceived by the flight attendant in question I will give her version of the events.

She obviously had no control over what was said by the Flight Attendant on the back end of the Bar Cart, but again humor is employed as a means to lighten any situation.

When a beverage service is conducted the normal way is that the flight attendant on the top end of the bar cart takes the first 3 rows - there is normally a row of passengers who are beside the bar cart, then there is a flight attendant on the back end of the bar cart who walks backwards. The flight attendant on the back end of the bar cart cannot usually reach the row of passengers who are right beside the bar cart, so she starts her service where the bar cart ends and continues to serve passengers until the flight attendant on the top end of the bar cart has served all the passengers up to and including the people who are beside the bar cart.

At the time she gestures to the flight attendant on the back end that she is ready to move. The flight attendant on the back end of the cart will then stop wherever she has got to (in this particular case after passenger A,B and C received their beverages but before passengers D, E and F had got theirs.

The bar cart is then moved back, allowing another 3 rows of passengers to be served, the bar cart is then stopped and the Flight Attendant on the front end will then back up to where the Flight Attendant on the back end had stopped.

It has happened many times where passengers feel their row has been skipped because the cart travels past them, on almost every flight I fly someone will call out "Miss Miss" or hit their flight attendant call button!

Her interaction with you was indended to be lighthearted and I cannot tell you how many times flight attendants have had to explain themselves when a passenger feels they have been forgotten. I wish there was a better way to provide a service, but unless 1 flight attendant did the entire service by herself (which would take forever!) this is the way it has to be done!

Now onto the gate of arrival that you were needing information on. Flight Attendants have no idea of which gate of arrival we will be arriving at. There is normally a tentative gate of arrival which almost invariably gets changed, depending on whether you land early or late or even if you land ontime there are factors which change gates of arrival (a plane leaving late out of your original gate) - The Captain is given an up to date arrival gate at the last minute as he is bringing the plane in for landing. At that point Flight Attendants are not allowed to contact the Flight Deck as they are extremely busy preparing to land. USUALLY a pilot will make an announcement on the arrival gate, but sometimes even they do not have that information until after they land.

It is not that we are trying to be difficult or withold information - it is just that we do not know, and for that we certainly apologize.

We really do try and do the best job we can do, the airlines are feeling the crunch as are all companies and we are working with minimum staffing doing the best job we can, whilst 3 people cater to 150+ peoples' needs.

I know the Flight Attendant in question, as do I, hope you will not base your decision not to fly Continental on this one misunderstanding. - And I would certainly love an opportunity to show you and your wife that we are a really good airline and do provide great service.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how two sides of the same story can be so very different. I recently had the pleasure to fly with the said flight attendant. As a fairly new Flight Attendant (with only 10 yrs experience) I have to say the flight attendant in question provided stellar service, was efficient and caring at the same time. Our job is always a demanding one, full of curve balls and it is our ability to deal with those curve balls which make either a good or bad flight attendant.

There can sometimes be times when humor and friendliness is perceived as something altogether different. I am very sorry that the conversation you perceived to have happened offended you, as is the flight attendant in question, but to at least clarify what actually took place as perceived by the flight attendant in question I will give her version of the events.

She obviously had no control over what was said by the Flight Attendant on the back end of the Bar Cart, but again humor is employed as a means to lighten any situation.

When a beverage service is conducted the normal way is that the flight attendant on the top end of the bar cart takes the first 3 rows - there is normally a row of passengers who are beside the bar cart, then there is a flight attendant on the back end of the bar cart who walks backwards. The flight attendant on the back end of the bar cart cannot usually reach the row of passengers who are right beside the bar cart, so she starts her service where the bar cart ends and continues to serve passengers until the flight attendant on the top end of the bar cart has served all the passengers up to and including the people who are beside the bar cart.

At the time she gestures to the flight attendant on the back end that she is ready to move. The flight attendant on the back end of the cart will then stop wherever she has got to (in this particular case after passenger A,B and C received their beverages but before passengers D, E and F had got theirs.

The bar cart is then moved back, allowing another 3 rows of passengers to be served, the bar cart is then stopped and the Flight Attendant on the front end will then back up to where the Flight Attendant on the back end had stopped.

It has happened many times where passengers feel their row has been skipped because the cart travels past them, on almost every flight I fly someone will call out "Miss Miss" or hit their flight attendant call button!

Her interaction with you was indended to be lighthearted and I cannot tell you how many times flight attendants have had to explain themselves when a passenger feels they have been forgotten. I wish there was a better way to provide a service, but unless 1 flight attendant did the entire service by herself (which would take forever!) this is the way it has to be done!

Now onto the gate of arrival that you were needing information on. Flight Attendants have no idea of which gate of arrival we will be arriving at. There is normally a tentative gate of arrival which almost invariably gets changed, depending on whether you land early or late or even if you land ontime there are factors which change gates of arrival (a plane leaving late out of your original gate) - The Captain is given an up to date arrival gate at the last minute as he is bringing the plane in for landing. At that point Flight Attendants are not allowed to contact the Flight Deck as they are extremely busy preparing to land. USUALLY a pilot will make an announcement on the arrival gate, but sometimes even they do not have that information until after they land.

It is not that we are trying to be difficult or withold information - it is just that we do not know, and for that we certainly apologize.

We really do try and do the best job we can do, the airlines are feeling the crunch as are all companies and we are working with minimum staffing doing the best job we can, whilst 3 people cater to 150+ peoples' needs.

I know the Flight Attendant in question, as do I, hope you will not base your decision not to fly Continental on this one misunderstanding. - And I would certainly love an opportunity to show you and your wife that we are a really good airline and do provide great service.

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