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How To Get Better Service From An Airline During The Holidays

7 min read
How To Get Better Service From An Airline During The Holidays

If you thought this was a difficult summer for air travel, just try boarding a flight this holiday season. Experts are predicting more crowded terminals, sky-high fares and planes bursting at the seams with passengers. How do you get better service from an airline at a time like that?

Airlines insist they’re ready for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, saying they’ve made preparations to avoid another holiday meltdown. But customer service seems to be lagging, say experts.

“We’re seeing an increased number of passengers coming with complaints about the lack of good customer service in airlines,” says Anton Radchenko, CEO of the claims management company AirAdvisor. “Going by what we’ve observed, it will get worse.”

Yeah, he said worse. As in, worse than this summer, with its record-setting delays and high fares.

So is there a way to get better service from an airline at a time like this? Actually, there are several ways.

  • Catch an early morning flight during the holidays.
  • Be patient and nice to the airline crew, beyond smiling and remembering your manners.
  • Learn your rights as an air traveler.
  • Plan carefully.
  • Practice kindness.

I’ll expand on these in just a second. But first, let’s talk about declining service. It’s a thing, unfortunately.

Wait, why is airline service getting worse?

The latest J.D. Power airline ranking finds that overall passenger satisfaction for domestic airlines slipped 7 points to 791 (on a 1,000-point scale) for 2023. It’s the second consecutive year of waning passenger satisfaction, following a 22-point plunge the previous year.

Radchenko says he’s seen a corresponding surge of complaints from consumers.

“I’ve observed that most of these customer support issues arise because airlines are not well-prepared to serve a large influx of passengers, especially during the holiday season,” he told me. “There are simply not enough support executives to handle customer complaints and assist them where needed.”

Airlines could hire additional customer service representatives to help, but it’s unclear if they will do that. (In a moment, I’ll tell you what they are doing instead. And a warning: You might find it troubling.)

“Another issue is that airlines are not transparent enough to passengers,” says Radchenko. “In fact, airlines try their best to wear passengers down when they raise complaints, in a bid to save money.”

How do they do that? By forcing passengers to deal with bots and endless phone trees, or sending them boilerplate responses that don’t really answer their questions.

“Honestly, that’s bad because passengers deserve access to the right information at the right time,” he says.

Expert tips on getting better customer service from an airline

Here’s what travel professionals are saying about the upcoming holiday air travel season — and how to get the best customer service:

Catch an early flight

Most holiday travelers like to sleep in and take a midmorning flight. That’s a mistake because you’ll be in a crowded airport terminal with everyone else.

“Take the early morning flight,” advises Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. “Statistically, earlier flights have better on-time departure records. As problems pile up throughout the day, flights become delayed and grounded. The first flights out of an airport in the morning have a better shot of getting off the ground.”

Another thing: Your crew will be rested and ready to deliver top-notch service. I’ve personally seen more incidents of bad customer service on late afternoon, early evening, and red eye flights.

It’s better to give than to receive

The holidays can be extra stressful for flight crews. So Susan Sherren, founder of the travel agency Couture Global Trips, advises her clients to do something that seems counterintuitive.

“I recommend that they purchase a small gift for the flight attendants and other staff,” she told me. “The reaction and service you get in return will be pretty shocking. Starbucks gift cards are the ideal small token of gratitude to present to these hard-working airline employees.”

Sherren usually passes out Starbucks cards to the lead flight attendant during boarding. She says she’s received words of gratitude, smiles, extra snacks and even upgraded seats worth hundreds of dollars.

“It’s like a light switch gets turned,” she says.

Know the rules

Radchenko, the AirAdvisor CEO, recommends passengers learn about their rights before they fly.

“In the event of flight disruptions, most passengers are not aware of their own rights and end up getting frustrated and wasting their money,” he says.

Remember if your flight is delayed by more than three hours (not caused by weather or anything outside the control of airlines), you’re entitled to free food vouchers and hotel accommodations for domestic flights. For European flights, there’s a tough consumer protection law called EC 261. By being aware, you can point it out to customer support and seek help where needed, he says.

Here’s my guide to what an airline owes you if it denies you boarding.

Assume nothing

Making assumptions is one of the biggest mistakes air travelers make year-round. But during the holidays, it can be especially devastating. Assuming that you’re flying out of the same terminal when you’re changing planes, or that the same travel rules are in place, or anything else for that matter, can ruin your holiday trip, says David Doughty, CEO of Admiral Jet, a private jet charter company.

“I recommend keeping an eye out for travel updates,” he says. “That is, make sure you’re conscious of any travel restrictions — particularly to those that apply to your destination— and updates made by relevant authorities, such as from airlines or governments.”

Also, he suggests download you airline’s app and turning on push notifications for your specific flight to get real time updates sent to your phone.

Dot all your “i’s,” cross all your “t’s,” and you’ll be good to go.

Be kind

The most obvious — but also most overlooked — tip for getting better service better service, especially during the holiday travel season, is: Be kind.

“When you need assistance from staff, the best way to get better service is to practice the golden rule,” says Becky Hart, a communications specialist at Seven Corners. “Treat others with kindness and patience in the same way you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.”

She says during the holidays — yes, especially during the holidays — people want to help you and will go out of their way to find solutions when you treat them well. Getting upset at them won’t make the plane take off on time, and it won’t find your lost luggage.

You’re going to need these tips for getting better service from an airline more than ever this year. That’s because airlines are about to do something incredibly shortsighted.

Warning: AI could make things even worse

Oh, you’re probably wondering what airlines will do, and that you might find troubling. Here it is: I asked Jeff Galak, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, if airlines were planning any improvements in customer service.

As a matter of fact, they are, he says. In an effort to offer better service at a low cost, many airlines are rolling out more customer-service chatbots powered by ChatGPT. The idea is to respond quickly to consumer complaints.

“They do not always prove effective,” he says. “Especially with more complex customer issues.”

Oh, boy. It looks like we’ll be talking to a bunch of bots during the holidays.

Want better airline service? Here’s what to do

The experts are right. A combination of savvy travel planning tactics and holiday strategies will get you there when you’re flying during the holidays.

But there’s one more thing. All airlines are not created equal. My nonprofit organization’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards has a list of the best airlines.

My experience as a frequent traveler confirm the results. I’m a fan of airlines like Southwest and Qatar Airways that prioritize service over profits (but end up making a bundle anyway).

It’s not too late to book a ticket on a carrier that cares instead of just buying the cheapest fare.

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