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In search of the holiday spirit
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Forsyth County News
The holiday season is upon us. It’s a wonderful time of year -- for most of us a time of warmth and cheer. But perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a time for thinking of others. It’s also a time when many people are traveling to be with family and friends, and somehow, here there seems to be a disconnect with the “holiday spirit.”

Over the years, I have written numerous articles focusing on customer service. Two themes run through them. The first is that providing good customer service is the right thing to do. It shows caring and is a civilized way to treat other people.

The second, and perhaps a bit more self-serving, is that it pays off. People appreciate being appreciated, and all other things being equal, the organization that does a better job in this regard will have a competitive advantage.

But what happens when an entire industry -- one that provides an important service -- adopts practices that ignore many of the customer’s needs? What if it really doesn’t care, since the customer has no alternative?

This dilemma is readily seen by any holiday traveler who flies. For many reasons (most related to poor management practices and unnecessarily heavy debt structures) recent years have not been financially kind to the airlines industry. They have responded, typically, but cutting services while increasing fees.

Unwilling to raise fares directly, they augment their income through a plethora of charges. In all fairness to the industry, however, customers often make decisions based on the fares, and neglect including the add-on fees, thereby placing an airline that wants to be “up front” at a disadvantage.

So we now have fees for checked baggage, which, of course, encourages passengers to take carry-ons. As a result, those who board last frequently find that there is no space for their bags, which then have to be checked. Many passengers bring bags that are just too big to fit, creating hassles and delays at the gates. Harried airline personnel soon develop a mentality that attempts to control the “unruly” herd, rather than respond to the needs of valued customers.

As part of their attempt to collect “hidden” revenues, many airlines now charge add-ons to reserve a seat in advance of arrival at the airport or to get a “preferred seat” (e.g. an aisle or exit row seat) on a flight, among others. Most (but not all) have eliminated all free food services in economy class. Many augment their incomes by providing food and alcoholic beverages at a substantial price. But even here, the customer’s needs are further neglected by policies on some of the airlines not to accept cash in payment.

Some airlines now place ads on the pull down trays in the seat backs, so you are forced to look at an advertisement for much of the trip. More on this in a moment. But perhaps the worst aspect of service relates to reducing flights to assure that all planes fly as fully loaded as possible. Certainly the most economical short-run strategy for the airlines, but making travel planning very difficult at times for the traveler. There once was a time when travel was fun. It’s a long way from that at present.

But the airlines are not the only organizations at the airport where you find frequent lack of a customer service orientation. For many people (who have checked in via the Internet from home and are carrying their baggage) the first encounter is with the Transportation Security Administration.

I am always impressed by those TSA personnel who are able to maintain a sense of humor and can exchange in pleasantries with frustrated passengers who are trying, simultaneously, to manage papers, partially disrobe, pull things out of their bags, load up the conveyor belts and keep track of the kids. But there are many who also see their role as herding the cattle through the gates -- commands are barked out and every airport seems to have a different set of rules, some of which seem to change with the shifts. At busy times, the process becomes inhumane. And they have “learned” one “trick” from the airlines. In some airports the bottoms of the trays into which your shoes, computers, belts, jackets and 3 ounce liquid containers must go are covered with ads.

Additionally, if you have a special status with the airlines (certain levels of frequent traveler status or are traveling first class) the government has decided that is a sufficient credential to accord you special treatment. Everyone else will wait in long lines while you are thrust to the front. (Some people have also learned that they can accomplish the same thing by requesting wheelchair assists to the gates).

What does all this mean? For me, it means that businesses and agencies should be doing a better job in not only expressing values (as a customer, you are important to us) but in what they actually do. They exist to serve.

Several years ago, I proposed something (not really tongue-in-cheek) that could make a difference, namely that all airline executives be required to personally book their tickets thought the “normal” airline system, go to the gate the way everyone else does and sit in the back of the plane. An even better thought is that airline executive should be required to send his/her mother through the process from time to time.

Similarly, every TSA manager should be required to go through the security line in the airport at least five times a day. Too often the people responsible for providing “service” have little direct experience in how that service is being delivered.

I hope that all of you have a wonderful holiday time. If you are traveling by air, I hope you encounter airline and security personnel who truly have the holiday spirit and apply it to the way they treat you and your fellow travelers.   

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at