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Airline customer service ratings down, and it shows

Last Friday night, I found myself in an empty airport in the-middle-of-nowhere, Alabama, without my luggage, wondering how my airline, US Airways, managed to screw things up so completely. I'd left Boston earlier that day to fly to New Orleans to visit my sister, scheduled to arrive by 8:00 p.m., yet it was midnight and I definitely wasn't on Bourbon Street. Bad weather, airplane malfunctions, and security slowdowns were not factors in my being two states away from my intended destination, either. It all came down to poor customer service and disorganization.

I missed my connection in Philadelphia because the boarding process in Boston took an hour. The flight was sold out, all of the overheads were filled before the plane was half boarded, and an argument ensued between flight attendants and passengers over whose bags would get checked.

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US Airways representatives were hopeless in rebooking me after I missed my connection. I opted to fly to Mobile, Alabama (about two hours from New Orleans) rather than spend the night in Philly with no guarantee of flying the next day. When I got there, my bags were missing. The airline had no idea where they went and was unable to give me information at any point. Thank God my sister and I are the same size. I eventually found my bag several days later while hunting around a missing-luggage room in the New Orleans airport.

US Airways' failures nearly derailed my trip, but they didn't surprise me. U.S. airlines have a long track record of failing their customers, and recent studies show they're getting worse, not better. This past April, the Airline Quality Ratings survey showed poorer performances for 16 of 18 U.S. carriers over the year before, and this Tuesday, J.D. Power and Associates released the results of the 2007 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, which included similar findings.

The new report shows customer satisfaction rankings for seven out of nine major airlines, as well as low-cost carriers JetBlue and AirTran, dropped this year. Among the major carriers, Continental is the top rated, having gained seven points over its 2006 rating. Northwest Airlines is ranked last, dropping 10 points. JetBlue is still the number one low-cost carrier, despite losing 10 points. Interestingly, all five of the low-cost airlines rated had higher scores than Continental. The study takes into consideration cost and fees; the quality of the flight crew, in-flight services and aircraft; boarding, deplaning, and baggage handling; and check-in and reservation services.

There's been a lot of noise lately about a possible Passenger Bill of Rights, but I think the U.S. airlines, especially the major carriers, need to take it upon themselves to develop more streamlined processes for nearly everything they do: booking, rebooking, check-in, boarding and deplaning, and tracking luggage. One of the reasons many carriers do a poor job of serving customers, I believe, is because they are generally working with older, archaic company structures and computer systems that don't adapt well to increased demand.

I'm not sure what needs to happen to make the airlines change, though. It seems as long as the demand for flying remains high and consumers remain unwilling to pay more for better service, there's no impetus for improvement.

As for me, the list of airlines I refuse to fly just got longer.

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