Believe It or Not, Someone's Listening
June 1, 2008


FRUSTRATION with the fluctuation in the cost of airline tickets. Disappointment with airline reward programs. Annoyance with airport security searches and long checkpoint lines. Dropped hotel bookings.

These traveler complaints among others dominated the discussion of a focus group last month at the New York office of Travelocity, the online travel agency. Customers were invited to a bright conference room to vent, gripe and complain. As they spoke, Travelocity's chief executive, Michelle Peluso, fastidiously took notes, regardless of whether the problem was the fault of the company or simply a consequence of the chaotic state of air travel today.

When an issue arose that the company, which is based in Southlake, Tex., could have mitigated - like the flight departure alert that came early, leading the designer to believe his flight left without him, or the bank manager who booked a room in the adults-only section of his resort only to end up, as he put it, in "the kindergarten area" - Ms. Peluso deftly defused any possible tension with a quick apology, an acknowledgment of the inconvenience caused ("That shouldn't have happened in the first place") and a promise to do better.

Partly to garner loyalty with their customers, but also to make sure the struggling airlines don't drag them down with their mess, various players have been working on ways to pick up the slack in customer service.

The New York meeting, which brought eight of Travelocity's frequent customers together over wine and cheese, was part of a larger effort by the company to get input from travelers on what the overall industry needs to do to improve the travel experience. Throughout the first week in May, Ms. Peluso and other Travelocity executives also visited call centers to listen in on calls and address customer needs.

A recurring theme: dissatisfaction with air travel. Calls relating to air travel were up 17 percent in the first quarter of this year from the same period last year, while calls about hotels, car rentals or other concerns were flat or down.

In April, when airline bankruptcies and flight groundings for maintenance inspections threw many travelers' plans into chaos, Travelocity contacted more than 30,000 customers to advise them of their options.

The company, which works with an array of travel suppliers, said it hoped its efforts would also motivate its partners to take a hard look at what needs to be done to make traveling better. The call to action, however, is not completely magnanimous.

"When consumers have a bad experience they blame both of us," said Ms. Peluso, even if the problem wasn't Travelocity's doing. It's an issue much of the travel industry is grappling with these days as mounting airline issues ripple through the industry, driving disgruntled travelers to frustration and leaving the rest of the industry to deal with it.

Last month, the Resiliency Edge, a new program of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University, offered a class to help overtaxed airport workers handle stressed-out passengers.

"We're typically the first person and the last person they see at the airport," said Stacie Porosky, the customer service manager for Five Star Parking at Newark Liberty International Airport, who attended the class. "Any frustration they may have had from their travels, whatever has happened with the flight, now they've brought it to the parking lot. We're almost out there like psychologists, trying to deal with people's emotions."

HOTELS also have been doing their part to smooth travel. Affinia Hotels, with properties in New York, Chicago and Washington, recently began maintaining guest profiles so that its hotels can have things like yoga mats, laptop chargers and other items guests may want in their room but don't want to lug on a plane. In response to American Airlines' plans to charge $15 each way for the first checked bag, Loews Hotels is reimbursing guests this summer with bag fee receipts up to $30.

How do the airlines feel about all these efforts to clean up their mess? While expressing appreciation, David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group of the major carriers, said his industry can't do more given the high cost of fuel. "There are limits to how much resources we can expense to those sorts of niceties simply because of the cost structure we're facing today," he said.

With the airlines' continued service problems, Travelocity, like other online travel agencies, routinely sends out automated alerts to customers advising them of schedule changes and canceled flights. Three years ago, it guaranteed that if its travelers encountered any problems, it would work with its travel partners to make things right. For example, if your airline cancels your flight, Travelocity will do the legwork to locate a hotel at a reasonable price.

This year, it began "text-mining" all the feedback it receives from customers - whether through blogs, e-mail or call centers - sifting through the information for customer "pain points" in an effort to correct recurring issues and to notify its partners of problems.

And those problems are not just with airlines. After discovering a pattern of dropped reservations at certain hotels, Travelocity hired a company in India to call the hotels ahead of customer stays to make sure they were prepared for the guests. The company says this has reduced the incidence of dropped reservations in two years to less than 1 percent from as high as 20 percent.

Increasingly, said Ms. Peluso, "We are taking accountability for things we otherwise wouldn't take accountability for."

Customers seem to appreciate the effort. Todd Mansfield, an information technology consultant who was part of the New York focus group, wasn't sure what to expect going into it, but came out impressed. "I thought it showed a real commitment to customers," said Mr. Mansfield.

Of the general travel industry issues that were raised in the meeting, like long security lines or rising ticket prices, he said, "I'm not sure Travelocity can change that much in that space, but at least they gave us a shoulder to cry on."

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