Airline vows, `we’ll be nice’
United Airlines and its local carrier, Air Wisconsin, admitted Wednesday that they’ve been having some “service related” problems in the Denver-to-Aspen routes over the past year.
And airline officials pledged to work together with Aspen business and government officials, including those of the Aspen Skiing Co., on a plan that will involve the “integration” of the customer relations efforts of the airlines, the Skico and perhaps the local resort associations.
That way, if a customer has a negative experience, he or she can be identified, attended to and, hopefully, retained as a future customer.
In addition, airline officials promised to do something to better inform passengers about exactly what is happening when flights are delayed or canceled, rather than keeping them in the dark and adding to customer frustration.
“It’s all just personal attention and caring,” said Skico CEO Pat O’Donnell, speaking at a meeting between local business representatives, Skico personnel and airline executives held Wednesday morning at the St. Regis hotel.
Customer dissatisfaction with service by United Express, which is run by Air Wisconsin and accounts for more than 75 percent of the airline seats coming into Aspen, has become almost commonplace in the Aspen area lately.
In recent weeks, what one local official called “horror stories” have reached a crescendo in letters to the editors of local newspapers and complaints to local officials. Delayed and canceled flights, lost luggage and poor treatment of customers by airline representatives have topped the list of complaints.
Airline officials at the meeting offered various reasons for their difficulties, such as the doubling of Air Wisconsin’s size in the last year, when the carrier took over some 100 flights from Mesa Airlines, and the tripling of Air Wisconsin’s customer service personnel roster in Denver during the same period.
Air Wisconsin CEO Goeffrey Crowley said the carrier has been experiencing roughly a 10 percent noncompletion rate on its Aspen flights – far worse than its completion rates in other regions of the country. Blaming mostly weather-related phenomena, such as snow, tail winds at airports and icy runways, he said there will be problems and “we just have to accept that fact.”
And when one flight is canceled or delayed, he said, it “starts to run into other flights” in a domino effect.
He admitted that, when the airline has two flights that are only half full, “It’s easier to combine those flights and cancel one,” which may inconvenience some passengers, but is in the airline’s best interests.
One aspect of Air Wisconsin’s efforts to improve its standing with local community leaders is the addition of Doug Horn, a former official with Continental Airlines (which stopped serving Aspen in 1993), as the vice president of customer service in Denver. By having a high-ranking executive on hand in Denver, officials hope to prevent flight delays and cancellations from becoming public relations nightmares.
O’Donnell pointed out that one way to defuse customer frustration is to have executives on hand when a flight is canceled, handing out vouchers and answering questions, rather than leaving it to overworked, harassed ticket agents. And, he said, the airline needs to train its people better in terms of dealing with crises.
“If a lift goes down here, it’s `all hands on deck,’ whether it’s John Norton, or Pat O’Donnell, whoever,” he said.
But, he asked the airline executives, when a flight is delayed or canceled, “Is management visible? Do you see them out there?”
O’Donnell said the airline should be communicating more with its passengers about what is really happening with flights, and working more closely with Aspen-area businesses, agencies and organizations to patch things up when problems arise.
“You can flip these people around with personal caring. I think we’re really missing the ball here by not working closer and tighter,” O’Donnell said. And, he said, if the airline works together with the Skico and local businesses, it may be possible to reverse bad feelings “and hang onto that customer.”
Local Air Wisconsin representative Rick Schmidt said he is planning to connect with the Skico’s Ambassador program, to get word of dissatisfied customers so he can then follow up with a personal message and perhaps some kind of conciliatory gesture.
Other airline officials said they, too, would be interested in setting up some kind of system to allow the airlines, the Skico and other businesses to work together to sooth ruffled passenger feelings.
“You can’t do business as usual with this,” O’Donnell remarked after the meeting. “I’m going to try to take a leadership role with this. We could cut the template for this kind of thing. Other resorts could come to us in five years and say, `How’d you do that again?'”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.