Please read carefully, here are your rules (I think):

1. You may check in online for your flight 24 hours in advance and print your boarding pass.

2. If your connecting flight is more than an undetermined length after your first flight, you will not be able to check in for your second flight prior to your first flight.

3. Even though you’ve taken your first flight and landed, you may not check in for your connecting flight at the airport unless it is within an undetermined length of your first flight.

4. However, once you’ve left home and boarded a plane, you can nonetheless check in online and print your boarding pass for your second flight. Of course, you are no longer at home, so you’ll need to find a printer to do this. Remember, you can’t use the check-in kiosk, though.

5. Of course, if your second flight was to take off within the undetermined length of your first flight, you’d have been able to check online at home.

6. The automated kiosk won’t tell you this information when you try to check in for your second flight. Instead it will ask you to stand in the mile long line at 3 AM to talk with the poor customer service representative who has to deal with all these angry customers who have no idea why they can’t check in.

7. None of these rules appear anywhere on your website, which, in fact, clearly states you can check-in online for any flight within 24 hours of its departure time.

8. There is no way the rules above can be understood and communicated by one person at the airline. You must interact with the company three different ways over the course of at minimum 24 hours, to get these answers.

9. At least one representative of the airline must get these rules wrong when you communicate with them. Especially when all you want to do is make sure you can finish the flight you started.

My local airline communicates to me a lot. It’s intentional that I wrote “to me” rather than “with me” because right now I really feel like this is a one-way street. Daily I received a plethora of offers to fly from Kansas City to Salt Lake City or Toledo to Jacksonville. Rarely do they send me offers from the Twin Cities to somewhere I’d want to go. To be completely honest though, a discounted flight offer has never compelled me to hop on a plane to a vacation destination. What would compel me to fly an airline, and *gasp* actually pay a little more for a ticket would be information. Real information about my flight! Over the last few years, airlines have received extensive amounts of negative publicity and quiet honestly a lot of it is deserved.

The Wife and I were lucky enough to spend some time in Hawaii a week ago (I know how many people were sad there was no blog post last week) and while I don’t have a legitimate horror story about being stuck on the tarmac for 18 hours while being fed a single cracker that’s been on the plane since 1982, I did manage to make it to Hawaii significantly more angry and frustrated than I should have been. And that had nothing to do with my right knee fusing with the seat in front of me on the flight to LAX. It all had to do with the appropriate flow of information and the airlines’ continued failure to understand what is really of value to their customers.

Twenty-four hours before our flight to Maui began we hopped online to check in and print off our boarding passes. Because we had a short overnight layover of about eight hours in LA before we completed our journey, the airline didn’t consider it a layover and we were unable to use online check in for our second flight. We were a little concerned, especially since this airline is notorious for overbooking, but we figured we’d make a call to make sure there wasn’t an issue with the tickets (I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable hopping a flight across the country and expect the airline to actually put us on our next flight.) The Wife called and they told us we’d be able to check in at the airport when we landed. We take off, I cross my fingers for the whole four-hour flight (disrupting proper digital blood flow), and, once we land at LAX, we hustle to an automated kiosk: uh oh! No go.

We can’t check in for the flight and we get a “see attendant” error code. Nothing more than that. No, “you can only check in at a kiosk four or less hours before your flight.” Nothing told us this at 1 AM (3 AM our time). So we get into the line with dozens of other disheveled travelers. Fortunately, someone with a nametag walked by after a short time and my wife launched into the “will this line actually help us get what we need?” question. The answer was no. The service desk wouldn’t be able to help us for a couple of more hours, but if we wanted to we could check in online. After counting to ten, twice, I had to remind myself the situation wasn’t the fault of the individual that answered my question. Instead, it arose from the airline’s chosen customer-service structure, which fails to actually provide passengers access to helpful information to make travel easier, less stressful and an all around slightly more pleasant experience.

The Wife and I are diligent and experienced travelers. We are the people in line with our boarding pass and IDs out and our liquids, shoes and laptops at the ready to be binned. We aren’t the ones that hold up the security line as we dig through 180 days’ worth of stuff for an overnight trip just to get the ID we knew we had to have at the ready when we got into the line. So if we have a general issue and can’t get a real answer, I can say with complete confidence the problem rests with the airlines and not with us.

After our trip, I looked up the five most frequently asked travel questions on the airline’s website and shook my head. I understand this list isn’t actually compiled from real user questions, but a sense of reality would be nice.

1. How can I change my ticket? – Okay this one seems pretty reasonable. I bet this is a question that is actually asked by travelers fairly frequently.

2. How can I get my electronic ticket receipt e-mailed to me? – Really? It’s emailed to you with your confirmation. This just seems to me that very few people actually ask this. (Perhaps travelers used to ask this question, but e-tickets have been the norm for more than a decade.) Time to update the FAQs with actual real-world questions.

3. What do I do if I need help with ***.com? – That’s not really a travel FAQ, nor is it relevant since there’s a huge “CONTACT US” link at the top of the page

4. Can I get information about special fares and discounts at ***.com by sending an e-mail? – I get this one from the airline’s perspective, but again it really isn’t a travel tip. This is simply an attempt to hawk marketing e-mails rather than actually provide answers to real questions.

5. Can I get a copy of my itinerary by e-mail? – Again that is already emailed to you when you book and I would hope that the average person would know their itinerary because they PICKED IT WHEN THEY PAID FOR IT. Sorry, didn’t mean to get worked up there.

Since I am getting fired up let’s link this back to your business. One of the really nifty things about the interwebs is that people will actually look on your website for answers before calling. *Gasp* So if you understand what your customers are actually asking, you can help them help themselves. As I said to a coworker recently, “it is cheaper to make a small change to the website than to take twenty help desk calls,” and I firmly believe that’s true. Some people are always going to call, just like some people are not going to take their boarding pass out from the depths of their bag before getting to the TSA agent—despite watching two thousand people in front of them doing it. But for those customers that just want a simple answer, make it easy for them to find it. Your FAQs are an opportunity to improve customer service for folks that can generally help themselves. Make those frequently asked questions real questions and update them often. If you are struggling with effective customer service, here’s an easy way to reduce workload and increase customer satisfaction. Let your customer service agents focus on the folks that really need assistance, and I can go to my hotel near LAX. Excuse me while I go stretch my legs back into their natural shape.

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One Response to “Please read carefully, here are your rules (I think):”

  1. Ellen says:

    Right on Joel!

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