July 6, 2011 -- Remember last month's obscene, sexist and homophobic-laced rant by the Southwest pilot who didn't know his mike was on? That was one creepy audio tape, though I liked the part at the end where other pilots keep breaking in to tell air traffic control, hey, it's not us.
The best line was delivered by an unknown SkyWest pilot who drawled, "And they wonder why airline pilots have a bad reputation." I'm not sure that's true, but I can tell you who does have a bad reputation: try the entire airline industry.
Here's a shocker: Airline passengers hate the airlines. OK, maybe "hate" is a bit strong, but according to the new American Customer Satisfaction Index, people sure are dissatisfied. In case you're wondering, the respected ACSI conducts 70,000 interviews a year on a variety of firms and brands and creates rankings by company and industry.
Overall, the U.S. airline industry scored a 65. That's lower than the satisfaction score for Domino's Pizza. Lower than the Post Office. Lower than the IRS. Well, lower for electronic tax filers, anyway, according to the most recent government rankings. But you see my point.
Hang on, it gets worse.
What's worse is airline customer service, what's left of it, anyway. It used to be such a big deal for the airlines, especially back in the days before deregulation when customer service was how carriers sought to differentiate their brands (recall that notorious National Airlines campaign: "I'm Cheryl. Fly Me.").
Fortunately, flight attendants in hot pants have gone the way of dinosaurs; unfortunately, so have all the basics of customer service, like free meals in coach and free checked-bags. In 2010 alone, bag fees plus reservation change fees earned U.S. airlines close to $6 billion and they're not done yet, either; Spirit Airlines just added a $5 boarding pass fee for those who fail to print it out at home, but as the first U.S. airline to impose a carryon bag fee, nothing they do surprises me anymore.
More customer service horror stories: in June, US Airways said "no" to flying a young man in droopy pants (he was allegedly asked to pull up his pants and didn't comply, or didn't comply quickly enough). Now I would not have worn such pants, but then again, Giorgio Armani never calls on me for fashion advice (nor do the clothing designers at Wal-Mart).
However, even I was dumbstruck when I saw another US Airways passenger who was allowed to fly while clad in (according to a photo) revealing bikini panties and a scanty, midriff-baring top. Did I mention this was a male passenger?
Had enough weird stories? Just one more, and this one breaks my heart: A Frontier Airlines pilot had a 24-year-old quadriplegic man removed from a flight because of some sort of safety concerns about how the passenger was strapped into his seat. The young man, who was traveling with his family, had flown the same airline just a few days earlier with no problems. By the way, many of the passengers seated near this man protested his removal, to no avail. Frontier says it is investigating.
As recently as 2007, United Airlines gushed about hiring a former Disney exec as vice president of customer experience, proclaiming that "Disney is a leader in treating its customers as welcomed guests." Funny, but I never noticed any of my United seatmates joining hands and singing about what a small world it is, so I'm not sure how this worked out (and according to news reports, this V.P has since moved on to other ventures).
Is there a solution to all these fees, the apparent passenger disrespect, and let us not forget the seemingly endless tales of terse flight attendants (and to be fair, the seemingly endless tales of very strange passengers)?
It's a mess all right, but we could start to fix things with a little consistency.
Take fees: Fortunately, the Department of Transportation is implementing new and improved transparency guidelines for airline fees, but more consistency would help, too. Example: Most airlines tell us what the fees for overweight checked bags are, but overweight carryon bags can be another story (yes, carryon bags can be too heavy, as I learned from personal experience with Hawaiian Airlines). Should all bag fees be uniform? You tell me.
Then there's the dress code situation (never dreamed I'd be writing about this); most airlines don't seem to have one or they have very vague guidelines; let's change that. Airlines, if you want people to dress a certain way, say so. At the very least, it might prevent folks from reaching for those baggy pants or those bikini panties before heading to the airport.
As for the ranting pilot, one Southwest spokesman apologized while another said, "We've built our company's reputation on the Golden Rule," but even that's somewhat inconsistent; how I want to be treated and how you want to be treated may be two different things. We can insist on this: Every airline should treat every flyer with fairness and dignity, and that includes quadriplegic passengers or anyone who faces challenges.
A final note on the ranting pilot; he has since apologized, and he was schooled, literally -- suspended without pay and given a course in diversity training. Maybe it's time for the airlines to go back to class, too. Remedial courses in customer service, anyone?
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.