Friday, August 15, 2008

What's the deal with AirTran?

AirTran Airways won the top spot for airline quality in 2008. I've flown with AirTran on a total of five segments over the last few weeks, going through their check-in and arrival processes in Milwaukee and at D.C. Reagan-National, and I have to say... why?

There's nothing wrong with AirTran, you understand. True, every flight that I've had with them has been delayed leaving and delayed arriving, but we're talking about 10-20 minutes, not hours. I can live with that.

But what's with the awards for customer service?

Checking in at Reagan, I--being an Elite member, also flying Business Class--saw a sign for "Business Class/Elite" check-in and stood in that line. I do this on every airline for which I hold elite status (which is most), and it's never hard.

AirTran made it hard. An employee came up and asked me if I was flying Business Class. I said, "Yes, and I'm also an Elite member."

So she looks at me and says, "You already purchased your Business Class ticket?"

And I blink, because AirTran charges just $49 for a one-way Business Class upgrade, available to Elite members 24 hours in advance online. It's not like I'm standing in International First for a flight to Tokyo, where the $12,500 price tag might raise eyebrows for a 28-year old.

So I nod, and she goes away.

But then, when the next counter spot opens up, the agent waves to the next person from the standard line. So, my Elite status has (after a bit of hassle) permitted me to stand in an Elite line, but it doesn't actually get me anything, huh?

Fortunately, I'm quite capable of stepping up on my own, so I did when the next counter opened. Check in went smoothly, and after a stop off at Northwest's World Club--my Continental President's Club membership lets me use World Clubs even when I'm not flying with SkyTeam--I made it to the gate.

Flight delay. Okay, fine. But then the plane arrives, and they start boarding. Who goes first? Nope, not the Elite members, not the people who paid more for Business Class. It's everyone who has "special needs," including parents with toddlers, the elderly, and everyone else. Not to be mean, but that was almost the whole plane. There were only a few of us left when he started with "Zone 1" boarding.

And onboard service? Nothing special, not even in Business Class. Yes, I did get a drink for free, and a choice of snacks reserved for Business Class flyers that was strikingly similar to the usual selection on JetBlue (i.e. Sun Chips, cookies, etc.), but $49 Business Class has a real downside: half of the seats were filled with young children, whose parents decided to splurge so they could inflict them on the other passengers.

Now, before you start judging me as insensitive here, I don't mind kids simply because they're small human beings. I wouldn't have cared at all if they'd stayed reasonably quiet; maybe a bit louder than the adult passengers even would have been fine. But screaming kids? And parents who sit there with their noise-canceling headphones on and ignore them?

Not okay. Not at all.

I opted to save the $49 for each of my remaining flights and flew Coach--if Business Class is fileld with screaming kids, why bother?--and had an overall fine time with my free soda and pretzels, which reminded me that AirTran is certainly way better than cost-cutting customer disaster U.S. Airways.

But #1 for customer service? No, I didn't see it. Not on any of my flights. AirTran is fine for what it is, i.e. a low-cost carrier perfect for parents to take their kids on vacation. For business travel, I'll stick with Continental.

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