• No love at zero feet

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    Airlines, even successful ones, are a wellspring of stories about unsatisfying customer service experiences, if only because they handle an enormous number of customers on a daily basis; even under the best of circumstances, a transaction or two will fall through the cracks, so to speak.

    There is a big difference, however, between an occasional mistake in an otherwise adequate customer service process, and a process that is badly designed in the first place. A case in point is the system of the country’s hapless “flag carrier,” Philippine Airlines (PAL), which completely fell apart when I attempted to reschedule a flight for my sister-in-law earlier this week.

    She had rushed home to the Philippines with her older son last week upon being informed of the death of her mother, booking a round-trip ticket for two between Abu Dhabi, where she works as an officer in the South African embassy, and Manila. While a death in the family is, indeed, a period of upheaval, life does eventually return to normal, and in her case, that meant returning to her office a couple of days earlier than she had originally planned, which in turn meant her already-reserved flight back to Abu Dhabi had to be re-booked. Since she flies maybe once a year and I fly often enough that my air miles are probably worth a free trip to Saturn at this point, I volunteered to arrange what should have been a simple transaction.

    While most airlines have advanced at least into the first decade of the 21st century by now, PAL has yet to add “rebooking an international flight” to its menu of internet capabilities, instead directing customers to call its customer service number, which is a toll call for anyone outside Metro Manila. However, the agents I spoke to seemed competent enough, and after I explained the situation and provided the necessary details, they were able to offer an alternative flight—which, as I expected, carried additional charges, but ones that did not seem unreasonable. After getting a thumbs-up of agreement from my sister-in-law, I told the agents I would like to go ahead and make the new reservation, and would provide credit card details to pay for it.

    I say “agents” because PAL has obviously not heard that software and relatively uncomplicated training exists to allow a single, computer-equipped customer service agent to handle a complete transaction; instead, I was asked to wait to be transferred to a “payment agent.” In three successive calls, each one lasting 30-35 minutes, I repeated the entire request, only to be disconnected in between the first agent and the “payment agent.” Then on the fourth call—which occurred sometime later, as I needed to allow my boiling blood too cool a bit—I was told that I had been misinformed three successive times; the new tickets also carried a $100 “rebooking fee,” which more than doubled the price I had been quoted.

    To PAL’s credit, the original agent I spoke to called later to apologize for the mix-up, but at that point there was little an apology could accomplish; a customer who was still getting over the emotional trauma of losing her mother had been subjected to an inefficient, insensitive, time-consuming, costly, and ultimately completely unsuccessful attempt to make what should have been a quick and easy schedule change.

    Again, that’s not just a result of a customer service agent having an off day, or the computer system suffering a glitch—it takes an entire system to fail that hard. Given the chaos that seems to have engulfed the airline’s executive offices, however, it is little wonder that basic operations are becoming a bit ragged.

    As reported lately by the ever-intrepid Vic Agustin, there is apparently a strange sort of rift growing between PAL’s legacy owner, Lucio Tan, and the group of the airline’s putative financial savior, San Miguel Corporation head Ramon Ang. Barely two years into SMC’s foray into the airline business, and the aggressively (some would think that’s a nice way to say “recklessly”) diversification-minded SMC chief seems to be having second thoughts. For several weeks, stories have circulated that a deal for Tan to buy back the interest he sold to Ang was in the works, but for every one of those stories there has been a denial by one of the parties involved, or from elsewhere within PAL management. In the latest twist, former CEO Jaime Bautista (who, while previously in that role, once remarked on a TV news program that “airlines are just toys for millionaires”) has been brought back on board by Tan in what seems to be a quasi-CEO role, a sort of Kiko Pangilinan of the air industry.

    Whether or not Ang sells out to Tan—the added pressure being placed on him by Bautista’s return seems to indicate Tan would prefer he did so sooner rather than later—for the time being, it has put the entire airline in a terrible position; no one can be really certain if Ang is still in charge, if Bautista is in charge, or if, in fact, anyone is in charge.

    That sort of confusion results in things like customers being unable to make simple schedule changes, and that in turn contributes to PAL’s less-than-stellar economic performance: A net loss of P11.85 billion between April and December 2013, and P931 million in losses in the first quarter of this year.

    PAL’s management is quick to point out that losing P931 million in one quarter is actually an improvement (it represents a 26 percent reduction in losses year-on-year from P1.256 billion in Q1 2013), but when the best thing anyone can say about your business is that you are losing “only” P10 million a day, something is very wrong. Sustained losses tend to erode operational capabilities; today it’s a fumbled customer booking, tomorrow it’s a plane with an engine that won’t start, the next day one falls out of the sky. It happens—just ask Malaysia Airlines. As long as the likes of Messrs. Ang and Tan keep treating businesses like toys to collect rather than, say, actual businesses, we should all be a little nervous.



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