Air travel customer service: Food on board, loose change at TSA, get ready for more fees

by Charlie Leocha on April 28, 2012

Here is a collection of stories that focus on customer service while traveling by air — airline food, TSA confiscates loose change and United’s CEO proudly announces new fees.

It’s Personal: Airline-food economics – All demand, short supply

From the ultimate punch line to endless jokes, airline food has become something of a sought-after amenity on flights these days. And just when it seems to be getting respect (well at least, demand), airlines are packing food carts with less and less meals available for sale.

The snack cart, we had been warned by a flight attendant over the public-address system, might run out of food. This was largely by design, she explained, not stocking enough food for everyone on board. Oh, and what was on the menu – an Italian club wrap, a chicken salad, a fruit-and-cheese offering, snack boxes – would have to be purchased.

Now would be a good time to point out that this was a nonstop, five-plus-hour flight between two of the largest cities in one of the most advanced economies in the 21st-century world.

Seated three rows from the back, I was mildly horrified by this brazen attempt at a preemptive apology. It was as if the airline were saying, “I dare you to be disappointed, I dare you to eat lunch.” But I hoped for the best …

U.S. can’t afford to give away air travelers’ lost change

In an unbelievable report, the Congressional Budget Office highlighted that the government can not give back almost $1.2 million to charities that passengers forget at TSA checkpoints. The ruling, taken to its logical end, would mean that if passengers forgot money at the checkpoint and then returned to collect it after walking to the gate, it would already be part of TSA’s budget.

“One would think that providing a cost estimate for this bill would be straightforward,” said U.S. Representative Jeff Miller, who is sponsoring legislation to redirect the money.

“Only in the federal government can change you are forced to remove from your pockets and then accidentally leave behind be counted as guaranteed income to the TSA. This is the problem with our government today,” Miller, a Florida Republican, wrote in a newsletter to constituents last week.

At issue is the fact that the Transportation Security Administration has already collected about $1.2 million in forgotten money, according to the CBO. And the TSA, which said it cannot discuss pending legislation, has legal authority to spend it as it pleases for other aviation security measures.

“Requiring the agency to transfer amounts to USO would accelerate outlays,” CBO said in its findings.

United Air to beef up travel perks, offerings according to CEO

Airlines are drunk on fees. Amazingly, United’s CEO, Jeff Smisek, has just promised the flying public a selection of more fees couched as perks. Unfortunately, he is not allowed to tell us about these new fees. I’ll bet the fees are hidden until the last minute, just like the rest of them that airlines spring on us as we travel.

“I’m not allowed to talk about it, but they’re going to be good and they’re going to be cool,” he said.

When pressed on the nature of the offerings, Smisek pointed to another United service called Fare Lock, that allows customers to pay a fee to reserve a booking and lock in a fare until they are ready to commit to it.

United Airlines is the world’s largest airline. It was formed from the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines. The new company is based in Chicago and run by Smisek, who was chief executive of Continental before the merger.

The U.S. airline industry has managed to pull itself out of a steep downturn last decade by downsizing and selling fewer seats, which enabled it to boost fares.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by JoshuaDavisPhotography

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  • Anonymous

    >airlines are packing food carts with less and less meals available for sale.

    Fewer.  It’s “fewer meals for sale.”

  • Anonymous

    1) You are allowed to bring food from home or buy it at the airport and bring it on board. No need to purchase the vastly overpriced stuff on the food cart.
    2) Usual bureaucracy run amok on the loose change issue. TSA is easy to bash, but it deserves it.
    3) I’m not sure of the value of saying that Smisek says that someday he’ll say something. What’s truly weird is the use of the word “amazingly” in conjunction with your report. You are very easily amazed if you think the prospect of more fees is something to react at with amazement.

    By the way I think FareLock is a worthwhile idea for some travelers. If you see a fare you like you can lock it in for a few days while you make other plans and arrangements, perhaps check things out with fellow travelers or make hotel reservations -  knowing that if things work out the seats won’t get sold or the fare rise in the meantime, and if they don’t work out you’re only out the FareLock fee, not the cost of any ticket.

  • Charlie

    I’m truly amazed that ANYONE thinks ANY fee is o.k.
    The traveling public is becoming easier to manipulate than a flock of sheep.
    Why doesn’t everyone realize that “the people” really do have power, if they would just not be afraid to use it ~

  • Anonymous

    Between TSA’s abuses of civil liberties which Congress pays lipservice to and piracy of the airlines….I am DRIVING.   I drove from Texas to Las Vegas in 2 days, but you know what, depspite spending TWICE the money on gas and hotels:

    1.  I wasn’t once stopped and searched.
    2.  My genitals were intact and unmolested.
    3.  I wasn’t irradiated.
    4.  I was relaxed by the hot tub, pool, and the bar which didn’t charge triple the going rate for a beverage.
    5.  I could go when I was ready and didn’t once have to stand in line, except at the buffet at the casino.
    6.  I got in nearly half of the entire Atlas Shrugged audio book on the trip.
    7.  My bag wasn’t torn apart, and didn’t risk my iPad being stolen.
    8.  I was on the road and very much alone on the long stretches of prairie in west Texas, with only an 18 wheeler in sight 3 miles ahead.

    Not once did I think, I should have flown.

  • Frank

    Food disappeared over ten years ago.  GET OVER IT.  they sell food now, actually, the correct term would be THE CATERING COMPANY sells food.  They do research into how many meals are sold or leftover on flights and try to make a profit from there.  Do we run out?  all the time.  Do we have left-overs?  all the time.  And, that’s waste and LOST profits.

  • Frank

    those sheep realize that flying is still reasonable.  Check the price of GAS lately, Charlie.  Care to spend half your vacation DRIVING TO AND FROM your destination?  Road tolls?  Hotels getting to your destination?  Food costs?  That ALTERNATIVE has FEES as well.

  • MeanMeosh

    Actually, the last time I drove from Dallas to L.A. in December, the gas for my car plus hotels and meals ended up being LESS than plane tickets for me and my wife by a substantial margins (the solution to expensive meals on the road – stick a cooler in the trunk and pack some food – which you can do without $50 of checked bag fees). 

  • MeanMeosh

     ”Care to spend half your vacation DRIVING TO AND FROM your destination?”

    Well actually, Frank – yes I would.  Just knowing that you’re avoiding the stress of the whole air travel experience, and knowing you won’t have to deal with a potentially uncomfortable experience with the T&A, almost makes the extra time in the car worth it.

  • AKFlyer

    Flew GSP-DTW-MSP-ANC yesterday after 17 days on the road, meetings into late evenings.  Left hotel in AVL at 8 AM in a van to get to GSP.  Trip took 18 hours from hotel lobby to AK house.  Did not have a rental car and no place to buy packaged food within walking distance of my hotel.  Had about 30 minutes from deplaning to boarding at DTW and MSP; at both airports, my departure gate was 20 minutes from the arrival gate and yes, I needed to stop at a bathroom en route.  Women’s restrooms all had lines (Friday).

    I only weigh 108 lbs, so, unlike most pax, I don’t have much body fat.  I can’t survive 18+ hours on the two small packets of peanuts and one packet of “cookies” Delta gave me, plus three sugary drinks.  What would you suggest I do, Frank? 

    I note that you and your fellow FAs are not allowed to work that many hours in a row without a break and certainly not without food.  That’s as it should be — I want my FAs fed and rested — but why can’t I even BUY food on the plane?  The final MSP-ANC leg is close to six hours and every seat on the 757 was taken.  They did not even have enough crappy instant heart attack “snack” boxes for more than the first few rows of economy.  My employer will not pay for First and I was 42nd on the waiting list (Friday travel).

    It’s one thing to tell someone flying a single two hour leg to “get over it.” But given that just getting to the next nearest state takes me four hours in an airline seat, and most of my trips involve 12-16 hour red eyes at the start and 16-18 hour multileg flights to get home, your attitude really pisses me off.  They feed international pax for a reason (long haul).  My trip yesterday was a long haul, too.

    Still hungry — off to the kitchen for another (healthy) snack . . .

  • Anonymous

    As one female businesswoman to another, I have a few suggestions for you:

    That last day you’re on your business trip, you schedule your meetings so you have time to pick something up to throw in your bag.  

    Or try staying at a hotel that will give you a “brown bag” on the way out the door in the morning (Hampton Inn used to do this – don’t know if they still do). Or tell your employer that for an 18 hour travel day, they have to try and plan one connection for you that is at least a few hours long, so you have time to get something to eat at the airport.  The linkages from GSP and to ANC might be few, but there are plenty between MSP and DTW – you should have some flexibility in between those two.

    (Surdyk’s Flights would be my recommendation at MSP in the “Northstar Mall” area near the top of C; DTW has Musashi in the Central Link area.  Both have healthy and tasty options.)

    Also, I’m curious – if most of your flying involves 12-16 hour red eyes and multi-leg flights, why aren’t you some sort of Medallion Elite status for Delta?  My husband is Gold and while he takes many small flights, he has nothing like your itineraries - I would think on segments alone, you’d be boosted pretty quickly.  So why aren’t you at least a Gold status, which means for some flights, you would get bumped to First Class occasionally.  My husband’s company never pays for first class either, but he and his colleagues frequently get upgrades on very busy flights.

    I’m not trying to be snarky – especially since I don’t have to fly for business as much as I used to, but I do know the grind – but as someone who is frequently flying in and out of MSP and connecting through DTW, I’m just a little confused.  Surely your employer doesn’t expect you to starve.

  • http://www.seabreezetravels.com/flights-to-sydney Cheap Flights to Sydney

    Life is only precious because it ends, kid. Take it from a god. You mortals don’t know how lucky you are 

  • AKFlyer

    Thanks, but I was at a conference with no control over my schedule on the day before my 17-hour return trip to Alaska. I had no choice of hotels; the conference hotel was far from anything else.  I work for Uncle Sam and would have had to pay out of my own pocket for a layover on my 4000 mile trip home.  There are no non-stops from the East coast to ANC; had I spent more time in DTW or MSP, I would have walked in the door even later than 1:30 AM Sat. morning Eastern time, after starting my travel at 8 AM the previous day.

    By leaving from GSP instead of AVL, I added a couple of hours to my trip but  saved you and the rest of us taxpayers $300.  You’re welcome!

    I’m an AS MVP Gold but that doesn’t earn me a seat in First on Delta on a Friday.  If you know anything about travel in and out of AK, you know every seat is sold weeks in advance these days, and over 50% of pax have elite status.  Hence my position on the upgrade list.

    I think my employer expects me to be able to buy food on board, as did I.  It’s one thing for an airline to be out of a choice of entrees, another for it to have no food whatsoever at any price on a six-hour flight (that boarded 45 min. prior to take-off).  I always bring my own food on outbound legs, but, as should by now be clear, was unable to do this coming home last week.  I do not accept Frank’s standard “blame the pax” in this situation.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t take Frank seriously.  I’ve learned not to.  

    I wasn’t trying to be snarky, by the way.  My husband is also an employee of/contractor for Uncle Sam – his particular client more than eats up your $300 savings, I assure you.  Next time, take the convenient flight so you don’t starve.

    Bummer about the hotel.  Know nothing about Alaska travel, but flight schedules are pretty much screwed everywhere, I think.  I know he used to have much more convenient flights available to him – not so much anymore.

    Business travel just sucks.  The lack of food on planes even available for sale (and you HAVE to use a debit or credit card, no cash which annoys me) does not make it better.

  • Frank

    HOW LUDICROUS.  You would spend your vacation in a car, on the road……LIKE DRIVING ISNT STRESSFUL?…..ok.  enjoy!

  • Frank

    I spend 25 dollars on a FOUR DAY TRIP.  That’s every week.  I bring my own food.  DO THE SAME.  Many airlines NO LONGER feed crews, remember all those bankruptcies after 9-11-01, we simply arent important enough to be fed on trips, a

    management decision.  NEVER, EVER rely on the airline to feed you anymore.  ALL THOSE RESTAURANT IN THE AIRPORTS?  USE THEM.

  • Frank

    I spend 25 dollars on a FOUR DAY TRIP.  That’s every week.  I bring my own food.  DO THE SAME.  Many airlines NO LONGER feed crews, remember all those bankruptcies after 9-11-01, we simply arent important enough to be fed on trips, a

    management decision.  NEVER, EVER rely on the airline to feed you anymore.  ALL THOSE RESTAURANT IN THE AIRPORTS?  USE THEM.

  • Frank

    seriously?  I’ve flown for almost 30 years, worked for several different companies in the industry, done several different jobs and have a

    DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE then you.  And, I’ve done some 12 THOUSAND FLIGHTS.  Seriously, you think you know more about AIR travel??  I “seriously” DOUBT IT.

  • Frank

    I note that you and your fellow FAs are not allowed to work that many hours in a row without a break and certainly not without food. 
     
    @ AKFLYER.@20bd877a6779d0cade3a92f6ff86d3be:disqus 
    ………..actually, I’m lucky if I get time on the ground in between flights to rush off the aircraft and buy overpriced food near the gates.  Secondly, many
     
     
    concession stands have long lines and I’m forced to go back to the aircraft and eat from the first class snacks onboard.  Or because I plan ahead, eat from my suitcase.  Like I said, next time at the airport, VISUALLY OBSERVE how many flight attendants and yes, even PILOTS are now carrying FOOD CONTAINERS attached to their rollaboards.  I can work up to 15 HOURS and the only break I get is between deplaning one flight and boarding the next.

  • Frank

    where am I blaming the passenger???  I simply explained your (new) choices.  Airlines SELL food now by catering vendors.  They decide how much food is boarded. 

  • Anonymous

    No Frank, I don’t think I know more about Air Travel than you.  Even with my favorite uncle being an airline pilot and my favorite aunt working as a counter agent, each for over 40 years.  I’m not them, and I’m not you.

    I do think, though, that you don’t reply to other people on this board in a reasonable manner.  Some passengers can have legitimate complaints (like AK Traveler, who was in a rare position of not being able to bring or procure her own food for this single itinerary), or are actually respectful flyers (like me, because I have airline employees in the family).

    You are very quick to think all the people who post here don’t get what a hard job being an FA can be.  I personally think you have to REALLY love flying to put up with both your employers and many of the deeply entitled flying public.  Flying as a consumer is hard enough these days – at least you get TSA checkpoint priority and know someone isn’t going to be sitting in your seat because they don’t like theirs.

    I have never once blamed an FA for airline policy – they have to enforce their employer’s and FAA rules, and blaming them is the worst thing you can do.  Especially when I think some counter agents really drop the ball – there are places where a situation could be resolved before everyone is shoved into a metal tube with limited aisle space.

    I think many experienced travelers feel the same.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we like airline policies and procedures, some of which feel pretty arbitrary, or which seem to show an error in logistics.  We come to forums like this to talk about what changes we might like to see.  So when you react so violently and obsessively – instead of maybe filling us in with clear insight – I don’t take you so seriously.

    I would, though, very much be interested to hear what you would like to see changed as an FA.  In this case, do you have an idea or insight about the current state of airline catering?  Do you think airlines could carry a little more food?  Or is there a huge amount of waste?  And do you have an explanation why cash isn’t accepted, only plastic? (At least on Delta.)

  • Frank

    @ chasmosaur…………hey, we all have different opinions.  Mine usually reflects the opposite on this site for obvious reasons.  I work in the industry.  That said, wouldnt you defend your career?  Occupation?  Your industry with your knowledge of the topic, the topics that are discussed and mostly whined about here?while, you may not blame airline employees for every hiccup in your travel, many do.  This every site exists for that reason.  It survives on negative travel stories!!!  and, you call me obsessive?  I may be defensive, but, in many cases, I feel justified and I find it ironic, that some responses end up being just what I hear at the airport.  “Blame everything on everyone except themselves”.You sound respectful, chasmosaur.  How rare.  I get how stressful travel can be, I do it weekly.  I average 10 flights per week and commute to and from work.  I cant afford to eat on the road.  I pack ALOT of food.  In fact, I’ve handed passengers some of MY food because we were out, they didnt have a credit card or were young traveling alone.  I’ve had to adapt to my reduced wages, so I find it interesting that frequent flyers havent done so as well.  PLAN AHEAD.  Especially your food options.  Cash isnt accepted on many carriers because of theft.  As a flight attendant, you were required to carry that cash with you on trips, to the hotel, etc.  That responsibility is now gone.   Bother way, You think I have a hard job?  I dont think I’ve ever said that here.  I can have a long day.  Exhausting day.  But, on average, I dont.  I think the job is more MISUNDERSTOOD then anything.  The media loves to criticize OUR profession.  Hence, we get alittle defensive. …..IT’S INSULTING.

  • Frank

    AND, YOU THINK I’M HARSH?????

    CHECK THIS OUT:   I think someone’s chain got rattled. The “FORBES” guy, Bill Frezza strikes back against the lashing he apparently received from numerous e-mails in response to his earlier “rant” against Flight Attendants.His words….” The backlash was swift, ugly, and severe. In all my years of writing, opining on countless controversies, I’ve never been subjected to such abusive feedback, including outright… threats of physical violence.Unions have a long history of violence against management and so-called “scabs.” But threats of violence against customers for having the temerity to complain? This is something new.http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2012/05/01/flight-attendant-unionists-tells-customer-to-drop-dead/   
    I think someone’s chain got rattled. The “FORBES” guy, Bill Frezza strikes back against the lashing he apparently received from numerous e-mails in response to his earlier “rant” against Flight Attendants.His words….” The backlash was swift, ugly, and severe. In all my years of writing, opining on countless controversies, I’ve never been subjected to such abusive feedback, including outright… threats of physical violence.Unions have a long history of violence against management and so-called “scabs.” But threats of violence against customers for having the temerity to complain? This is something new.http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2012/05/01/flight-attendant-unionists-tells-customer-to-drop-dead/
      

  • Frank

    my response is lower on this page.  the box to type your rely keeps getting smaller and smaller. 

  • Anonymous

    Fair enough.  As I noted, I think there are lots of entitled flyers out there who think the airlines should be providing First Class service for economy cost…and that they are always right and should always be catered to.  (I mean, some of the letters Elliott gets are INSANE.)

    I don’t think that’s the case – I think most flyers are a royal PITA, who just can’t accept the fact that for a few hours, things are out of their control and they need to follow the rules.  That’s what I think makes your job difficult – people can be exhausting (at least to an introvert like me ;) )

    And the ever-shrinking wages across the airline industry are the pits, especially considering how important flying has become to the US travel infrastructure.  And it is insulting to criticize – you guys have tons of stuff to do and a lot of responsibility. You don’t just hand out drinks and say “buh-bye” at the end of the flight.  I know that much.

    I can understand being defensive. (I’m an Internet consultant, and clients love to tell me that anyone can make a website these days, so hard can my job be? ) It’s just I’ve always seen you come off as defensive, so you know, I’m getting a mental image of Steven Slater ;)  Internet forums are funny places – the lack of body language and vocal tone means it can be really easy to misinterpret what someone is saying.

    And you’re really nice to hand people your food.  (I always make sure to pack food for myself, even if it’s just cracker packs and a piece of fruit.)  And I guess I can see the theft thing – I used to live in DC, and they stopped taking cash at the Metro parking lots due to a massive skimming operation.  Just never heard of that for the airlines.

    Thanks for answering :)

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