The Contempt of Airlines for Their Passengers is Staggering: @Icelandair Edition

The contempt airlines seem to have for their passengers is staggering. We pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of flying on increasingly packed flights with an ever-decreasing list of amenities on board only matched by the growth of various fees and charges that complete the frustration of commercial flight. In exchange for those hundreds of dollars on increasingly uncomfortable flights, I expect a few things from an airline:

  • Effective communication about changes
  • Honest communication with customers
  • The tiniest sense that customers are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect.

That’s it. Get me to my destination, tell me the truth, and act like I am a human being. As I prepare to head off for a trip to Europe for spring break, I’m reminded—this time by Icelandair—just how difficult it seems to be for airlines to pull those three off.

I should first note that I have always loved Icelandair. I’m an Iceland—and Icelandair—evangelist, as any of my friends who travel will tell you. I go out of my way to book a commuter flight on a separate airline from Helena to Seattle and pay for an overnight hotel there just so I can fly Icelandair. I’ve always appreciated their service and admired their staff.

It’s hard to see why I would go to the trouble and expense of choosing Icelandair again, though.

Last night, I checked my flight with Icelandair and found that, despite my request when I booked, a second request after it changed, and a third request after it changed again to make sure that I was still booked for the aisle seat I had requested six months earlier. To little surprise, I saw that, once again, I had been moved from the seat I requested and, like every time before, Icelandair had not bothered to notify me of the change. A quick check-in with their social media customer service, though, and the matter was resolved, and I had my seat.

This morning I decided I had better check one more time. Despite the assurance from the customer service agent a mere six hours earlier, I was not assigned Seat 12C. In fact, I didn’t have a seat at all. When I checked the seat map, the real entertainment began: instead of a flight from Seattle to Iceland to Munich, the Icelandair site had a new itinerary, one that had me flying through San Francisco. The only explanation I received for this change that didn’t look right was that my flight was overbooked because they were “using a smaller plane.” So much for Icelandair’s promise on their website that they don’t overbook flights.

At that point—and at the point of writing this e-mail—I still had—and have—not received an e-mail from Icelandair indicating this change, which involves a later departure Friday night and a much later arrival in Munich the next day. Nothing. No communication via e-mail or phone, both of which are on file with Icelandair.

At this moment, I still don’t know for certain any of the details of my flight and after hours of waiting on hold on the phone, messages sent to both Facebook and Twitter customer service, my vacation plans are on hold and despite arrangements I was repeatedly promised, I am facing a best case of a 12-hour flight jammed between two people from San Francisco to Munich. I booked six months in advance, and I chose an airline I trusted, even though it cost a bit more, to ensure the best possible experience, but none of that mattered.

There are certainly worse fates in the world than that, but it doesn’t diminish the frustration. First World problems and all.

I get that things happen: weather delays flights, mechanical issues ground flights, and workers go on strike. What’s hard to accept, though, is that the high prices we pay for air travel don’t come with a commensurate commitment to treating customers well. When airlines know that consumers have limited choices and even more constrained rights, they simply do what they want because they know consumers have no real power.

It’s clear that, after a 75-minute hold times on the phone that never led to an answer, non-responsive customer service systems, a lack of basic notifications about flights and the absence of the courtesy necessary to extend even an insincere apology to an inconvenienced customer, Icelandair isn’t any different than the other airlines I fly and that my positive experiences in the past were simply luck, not any real commitment to the customer.

In the end, I’ll likely make my vacation, albeit one that starts with more frustration than I’d like and longer delays than I’d like to experience. I’m sure I’ll have an excellent time, and I know I’ve already learned one thing. I owe Icelandair exactly the same loyalty it has shown me.