Operations

Service Failure Gets Rough

Martin Romjue
Posted on July 4, 2017
This decades-old Dulles terminal shuttle would have been preferable to my wild ride (Flickr.com photo by paul_houle CC license)
This decades-old Dulles terminal shuttle would have been preferable to my wild ride (Flickr.com photo by paul_houle CC license)

STERLING, Va. — This is the season to flap-smack the airlines with complaints if you’ve seen recent media reports. Piling on may be easy and fun, but it’s deserved when one outrage begets another.

Now it’s my turn to join the pitchfork mob and teach United Airlines a lesson or two, while promoting a solution that benefits limousine and bus operators.

Runway Interruptus
While I wasn’t dragged off a plane, my travesty of a travel tale on May 27 shows how even an established global carrier can bungle ground transportation. It provides a case snippet in bad service.

Moments before takeoff at Dulles International Airport, air traffic control diverted my 30-minute connecting flight to Norfolk, Va. to a tarmac area due to a severe weather hold in southeastern Virginia. After sitting for about 45 minutes, the regional jet returned to the gate and United rescheduled the flight one hour later, then canceled it.

United decided to “bus” everyone down to Norfolk, three-and-a-half hours away. A rep told us to retrieve our luggage in baggage claim and then directed the 50-plus passengers to the ground transportation area. I pictured a motorcoach, or a few minibuses, carrying us down to Norfolk in relative comfort. I soon realized — despite all my travel experiences and some middle-aged seen-it-all serenity — I can still be naïve.

We waited at least 30 minutes near the Super Shuttle counter while a United rep and an attendant arranged tickets for about eight or nine vans. Anyone familiar with the service knows it’s local, not long distance, and does mostly group pick-ups and van pools to and from airports. In fairness, the rep offered seats on next day flights to Norfolk, but hotel and meal costs were on us.

Cargo Class Comet
I boarded the second van. I say van, as in NOT a Sprinter or Transit, but an old Ford E-Series style van. It reeked of cigarette smoke as I brushed bits of trash from the stained, gray cloth bench seat. One passenger sat shotgun, three of us in the middle row, and three in the back row. The driver seemed jovial enough, but never introduced himself, or asked about stops for meals or bathroom breaks on the trip down I-95 South and I-64 East.

The driver soon revealed why he’s in the wrong line of work. During the night ride, he at times sped up to 90 mph and passed on the right while the jiggling van squeaked and rattled in hidden places. He cut off other vehicles prompting honks at least twice. I sat behind him, so I could see the dashboard with an engine alert lit the entire way. Fortunately, I wore my three-point seatbelt, but other passengers didn’t bother. About 30 miles east of Richmond, one passenger finally demanded a bathroom stop at an I-64 rest area.

Dreams Of Livery
During the ride, I thought, or daydreamed, of Reston Limousine, one of the largest bus and limo services in the Washington, D.C. region only five miles from Dulles. Why doesn’t United have a contract with Reston for motorcoach or minibus service? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put 50-plus passengers on one motorcoach instead of multiple vans? I shut my eyes and pretended to be on a Van Hool, Prevost, Sprinter, Temsa, Grech, Turtle Top. . . anything other than this boxy, cramped rickety-splitty little rattle-clap-crap-trap on wheels.

A few weeks later, I called my good friend Barry Gross, the VP of business development at Reston Limousine, a company I toured and wrote about for LCT in July 2015. “Because we’re not cheap enough,” he replied to my obvious question. Reston runs Van Hool and Prevost motorcoaches. “We would have found somebody. I’m amazed United didn’t have a contract for all airports. These trips are usually done in motorcoaches. As a former employee of ExecuCar, a Super Shuttle a company, I recognize it does many things well, but sending airline passengers over the road is not foremost among them.”

Here’s my newfound industry issue: Operators should call the airline offices at their local airports and at least ask, offer, or outright harangue them about safe, reliable transportation for stranded passengers. As airlines flub-dub customer service, bus and (big) van operators could get more business. Don’t accept the “can’t afford it” excuse: Airlines earn vast profits from fees for baggage, seat upgrades, early boarding, and an annual $99 fee for my United Explorer credit card.

One Virginia operator who’s handled such airline runs for 20 years, Dan Goff of A. Goff Transportation, warns airlines often use longer payment terms. Operators risk losses on outstanding receivables if an airline files for bankruptcy. He suggests a more long-term solution to regional jet service arises from another venture of his, Starlightbus.com, a motorcoach line run between Charlottesville and New York City. “It’s wildly profitable,” Goff says. “One of the joys of line runs is the customers wait for us. We don’t wait for them. And they buy their tickets online.”

Mercifully, we arrived wearied just before midnight at Norfolk International Airport. The driver mentioned he had to return to Dulles that night [Hence the high speeds?]. Relived and eager to be on home turf, I just couldn’t vent or complain.

But once burned, lesson learned: If an airline ever decides to go ground on me again, and the vehicle is not a late model one I’ve seen on a LCT show floor, then I will turn tail and rent a car.

Related LCT article: 6 Ideas From Reston On How To Diversify Your Profit Stream

Related Topics: airlines, airports, Barry Gross, business travel, customer service, Dan Goff, ground transportation, LCT editor, Martin Romjue, passenger safety, Reston Limousine, shuttle vans, VIRGINIA

Martin Romjue Editor
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