Who Flies the Friendliest Skies?

Posted Apr 20th 2010 10:15 AMUpdated Sep 1st 2010 08:00 AM

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SC Fiasco, flickr

AOL's Mystery Flyer goes undercover to find the friendliest flight attendants and the most helpful service. Follow the journey on Twitter.

No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question:

Is there a price for nice?

By now, most airlines have snatched up our blankets and put those free pillows to rest. Want a drink? That will be five dollars -- "Exact change only" or "Sorry, we're a cash-free airline" -- thank you very much (or not). On some airlines, you can't even count on water being free. And checking your bag, as we all know, probably comes with a fee.

Airlines are adding insult to injury to even their loyal customers, gouging frequent fliers with new co-pays when they "buy" tickets or upgrades with miles. (Example: upgrading an economy class ticket to Hawaii to business class on United Airlines now costs Mileage Plus members 17,500 miles plus a co-pay of $300.)

There could be even more bad news ahead.

In Europe, budget carrier Ryanair will soon start charging passengers for the pleasure of using those cramped and germ-laden lavatories -- a bold move that's been criticized across the industry, but is very likely to come to pass.

Here in America, the latest pay-for-your-carry-on insult from Spirit Airlines rings like a harbinger of outrageous costs yet to come. (When even senators are fighting back with the recent Free of Fees for Carry-On Act, you know that things have surely reached a new low.)

But as I see it, there's no need to further drive home the bad news.

As AOL's Mystery Flyer, I'm setting out in search of good news.

Who, among our major carriers, would win Miss Congeniality?

With everything else stripped bare, service with a smile and a helpful attitude is the only way airlines can truly differentiate themselves to the flying public. The friendliness of the face they put forth to you -- the paying passenger -- can go a long way in easing the stress and discomfort of air travel.

From check-in and boarding to interactions with airline staff, both onboard and when catching a connection, I'm going to take a close look at the entire flying experience.

The airlines I will be flying are:

1. United Airlines
2. Continental Airlines
3. Delta Airlines
4. Southwest Airlines
5. JetBlue
6. AirTran
7. American Airlines
8. US Airways
9. Alaska Airlines
10. Spirit Airlines


I'd like to think there's some truth to the idea that treating others as you'd like to be treated is still worth something, even in the high-stress world of air travel. So I will be unfailingly polite. Even if I'm confronted with a Debbie Downer-type along the way (you know, the flight attendants who snap at you as if you're a willful kindergartner), count on me to remain as upbeat as possible throughout the whole experience.

But I'm not just going to sit quietly in my cramped seat.

I'll be creating as many interactions with airline personnel as possible, and I'll be rating each airline on how typical passenger requests are handled. I will:

1. Request a seat change when I call the airline's toll-free customer service line prior to departure.
2. See how friendly the ticketing agent is during the check-in process at the airport.
3. See how the gate agent reacts to my request for a seat change prior to departure.
4. Make multiple requests during my flight, for a blanket, an extra beverage -- and just about anything else I can think of.
5. Observe interactions between other passengers and airline personnel.
6. Upon arrival, ask the nearest gate agent how to find a connecting flight.


It is my mission to give the airlines every opportunity to treat me with the friendliness that I believe every paying passenger deserves. The point isn't getting what I ask for each time, it's how my request is handled. For example, if I ask for an extra beverage and there are none, what will the flight attendant say -- and how will he or she say it?

So please, come along and see just how far all my niceness gets me.

I'll be tweeting regularly to let you know how it feels to be an anonymous coach-flying passenger in today's un-glamorous world of air travel.

When it comes to packing, I plan to travel light. A regulation-size carry-on will be my only accomplice, but I'll make sure it's packed to capacity. Will I find space in those crowded overhead bins? And how will the flight attendants assist me if there is no space?

If you have your own ideas for how I can better investigate the no-frills flying experience, I'm all ears. My cell phone will be on at all times -- except when I'm told to turn it off. But boarding is about to start...so do get back to me soon with your thoughts!

Here's hoping the friendly skies can be more than just a myth.


Airline Report Cards

See the results as they come in:

JetBlue

US Airways

Spirit Airlines

Delta Airlines

AirTran

American Airlines

Alaska Airlines

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines

Continental


See how the competition stacks up:

JetBlue
US Airways
Spirit
Delta
AirTran
American
Alaska
Southwest
United
Continental
Operators response to pre-flight requests
4
4
5
3
4
5
4
4
Friendliness of ticketing agent
5
4
4
3
4
4
5
4
4
5
Friendliness of gate agent prior to departure
4
3
3
3
2
4
5
5
4
Friendliness of flight attendants
5
3
5
4
5
5
5
5
General interactions between airlines and passengers
5
4
3
4
5
5
5
4
5
Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival
5
5
4
4
3
4
5
4
N/A
5
Average
4.7
3.8
3.6
3.8
3.4
4
4.6
4.7
3.9
4.7

Note: Ratings are based on a 5 point scale.


Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
Filed Under: Air Travel

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April 10 2011 at 8:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Deanne

Flying should be considered an adventure!!
I do agree that Frontier & Southwest are the best.
& no matter which airline you fly, if you the passenger are considerate to those around you ~especially the flight attendants ~ you will get consideration in return.

November 08 2010 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ishah-Elohim

Well, the nicest airline experience I've ever had happenend on Delta. I was flying out of New York to Ghana (West Africa), and it had already been 3 days of hell, as I did not get my visa in Atlanta, and found out in New York, I could not board the plane to Ghana without one. This was frustrating, as my first trip to Ghana was via British Airways, through London and Ghana Airlines, so I got the visa at point of entry. How was I to know Delta was different. Anyway, 3 days later, I get my flight. And the flight attendant was soooooooo extremely nice, that by the time I'd arrived in Africa, I'd forgotten my whole horrific experience. She changed my final assessment of Delta in the end, as I had purposed in my mind that Delta was a tedious airline with unprofessional personnel and staff...and I still hold to that for the New York employees I interacted with at the check-in terminals....horrible. ~PG

September 30 2010 at 2:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe

Alaska airlines are friendly personnel, but they are subject to repeated maintenance delays. Friendliness doesn't count for squat if you can't get where you are going when you need to.

August 23 2010 at 2:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
margie

If you are going to yell about something spell it correctly. If you pay to travel, no matter how tired the crew is, they need to be able to accommodate the customer. If they are at a breaking point, its about time to pursue another career?? I think this is a good venture because there are always rumors about which airlines are better, I have always heard Southwest. I had a bad experience with a Delta airplane and never want to have that same experience flying again.

July 28 2010 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chaz

Southwest is probably owned by conservatives,and all other airlines by,you guessed it, UNHAPPY LIBERALS.HEH,HEH.

May 27 2010 at 11:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chaz

If people would work together some things can be changed about these airlines,but,I don't see that happening. Take your car,a train,bus,just for a few times and the airlines might wake up. I can understand if you really need to fly,but if not then use other means.Try to plan on working real hard to get these airlines to knuckle under. You'll be happy you did.

May 27 2010 at 11:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Debra

I'm not trying to be a DEBBIE DOWNER here, but whats with the comment? I can honestly say I have idea what it means. Are all Debbies thought to Negative Nellies? oops! Sorry, but I've grown up hearing "Debbie Does Dallas". Give the name tagging a rest would you? For those future Debs. Thanks
P.S.
If I was'nt DEBBIE DOWNER before, that comment was enough to put me on the downhill luge.

May 26 2010 at 10:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Debra's comment
heather

"Debbie Downer" was a popular skit on Saturday Night Live. Please don't take personal offense. It's not directed at the name, it's just the character in a comedy sketch.

June 01 2010 at 12:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Debra

My family and some friends flew to Europe (San Francisco to Heathrow). After hours of online research we chose Virgin Atlantic due to inflight entertainment and the few inches extra they offered in a coach seat. However, we still felt like an overstuffed can of something that had bad seams and was gonna explode any second. We walked past the different upgraded sections of the plane and became more resentful as we noticed how comfortable these individuals were when we were so stiff after 12 hrs.

You were so crowded you could barely move your arms. If the person in the seat in front of you leaned their seat back at all you'd lose your video picture quality so bad the inflight amenities became a moot point. Also, the computer system that controlled the inflight system was not working. We sat for the first half hour fearing we'd be stuck in those seats for nothing.
Live and learn, hopefully. I will try Midwest and southwest again.
Thanks!

May 26 2010 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
patrick christian

I worked at an airport. Believe me, put a lock on your bag and buy a bag thats not black.

May 24 2010 at 7:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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