Ferial Haffajee: Why I won't put up and shut up about poor customer service

How to kill a holiday buzz?  Arrive at check-in and get bumped off your flight by a surly and tired Comair desk attendant. Last week, Babalwa checked us in but then mumbled something about heading off, with our bags, to counter something somewhere as we had been bumped. 

There was no explanation, no call for volunteers (as aviation rules stipulate when a flight is overbooked) and no compensation proffered (as aviation practice stipulates). And there was no confirmation our flight would take off. Babalwa looked surprised when I complained (as I do).  

“We’re allowed to overbook,” she said, giving me that look many South Africans in the service industry have perfected when you dare to complain about arcane rules that don’t work for the hard cash-paying consumer. Sure, airlines can overbook. Comair’s PR team sent me chapter and verse about how over-booking is a business practice that can lower airfares as it ensures planes fly at optimum capacity. I get that. 

What I don’t get is why airlines have not moved with the times to improve the customer-facing outcomes of overbooking. Take my case. If you don’t want to kill my holiday vibe, maybe a text message or even a call from a customer-friendly agent saying we had been booked on a later flight would have been nice. We could have had a long walk on Sea Point or sat on a sandy beach for a bit more. Who wants to end a holiday? Not me.

If overbooking is standard business practice, imagine how it inconveniences business travellers who could benefit in time and productivity from being told. The era of mobile communications and always-on technology can be used efficiently to make the flying experience less of a harried one than it can often be. 

“Every effort is made to contact customers with any changes to their travel arrangements,” said Comair’s Shaun Pozyn when I asked why they do not alert travellers because they have all our email and mobile phone details. That is PR spin as no effort has ever been made to let this flyer know and I have been bumped off several flights as I’m sure the plane commuters out there have too. 

Standing my ground 

I’m consumer-focused and a bit of a complainer, so I stood my ground at that counter and asked why Babalwa could not be polite. When a friendlier supervisor was called, I asked about compensation. While Comair says compensation is routinely offered to volunteers who agree to fly later, this is not my experience. We were bumped off without volunteering and the supervisor took my card and promised standard compensation. I’ve yet to hear from him. 

Comair’s jumping now because I’ve put in questions. It’s not the point. What is, is that overbooking is one of those business practices that can be modernised and undertaken with greater care for the consumer. Once you’ve arrived at an airport, you are a sitting duck to delays, overbooking and the myriad ways the aviation industry has not clicked that the customer is queen.

Because we are such sitting ducks and keen to get to where we need to be, passengers put up and shut up. I’m tired of doing that and especially with Comair, an airline that regularly punts itself as the customer-focused, nimble and efficient alternative to the national carrier which sucks at the teat of government. I know SAA is a problem, but my flying experience is that Comair and its budget baby, Kulula, are no better and no worse than SAA and Mango.  

I asked Comair’s PR people if my poor experience was a common one and whether they are indeed better, to which I got this sterling corporate response from Pozyn.

“Like any brand, Comair may not always meet the standards to which it holds itself, although we constantly aim to.”  To which I would have responded, “Aim higher,” if I was a churlish type.