Airline complaints head sky-high

A surge in customer dissatisfaction has forced airlines to rethink their service, writes Clive Dorman.

Customer service has become a flashpoint issue in Australian aviation as planes empty because of the economic slowdown and consumers pick and choose from rock-bottom deals.

Complaints about airlines appear to have overtaken all other consumer complaints, with a surge in cases before various state government departments.

Consumer Affairs Victoria received nearly 500 complaints about airlines in the year ending in June and about 1000 inquiries (not classified as complaints) about issues such as varying flight details, refunds and cancelled services.

A report by the agency in the first quarter of this year shows airline complaints are the No. 1 gripe among consumers, ahead of complaints about defective computers, electrical appliances, furniture and homewares, television gear and home theatre systems.

We know that we've got to continue to do more in this area.

Most complaints against airlines are about cancelled flights, changed flight times that inconvenience travellers, promised refunds that are not honoured and failure to reimburse extra accommodation costs caused by flight cancellations or changes.

Jetstar experienced a customer service disaster last month when it launched domestic services in New Zealand. Many flights ran hours late and passengers were denied boarding for missing the 30-minute check-in deadline.

Jetstar says it is not the only Australian carrier modelling itself on the European low-cost model pioneered by Ryanair with such practices as strict check-in times and correspondence by post as the only avenue of complaint.

Critics say this discourages people from pursuing legitimate claims because the process can take months.

The Jetstar website directs customers with complaints to a postal address but spokesman Simon Westaway says the call centre is still the first point of contact for people with a problem.

"We haven't publicised some of the things that we've been doing – and perhaps we should – but we've been doing a lot of back-office investment around trying to ensure that we get on top of customer issues on the spot," he says.

"We know that we've got to continue to do more in this area and we're working really hard."

Last month, Jetstar's competitor, Tiger Airways, abandoned the Ryanair model in Australia because it had become the nation's most unpopular airline among customers, according to the Australian Consumers Association.

It is also establishing a call centre staffed in Melbourne to deal specifically with customer complaints.

Tiger Australia's chief operating officer, Steve Burns (seconded from a position at Tiger's Singapore headquarters to fix the Australian arm) says the result of the backflip was immediate.

"I am happy to say that our hard work in recent months has already led to a massive 75 per cent drop in complaint levels since the start of the year," Burns said last week.

Qantas and Virgin Blue have multi-layered complaints systems that start with a telephone option, then email, fax or mail. The latter is regularly voted Australia's customer service leader and follows the American market-leading model of Southwest Airlines, service with a smile and sense of humour.