On a recent flight from Philadelphia to Phoenix on US Airways (www.usairways.com), Sarah Andrus left her jacket underneath the seat in front of her. "It was a gift from a friend and unique," recalled Andrus, a director for an Oleana, N.Y.-based manufacturing company. "I called the airline with low expectations of recovering my jacket, but I thought I'd give it a try."
She was lucky enough to get through to a US Airways employee named Tanya, who understood her predicament. "I followed her instructions to the letter, and heard back from someone within two hours. They had found my jacket and would keep it until my return flight," Andrus said.
Frequent travelers can be forgiven for thinking the travel industry doesn't care about them, but simply wants their money. A recent report that airlines had collected $2.1 billion in fees in the second quarter -- an increase of 13% from the previous quarter -- while continuing to suffer from near record-low customer-service scores, does little to improve that image.
But it's not an entirely accurate image.
"I think there are still flight attendants who try to go the extra mile," said Anne Sweeney, a former Pan Am Flight attendant. "Ever since the Steven Slater incident, people are more aware of it."
Compassion isn't dead in the travel industry. You just have to know where to look.
For example, Dori Eagan's partner was bumped from a flight from New York to Paris after his father's funeral. The ticket agent empathized with his recent loss.
"The gate agent took compassion on him and assigned him a seat," she said. "I always think of his kindness when an employee is rude to me. I know there are good ones out there and I figure maybe when I am really desperate I will find another one."
Put differently, the people behind the counter are human, too, and they're often sensitive to your circumstances.
A little niceness goes a long way, too. Jim McCreary, a training coordinator for a car manufacturer in Newark, Del., was returning from Hawaii on US Airways recently. On a stopover in Chicago, his flight home was canceled because of the weather.
"Everyone was screaming and yelling at the poor agent at the ticket counter and all she could tell them was that since it was weather-related, the airline was not responsible for getting them a hotel," he said. "When we approached her, I smiled and told her I could see she was having a rough day and politely asked if there were any other flights to Philadelphia that evening. She not only found us another flight, but upgraded us to first class at no charge."
People often forget that service still counts for something in the travel industry. When Carrie Charney, a retired auto accident claim secretary from Bardonia, N.Y., stayed at a Comfort Inn and Suites (www.comfortinn.com) with her 4-year-old grandson recently, the fire alarm went off several times.
"The hotel manager had seen his stressful reaction and had been trying to help," she said. "When my family returned to the hotel that night, there was a package waiting for Jared. With her own money, the manager had bought him a book about a tiger, as well as a stuffed animal that went with the book. The card attached apologized for what had happened and hoped the tiger would help him feel better. He still loves that tiger."
Of course, not every troubled guest gets the stuffed animal treatment, but Charney's story underscores the importance of giving a company feedback about your experience.
And, if a front-line employee takes a hard line, you can always take it to a higher level. That's what Joshua Davis did when a booking error by Delta Air Lines (www.delta.com) made his family miss their flights to Mexico. The airline balked at returning some of the money, sending him a form letter that said, "While we would like to offer special consideration in cases such as yours, we are unable to honor the many requests that we receive from others in similar situations."
If the airline had taken the time to read his correspondence, it would have known he wasn't asking for any special consideration, and quickly refunded his money. After a series of appeals, it did just that.
While it may seem customer service is dead and that people in the travel industry don't care about your needs, there are moments of compassion. Some in the travel industry still get it -- and still have a heart.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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