A tale of two airlines - good service v. cheap fares

24 May 11 11:00AM EST
Post by Sam Butler
Airplane interior

Picture it: Narita Airport, Tokyo, April 2011, 23:00. Two Aussie travellers sprinting behind a petite but very speedy Japan Airlines (JAL) paperwork-laden staff member as she ushers us through airport security, customs and other blurred bureaucrats onto a shuttle cable to take us to another terminal, rushes us past what seems like a thousand flight gates and finally to the fully boarded Jetstar plane that’s literally seconds from taking off.

That Jetstar plane, at least according to the tickets we’d bought, was supposed to have touched down that night 500km away in Kansai Airport Osaka, not Tokyo. But Qantas’ budget subsidiary had decided on the day of departure to cancel the Cairns-Osaka flight – presumably because they couldn’t fill it with enough passengers to afford lifting it off the ground – and instead pour its Osaka-bound passengers onto its Tokyo flight.

But never fear: after the plane had touched down in Narita and its Tokyo-bound passengers had alighted, it would be up in the air again and on its way to Honshu’s earthquake- and tsunami-free megalopolis. At least, that’s what one fairly uninterested Jetstar ground staff in Cairns told me when I asked him – they’d neglected to make any announcements on the Sydney-Cairns leg of the flight, and we’d only realised major changes had occurred by seeing “cancelled” on that airport’s monitor.

One eight-hour flight later, we land in Tokyo. Cabin crew have neglected to apologise to Osaka-bound passengers for the delay or explain what we’re to do when we land, other than “follow the signs and look for instructions” for the connecting flight.

So, like well-behaved sheep we join the herd off the plane, which follows the hastily-made signs and arrows for Jetstar’s Osaka flight. The herd finds its way to a shuttle train bound for another terminal. “Hmm, that’s unusual,” my partner and I think, but hey – that’s where the signs are pointing. Maybe we need to pick up our bags and transit to the domestic terminal for what is now an internal flight within Japan.

The herd embarks, rides and disembarks the shuttle. We keep moving with them – you can always trust the herd (note: never trust the herd). Suddenly we’re in queues for what look suspiciously like customs gates. OK … seems strange we’d need to check into Japan here in Tokyo when we’re headed for Osaka – but surely if Jetstar had meant for us not to do this they would’ve made crystal-clear instructions on the flight? Surely they would’ve made their signs clearer and even strategically placed a staff member to stop Osaka-bound passengers from getting onto a shuttle that would take them far, far away from the just-landed plane if that was to become the Osaka-bound plane?

You can probably guess the rest from here. Only moments before we’re about to go through quarantine, we make the horrible realisation that we won’t be collecting our baggage or connecting to a domestic flight. Nope, we’ve just had our passports stamped for Tokyo, so we’re in Tokyo. It’s only now we can see a monitor showing our flight – the very flight we’ve just disembarked at the very gate from which we’re now about a kilometre away – is boarding for Osaka. If we’re to have any chance of being on it, we need to follow the usual procedure of checking into an international airport – the sort of thing you usually give yourself a couple of hours for – in, oh, about 12 minutes.

Now, spending an unplanned night in an amazing city like Tokyo would not have been the end of the world. But not having any fresh clothes for that night (our bags were Osaka-bound) and having to pay for a hotel and for another connecting flight the next day – not to mention losing a prepaid night’s accommodation in Osaka – would have been a costly blow and an inauspicious start to the holiday we’d spent months looking forward to.

That’s where the amazing staff at JAL comes in. Seeing two crestfallen travellers, they leave their kiosks to inquire what’s wrong. Remember, we’ve flown Jetstar to Japan, not JAL – we’re not even their customers. Nevertheless, once we’ve explained as best we can our unusual situation, we’re suddenly surrounded by half a dozen very concerned JAL staff desperate to help us out.

And so the sprinting begins. Turns out we end up spending the night in Osaka after all – just.

The contrast in customer service between Jetstar and JAL is very sharp. With the former, there was poor or no communication about essential information, leading to the debacle in the first place. JAL staff politely explained what was happening as it happened, demonstrated genuine sympathy for our situation and liaised with many airport staff while running hundreds of metres to get us where we needed to be. Most remarkable of all, they didn’t need to – we weren’t JAL passengers and they’d done nothing to create the problem. All they wanted to do was resolve it.

The lesson learnt? There’s a reason why low-cost airlines are low-cost – they’re also low-service, especially in tough situations where they should be bringing their A-game.

In future, I’ll be shelling out the extra bucks for a full-service airline that won’t cancel a flight on its day of departure, and will keep you in the loop about any other essential developments.

If I ever return to Japan (which I very much want to do), JAL will be top of my list of preferred carriers. That’s what outstanding customer service does – it guarantees repeat business. Are you listening, Jetstar?

Would you pay extra to get better customer service – whether from an airline, a bank or a retail store? Have you rewarded good service with repeat business or are you simply focussed on cost?


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