Guaranteed Service for a Guaranteed Reservation

Just when we think it can't get any worse, American Airlines takes it to a new level. You get charged to check your bags, resulting in a massive increase of carry-on bags, which causes the overhead bins to fill rapidly on every flight. The opportunity: Create a new fee for the privilege of boarding early in order to find a space for your bag.

I have been flying for years. I have seen and read the airline studies on efficient boarding techniques to reduce ground time. Now the airlines are moving in the opposite direction by extending the "scheduled" time of each flight compared to actual flight time. You still get in on time, but with a built-in time cushion used largely in the boarding process. For example, I fly often from Tampa to Atlanta. The flight is scheduled anywhere from one hour and 30 minutes to one hour and 40 minutes. The actual flight time is typically one hour and 10 minutes-a cushion of up to 35 percent.

Did you also notice boarding now starts 40 minutes before departure, not the old 30 minutes? This creates the "revenue time frame" to charge up to $19 each way for boarding early to garnish that coveted overhead bin space.

Guaranteed Service for a Guaranteed Reservation

The car rental industry needs to learn from this and create the perception of a commitment to customer service and value. We're used to the phrase "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" in our everyday lives. We can do the same thing to help our industry:

"When you book with 123 Rental Company, we will ask for your credit card. If you do not cancel your reservation within three hours of your pickup time, we will charge you for a one-day rental, just as your favorite hotel chain does. However, we also guarantee that you will be provided with a car as reserved. In fact, if we have to provide you with another rental company's car due to our oversight, we will give you a $25 American Express Gift card to say we are sorry.

"If your flight is late, we realize that's not your fault. If you give us your flight number, we will know when it's late and expect you at the new time. That's our commitment to you."

I had this printed up and sent to a few rental offices today. I'm not a marketing genius, but you get the idea.

Its Time Has Come

With a very non-scientific approach, I recently surveyed over 100 rental customers. Not one customer was opposed to a system that guaranteed a reservation. Not one. If you don't believe me, conduct your own survey. Wake up people; its time has come!

Speak to Wall Street analysts - they recognize the cost savings. Speak to your fleet managers - they would die to eliminate no shows for planning purposes. Speak to business managers - the number of gift cards given away would be insignificant relative to the cost savings and fleet management gains.

Speak to industry people - they say they don't want to collect on no-show fees; they want to provide better customer service and manage their fleets better. So which is it, the fear factor that their competitors won't follow suit? Get over it. Marketing experts are brilliant at the positive spin, and this one is a positive to the consumer. Rental companies are guaranteeing a level of service or they will pay for it! Are they afraid of following suit because they have a habit of busting reservations and they can't deliver?

Airlines charge for bags, boarding privileges, food, drinks, change fees, cancellations, re-bookings, window or aisle seats, "economy plus" seating, movies, headphones, pets and skis and taking a reservation over the phone. In my daughter's vernacular, "OMG."

We sit by, watching the travel industry "fee" the customer to death. Hospitality? Not in the airline industry. Let the marketing people put their spin on it and implement this management tool now. It was said best by a company known for its advertising: JUST DO IT.

Bob Barton is the president of the American Car Rental Association.

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