Where is Everybody? “Humanless” Customer Service is Dominating Travel. Can We Be Heard as Consumers?

Where is Everybody? "Humanless” Customer Service is Dominating Travel. Can We Be Heard as Consumers? | Frommer's 

Where is Everybody? “Humanless” Customer Service is Dominating Travel. Can We Be Heard as Consumers?

Companies have been eliminating customer assistance and denying consumers help with increasing frequency, and now the problem is nearly ubiquitous. Why isn’t this a national issue?
None of us voted on this, but like it or not, there’s been a tremendous shift in how we interact with travel companies.

Speaking to a real live person can be tedious, time-consuming, expensive, and in many cases simply impossible. Lately I’ve been feeling as isolated as Earl Holliman in that classic Twilight Zone episode. Are there any human beings to talk to—anywhere?

Mind you, I’m not talking about artificial intelligence. I’m talking about how airlines, hotels, car rental firms, and even restaurants are now forcing customers to resolve—or more accurately, not resolve—transactions, questions, and disputes through a maze of pages on apps without ever being given the option to speak to a single person.

My friend Neil Postman, the brilliant author and educator who has been warning us about this fate for decades now, stated: “Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure.” I fear the most significant thing that travel technology is taking away is our humanity. 
Of course, whenever you criticize new and soulless technologies, you risk being called a Luddite, or worse yet, you’re hit with the last acceptable form of discrimination, ageism. But is it truly antiquated to desire human interaction? Especially for something as complicated, nerve-wracking, and critical as travel?

We’ve All Been Through It

I would argue that “customer service” is an oxymoron if the customer can’t get service from a sentient being. Consider my recent experiences with a variety of travel companies.

HOTELS. Last year I stayed at a Sonder property in Washington, D.C. called The Quincy, which I booked via my organization’s online travel agency. Sonder and some of its most loyal patrons describe it as “short-term rental company,” but it was listed alongside other hotels when I booked a one-night stay, so clearly it is also marketed as a hotel brand. Its website speaks of “eliminating inefficiencies,” but clearly the largest inefficiency is human beings. From the time I checked in until the time I left about 18 hours later, I did not encounter a single person employed or retained by Sonder. No staff, no front desk, no security, no maintenance, no maids. The entire experience, starting with gaining access via the lobby entrance during a rainstorm, was facilitated through an app. No one was there.

It suddenly felt like a dystopian nightmare—and I don’t think only Luddites would agree. What happens when you need another towel? Or have broken plumbing? Or inoperative HVAC in your room? What security concerns does this raise? Who’s monitoring the front door? And what if you’re in urgent need of life-or-death help? Somehow a phone app, with its byzantine trouble-shooting algorithms, isn’t comforting.

CAR RENTALS. In February I returned a rental car to the airport in Missoula for an early morning flight, and at the joint counters representing 7 separate rental companies, there was not a single employee on duty. Of course, we’re all used to the automatic key drop-off procedure, but there was no one there to confirm the car hadn’t been damaged. I was forced to leave the car unattended to catch my flight. I’d be halfway to Minneapolis before any damage charges—real or false—would be levied against me. It would be their word against mine. And then, of course, there are the common issues that only a live customer service representative could address: lost keys, toll charges, engine trouble, parking tickets, mileage, and endless other issues. 


AIRLINES. You may not have heard (although Frommer’s covered it at the time), but in 2022 Frontier Airlines quietly shut down its telephone help center. Thus it became the first U.S. airline that will not allow its passengers to telephone it for any reason—the only communication permitted is in writing (via live chat, WhatsApp, social media). There are phone exceptions for its top loyalty members or those traveling within a 48-hour window, but otherwise, Frontier customers are shut out.

For years now, even the largest domestic carriers have instituted fees for using their call centers for reservations, changes, cancellations, and troubleshooting. 

There are other disadvantages for technologically challenged travelers who choose certain ultra no-frills airlines. In fact, you will be financially penalized if you cannot address certain technical chores on your own. On Spirit Airlines, for example, you are charged extra if you wait until the airport to buy a seat assignment or check a bag.
And Breeze charges $3 to print boarding passes at the airport. As Breeze states: “Enjoy a contactless check-in and boarding experience. This is the newer, nicer way to fly.” Nicer? Really? I experienced this fee myself recently when my hotel was unable to print my boarding pass (as a rule, I don’t travel with a printer).
DINING. Yeah, we all know about the upgraded LaGuardia Airport in New York. I grew up seven blocks away from LGA, and I worked there for two years, so I can appreciate the array of restaurants, bars, and shops as well as anyone. But last week, en route to my departure gate, I stopped at an airport shop to buy a bottle of cranberry juice and was told that neither cash nor a charge card could be used. I had to download an app onto my phone, which presumably mined my data for the privilege.

In fact, all the restaurants in that particular LaGuardia terminal would only allow phone purchases, even as 5 employees stood idly nearby, unable to assist me. What’s more, the email I received for that juice transaction stated: “For your convenience [there’s that phrase again!], we have opened a tab. Your tab automatically closes in 1 hour. We will send you an itemized receipt once your tab closes.”

Put another way: “You’re in an airport, so you will probably be hundreds of miles away by the time you see your receipt, and disputing charges will be much harder then.”

What Can We Do?

I’m a father, uncle, and part-time college professor, so I spend plenty of time around Generations X through Alpha, and I get it that phones have largely replaced wallets for millions of Americans. 
But what of older Americans? Or those who have trouble using technologies? People who are intellectually or emotionally challenged? What of the economically disadvantaged people who can’t even afford electronic devices—will they soon be ineligible to travel? And what if your smart phone is lost, stolen, broken, or left at home? Aren’t all passengers entitled to buy a $4.61 bottle of juice? 

Even if you do have the necessary tech devices and the ability to use them, many times the apps provided by the big travel companies simply don’t answer our questions or resolve our problems. Online “customer service” is often inadequate. What then?
Why is there is no national conversation about all this? Suddenly travel has become a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. You don’t like the new rules? Then don’t eat. Or don’t fly. Or don’t sleep here. Or just walk.  

Economists always tell us that competition is supposed to make products better and more competitive. Why are they getting worse and shutting us out, many miles from home?
It’s not a mystery. Travel companies are replacing people with technologies for one simple and overriding reason—to save money. Way back in 2006, the aviation press reported that self-service check-in kiosks were saving big bucks: “The dramatic cost savings that can be realized from airline check-in units for repetitive tasks such as printing and distributing boarding passes drops from $3.86 with a gate agent to just $0.16 when customers use a kiosk.” 
Over the last two decades, the nickel-and-diming has continued with downsizing call centers, self-serve baggage drop-offs, and countless other innovations.
And the dramatic consolidation of the U.S. airline industry has helped eliminate competition and degrade customer service. Why do airlines behave badly? Because they can. 
Fighting back against such forces isn’t easy for travelers. But knowledge can be helpful:

• When interacting with a travel company, first check the site’s “Contact Us” page to see what communication options you will have.
• Find out if there is a fee for phoning the company.
• People with special physical or mental needs are often offered easier access for customer service. These dedicated lines can be quicker to access and often do not incur a fee for those who qualify.
• The Department of Transportation maintains a hotline for air travelers with disabilities.
• As for the privacy concerns raised by all these apps, read up on limiting access and eliminating apps after you use them.
And here’s one piece of positive news: The FAA Reauthorization Act recently signed by President Biden includes a provision that all U.S. airlines must now provide free, 24/7 customer service access for passengers. It’s a half-step since it doesn’t mandate phone call centers and still allows service to be restricted to “live chats or text messages.” But at least you’ll communicate with a person—hopefully!

William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at

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