By Christopher Elliott

The U.S. airline industry, which has an unenviable record of failing practically every customer-service survey for the last generation, has a new rival: The Transportation Security Administration.

A new poll says the agency charged with protecting the nation's transportation systems offered travelers the worst customer service in 2010. The survey, conducted last week by the Consumer Travel Alliance, found half of all travelers believed TSA offered the worst service, followed by airlines (29 percent), car rental companies (10 percent), hotels (5 percent), cruise lines (3 percent), online travel agencies and bricks-and-mortar agencies (roughly 1 percent each).

Travelers say they picked the federal screeners not because TSA's service is universally bad, but because it is inconsistent.

"On average, about 85 percent of my experiences with TSA have been respectful and efficient -- and they did seem to be putting extra effort into it the week of Thanksgiving, including not using the body scanners at JFK Airport Terminal 2," says frequent traveler Nathanael Wales. "It's the 15 percent of times when their customer service is incompetent, unresponsive, or nonexistent that they exceed the worst I've experienced from any airline or hotel."

Matthew Gast is so upset by the TSA's body scans and pat-down procedures, which were instituted this fall, that he's changing jobs to avoid air travel. His wife has quit flying.

"I can't believe any organization would examine the contents of my pants for threats to aviation security," says Gast, who describes himself as a "soon-to-be-former American Airlines Executive Platinum flier."

But respondents had plenty to say about airlines, too.

"I voted for airlines because they continue to insult my intelligence," says Scott Higbee. "The baggage fee is a money-grab, pure and simple."

Passengers are furious at airlines for what's being called "unbundling," or separating items that used to come with their ticket, such as the ability to check your first bag or make a confirmed seat reservation. In a previous Consumer Travel Alliance poll, 56 percent of travelers said they missed the ability to check their first bag without paying more.

Airlines, meanwhile, are seeing record profits because of the new fees. In some cases, the surcharges are their sole source of profits.

Richard Hellmann, a Diamond Medallion, million-miler customer, says he's disgusted by the frequent maintenance delays and poor customer service.

"I am only self-loading cargo who ranks below checked baggage and dinner rolls," he says. "Wish me luck as I still have two more Delta roundtrips this year."

Antone Sabella, an Executive Premier-level United Airlines customer, says it's the attitude of their employees that made him vote for airlines.

On a recent United flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco, his mother, who was sitting in business class, offered him a sandwich, since he was "starving." He was in economy class. A flight attendant accused him of stealing food.

"When I asked for his name he said that if I wanted his name, I could follow him to the back and he'd tell me," he says. "His tone was scary and threatening."

In the short term, these survey results are unlikely to change. The TSA has indicated it won't end its controversial scanning and pat-down practices anytime soon, and now-profitable airlines see little need to change their practices.

However, pending legislation in Congress may limit or end the TSA's ability to continue its current screening techniques, and new rules expected to be adopted by the federal government would require airlines to quote fares that include the cost of a checked bag.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.



Travel | Who Had the Worst Customer Service in 2010?