Customer Service?

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As I alluded to in a previous post, Jody and I ran into a few snags on our way home from Cuba over the Christmas Holidays. Namely, we got stuck in Cuba an extra day due to mechanical problems with our Zoom Airlines plane. The picture you see here is at around midnight, when we were told to go back down through customs. Why is everyone standing there you ask? Well, the authorities had no idea why we were sent there, and we all had to go back up to where I was and around the airport another way to get to the baggage. Just one of the ‘little’ snags in this dismal experience. In any case, we’ve sort of waited for almost a month, hoping to receive some sort of explanation or apology for all the problems. However, there was no word from either Zoom or Go Travel Direct. As a result, we ended up writing a strongly worded letter outlining all the shortcomings, and sent it in to their customer relations departments. Now we just need to wait and see what they have to say. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, read on to see the full text of the letter we sent.

Stephan Meyer and Jody Cox
(XXX) XXX-XXXX (home)

January 26, 2006

Go Travel Direct – Customer Relations
380 Hunt Club Road, Suite 200
Ottawa, Ontario, K1V 1C1

Zoom Airlines – Customer Relations
Suite 200 – 380 Hunt Club Road
Ottawa, Ontario, K1V 1C1
Fax: 1-613-231-7340

To Whom It May Concern:

Recently we traveled with Go Travel Direct to Varadero via Montreal using Zoom Airlines for a 1-week all-inclusive holiday from December 25, 2005 to January 1, 2006 (Please refer to Invoice Number XXXX and Booking Number XXXX). As you are no doubt aware, the return portion of this trip did not depart as scheduled on January 1, 2006 due to a mechanical problem with the Zoom aircraft (Boeing 767-300).

While we recognize the unique nature of encountering technical difficulties in Cuba, we feel this does not excuse the performance by the Zoom flight crew and Go Travel representatives. We have both traveled extensively – and encountered many complications along the way. However, we feel that the level of customer service provided under these circumstances was extremely poor – even worse, in fact, than a recent experience we had in Peru with a domestic carrier (TANS) in September of 2005.

Zoom airlines has not been around a very long time, and to date has received quite favorable reviews, but we feel that the true test of a carrier is its performance in the face of adversity. This test seems to have been failed by Zoom, so we are now seeking a response from the Customer Relations departments. We have not created any negative publicity or reviews, but will be more than happy to write letters to various organizations detailing the shortcomings of Zoom and Go Travel in this matter for the general public’s consumption. We apologize in advance for the length of this letter, but there are many issues to highlight, and feel you would be best served with a detailed account.

To begin with, we were scheduled to depart Varadero at 14:45 on Sunday, January 1st. As such, we had to arrive at the airport a few hours before this time to get through all the regular pre-flight procedures. As a result, most passengers didn’t have time for lunch, as we were expecting to be served meals once airborne. Once onboard the aircraft and taxied from the jetway, the problems began. At first, it was relayed to us that there was a ‘minor’ problem that should be fixed in 10 minutes. This is the typical first warning from a flight crew, and we have no problems with this. However, 30 minutes later, we were back at the gate, confined to the airplane while mechanics diagnosed the problem. At this time, we received the occasional ‘update’, which generally consisted of hopeful comments that we’d be on our way. Again, we recognize this as standard procedure, even in the face of unknowns. We still had no real problems with the service. However, by now, it was becoming evident we were stuck for a while. The flight attendants began allowing people to the door of the craft to smoke. This was neither expected nor enjoyed, as we were close to the exit, and had to endure this. However, this was a minor annoyance at best, and we ignored it. Similarly, the flight attendants were now increasingly ignoring passenger comfort. At times we were without power, leading to an increasingly hot aircraft, yet attendants were not willing to serve beverages or any food (even though, as we would later learn, all of the food on-board had to be discarded from the plane later on).

Some time went by, and the crew finally admitted it could be awhile. They asked that everyone disembark the craft, and remain in the airport for updates as the time went by. This was to allow us to be ‘more comfortable’. This was not to be the case however, as once we entered the smoke-port, er, airport, that is, communications all but ceased from anyone from Zoom airlines. The time was around 4-4:30pm. There were no updates, and no offer of food or water in this very uncomfortable airport. Several passengers began purchasing food and drinks at their own cost, as we were all now quite hungry.

Some time later, an announcement was made that all passengers from our flight were to meet in the cafeteria of the terminal. No mention of why or what to do when we got there. The result: 300 passengers attempting to crowd into the small space, with no idea why, and no one explaining it to us. Apparently, someone heard there was to be food provided to us. Of course, this being Cuba, this was no easy feat either. It required a great exercise in patience, to wait while they prepared 300 ham and cheese sandwiches. Some meal! In hindsight, it seems it would have been far more efficient to simply give each passenger a voucher, or even, *gasp*, cash, to purchase something at any of the several other bar/eateries in the hall. However, since there was apparently no one in charge, and no one able to provide any updates to the passengers, we opted to ‘go with the flow’. We trusted someone had our interests in mind. At this point Jody decided to seek out a Zoom representative and inquire as to our flight status, since there had been no overhead announcements as promised.

Upon approaching the gate area, the lead flight attendant was argumentative and unprofessional, and seemed completely overwhelmed and unable to deal with the situation. When asking some general information while she was posted at the gate, she was not at all helpful and instead relayed a story about how the pilot had to use his personal credit card to buy passengers dinner. While this is an unfortunate situation, we do not have too much empathy for this – Zoom Airlines should know better than to travel to Cuba with an American Express credit card! Quite frankly, this is basic knowledge for anyone who travels there and made the airline seem extremely unprofessional. As a general comment at this point, the entire staff seemed quite unprepared for dealing with a situation like this, and did not appear to have undergone any sort of crisis management training. Contingency plans were obviously absent as well.

After a short time – after 6pm – the attendant complained that she was long overdue for her break and returned to the plane. However, another staff representative did not take her place. From this point until the gate opened the next day, Zoom airlines had no official presence in Varadero airport. We were forced to spend many hours (from 4-4:30pm until well after midnight) in a small, extremely smoky airport with no information about the status of our flight, or our status in what is a communist country (we had no visas at this point). It seemed apparent that we would not be going anywhere this day, yet we were forced to wait with no other option, as we could not even leave the main terminal hall.

When information was finally available (around 10pm at night), it was provided by an off-duty Zoom employee, his girlfriend, and a Go Travel Direct employee who all happened to be on vacation and scheduled to be on our flight. These people should be praised for their efforts. They seemed to be the only ones capable of any sort of crisis management. The Zoom representatives were nowhere to be found. Nor, for that matter, were the Cuba-based Go Travel Direct representatives. Things were very much out of hand at this point, with the majority of the 300 passengers becoming increasingly irate as a result of a long day in the airport with no interaction with Zoom or Go Travel Direct – despite everyone having paid good money for an enjoyable vacation.

When the on-duty Go Travel Direct representatives arrived (local reps from the resorts), they were unprepared, easily flustered and, in fact, created additional delays in our departure from the airport. They were overheard complaining about having been woken up and having their other plans interrupted. They also had no idea how to control the situations being presented them, including how to relay hotel information to passengers, where to go to retrieve baggage, and how to deal with the Customs issues. Based on our observations, we were there for at least an hour longer than we needed to be, and were even at one point all told to go down and back through security, only to arrive there and be blocked by Cuban authorities who had no idea why we were at the airport and why we were trying to leave. What? After over 10 hours of delays in an airport that only has a dozen or so flights in a day, and no one could explain our situation to local authorities? As we mentioned, things were really not being dealt with efficiently at this point.

While we recognize that there was work happening behind the scenes, it was clear to us that there were few or no contingency plans in place to deal with an equipment malfunction of this magnitude. We have full understanding that things work very differently in a country like Cuba, but that could just as easily have been explained to us, rather than telling us lies and mis-information. We can’t even begin to relay the number of times we were told one thing (by the off-duty reps), only to later have it contradicted by others. Obviously Zoom knew we were stranded, as they had to fly down maintenance people and parts for the plane, yet we were still not being told anything and stuck in the airport.

To this day, we continue to wonder what our plight would have been if the competent and helpful off-duty individuals had not had the same travel plans. Our best guess is that we would have had to spend the night in the airport without any information from Zoom airlines and Go Travel Direct. Luckily, we did somehow all manage to be bussed to resorts for the night before attempting to leave again the next day. However, we didn’t arrive at the resorts until after 1:30am on January 2, 2006, where we tried to get a bite to eat before going to sleep. We were told to call reception the next morning at 8 am to check our flight status. The next morning, we hoped things would simply be better, and that the bad news would end. Well, again, the problem of misinformation plagued us, resulting in further unprofessional behaviour by Go Travel Direct representatives. They arrived at the resort unexpectedly, telling us we had 15 minutes to be ready for the bus. This was just after the desk staff at the resort said they were told we had to call back in another hour to get an update. Would this ever end?

Once at the airport, we had been told several times that all we would have to do is drop off our bags, and we would be let straight though to the departures hall, bypassing customs. Well, as you may expect, this was not the case. We first had to wait 30+ minutes to re-check our bags, then get our visas back from the Go Travel reps (who had no idea how to efficiently distribute them), and subsequently go through the entire customs and immigration process again. I accept this was likely a result of the Cuban authorities, but why would the local reps not be aware of this, and assure us we would be though in 15 minutes? Due to the lengthier process we went through, the flight was again delayed from when we were told we would depart. Once we were on the plane and finally ready to depart, there was yet another delay, as one of the luggage compartment doors under the plane would not close. Fortunately for all of us, the technician who had been flown down to repair the plane was returning on our flight, and he was able to repair the problem.

Although this account is lengthy, it is by no means a complete account of all the difficulties encountered in the 26+ hours we spent returning to Canada from Cuba. This experience has unfortunately tainted what had been a very enjoyable vacation. We would have to think long and hard before using the services of Go Travel Direct and Zoom airlines again in the future, given all the alternative travel companies competing for traveler dollars. These delays also created a financial burden for us in the range of $XX. In addition to the cost of contacting people back home while in Cuba using pre-paid internet and phone cards ($XX), Jody missed a day of work (~$XX), we had to exchange additional money for emergency expenses ($XX), we incurred additional parking expenses ($XX), and had to pay for an extra day on a dog kennel ($XX). There was never at any time any mention of compensation being offered, or of who we should contact regarding this situation upon our arrival.

We feel that both Zoom airlines and Go Travel Direct fell short in the customer service department on January 1 2006, and we are truly disappointed. In addition, we did not feel that it was appropriate for a non-Zoom airlines employee to be distributing what appeared to be travel vouchers to select individuals – regardless of how helpful she was in providing information to passengers on the airline’s behalf. We witnessed this while in the line-up for customs at the Montrealairport, where there were many flights all converged. Presumably, they didn’t realize we had also been on the same flight as we had shown up slightly later at the arrivals hall due to a stop at the restrooms. Did we mention the out of order lavatory on our flight down to Cuba? This may seem a minor point, but it does point to yet another problem on the Zoom fleet of aircraft (which we were told were new by someone at one point!). These are obviously not new craft, and in our experience, there would appear to be a rather questionable track record for reliability based on this, our first trip using Zoom Airlines.

On your website, it clearly indicates that complaints are to be filed within 30 days of our return to Canada. As we returned January 2, 2006, that gave us until February 1, 2006 to file this letter. We chose to wait several weeks, in hopes that Zoom Airlines or Go Travel Direct would contact us directly as a follow-up to this situation. We had hoped common courtesy would have encouraged your companies to at least send an apology to all passengers for the events of that trip. In the past, this has been the case with other airline carriers (without prompting). However, as a result of your policies, we feel we must send this letter to you, and await a reply in that manner.

Should you value us as potential customers of Go Travel Direct and Zoom airlines services in the future, we would like to know how you intend to respond and/or compensate each of us for this unfortunate and unpleasant experience. So that you are aware, this letter will also be posted online in its entirety, and we welcome your response in this matter. We will be pleased to post any response you make to us. Also, if there is any supporting documentation that you require, please do not hesitate to contact us via mail, electronic mail, or telephone.


[ Original Signed by Stephan Meyer ]

Jody Cox and Stephan Meyer

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