27 October 2008

Cebu, Cebu, Cebu, What Up?

I was sent this from marketmanila.com

Wow, now this is a letter!

Cebu Pacific Airlines, you screwed up big-time in my personal opinion!!! Not once, not twice, but several times in the past two weeks. You screwed up so badly tonight that my blood pressure skyrocketed above its stately 110 over 80. And I am so pissed with what I have just gone through that instead of calmly firing off a letter to Lance Gokongwei, I will rant on my website instead so that roughly 8,000 – 10,000 of my regular and occasional readers, 90% of whom are your target market, can make their airline buying decisions with more intelligence. I once wrote a letter of complaint to Sonny Belmonte when he was President of Philippine Airlines many years ago that started with the sentence “I would rather stick needles in my eyes than voluntarily fly PAL on an international route ever again” and I have never liked PAL, but I am now thinking of a sentence that would be appropriate for a letter to Cebu Pacific… Mr. Belmonte, to his credit, called my home soon after to talk about the letter…

I have always cheered for and directly supported the “underdogs.” Particularly when it is an airline challenging PAL. I don’t like monopolies. So when Cebu Pacific first started out I took them a few times. I was impressed. Then they had a crash. Then I wondered about their really old planes. So I stopped taking them and vowed to return when they got newer planes. So when they got their new 757 and announced a Business Class to Cebu, I booked one of their earliest flights. Only to arrive at the airport to be told they decided to use the old DC-9’s instead and they were downgrading me. I was furious they didn’t bother to call beforehand, I don’t like old planes. With some firmness, I insisted they move me to PAL and they did, escorting me to the PAL terminal and paying for my business class ticket and shouldering the difference in cost. That was about 2 years ago. I stopped taking them again until the A319’s and A320’s arrived. In the past year, I have booked at least 60-70 flight segments to Cebu alone, so as a frequent passenger on PAL, I have one of their highest loyalty type cards…big whoopee, I get to eat lugaw in their lounge. But I have booked mostly Business Class flights as they have improved their service lately and I must say, they have been 85% or more on time (with some grave exceptions). But a Business Class ticket on PAL is now roughly PHP9,500 to Cebu. So I am not stupid. When Cebu Pacific offers PHP3,400 economy tickets and I can book them online and never go to a ticket office, I decide to really give them a good go this time around.

In fact, I had originally decided to give them 3 roundtrips to Cebu before I was going to write a hopefully glowing review. It started out well. I booked two tickets completely on-line with no hassle whatsoever. I was truly impressed. I hate lining up at PAL offices. For the first flight, I got to the airport 1.5 hours before the scheduled departure time. The check-in agent, when asked if the flight was on-time said “yes, as of now it is on time.” Well, the flight was nearly an hour late, and considering it was an early morning flight, that almost certainly meant many more flights that day would be late. What happened to all the boastful “we are always on time taglines”? Was this a fluke? The plane was new and nice. We got to Cebu about 70 minutes late. They served a bottle of RFM (family company) manufactured tea (PAL only serves Lucio Tan Virgin Cola instead of Coke). A few days later, on the way home to Manila, the plane was again nearly 1 hour late. And worse, they changed the equipment to the old DC-9 WITHOUT telling passengers at the check-in counter. I dislike old planes. I have flown over 5,000 flight segments in my entire career/life so I don’t tempt fate with old equipment. My ticket stated it would be a new A319…

Despite this poor showing the first time around, I decided to stick to my plan to take 3 trips before I reviewed the airline. The second trip I booked was also a morning flight. It was nearly 50 minutes late to Cebu. On the flight home, it was close to being on time.On the flight back, the scheduled plane was over two hours late and they were able to book me on the earlier flight that was running 1.5 hours late. Since I traveled with one other colleague, we booked a total of about 12 flight segments and 10 segments were late. That means we experienced only 16.7% of our flights departing on time. Does it follow that just because tickets are cheap that the flights are late? Maybe their tagline should be “It’s time everyone flies…LATE!!!” The third trip I booked was again nearly an hour late.

Despite those problems, and since I am flying on company money, I decided to try ONE more time and tried over the past two days to book flights to Cebu. Instead of the easy on-line booking, I kept getting unexplained and irritating error messages on their website. It kept telling me to call their reservations line but it was constantly busy. Finally, tonight, I got the number to ring. Then I went on hold for 22 (TWENTY BLOODY TWO) minutes and had to listen to the most inane chattering and sales pitches until I finally got a HUMAN on the line.I asked if they were having problems with their reservations systems on-line and they said

“Yes, sir, we have had problems capturing on-line reservations and payments since Monday night…” That was 72 hours ago?!? Couldn’t they have put a notice up on their website that said that? How long would that take, 10 minutes???

Instead, the agent answered with some alarm, that he must check if my card had been charged with the tickets. And since I tried to book them 4 times in the past 2 days, I worried that my card had been charged with 2 tickets x four attempts! Yipes. And they say their site is secure? They think customers should not worry? They have agents telling me they could have screwed up even more big time than I could have imagined?

Thankfully, they claim, my card has not been charged. Let’s see. My credit card bill won’t come for several weeks. I should probably check with the card company.

So what’s the kicker? After 22 minutes on hold waiting for a human, 5 minutes of their explaining their website is technologically challenged and unable to take reservations after they launch a massive campaign to promote more destinations, more flights, etc. while they can’t turn their planes around fast enough so they can depart on time, 5 more minutes of being put on hold again and a total of perhaps 40 minutes with my ear to the phone, they say “sir, you will have to go to a Cebu Pacific office and line up to get your tickets…” Well F#$@! THAT!!!

I am so bloody annoyed at the moment I booked myself back on Philippine Airlines (it took 2 minutes total!), which has specials so their economy flights are only PHP600 or so more than Cebu Pacific but without the aggravation and a better chance of leaving on time… And since I have one of these premier thingee cards, I even get the lugaw on an economy ticket, and lounge in their lounge.

You blew it Cebu Pacific!!! I could have easily given you 60 flight segments this year and I won’t return until you get your systems in gear, and PAL has a nervous breakdown that approximates your website’s at the moment.

Until Cebu Pacific flights are back on time 90% of the time and only if your cost is significantly below your competitors will you ever get my business again. And if only 100 more seats are not booked with you because people read this post and act with their wallets, then I will have moved one entire Airbus A319 worth of passengers this year away from your airline. I can only hope this is a temporary 3-4 week hiccup, too bad I got stuck in the middle of it. But I suspect the problems will continue for a while as the airline is dramatically expanding destinations, timetables, etc. that will all serve to make their business far more complex. If you can’t even respond to a website glitch with a rapid basic service band-aid, you have problems.

And here’s a cheap piece of advice… all you have to do right now is put a one sentence notice on your website to save thousands of irritated customers the hassle… it should read “Our website is experiencing difficulties at the moment and cannot take your reservations, please refer to one of our offices instead.” That simple sentence would have saved you a lot of bad will from thousands of folks trying to book tickets over the last 72 hours, clogged phone lines where agents are unable to correct the website glitch and simply tell you to go to a ticket office and high level decibel screaming in your agents ears…

I even liked your latest Bicol promotional advertisement. “We’re Not Laing.” Cute, but if you keep up this kind of service and flight delays, I’d say a better line would be “YOU’RE SO DAING”!!!

Wow, now THAT's a spray!

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