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'Ghost Riders' : Airlines Spy on Selves in Service War

July 21, 1987|ROBERT E. DALLOS | Times Staff Writer

They score flight crews on such things as how they greet passengers on boarding, sincerity, professional appearance, whether they have a warm and friendly attitude, good eye contact and communicate clearly with the passengers.

Turnover Is Rapid

The turnover of mystery riders is expected to be rapid. "We (will) keep them until they are no longer useful," said Jose Smith, Eastern vice president for sales and services. "That means that once they are identified, they have served their purpose and we have to get someone else."

American Airlines calls its observers "shoppers." They represent a variety of occupations, including physicians, students and lawyers. To make sure that the concerns of older people are considered, some grandparents are among them. "They represent the general demographics of our passengers," said Lucy Iovinelli, assistant vice president for quality assurance.

Each of American's 280 observers makes an average of 1 1/2 observation trips a month. They are compensated with future free travel--not including the flights on which they observe.

American gives them no training, Iovinelli said. "We don't want to stack the deck," she said. "We don't want them to have a tainted view."

The American Airlines observers are asked to put themselves in the place of paying passengers. Of interest to the carrier are things such as the timing of beverage service in relation to the meal service, the attitude and manner of the service, passengers' reactions to the food and drink placed in front of them and the general appeal and quality of the meals served. The observers also note the manner in which flight attendants perform safety functions, including the instructions given at the start of every flight.

The observers "are just like department store shoppers," Iovinelli said. "Other businesses use such 'blind shoppers' to sample their services on a continuing basis."

And, although American has one of the best service records in the industry, deficiencies are reported.

One "shopper," on a recent American flight on the short hop between Minneapolis and Chicago, reported:

"After the takeoff, the flight attendants had to hurry the snack and drink service, thereby reducing the friendly atmosphere. . . . With a full flight, little time remained for pickup of trays before landing in Chicago."

Discomfort During Wait

Passenger comfort is a very important factor. While an American plane sat loaded on the tarmac at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, a "shopper" reported that "it was 89 degrees in Dallas and most passengers wore light summer clothing. The plane was cold with the air-conditioning on, and very few blankets were available."

USAir, the smallest of the major carriers, has just four "ghost riders" in the sky. Currently, there are two businessmen, a housewife and a college professor in its three-year-old program.

Each rides the system for 12 days a month. They fly somewhere, stay overnight and return on a different flight with another crew. They do not stay in the same hotels that house the crews.

The observers go through all of the procedures that paying passengers do--from the time they telephone for a reservation until they pick up their baggage at the destination. Periodically, they change the way they dress to check on whether all passengers, regardless of appearance, are treated equally.

According to Donald Hansbury, USAir vice president for passenger services, the ghost riders get paid--but "not a large amount." They also get two vacation passes every year for themselves and their families.

The USAir riders make notes about the service while they travel, but do not think that that is likely to lead to their being discovered. "Most businessmen today are taking notes on airplanes," Hansbury said. "So that is something that will not attract attention."

The program, he said, "is not a cover-up. Our people know they are out there."

But, he added, "there are only two people at USAir who really know them," Hansbury added, "the treasurer, who pays them, and myself."

Trans World Airlines, which has had an observation program for about three years, has 30 observers.

To avoid being identified, they purchase their tickets in a variety of ways. Some, for example, buy full-fare tickets; others buy discount tickets. Some pay with credit cards; others pay cash. Some have their tickets mailed home. When they board the plane, they do not wait until all the paying passengers have boarded, as other TWA employees would.

Most Fly 'Tourist'

The observers fly 10% of the time in first class, 10% in business class and the rest in tourist--percentages that roughly reflect the proportions of paying passengers in each class.

An observer's cover must also be credible. They dress in ways appropriate to their destinations. Observers headed for a resort island in the Caribbean, for example, do not wear vested suits.

They also develop travel scenarios that jibe with their own personal interests, so they can speak comfortably and competently about those interests.

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