Open letter to Douglas M. Steenland, president and CEO, Northwest Airlines

Dear Mr. Steenland,
I would contact you using more conventional means, but getting through to even a minor lackey at your company is next to impossible. Thank you in advance for reading this.

I hate your company. They are perhaps the most difficult company I have ever dealt with as a consumer, and I won’t be sorry to see them go, although I doubt it will change anything.

Let me give you a little background.

In December, my in-laws planned a family trip for their 50th anniversary. I’ll spare you some of the details, but let me give you the basics—an elderly couple, and two young couples with children show up early for their flight to meet the cruise ship. Airplane breaks, new airplane is called in, with time to spare to meet ship. Once on new plane, NW realizes that the cabin crew has “timed out” and we need a new one. They finally arrive, and then NW realizes that flight crew has timed out. After waiting for new flight crew, we get in line for de-icing. We arrive in San Juan just in time to see our boat leave without us. Northwest’s response was as expected—horrible. They did try to put us up in a hotel, but it didn’t accept kids, so we couldn’t stay there. There are more details, but I’ll spare you. The level of incompetence to allow such a thing to happen is hard to fathom. If I sent a patient to surgery, and after getting on the table, the nurses found they were off the clock, and then after finding new ones, the surgeons had to leave, until the surgery was finally postponed…well, you can follow the analogy.

So, my wife and I decided to take a vacation alone together—no children. Just before we were to leave, my daughter got a terribly contagious respiratory illness and was hospitalized. I called Northwest and I was informed that we cannot have a refund. I tried to explain that given our situation and the amount of planning for work and child care, we are unlikely to be able to use the tickets in the next year. I was passed to a supervisor twice, and chided like a child for being annoyed that I was asked to listen to the same script multiple times. I was given the direct number for customer care, which isn’t accepting calls. I was told I have to email, and when the supervisor gave me the email address, it started with “www.”. When I explained that that is a web address, not an email address, she discontinued the conversation with this angry doctor-blogger.

Clearly, Northwest doesn’t care a bit about their customers. I’m shocked, shocked to find a large American company only cares about taking customers’ money, and not about pleasing and retaining them. Shocked.

I would appreciate, but of couse do not expect, a response.

Sincerely, but angrily,

Peter A. Lipson, M.D.

P.S. Please buy something nice with my 2000 bucks. I hope it looks good on you.


20 responses to “Open letter to Douglas M. Steenland, president and CEO, Northwest Airlines”

  1. Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to Northwest. The state of American Civil Aviation is simply horrible and getting worse.

    I have severely cut back on my volunteer leadership activities in professional organizations (which require a lot of flying to & from meetings) because I won’t subject myself to the vagaries of flying any more that I have to.

  2. Here’s a prediction: airline travel will turn out to have been a short-lived blip in the history of human activities. Fuel prices will eventually make recreational travel or discretionary travel of any kind too expensive. We’ll figure out that we can vacation closer to home. No snorkeling in the Caribbean, but maybe there was something fun to do at home anyway. Business travel will continue for a while but will be replaced by something entirely different – some offshoot of video teleconferencing? Some people will insist that they must travel for business. In some cases they will be right, but in many it will turn out that they just like traveling because they get to fly first class, stay in very nice hotels, eat at fine restaurants and not pay anything for it. The rest of us will learn that we really didn’t have to fly after all. Of course the top airline executives will continue to fly, because they will have the money to do it, even if their airlines are bankrupt.

  3. I’ve long shared your frustrations with the airlines and decided to fly as infrequently as possible. By that I mean, yeah, I’ll make sure my vacations don’t involve airtravel. I’ll rent nicer cars and treat the road time as part of the vacation and focus on being with family and not the destination’s exotic proximity. Many meetings that require airtravel can, given the proper amount of planning, be done remotely. Anyone who’s travelled for a living quickly discovers it’s no fun and insisting they need to go to meetings where nothing of substance is really done except face time seems archaic and in this case downright counter-productive. Maybe a better letter would be a plea to our leadership to come up with the kind of support that high speed modern rail systems need to insure affordable and enjoyable long distance travel by train. When every hour in the air requires a half day on the ground just to handle the rigamarole of the airport security theater, it’s about time to deny them the role they’ve wedged themselves into with our expectations in travel. I’d rather sleep on a train equipped with wi-fi and good food than be whised away in a flying bus while they’re pretending I’m being treated like royalty, sure.. right after the french revolution, maybe.

  4. They may be bad, but you can avoid them. You will go through the same futility and customer satisfaction and respect (or lack thereof) with most major medical insurance companies and you can’t avoid them.

  5. Send this to the Consumerist. They love these type of stories, and may help you get a response.

  6. Carsten

    yes, this is pretty much spot on. I used to work in Amsterdam for a company that was headquartered in Boston which pretty much left me with flying with the partnership from hell — NWA/KLM. Over the years I found myself preferring KLM, but that was really only because it was the smaller of two ills.

    Of the US carriers still around Continental (while nowhere from being perfect) is my preferred one, but I tend to take a foreign carrier anytime i can.

  7. John Lynch

    I wrote a similar letter to NWA after having a frustrating experience with baggage (it sat for three+ hours on the plane while we waited in a vacant terminal – it was midnight on a Saturday – and no one would tell us what was happening). I swore then that I would never travel NWA again (we usually fly into Detroit to see family once or twice a year and I fly through there regularly on business). Never have.

    Oh, and I got a reply – a generic one that, despite me saying that I was never flying NWA again, ended with “we hope to see you with us again”. Idiots.

  8. Personally, I try to plan my travels such that I have time for a few days on the “road”, so that the one hypothetical advantage of flying (less travel time) is moot. Then, I either drive or take a train.

    I still kind of enjoy the actual “flying” part of air travel, provided I’ve got a window seat (and especially if I’m flying on one of the airlines that isn’t obnoxiously paranoid and allows the use of handheld GPS), but the absolutely inexcusable customer service and reliability problems, security-theater hassles, and so forth mean to me that the industry no longer deserves to have our money.

  9. Ah, the unregulated free market at its very best…

  10. bob koepp

    Not so many years ago, NWA was viewed as a “model company” by industry analysts. Unfortunately, because it followed the old fashioned business practice of maintaining a healthy cash balance, it was targeted for takeover (i.e., dismemberment and disposal of any assets not “essential” to daily operations). Along with the ensuing fiscal mismanagement, it also stopped treating customers like guests. But what they hey! It’s new owners made out like bandits — then again, that’s exactly what they were.

  11. Anonymous

    Yay for return of the open letter!

  12. First off, I love this site!

    Second, this is the perfect scenario for my proposed game show entitled: “Executive Peril”.

    Here’s the premise:

    CEO of company, let’s say Dell, is told that they must act as a normal consumer of their product, with a common problem. They must obtain a positive outcome by calling the same customer service numbers or web sites or emails that a normal customer would have to use. At no time may they identify themselves as anything but a normal customer.

    If they do not obtain a positive outcome within 60 minutes, they must liquidate all personal assets, to be donated to a charity not of their choosing.

    One derivative, which might become a once a season special episode, would be devoted strictly to cell phone providers. The CEO’s teenage daughter is put in a vehicle and told to drive through a blizzard on a major US Interstate. Not a secondary road, a full on Interstate. The car is rigged to breakdown in a known area of poor/no coverage. Unknown to the teenager, hidden satellite cams would broadcast her suffering while split screen shows the CEO. A rescue team is dispatched as soon as CEO signs agreement to eliminate all dead zones on any US Interstate within 90 days. After a few of those, we’ll move on to major secondary roads. 🙂

    P.S. I own the rights to this idea. Steal it, and my lawyers see a fat payday. 😉

  13. I was thinking that, if you cancel a refundable ticket, you had one year to reschedule. I found this,, but not sure if it still applies.

  14. Sorry, I meant NONrefundable in the previous comment. Refundable obviously shouldn’t be a problem.

  15. Thanks. We do have a year to reschedule, but it basically took an act of Baal to get this time all set…on the good side, we may have found a way to reschedule the impossible. If so, it will become moot. If not, chances are we’re not going again for a lot of years.

  16. A Lurker

    With that much money on the line you might next time consider insurance which covers emergency cancellations. The web site (if you used one) where you get your tickets might offer it, if not check around.

    Were you told ahead of time that the tickets are non-fundable? The airline web sites that I have used have been very clear and go out of their way to make sure the customer knows this. The last airline I used also said that rescheduling would result in a fee plus if the ticket for the rescheduled flight was more expensive that that would have to be paid for as well. They also me offered insurance though I declined it though if my fee was $2K instead of $300 I would have decided differently.

  17. If it makes you feel any better, they’re going bankrupt.

  18. jnovitz

    What A Lurker said.

    if you buy not non-refundable tickets and don’t take travel insurance, expect to lose your money if you cant fly. As a doctor you are hardly short of the ready and as a doctor you should have a good understanding of the concept of risk and how insurance protects against it.

    Quite what appears to give you the right to abuse over the telephone hard working people, paid a good deal less than you, who are simply operating according to company rules and your ticket conditions, is quite beyond me.

    And thats leaving aside some rather eyebrow raising features of your “RSV” infection.

  19. ?eyebrow-raising

  20. jnovitz

    perhaps I should have said hair-raising. although eyebrows are hair.

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