Is TAM the Worst Airline in the World? Part III: Communication Breakdowns

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An updated follow-up to

As we noted there, our recent (bad) experiences traveling domestically on American Airlines were not appreciably different than the general run of our (bad) experiences traveling domestically on Varig, TAM and Gol in Brazil over the years.

And of course, we have had reasonably good experiences, and neutral ones, while traveling in both zones.

The difference, I surmised, might be the human factor, and in particular in the area of failures to commun’cate.

More evidence has come in to support that surmise.

The problem: How to get a cat aboard an international flight. See also

As I said, we understood from TAM that we had confirmation that there was room on the flight that we reserved in advance for our cat. We were wrong. So what we wanted to know was, could we book the next flight that still had space available for live animals? There are limits on the number of beasts that a given airliner can carry, both in the main cabin and in baggage.

The correct answer to that question, as we have finally discovered, is “no.”

The answer we got from TAM: “Yes, but you have to call this other number.”

When you call that number, the answer you get is, “Yes, but you have to call this other number.”

When you call that number, the answer you get is, “Yes, but you have to call this other number.”

The number you get from the third number in the series is the original number that referred you to the second number. And so on.

So it turns out that “Yes, but …” is actually disinformation.

TAM was disinforming us.

The case seems tailor-made for Bateson’s theory of schismogenesis. Gabbling, incoherent messages from persons in a position of authority or power, like parents or people with rubber stamps who have the power to prevent you from going home, can make you crazy.

Finally, we decide to book on another airline. Fortunately, we have the luxury, within limits, of throwing a bit of extra money at the problem to make it go away.

Booking with the other airline, we put the same question to the operator there: Is it possible book the next flight with baggage or carry-on space available for a regulation cat in a box?

The answer is no.

We wish we had known that in the first place.

The TAM Web site simply does not explain that space for live baggage cannot be reserved, is available only on a first-come, first-serve basis, and that there is a risk you will miss your flight.

So what is the best way to proceed? we ask the other airline.

Well, because the availability of space for live domestic animals (no pigs or stoats or anacondas, please, or beasts over 20 lbs.) is first come, first serve, you should check in as early as possible before your flight to maximize your chances.

Domestic beasts may not be checked sooner than 4 hours before scheduled departure.

So the best strategy is to arrive 4 hours early on the dot.

Yes, we know this is kind of insane, they tell us. But these are the rules we have to live with, God knows why, and this is best way we know for dealing deal with them.

With this airline, it takes one phone call to get a realistic understanding of the situation and how best to handle it.

It is not happy news, but it at least gives us all the information we need to manage our risk and plan our travel effectively.

With TAM, it takes innumerable phone calls that go round and round in circles.

Frustrated, I wind up conducting a little experiment with TAM on the last go-round.

Can I get TAM to admit that the answer to our first question is “no”? Can I get it to provide a realistic answer to how best to proceed beyond “call this other number”?

I try to be polite but insistent.

And I am telling you, it is not easy.

Poor Neuza is literally weeping in frustration.

And I really hate to see my little honeybunch unhappy. It awakens atavistic emotions in me.

Result: No, I cannot get TAM to provide a straight answer to either question.

Once again, all they can do is explain why they are powerless to do anything, and compulsively enumerating the things they cannot do. Over and over and over again. It is like listening to a small child whining that they do not want to eat their carrots. They cannot understand how we got the impression that our space on the flight was actually confirmed.

Finally, rather than admitting that they cannot help us, and unable to give realistic advice, they hang up right in the middle of the call.

This is not an uncommon consumer experience with Brazilian call centers, I understand.

The perennial champion in consumer complaints in São Paulo, Telefónica — whose outsourced maintenance crew (seriously) hit my wife up for a bribe the last time she called for maintenance on her Speedy aDSL line — has generated a rich literature of astonishing hijinks in this area. See also

We are canceling that aDSL line when we get back. A recent court decision found that Telefónica had to reimburse consumers for required ISP fees paid to a third-party who added absolutely no value to the deal.

Which in our case was UOL.

Provisional conclusion, therefore: We now understand, from personal experience, the fits of hysteria that Brazilian TV news crews are so fond of filming at TAM Airlines counters. And possibly even the gabbling hysteria of Elizabeth Spiers’ article for the Washington Post. On which see also

But we also note that we have had similar experiences with U.S. firms.

Most recently, Home Depot, for example, where, similar to this case, we paid in advance for a service that the firm was not able to deliver as agreed or represented to us.

So, thinking about it with a cool head, it may be that, while TAM Airlines customer service is very, very, very, very bad indeed — we do not disagree with Ms. Spiers on this point: do not fly with this airline — there may not be anything specifically Brazilian about that fact.

It may be that semi-monopolies — TAM says it has 70% of the market for international flights out of Brazil — and duopolies behave the same way whether they speak Portuguese or English in a Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic or Bangalore accent.

There may well be a Freakonomics explanation, in other words. It may well be, as I like to joke, that banana-republicanism is coming to your town, too.

The incoming Brazilian Defense Minister, Jobim, echoing the Minister of the Casa Civil, Dilma Rousseff, has been making a lot of noise about busting these trusts once and for all and restoring respect for the consumer.

And more power to them. That’s our gut feeling at this point.

And if we think that way — our general standard of living is pretty much in the dead middle of the urban middle class, I think you can say — I would idly bet you that a lot of Brazilians do as well.

No one likes to be ratfinked by rent-seeking sociopaths.

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