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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > USAir and Phone

Haven’t you heard or seen the prideful announcements of Big Business: “Welcome to the information superhighway,” “the telecommunications Revolution is here and everyone wins.”

One evening last week I called US Air to find out the arrival time for a plane from Washington, D.C. to Bradley Field in Connecticut. A new 1-800 number (part of the telecommunications revolution), with quite the state of the art software, awaited utilization. I called and answered about 15 questions, each one of which was preceded and followed by a “press one” or “press two” or “press three” etc. instruction.

Still, I did not receive my answer. I was told that the plane left Orlando at such and such a time, that it landed at Dulles airport at such and such a time, but I could not get a reply as to when it landed in Hartford.

Part of the problem was that I did not know the three letter code for Dulles or for Bradley Field. There was also the problem of missing a sequence and having to close up and start all over again.

So I dialed the old local number of USAir which was still lingering until the 1-800 number completed its trial stage. A nicely sympathetic human being answered and said that many people were calling perplexed, confused or outright complaining about their experience with the 1-800 number.

“Does the company ask you to report back these customer comments,” I asked. “Oh, no, they never ask us to do that,” she replied.

We bade each other goodbye and I took an intermission for ten minutes. During this interlude I reflected on many years of calling airlines. Back in the Fifties, I would dial the number and within three or four rings, a polite serviceperson would ask how I could be helped. Airlines were very eager, polite and very desirous of seeking or keeping your business. True, they had to flip through the airline guide for schedules, but the schedules and prices were simpler then.

During the Eighties, the recorded announcement became very rigorous. Its purpose was to make you wait and like it. The longer you were willing to wait, the fewer employees they had to hire to answer the phones. So they gave you music, sometimes interspersed with promotions.

The music isn’t bad at all. If you want to hear classical music in the late evening, dial United Airlines. Or should your taste lead toward New Age tunes, why, American Airlines will oblige. USAir was particularly thick with a mixture of ads and music, all the while telling you how important you were to them.

Now the telephonic test is upon us. We don’t have to wait for a real operation; we only have to answer a series of questions and be ready to press one, two or three.

My ten minutes of reverie was over, so I dialed the “lingering” old local number for USAir again. This time the operator was truly a person of empathy.

She said that the company most definitely wants her and others to feedback how customer view this new 1-800-943-5436 number. And she was getting an earful from people who were not totally fluent in English, people who were “a little advanced in age” or people who just didn’t happen to have the flight number or the airport letter code or who confused the question about the first four letters of the city with that of the name of the airport. She confided that she too has slipped up using this number, and having missed a sequence, had to close up and dial 1­800 all over again.

Why is USAir doing this to their customers, I asked? To lay off some of their workers? Oh, no, she said, returning to prudence, the 1-800 is designed to replace the waiting time under the old system.

So, instead of waiting, you take an examination and if you don’t know the codes and other answers, you either stumble, muddle through after pressing enough ones, twos and threes to get a blister, or close up and try all over again.

Isn’t this telecommunications revolution something? Don’t you just love the way it gets you through so promptly to your bank, your insurance company, your governmental agency or even your newspaper. Press one, press two, press three.