Danny King
Danny King

The departure was on time, the service on the journey was friendly and professional, and the arrival concluded with a sincere farewell. In short, my 15-mile, 33-minute Uber ride with Reginald in his spotless Ford Escape earlier this month had been damn near perfect when he dropped me off at Los Angeles Airport.

At which point I lowered my expectations for the next leg of the journey.

Such is the paradox of one travel sector still struggling to find its way into the black and another with no shortage of green.

Conventional wisdom may dictate that happy customers equal happy shareholders, but there doesn't seem to be anything conventional when it comes to either the car-hailing business or the airline industry.

For, while the car-hailing industry may be marked by spooked investors and happy customers, airlines seem to boast cheery investors being paid by grumpy customers. Follow the money? One can't really be sure.

First, there's Uber, long the enfant terrible of the travel industry even though it's now approaching its 10th year of operations. This June marked the end of the tempestuous reign of co-founder Travis Kalanick, whose alleged transgressions ranged from fostering a corporate culture that enabled sexual harassment to allowing the deployment of the Greyball software designed to evade local authorities. Meanwhile, smaller competitor Lyft has garnered a reputation for being more user-friendly to its drivers than Uber (it should be noted that many drivers do double duty by driving for both companies).

Things got so toxic on the top end that, in addition to the Uber board pressuring Kalanick to step down, Transport of London last month rejected Uber's application for a new license, noting at the time "that Uber London Limited is not fit and proper to hold a private-hire operator license" and slamming it for its inability to properly report criminal offenses and obtain medical certificates as well as its use of the Greyball software. (Notably, Jo Bertram, who ran Uber's Northern Europe and U.K. operations, stepped down earlier this month, though the company said the decision wasn't related to the London situation.)

New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi issued a full-fledged mea culpa soon after he took the wheel at Uber in late August. The longtime Expedia boss also noted in a Sept. 25 open letter to Londoners that "we've gotten things wrong along the way." And by early this month, Khosrowshahi was in full-court-press mode in an effort to get London to reverse its decision, tweeting photos of himself with London Uber drivers, noting that he was "determined to make things right in this great city!"

"He's kind of the grown-up coming to Uber," said Christopher Anderson, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, shortly after Uber tapped Khosrowshahi. "Uber has a great business model, and now there's opportunity to create a real positive environment for employees."

For customers, though, that positive environment appears to be in place. Aside from its proclivity for "surge pricing" (read: price-gouging) during especially busy times, Uber has maintained a solid customer-service record.

Granted, from a service perspective, hailing a ride involves far fewer moving parts than catching a plane. Still, on an apples-to-apples basis, I've had multiple encounters with way-too-brusque-to-be-ironically charming cab drivers in New York, outright psychotic cabbies in San Francisco and just plain, old lost ones in Los Angeles (and I'm not going to get into the extremely stoned taxi driver in Jamaica except to say that his Chevy may well have come from Cuba and his lane maintenance was nebulous at best).

My own experience involves a couple of dozen or so Uber rides, and I cannot remember having anything close to an unpleasant experience on any of them.

In fact, the most notable example of an unhappy Uber passenger I can think of may be Kalanick himself, who famously was caught on video earlier this year bawling out an Uber driver.

It's popularity has grown to the point that many people have adopted "Uber" as a verb, as the company has parlayed its user-facing technology and its independently contracted drivers to continue boosting demand as growth within other forms of ground transportation stall.

The same cannot be said for flying.

Case in point: my most recent experience on United Airlines. Granted, that flight from Newark to Dallas was within the Basic Economy tier that was introduced by the carrier earlier this year, so I knew right up front that my family of four might not be seated together (OK, some parents wouldn't mind that) and that we'd be charged for all our carry-ons.

But on this flight, the annoyances and inconveniences weren't the exclusive territory of those who were squeezed into Basic Economy. The flight was delayed three hours without the excuse of a weather delay, a flight attendant nearly ran me down with her service cart, and none of the crew stuck around long enough to make sure all passengers were bid farewell as they deplaned (full disclosure: United sent us four $75 vouchers for our trouble).

Was it the steerage conditions my Russian-born grandmother withstood coming over from the old country? Of course not. That said, aside from my experience with Virgin America (soon to be swallowed whole by Alaska Airlines) and, to a lesser extent, Southwest Airlines, it'd be a stretch to classify my flying experience as generally enjoyable.  

But none of this seems to matter to investors. Oh, sure, drag a doctor off of an overbooked flight, as Chicago airport security officers did on a United flight back in April, and the stock can fall 4% in a single day. But scan United's stock during the past year, and you'll find it is up more than 25%.

In fact, as of last week, American Airlines shares had jumped more than 40% during the previous year, and Delta's stock was up more than 35%.

That said, there are signs that Uber is looking to make sure people in the front office are as comfortable as customers are in the back of its drivers' cars.

Khosrowshahi has long held a reputation as a no-drama, no-nonsense leader when it comes to corporate culture. And while few financial analysts believe Uber will fetch the $60 billion in the public market that it's been valued at via its equity investments, Khosrowshahi has reportedly set an aggressive goal of taking the company public within 18 months, so he's likely to keep controversy to a minimum.

Meanwhile, some airlines are showing signs of putting their money where their proverbial mouths are to help ensure its customers and workers are as happy as its investors.

American said in April that it would give pilots and flight attendants pay raises worth an estimated $1 billion over three years, all in advance of its contract negotiations with the unions, and the carrier took a 6% stock hit the day of that announcement for its troubles.

In fact, overall North American airline satisfaction ratings have been up for five straight years, according to J.D. Power, as fewer passengers are having their bags lost or being bumped from flights.

All of which travelers hope may eventually bode well for a more seamless air-to-ground experience from a customer service standpoint.

"He has to manage the driver side as well as the user-experience side," Anderson said of Khosrowshahi.

"He's got to ask himself, 'How do I make sure I keep them happy?'"


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