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“You have chunks in your beer”: Amazing customer letter to Midwest Airlines

Midwest Airlines recently went from having “Signature Service,” with wider seats on its Boeing 717s, to stuffing “normal” coach seats onto the back half the plane and charging $50 extra for the right to sit in the wider seats. The same wider seats that used to be the norm.

Good luck trying to get your company’s travel office to pay for that extra $50 upgrade, each way!

Well, friend of the blog Robert P., a longtime Midwest Airlines booster, has had it. He has written a great letter to the CEO of Midwest Airlines, in which he compares the airline to Schlitz Beer.

It’s a great letter, not because it successfully and efficiently argues for a clean resolution to a customer service problem. No, this isn’t that kind of letter. Rather, it’s a slap-in-the-face, the kind of letter that, if the CEO actually receives it, he’ll remember. He’ll have a laugh, but then he might — just might — realize that the race to the bottom isn’t a winning strategy for a small airline in a competitive market.

We’re republishing the letter here, both for your entertainment, and to make it just a little easier for the airline to take note…

Mr. Timothy E. Hoeksema
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer
Midwest Airlines
6744 South Howell Avenue
Oak Creek, WI 53154

Dear Mr. Hoeksema:

I frequently fly Midwest Airlines for both business and personal travel, and, as a Wisconsin resident, I have been very proud of this Milwaukee-based company. However, two recent flights to and from Washington, DC (Flight 411 on October 27, and Flight 418 on October 28) reminded me of another great Milwaukee company: the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

As you probably know, Schlitz was the most popular beer in the United States throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. Indeed, it probably put Milwaukee on the map of the national consciousness. Unfortunately for that great company, in the 1970s, facing an increase in commodity prices, it changed the formula for its beer, adding rice, cheaper yeast, and a different fermentation process. Customers reacted badly to the formula change, particularly noting that the beer no longer kept a proper “head.” To rectify that problem, the Schlitz managers added a seaweed extract as a foaming agent. However, after several months and under the types of temperatures common in a warehouse, the extract would solidify, resulting in “chunks” floating in the beer. Rather than recall the defective product, revert to the tried and true formula, and “weather” the increase in commodity prices, Schlitz instead decided to weather the bad publicity. As you can guess, it didn’t, and Milwaukee lost what was once a great company.

The reason my flights to and from Washington brought this story to mind is because of the new seating arrangements on your Boeing 717s. Midwest has long been known for the comfort of its seating and the quality of its service. I read some time ago that Midwest was refitting its planes to offer two types of seats, but the implication was that the smaller seats were for cheaper, discount tickets and tourist travel, not business travelers. However, you recently decided to start charging an extra $50 fee for the types of seats that were standard on your flights just last month.

Worse, you charge this fee even for full-fare tickets and Executive Miles members, even though other airlines offer their “economy plus” seats to their frequent fliers and full-fare ticket holders as a matter of course. Frankly, I think this is ridiculous. Midwest typically charges more for its tickets to begin with, which I’ve long been happy to pay to avoid being crammed into an airplane like so many sardines. However, your new seating arrangements mean Midwest is now essentially offering AirTran comfort at Singapore Airlines prices.

Furthermore, Flight 411 and 418 lead me to believe that this new policy is not exactly a rousing success. On my flight to Washington, there were 9 people in the “Signature Seating” section. On my return, exactly 3 people. The back sections of both flights were full. The difference was so obvious that I’m surprised that, while you were refitting the 717s, you didn’t add a tail-wheel to address the potential load imbalance.

In other words, it appears that your new seating charges netted you $450 in extra fees going to DC, and $150 on the return.

Paradoxically, $450 is approximately the price of the ticket I paid for this trip, and would have paid on a trip I’m likely to forego in the future. Air travel today is sufficiently annoying that the significant difference in comfort these new seats offer is enough to keep me home from many proposed trips. At the very least, where Midwest is but one of several choices to a destination, there is no longer a good reason to choose Midwest over a discount carrier.

I am confident I am not alone in making these decisions. I know these are tough times, particularly for smaller airlines, who historically have not benefitted as much from government assistance in hard times as have the larger carriers. But alienating long-time customers with poorly thought-through policies is not a recipe for success. And eliminating the very things that make you special is not a way to make yourself competitive. If Flight 418 is any indication, you now have $150 in extra fees, a half-empty flight, and a group of irate customers.

In other words, Mr. Hoeksema, you have chunks in your beer. Please fix it before it’s too late.

Thank you very much for your time.

Best regards,

Robert P…