I'm writing this while sitting cross-legged on the floor at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. As I approach 45, I must say that "cross-legged on the floor" is not my best position. I'm here because my flight is delayed for two hours. This is my fourth flight delay, each more than two hours long, in five flights. I won't mention the airlines -- yes, plural -- since this experience has been repeated time and again across many carriers. With a merger between U.S. Airways (NYSE:LCC) and Delta Airlines potentially in the works, now seems like a good time to examine ways to improve the flying experience.

That's your problem right there
Major airlines have turned to bankruptcy time after time -- TWA filed three times -- with a plethora of excuses: oil prices, labor contracts, fleet composition, 9/11, you name it. But these companies need only look in the mirror to find the true culprit. The airline industry is beset by poor communication, poor customer service, and poor attitudes.

There are well-known exceptions, of course. Southwest (NYSE:LUV) and JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) have well-deserved reputations for outstanding customer service. But for the most part, airlines realize that if you are stuck in a strange town, your options, if you have any, will cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars. In the short run, at least, they can treat you any way they like, and it's not going to cost them one red cent.

Can't anyone drive this thing?
Imagine the returns from the turnaround of an airline that was under the direction of someone who knew what he was doing! Given his proven ability to identify talented managers, I'd love to appoint self-confessed "aeroholic" Warren Buffett to the search committee, but based on his observation that the airline industry has been the greatest destroyer of capital in the modern era, I doubt I'd be able to persuade him. I don't want the job myself, but I have a few suggestions for those ready to accept the turnaround task:

  • Acknowledge my existence. With all the logic of a 1-year-old playing peek-a-boo, the gate attendant at my newly assigned gate assumes that if he just keeps staring at the keyboard and typing, the six passengers who have suddenly and mysteriously appeared will become invisible. Yes, we're demanding his attention. Yes, we're grumpy. Imagine what we'll tell our friends about your airline if your employee can fix that.
  • Talk to us. And why has an unexpected gaggle of disgruntled (would-be) flyers queued up in front of this clueless employee? Because we've just been evicted from our original gate, and the new gate, a quarter-mile away, says there's a flight leaving for Wichita five minutes before our scheduled flight to St. Louis. We know better. Yet despite this obvious change in plans, the gate attendant has no idea why we're here, or what's next in our little adventure.
  • Talk among yourselves. You can't really blame the gate crew for keeping us in the dark, because the news hasn't reached them yet. (I prefer to believe this, rather that the alternative hypothesis, which involves sadistic chain-yanking.) Every single passenger knows that the gate has been changed and suspects that the flight is delayed. But your own employees, the frontline face of your company, are on some bizarre need-to-know basis. Trust me: If we know, they need to know.
  • Spring for the upgrade. No, not our seats -- your technology. To give credit where credit is due, you've done a great job outside the gate. Online check-in? The ability to print our own boarding passes? Fantastic! Self-serve kiosks? Anything that keeps me out of one more line and saves you money on personnel is the very definition of win-win.

    Once we're at the gate, though, we've traveled back in time to the floppy disk era. I kid you not: At my gate, I saw a dot-matrix printer for the first time since 1992. All of the problems above, save for bad attitudes (and those would be improved as well), could be fixed by an information matrix that tracks which flight is going where and when, and can relay these vital statistics to your employees and customers.
  • See for yourself. Once a quarter, put on your jeans, a T-shirt, and maybe a fake beard and glasses. Then fly into your hub, make a connection, and fly out. Book the flight yourself -- no assistants allowed. Fly a few hundred miles in our shoes, and see whether you can't find some more improvements yourself.

Imagine if, instead of the current Kafkaesque runaround, your customers are greeted by one of your smiling employees at the gate, pointing out the confirmation of the changes and the new schedule on the video monitor behind them, and offering to update them every 10 minutes on the true status of their flight. A little information and empathy is all we ask.

After our second gate change, I asked the gate employee why, now that all the wandering gate refugees had arrived, the screen behind him said "Thank You For Flying Indifference Airlines!" instead of having more useful information like, say, our flight number and departure time. He replied, "It's broke."

So is his airline, in more ways than one.

Further Foolishness, now departing from gate F1:

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Fool contributor John Dutemple, CFA, is president of Compton Advisors, LLC, a Missouri registered investment advisor firm. Though he once owned shares of Delta subsidiary ComAir, he's come to his senses, and he owns no airline stocks mentioned here, unmentioned here, or completely unmentionable. The Fool's disclosure policy is always on time for departure.