SuperShuttle in New York – Make that Super Shittle

I am a fool. I wasted three hours of my older daughter’s life that she will never be able to recoup – Thank you SuperShuttle.

This is a story about brand loyalty, shifting business models and what happens when a company completely loses focus on the customer experience.

Old Outhouse

Super Shuttle’s New York operation is a lot like this outhouse. Dilapidated, barely functional and, from a customer’s perspective, it stinks.
Photo Credit: Richard Elzey | Flickr

It all occurred with the best of intentions. My 20 year-old daughter was planning her first solo trip to New York City to visit friends. The flight planning was easy and the lodging was settled as she was staying with a friend. The one twist was that since she was funding this trip herself, she wanted to be cost conscious. The first challenge was the transfer between LaGuardia Airport and the friend’s apartment in the Financial District.

Four options were considered:

  1. Taxi Cab – Door-to-door from LaGuardia to apartment – One Way Fare: $37.50
  2. Shared Ride – Door-to-door from LaGuardia to apartment – One Way Fare: $17.00
  3. Airport Bus/Subway – NY Airport Service from LaGuardia to Grand Central Station, change to 4 or 5 subway train – One Way Fare: $14.50
  4. City Bus/Subway – M60 Bus from LaGuardia, transfer to 4 or 5 subway train at 125th & Lexington – One Way Fare: $2.50

Option 1, the taxi, despite being recommended by her friend, was eliminated due to the additional cost. Option 4, the city bus was eliminated as she was traveling alone, lacked familiarity with NYC transit and the East Harlem transfer. Options 2 & 3 were very close in price, but again, as it was her first time in New York alone, we opted for the shared ride option.

It was particularly reassuring (at the time) to see that Super Shuttle’s familiar blue vans served New York City. Since its inception in the early 1980’s, I had used SuperShuttle sporadically, normally for extended trips when keeping a car parked at the airport for a couple weeks simply didn’t make sense. Having always had positive experiences, there was no reason to consider much had changed over the 10 years since I had used them last – after all, they had expanded to serving 33 airports.

I was a loyal, albeit infrequent customer, who didn’t think twice about trusting this company to provide a great experience to begin my daughter’s visit to New York, so we booked and pre-paid for round-trip LGA-Manhattan transfers on SuperShuttle through Orbitz.

Wow – I could not have been more mistaken.

The Gory Details – The Dirty Dozen

To avoid writing a 9,000 word post journaling the continuous string of service delivery failures that resulted in her round-trip transportation voucher being confiscated by the driver and more than three hours lapsing before she arrived at her friend’s apartment, I will merely summarize the highlights…

  1. Orbitz provided a single round-trip SuperShuttle Shared Ride Voucher stating the “booking is confirmed” with instructions to call the service upon arrival at baggage claim.
  2. Upon calling SuperShuttle upon arrival, as instructed, my daughter was advised by the dispatcher that the van would arrive within 20 minutes.
  3. After one hour (being a much more patient soul than her father,) I received a call from my daughter asking what she should do next as the van had not arrived and the dispatcher on the phone refused to give her any more of an estimated arrival time than “it’s on the way.”
  4. The van finally arrived more than an hour and 20 minutes after her original call from baggage claim.
  5. The van was loaded with 8 other passengers and the driver insisted on taking my daughters full round-trip voucher, refusing to allow her to keep one of the two bar-codes or any printed documentation of her return trip. This triggered a second call, this time with tears as over two hours had now elapsed and she no longer had a return voucher.
  6. I called SuperShuttle for the first time – initially asking what their policy was on “stuffing” the van. I was advised that there should be no more than 4 stops by the call center agent. I was then transferred to the New York dispatcher to further investigate number of stops and voucher capture policies. The dispatcher told me that there could be “an unlimited number of stops” and that without the return voucher, she would need to pay for the trip back to the airport before abruptly hanging up on me.
  7. I called SuperShuttle for a second time. This time requesting that someone contact the driver of the van (my daughter had alertly provided me with the van number) so he could give back the return voucher. The customer care supervisor agreed that this was a viable alternative. She also explained that the company had initially started with a no more than three stop policy, but that had expanded to four stops several years ago and had since been eliminated and was now a somewhat taboo topic of conversation with customers. After an extended period of time where the supervisor was reportedly on the phone with NYC dispatch, she advised me that my daughter had already been dropped off, so there was nothing that could be done to get her the return voucher.
  8. When I called my daughter to fill her in on the outcome of the voucher discussion, much to my surprise, I learned she WAS STILL ON THE VAN. At this point, I could only assume the New York dispatcher, or the driver, had lied to the customer care supervisor. Over 2 1/2 hours had now passed.
  9. Call number three to customer care was even more unpleasant for all involved than the first two calls. By this time, my daughter’s friend had missed an appointment waiting for the van to arrive, my daughter had no pre-paid return voucher for a ride back to the airport, and SuperShuttle has sufficiently destroyed every shard of trust or loyalty to the point that there was no chance in hell we were going to rely on them to provide return transportation for her return flight.
  10. The customer care agent appended our file with the new information and agreed that a complete service failure had occurred. Two subsequent steps were required – first, I needed to contact Orbitz to request a refund by providing a case number; second, a representative from SuperShuttle would contact me within 3-5 business days to address my concerns.
  11. I called Orbitz, who advised me that only SuperShuttle could contact them to authorize a refund (this is very logical – I had even asked the SuperShuttle agent about the sequencing, but was assured that I needed to call Orbitz first… Wrong again – I should have guessed.
  12. As I write this missive, two weeks have now passed with no contact from SuperShuttle. If you have made it this far, I assume you are not surprised either.

What Should Have Happened

From start to finish, this entire episode was easily avoidable.

A reasonable expectation would have been getting picked up by the van within 30 minutes of calling and getting dropped off at her destination within an hour following departure from the airport. One could hope for less than 90 minutes, but even if unforeseen challenges were encountered, 2 hours would represent the outer boundary of reasonableness. Again, this was early on a Sunday afternoon – eliminating any excuse of excessive traffic delays.

Let’s take a quick look at the service delivery failures that subverted a reasonable passenger experience:

First, as the booking was transacted with Orbitz in concert with a flight reservation, the flight information should have been captured by SuperShuttle and entered into their reservation system. According to the SuperShuttle Website, “We also have partnerships with many leading online travel providers… enabling passengers to make their SuperShuttle reservation at the same time they are completing the rest of their travel plans.” In my daughter’s case, this was not true – the customer care team advised me that no advance reservation had been made – my daughter was merely provided with a voucher.

Next, called on arrival by my daughter, the dispatcher, understanding the availability of vans and the number of passengers waiting to travel to various destinations, should have been able to provide an accurate time estimate for a van pickup. Again, the SuperShuttle web site establishes an expectation, “The moment you have your luggage and inform our staff you are ready to go, you will be entered into our system, quickly matched with others going in your direction, and a van will be sent to pick you up promptly.” By any reasonable measure, waiting 80+ minutes on a Sunday afternoon is by no means “prompt.”

The number of people loaded into the shuttle should be based on an estimation of the arrival time for the last passenger to reach their destination. Yet again, the SuperShuttle web site defines the service expectation, “Customers enjoy the cost savings of a shared-ride service along with the assurance that they will reach their destinations reasonably quickly.” Google Maps indicates the most direct route to my daughter’s destination as taking 19 minutes due to minimal traffic early Sunday afternoon. Even considering dropping off eight other passengers enroute, taking over 1 hour 40 minutes in the process is wantonly excessive – an indication of exceptionally poor route planning by the driver (this was even confirmed by my daughter after she noticed they were passing various landmarks multiple times.)

My daughter should have been allowed to keep her round-trip voucher, with the number recorded on the outbound trip and the document captured on the return trip. Despite the round-trip voucher issue potentially being a relatively rare scenario, that process still should be a basic element of driver training. If drivers have a question on a policy, a central resource should be available to authorize an expedient resolution. Standard processes should also be established so van drivers may be contacted quickly and efficiently – especially when a van number is provided. There must be frequent occurrences when passengers inadvertently forget luggage or personal belonging in the vans and the items must be returned. Quick communication with drivers can potentially spare all parties a lot of time and aggravation.

Regardless of any circumstances, there is no reason for a dispatcher to hang up on callers or mislead to coworkers.

This is a particularly important point considering the SuperShuttle credo is: “to maintain our founding principles of quality, superb passenger service, responsiveness, reliability and passenger safety.” So for this trip, the company achieved 20% of its stated goal, with passing grades on the safety front.

How Did SuperShuttle Lose Its Way?

SuperShuttle did not always operate this way. In 2001, their website proudly presented their Service Standards:

  • We recognize that our first responsibility is to our guests, who are the sole support of each and every one of us.
  • We are friendly and courteous no matter what.
  • We help our passengers in every way possible.
  • We will be on time, every time.
  • We have a policy of no more than 3 stops, with the exception of holidays, express areas and travel emergencies.
  • We take pride in the condition of our equipment and in our personal appearance.
  • We will respond with urgency to any problem that jeopardizes these standards.

Times have changed.

Most significantly, around 2004, SuperShuttle changed its business model from employee-based operations to franchised operator/drivers. This change dramatically reduced the company’s variable operating costs for costs for employment and unemployment taxes, vehicle maintenance, fuel and insurance.

The move fundamentally converted its drivers from employees into small business owners – a move that reportedly many were not well prepared to take. Despite requiring drivers dedicate a minimum number of hours per week, the change also significantly undermined the organization’s capability to plan for service peaks & valleys. As a result, the company lost control of its operations and subsequently degraded its brand.

Due to the franchise relationship and inadequate incentive structures to support rider satisfaction, drivers now seek full vans to maximize profitability, causing more intermediate stops and loops around the airport trolling for additional fares.

How bad are franchisee relations? A hint might be offered by the SuperShuttle Corporate Slaves video. The points raised paint a fairly ugly portrait of the company.

Lesson learned – by being blindly brand loyal, one can get blindsided by service delivery issues. It is best to check user generated review sites with an ample number of recent reviews to confirm that others have not encountered systemic problems.

Travel Tip: When traveling to New York, to quote a friend of my daughter, the best way to get from the airport into the city is “anyway, except SuperShuttle.”

NOTE: I have held off more than two weeks to publish this post, giving Super shuttle more than ample time to contact me – a commitment that they have again failed to fulfill. Perhaps the company should refocus its efforts and promote its consistency. In my most recent experience, they are consistently bad, but at least they could abide by truth in advertising standards…

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.