cliffCliff Van Leuven is the vice president of customer service at Frontier Airlines, the Denver-based regional airline. I asked him about how the carrier’s turbulent year so far, including a trip through bankruptcy court, a different take on fees and the likely bidding war between Republic Air and Southwest Airlines to take over Frontier. I also wondered how late-summer travelers can get the best customer service from a struggling airline industry.

Frontier is in the news today, with Southwest’s surprise $113.6 million bid to acquire it in bankruptcy court. Do you have any thoughts on how that might affect the customer experience at Frontier?

I doubt that it will have any impact. Are rumors going to be flying? Sure, we expect that.

Do we have many answers? No, not at this point. We do know we still have an auction process to start and conclude before a successful bidder will be decided, so my guidance to the city managers — our front line leaders around the country — and our customer service leadership here in Denver, is to do what we do: First, we lead. And then we continue to run the same airline later today and tomorrow that we did this morning before the news broke, and as we have the past 15 years.

What’s the story with Republic Air, which is also vying for Frontier?

We know the folks at Republic because they flew regional jets under the Frontier brand — we saw them every day — and we know that their people and passengers are important to them. The same is true with Midwest and our new codeshare agreement with them. Having worked at Midwest, I still know many employees there. And, frankly, the Frontier model works from a customer service perspective and, for the past eight months, from an operating profit perspective. I wouldn’t mess a lot with an airline that’s figured out the formula for service and profit and has built a brand around service.

I think Republic is investing in us because they believe all three are sustainable and a good fit with how they do their business. We think it’s going to be a very good arrangement for all involved.

Almost every survey I read tells me customer service is circling the drain in the airline industry. Yet there are a handful of companies — and I include Frontier in this group — where I rarely if ever get a complaint. What are you doing differently?

Circling the drain is a great description, and we’re proud not to be in that category. The difference at Frontier is we really do care about our employees and we really do care about our passengers. Our employees take pride in their company and we in them. We do our best to be open, honest, informative and fun — where appropriate — in our communication to, and with, them so we’re as close to being on the same page in what we do as possible.

In other words, you don’t see your customers as walking dollar signs.

Right. We also don’t look at our passengers as disposable, as some airlines do. We want to be responsive and I ask our folks to use common sense, their heart and their head, in making decisions for our passengers. We’ve got rules, like every business, but we’re still in the service business, and our passengers expect service from us. We want them to come back and I think we demonstrate that daily, and it’s why our passengers literally tell us they “love” our airline. We’re extremely proud of that, especially being in an industry that takes a pounding for not providing customer service.

We’ve been providing that customer service for 15 years- so it’s not a new phenomenon to us. In fact, our employees can go out in public, in uniform, and when someone stops them to ask if they work for Frontier, they can proudly say, “Yes, I do…” rather than “No, it’s my brother’s shirt!” and they can know with certainty that someone is about to say something nice about their company. It’s very cool. I visit new hire classes and say, “My charge to you is, please, don’t screw that up!”

What can airline passengers do to get the best possible customer service experience from an airline like Frontier?

Book via Frontierairlines.com to get the best choice of fares, amenities and travel flexibility using AirFairs. Check-in online, let us know how many bags you’ll be checking and pay any fees online as well. In short, do as much as you can before getting to the airport and don’t show up inside of 45-ish minutes, because despite all the news about a miserable airline economy, most flights right now are full and airports can still be very crowded, so don’t fall victim to “getting to the airport” travel complacency.

As I tell our customer service agents, my hope is that our passengers will breathe a sigh of relief when they get through all the “getting to the airport” obstacles — traffic, parking, shuttle buses, etc. — and finally stand in front of our ticket counters around the system because they know we’ll do our best to take good care of them now that they’ve made it to us.

I’d like to ask you about Frontier’s answer to a la carte pricing, called AirFairs. Could you explain what it is, for those of us who aren’t familiar with it?

Sure, it’s about choice, fairness and added value. For months, we’ve all heard “Just tack an additional $10 to $15 on your fare and don’t nickel and dime us,” but the fact is that in this brutally competitive business, we couldn’t just increase our fares to cover the cost of the business.

So, what we’ve done is create a fare structure that allows passengers to purchase just what they want and that saves them money. Not checking a bag? Perfect, book Economy. Taking a short flight and don’t care what seat you get? Perfect, buy Economy and you can still check-in the night before. Know that you’ll be checking a bag, traveling with the family — so you want advanced seat assignments — TV, a snack and a beverage? Book Classic Plus and get all the amenities in your ticket price and flexibility to change if your plans change.

The added value you get with the additional amenities in our Classic or Classic Plus products more than makes up for the additional cost of a ticket. For instance, a Classic ticket typically costs about $25 more per segment than an Economy ticket. But with that Classic fare, you get two complimentary checked bags, free DirectTV, a reduced change fee and 125 percent of your frequent flier miles. We give you about $70 or $80 worth of value for your extra $25.

What’s the reaction from your customers been to AirFairs?

Reaction to AirFairs has been positive. If there’s one negative I’ve heard it’s that AirFairs is only available via our Web site and that the only fares that are available via other booking sites are Economy fares, so no opportunity to get the amenities of Classic or Classic Plus if you’re booking elsewhere. No surprise, we want passengers to use our Web site and derive the benefit of having the AirFairs choice.

Why do you think other airlines have been reluctant to adopt something like it?

It’s a change and everyone struggles with change, I guess. I’ve been in the airline business coming up on 30 years and I think AirFairs makes sense and the fares and amenities by fare are very transparent and that’s always been a resounding criticism of the industry for as long as I’ve been in it: Fares don’t make any sense and anyone who tries something new is typically squashed by the other airlines. But we’re bucking that trend and pleased with the outcome.

What do you think other airlines can learn from Frontier, when it comes to customer service?

Two things. First, employees matter. Sounds cliché, I know, but we’re very fortunate to work for a company that has a history of very good employee relations and that shows very clearly to our passengers. Our employees like their company and respect their leaders and we respect our peeps. The history of the industry is the opposite.

Second, customers aren’t a commodity. Strong argument that our industry is now, more than ever before, a commodity business. And I get that, as fares — and frequent flier programs — now drive “loyalty” more than loyalty drives loyalty. We believe our passengers pick Frontier because of our fares, certainly, but if the fares are the same as United Airlines and Southwest Airlines (and even if they’re not the same) our passengers have still chosen to fly Frontier. Must be the service — from where I sit — but then I’m a bit biased.

How do you hear from most of your passengers who have a service-related query?

By my comments above, you may think that we think we’re perfect, and that’s sure not the case. It’s an incredibly complicated business — it’s amazing what airlines do every day, good weather and bad, all hours of the day and night — really incredible, but we do, at times, have our operational struggles and when we do I hear about it via phone, by email, by reading letters, and from our employees who pass along comments from our passengers and each other- because we are our own harshest critics…and a wide variety of means- but I sure do hear from them!

I understand you’re going to offer a way to contact Frontier by email. Why did you wait until now open up that channel?

We’ve struggled, to be honest, in our use of an email contact when we did it in the past, it was very labor-intensive. And as we’ve trimmed staff carefully around the company to cut costs, we did the same in Customer Relations which made keeping up with emails a real challenge, so we felt we had to shut it down. We simply didn’t want it out there if we couldn’t efficiently service the people who used it. It’s clear we have to find a way to provide that means to get a hold of us and I hope to have something in place again shortly.

Thanks for bringing that one up, Chris, now I’m painted into a corner! Great…thanks. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

As we look to the near future, there are predictions that one or more airlines will file for bankruptcy protection. From your experience, how does customer service change at an airline when flying the Chapter 11 skies?

I’ve heard those rumors of other carriers — the rumors are always out there though, aren’t they? And I’m glad we’re on our way out soon. But, while in Chapter 11, we’ve taken great pains to try not to impact our customer service. Some airlines in the past haven’t seemed to care about that at all as they’ve slashed without regard for impact on employees or passengers.

So, in a nutshell, I think the airline customer service experience pre-bankruptcy will likely mirror what you’ll see in bankruptcy. A miserable airline will provide an even more miserable service experience in Chapter 11, while a company that has a healthy culture stands a better chance of keeping that culture alive during the tough times. That’s sure been my experience at Frontier, as we’ve rallied around our company.

Do you have any advice for air travelers who might be booked on a bankrupt carrier in the future?

Travel insurance. I guess we all kinda know the major carriers that struggle the most from a service/culture/financial perspective and all those areas will be strained with a filing, no doubt about it. Bigger, established airlines typically don’t just cease operations with a bankruptcy filing, so you’re probably safe.

The riskiest ones, again from my experience, are the new, very small carriers; some with high costs on — here’s that phrase again — “brutally competitive” routes that cause new airlines to hemorrhage cash from the get go. The risk there isn’t a Chapter 11 filing and they just keep on flying. They are more likely to file Chapter 7 or 13 and just shut down — as we’ve seen repeatedly over the years.

We expect Frontier will be fine because we’ve run a pretty cool airline for 15 years. We’re a major carrier, we have a strong employee/customer-focused culture, a strong base of support in our hometown, home state and the cities we serve, we’ve got our costs down to about the lowest in the industry, and we’ve managed an operating profit the past eight months in a tough economy. If you haven’t flown us, I hope you’ll give us a shot.