Frequent travelers are Verizon fans

In the never-ending search for a cell phone service with truly reliable, wide coverage and fast and dependable customer support for a bargain price, it seems appropriate to check with people who are paid to roam.

For cell-phone-using flight attendants and pilots consulted in a random survey, Verizon Wireless is the overwhelming choice.

Consistency cited

It picks up everywhere, even in this airport, even downstairs in the crew room," says Laura Walker, a flight attendant with Chautauqua Air, at Ronald Reagan National Airport in suburban Washington.

Walker switched from Sprint's service after September 11, 2001. "There were dead spots all over the place even days after the attacks," she says. Now a Verizon customer, Walker says she hasn't been caught by surprise by any mysterious charges. "I've used it in Canada and I know exactly what the bill will be, whereas Sprint charges all kinds of roaming charges," she says.

Steve Graffi, a first officer who often flies US Air Shuttles, is a kind of mobile phone connoisseur. Having tried services from AT&T, Sprint, and Nextel Communications, Graffi embraces his relationship with Verizon. He even convinced his parents to sign up with the carrier.

"I found Sprint to have pretty bad signal strength, and its customer service was horrible," Graffi says, complaining that Sprint's automated system was tricky to maneuver around and if employees took the call they often didn't know the answers to his questions.

"When they didn't know the answers they would sometimes hang up on you," Graffi adds. "They told me they were building new towers -- it was just a way to get people off their backs."

Sprint spokesperson Jennifer Walsh says the company has made customer service a top priority. Sprint has changed its automated answering system, making it easier to reach a person, she says.

"In the 2004 budget we've allotted US$2.4 billion to increase wireless coverage," Walsh adds. "The number of dropped calls has already decreased." The company feels "very positive" about the service it provides, she says.

Competitive lures

Graffi's cell phone is the only phone he has, so he says it must be reliable and meet his needs. His Nextel phone lacked the features he needed, like an alarm clock -- so he ditched it after a week.

Pleased when Verizon offered him a US$100 rebate for his Sprint phone, Graffi signed up for a comparable package at a similar price.

"I've never stayed with a company past my contract. This was the first time I ever did," he says about his continuing relationship with Verizon.

According to a Verizon spokesperson, the company has invested US$4 billion yearly on increasing network coverage since it became Verizon Wireless in 2000.

"We've worked hard for years on blocking and tackling to have a high-quality network," says Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon representative. "Verizon tests the living hell out of devices before they go to market. We are delighted to be recognized for our efforts."

While Graffi is impressed with Verizon's coverage, service, and pricing, he continues to keep an eye open for unexpected costs.

"I spent a couple of overnights in Wilmington (Delaware), where it's in an extended network, so I'll see on the next bill if they charged me for it," he says, adding that Verizon has been good about fixing billing problems in the past.

He also hopes Verizon will offer a flat monthly fee for unlimited service someday. Currently paying US$40 monthly, Graffi says he is willing to pay as much as US$60 for the peace of mind of never worrying about exceeding his allotted minutes.

Emily Kumler writes for the Medill News Service.

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