Customer service FAIL: American Airlines

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Coming back from VMCAI-POPL 2010 in Madrid, Spain, I flew American Airlines for what will be the last time.

It takes a special blend of competence and incompetence to produce a perfect storm of customer disservice, e.g., getting my luggage on the flight, but not me. And, American Airlines sacrificed every opportunity to keep my future business.

It would have been an even rougher trip, if not for the excellent and empowered customer service I received in a moment of need from the airport Hyatt Regency in Dallas.

I spent some time while I was fuming in Dallas writing up this post to contrast two models of customer service.


Update: After that flight, I started flying Delta exclusively. For the past four years, I have flown 100,000 - 135,000 miles a year on Delta, reaching their Platinum or Diamond frequent flyer level each year.

Update: I wrote an article on travel hacks.

A good start

For a decade, I flew Delta and America West (now U.S. Airways) almost exclusively. I'd come to appreciate their level of customer service, and would often choose them even when competing airlines were up to 10% lower than their price. But, since I was spending my personal research funds on this trip--scarce funds which I also use to pay my graduate students and buy my research equipment--I decided to go with the cheapest airline. In this case, that was American Airlines: $753.29 round-trip from Salt Lake City to Madrid versus about $800 for Delta.

The first leg of the flight back from Madrid (to Salt Lake City via Dallas) was atypically pleasant. When I checked in at Madrid, I asked if there was an empty middle row, and the counter agent did even better: she had one available, but recommended instead a window seat with the adjacent aisle seat blocked off. I was impressed; no airline had ever blocked a seat off for me. On the flight to Dallas, the flight attendants were friendly. They teased me for ordering milk five times in a row. And, the iPhone battery backup that my little brother bought me worked perfectly. As far as transatlantic flights go, it was nice. I made a mental note to prefer American Airlines in the future--I spend at least $10,000 a year on travel to academic conferences and meetings, and I believe in voting with my dollars.

But then...

We seemed to hit a lot of rough weather coming in, and for whatever reason, the flight took 12 hours instead of 11 hours. I got off the plane at about 6:00pm (instead of 5:05pm), and my flight to Salt Lake left at 6:50pm. I had 50 minutes to clear immigration and customs, re-check my bag, re-clear security and take the tram all the way around the airport. Making my connection was going to be very hard. I sprinted whenever I could, but I got to the gate just after 7:00pm--10 minutes after the departure time. The plane was long gone.

The agent at the counter that saw me running up said, "You must be Mr. Might." (No, I never tell folks it's "Dr." Might. That's a douchebag maneuver.) She informed me I'd been automatically rebooked for the 9:30am flight the next day. At this point, I was disappointed, but still in good spirits. A free night in Dallas isn't so bad, I thought.

Then the counter attendant's face grimaced. I raised an eyebrow. She called the other attendant over to look at her screen. She grimaced too. They assumed defensive postures. Given that I'd been civil, I was puzzled.

"ATC delay," she said to the other attendant. "Why does it say ATC delay when he was international?" the other attendant mumbled back. Uh-oh, I thought to myself, "ATC delay" must be something serious. She then explained to me that because it was Air Traffic Control that caused the plane to be late, she couldn't get me a hotel room. I chuckled, "So, I should send the hotel bill to Air Traffic Control?" Not sensing the sarcasm, she insisted, "Oh, no, you can't do that."

As a computer scientist, I knew arguing was useless: the software simply would not let her issue a hotel voucher to me. The no-voucher bit was flipped, and she lacked the privileges to unflip it. She stared at me for a couple seconds, waiting for me to get angry, I suppose. She was probably conditioned to expect that response. So, I smiled and asked, "What would you recommend I do then?"

At this point, she mentioned that she could try to get me a distressed rate coupon for a local hotel. (Why not offer that right away?) Seemingly without any other option, I said, "Well, I guess I better do that." I assumed she was referring to the Hyatt Regency, which was 200 yards from where I was standing. In fact, the best they could do was a $49 Comfort Inn that was ten minutes away by shuttle. I'd been awake for 23 hours at this point, and it was 2:00am Madrid time. Exhausted, I took the coupon. I asked where to get my luggage. "Your luggage made the flight to Salt Lake," she said without a hint of irony.

I asked, politely, "To whom should I write about this policy of not offering stranded passengers a place to stay?" She said I could speak to a supervisor. Then, the other attendant blurted out, "Write your congressman or senator. It's the federal government's fault. It's air traffic control's fault, not ours. There's nothing we can do about it."

But you can do something about it

The reply was so asinine, and the benefits of arguing so little, I decided not to pursue the issue. I couldn't help but think, "Is it really American Airlines policy to lose a customer over $49?" Evidently, in the cost-benefit calculus at American Airlines, my business isn't worth even $5, or even so much as a token gesture of sympathy.

By the time I boarded my plane the next morning, I'd thought of several things American Airlines could have done about "it":

  • Pay for my hotel room regardless of company policy. When a customer misses a connection because the plane lands late, it doesn't matter whether it's weather or incompetence. The customer has still missed the connection, and they need a room for the night. An empowered employee might have recognized that sticking to company guidelines was not the best course of action in this case.
  • Offer a $49 airfare voucher to compensate for the hotel cost. Vouchers don't harm precious cash-flow, and they probably have a low redemption rate. Besides, where can you fly for $49? I'd have to pay at least $100 over the voucher to go anywhere.
  • Offer a first-class upgrade. I don't know what the marginal cost of a first-class passenger on a two-hour flight is, but it's probably less than $49.
  • Offer a $5 extra leg-room upgrade. The row behind me on the Dallas-Salt Lake flight was empty, and it was one of those extra leg room rows. They hadn't even thought to rebook me into that row, as a way of sympathizing? When it was empty?
  • Offer priority boarding. At least let me board with first class, not Group 4. Heck, even Group 1 would have been nice.
  • Offer a free alcoholic beverage on my new flight. Free alcohol is a time-honored technique for smoothing over disputes.
  • Offer free passes to the Admiral's Club. What would that have cost them? And, it would encourage me to use AA hubs on future flights.
  • Flag my ticket in the system. So that other employees that interact with me would know I'd had a rough trip. Is it really so hard to add an extra bit to each field in the database?
  • Sympathize. I don't recall an apology or an expression of sympathy for my plight.

Cost-benefit analysis

While standing at the gate for my missed flight, I worked out a ballpark figure for what I ought to be worth to the airline. At $10,000 a year in travel, if they could win even 10% of my travel, that's $1,000 a year. Assuming a 10% cost of capital for the airline (probably too generous), and a 2% profit margin (probably also conservative), I was worth $20/year to them, and $200 if calculated out to perpetuity (I'm young). (If they could win all my business by demonstrating exemplary service, I could've been worth up to $2,000 to them.) Paying $49 for my hotel room should have been preferable to losing my business.

So, I will write my senator or representative--the next time they go to congress to ask for a federal bailout.

Hyatt gets it right

On my way out of the airport, I asked a counter agent if I could get my coupon changed to the Hyatt Regency, which was now 100 yards from where I was standing. She looked up my flight info, and replied the Comfort Inn was all she could do. (Meanwhile, my wife had found several hotels for less than even $49 on Priceline.) I decided to stay at the Hyatt Regency at the airport, whatever the cost. I didn't want to risk missing my morning flight, so I was willing to pay a lot more than $49 for the night.

If the Hyatt had played the short-term rational agent, their thinking would have been: a stranded, well-dressed traveler walks in; he's been awake for 24 hours; his options for a place to stay are limited and dwindling fast; we have a local monopoly; he's probably willing to pay a lot for a room (I was); let's charge him at his "willingness to pay."

But, that's not how things played out.

Danielle, a delightful front desk agent, gave a sympathetic glance at my bloodshot eyes and asked, "Oh my, how can I help you?" I explained my situation, and asked what the best rate they could offer was. She took my coupon for the Comfort Inn, and consulted briefly with her fellow agents. They would accept the Comforn Inn coupon.

She scratched down some numbers on loose paper and circled $99 at the bottom--30% lower than the rate on Priceline, and even lower than the friends and family rate. I happily handed her my credit card. She chatted with me while booking my room, asked me where I'd been, and whether I'd had fun. She made me feel like a human being. When I checked out the next morning, the front desk asked how my night was, and they said they hoped that my stay went well, even though I'd been stranded. (They had made a note in the system about my situation.)

It just so happens that my wife and I regularly attend a convention in Atlanta. One of the four participating hotels is a Hyatt Regency. We'd never stayed at the Hyatt Regency before.

Guess where our business will be going next time.