Customer service FAIL: American Airlines

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Coming back from Madrid in 2010, I flew American Airlines for what should have been the last time.

American Airlines sacrificed every opportunity to keep my business.

After that flight, I started flying Delta exclusively. And, for the next five years, I flew 100,000 - 150,000 miles a year on Delta, reaching their Platinum or Diamond elite flyer level each year.

I spent some time while I was stranded back in 2010 writing up this post to think about what American Airlines could have done better.

Five years later, I've updated this post in the context of half a million miles flown with Delta.

I'm also updating because, unfortunately, I ended up flying American Airlines in May 2015 for two trips (for reasons out of my control).

Sadly, the experience on both trips was worse than the awful experience that prompted me to write the original post back in 2010.

It seems little has changed in five years for American Airlines.

Here's the short version of all three events:

  • In 2010, American Airlines stranded me in Dallas with no hotel and aggressively unsympathetic customer service. I stopped flying American Airlines for 5 years.
  • In May 2015, American Airlines humiliated my disabled son, denying him basic human decency, courtesy and dignity in a moment of distress on his Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World.
  • A couple weeks later, in May 2015, American once again stranded me for the night in both Tulsa and Dallas, and exceeded their aggressively unsympathetic customer service from 2010.

Bonus irony: My son's medical saga was featured in the American Way in-flight magazine on his Make-A-Wish trip.

Read down below for the full story and the updates.

Update: I wrote an article on travel hacks.

A good start

For a decade, I flew Delta and America West (which became U.S. Airways, which is now American Airlines) almost exclusively.

I'd come to appreciate their level of customer service, and would often choose them even when competing airlines were lower than their price.

But, back in 2010, 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 actually 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.

As far as transatlantic flights go, it was nice.

I made a mental note to prefer American Airlines in the future--I spend about $20,000 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."

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. 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 (at least a cot) 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 (which is what I spent back in 2010) -- 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 business 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 friendly front desk agent, glanced 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, but it's where we've stayed every time since, and to this day, I prefer Hyatt's.

Update: Delta gets in right too

Flying for five years and half a million miles with Delta, I've had my share of random events: bad weather, mechanical failure, and so on.

Remarkably, over this period, Delta has left me stranded due to weather only twice, and in both cases, they covered my hotel -- even back when I was not a Diamond medallion.

Delta doesn't just throw its hands up when random events strike.

The fact of the matter is that while individual events are hard to predict, an airline can stochastically model and anticipate these events in aggregrate.

When a Delta flight gets delayed, it's not uncommon for agents to show up with refreshments.

(A Delta pilot even ordered pizza for his entire plane as a gesture of sympathy.)

When a freak blizzard in Atlanta kept me from getting home, a Delta agent gave me a hug and apologized.

And, when Delta agents sense frustration, it's common to see them handing free drink and snack coupons.

Ultimately, what I've learend from five years with Delta is that they don't treat random events as excuses.

Delta also has a disrupted travel bit in their system to track when someone has been having a bad trip.

Once that bit is set, it significantly boosts the odds of getting an upgrade to first class -- even ahead of top-tier frequent flyers.

Update, five years later: "I really do mind."

When Make-A-Wish booked our flights through American Airlines, it was the first non-Delta (or Delta-partnered) flight I'd taken since I wrote this post years earlier.

(Ironically, my son's very unusual medical story was featured in the American Way in-flight magazine on the plane.)

The whole trip was a good reminder of why I'd switched to Delta.

The kiosk had no record of our flight, presumably because of the AA-US Airways merger, so we had to see a agent. OK, no problem.

We wheeled up my son in his Make-A-Wish shirt up to the counter.

After about 15 minutes, she found our tickets, but our medical-equipment-laden-bag was 52 pounds--two pounds over.

Delta has routinely let 55 pound bags on.

Two pounds over should be no problem -- especially since we're paying for each bag, right?

Without an ounce of enthusiasm, she mustered "You'll have to transfer items to your other bag."

So, we fished around for medical equipment to transfer from one spring-loaded bag to the other.

We eventually succeeded -- changing the net weight of the plane by zero pounds -- of course.

We arrive at the end of the security line to discover that the desk agent failed to print a ticket for my son.

Back through the desk agent line. 15 minutes later, we had a ticket for my son. Then, back through the security line.

We made the flight with a few minutes to spare.

Denying dignity to a disabled child in distress

Returning from Orlando, it was the same story: no record in the system -- go see the desk agent. And, it took another 15 minutes to get tickets printed.

As we boarded the plane, I picked him up out of his chair to realize he needed a change.

He's a tall kid, so the attendant's area in the back of the plane is usually the best place to lay him out and clean him up.

The attendants suggested changing him in the regular bathroom rather than the back of the plane. (Seriously?)

So, we ended up laying him across three seats to change him just in time before people started boarding and streaming past him.

After that, the flight went smoothly enough.

But, as I picked up my son to carry him off the plane and to his wheelchair, his hastily fastened diaper bursts.

Urine was streaming down my shirt.

Urine soaked my son's pants and shoes, and it's dripped steadily onto the floor.

Right as I get off the plane, I spotted the secluded area behind the American Airlines gate desk.

Clearly in distress, clearly covered in urine, clearly carrying a suffering seven-year-old child, I asked, "His diaper leaked -- do you mind if I change his diaper over there?"

With a stone cold stare and a strong hint of irritation, she said, "Yes, I mind."

It was so blunt that my brain interpreted it as sarcasm -- After all, who on earth could deny a request for such basic human dignity so quickly and callously?

I smiled and moved toward the area when she interjected, "Sir -- yes -- I really do mind."

Oh crap. She was serious.

My wife asked her where else she would recommend changing our 65 pound, nearly four-foot tall child in private.

[My son has long since outgrown family restrooms and infant changing tables, so we're always at the mercy of finding a private space on long trips.]

She didn't know, and it was obvious she did not care.

So, I carried my urine-soaked, disabled seven-year-old son for several gates until we could find the least crowded patch of floor to change his diaper -- in public.

Perhaps the large area behind gate agent's desk was restricted by law, and she was simply enforcing a rule.

If that was the case, letting us know it was a rule -- nothing personal -- would have been appropriate.

Instead, she made it seem personal.

And, she openly humiliated my son at the end of his (otherwise-spectacular) Make-A-Wish trip.

Update: Deja vu

Ironically, I had to fly American Airlines again a couple weeks later.

I received a request to speak in Washington, D.C., and though they offered to cover my travel, they said that Delta was too expensive.

I asked them to check for approval to fly Delta, and it was denied.

So, American Airlines it was once more.

The flight to Dallas got delayed first by 30 minutes. Then an hour. Then two hours.

And, then I got the robo-call: I was rebooked on a flight out of Dallas to Salt Lake the next morning.

So, it would be another night in Dallas. (Or, so I thought.)

On the flight to Dallas, the stewardess offers a free snack to both of the passengers next to me -- but not to me.

[They're elite status on American Airlines. I had foolishly paid extra to sit as close to the front as possible when it seemed like I had a chance of making my tight connection.]

But, no free snack for me.

So, American Airlines clearly has no distressed traveler check box in their system.

Any time I've had disrupted travel with Delta [twice in five years and about half a million miles], they provided free drink/snack vouchers.

Flying toward Dallas, we're forced to divert to Tulsa due to weather and fuel.

After landing in Dallas, and pulling into the gate, there's no word about what's happening.

After about 10 minutes, the pilot informed the plane that he and his crew had "gone illegal," due to FAA regulations on sleep and would not be able to turn the plane around for Dallas.

So, we're all forced to deplane and wait for a new crew to arrive.

Fortunately, a new plane was available, but this required reticketing the cabin into new seats.