American Airlines, Customers Deserve Better

I left Boston yesterday (Sunday) to make sure that I was in Kansas for a business meeting today at noon. That seemed like a pretty straightforward proposal, but it turned out to be impossible on American Airlines (AA). Despite going from Boston to Chicago without any problems, AA could not figure out how to get me to Kansas City (KC) today. 

I’m writing this post from KC, early on Monday morning, thanks to Southwest Airlines — more on that later. But this experience reminded me of an earlier post I wrote called The Tale Of Two Airlines: Southwest And American.

AA’s ineptitude could fill up a sizable post, but here are some highlights:

  • Chapter 1: The impossible standby
    • I tried to get on an earlier flight to KC, but there was no agent at the gate 40 minutes before it was scheduled to leave.
    • When an agent finally arrived, he refused to even talk to me. I finally got him to put me on the wait list, but he was very ornery and wouldn’t tell me how many passengers had checked in (so I could gauge my chances).
    • No surprise, I didn’t get on the flight. Why does AA keep such a long standby list when they know that there are so few openings?
    • At this point, I had to rush to my actual flight.
  • Chapter 2: The mysterious wait
    • The plane was at the gate and there were a bunch of AA employees at the desk — a good sign.
    • I waited and waited, 5 minutes passed loading time, 10 minutes past loading time, 20 minutes passed loading time. The board still said that my 6:00 flight would leave on-time. No announcements.
    • Finally, a little before the scheduled departure time, the agent made an announcement that there were some mechanical problems on the plane. Obviously they knew about it long before they told us.
    • After about 90 minutes (and only one status update during that time), we were able to load the plane.
  • Chapter 3: The hostage situation
    • We pulled away from the gate and stopped before getting to the runway. There were no announcements, but we sat for about 30 minutes.
    • Finally there was an announcement that we had mechanical problems and needed to go back to the gate.
    • When we go to the gate, they told us that we would be able to leave.
    • At the gate, they told us to sit back down because we could not leave.
    • As the plane started to get warm and stuffy, the flight attendant could be heard pleading with the captain to let us out (our hostage negotiator).
    • The negotiations went well, we were finally released.
  • Chapter 4: The black hole
    • We were not told anything about our luggage or next steps; and there were no agents at the gate to help with the situation.
    • All of the passengers left the plane and stood around, we had no idea what was going on.
    • No announcements or instructions. Just needless confusion and frustration.
    • Finally, an hour later, there was an announcement that our flight had been cancelled. We were given a number of options for rebooking.
  • Chapter 5: The useless 800 number
    • Since there was already a long line at the desk, I chose the option of calling AA’s 800 number that the agent had announced.
    • The first lady just hung up on me after telling me that there was nothing she could do.
    • On my second call, I asked for the supervisor.
    • She explained that she could only get me to Kansas City on Tuesday (I was going for a meeting on Monday).
    • When I explained my situation, she just didn’t care. She said that there was nothing she could do.
    • I asked about other airlines or other airports closer to Kansas and she told me there were no other options — all airlines were completely booked.
    • So she booked me a flight back to Boston the next morning (gibing up on my meeting in Kansas). When I asked about upgrading me (I’m a Platinum customer), she asked if I wanted to pay for it or use my miles.
    • That’s right, she wanted to charge me for a flight that I didn’t want to take in the first place.
  • Chapter 6: Alas, Southwest Airlines
    • Luckily, I had did not trust what I had heard.
    • I checked on line and actually found a 6:00 AM flight on Monday to KC on Southwest Airlines. So I boooked it myself.
    • That’s why I’m blogging from Kansas City, with plenty of time for my meeting.
  • Chapter 7: AA’s one ray of hope
    • Now that I had a Southwest flight to KC, I needed to reinstate my flights from KC to Boston.
    • I walked up to a random gate and luckily found Shaista Shaikh at the desk.
    • She went out of her way to rebook me on my flights home. She was very pleasant, and was the first AA employee that displayed any empathy for the frustrations of a weary traveler.

Here’s how I’d rate AA’s performance with my ”CARES” model for customer service:

  • Communication: E (we were left in the dark for most of the time)
  • Accountability: E (everyone except Shaikh was quick to say they couldn’t help)
  • Responsiveness: E (there was nothing but waiting)
  • Empathy: D (only Shaikh seemed to care) 
  • Solution: E (they couldn’t get me to KC)

The bottom line: While there are some things you can’t control (weather, mechanical troubles), you need to control how your firm CARES.

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

19 Responses to American Airlines, Customers Deserve Better

  1. Bob Sakakeeny says:

    I’m finding that the AA employees who behave as if they don’t care came from TWA, and lost seniority and about to be laid off because of cuts. This hold for others, or just my imagination? But, either way, it is showing tha AA management doesn’t care about it’s customers.

  2. This is appalling, but yet, too common still in this industry. They still don’t get it! You have to wonder if their eyes are even open to see and understand what they’re doing. Little things that cost little time or money make a huge difference in how you help customers get through situations like this.

    It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, there will be times when things go wrong and it is critical for your customer. You have to show customers that you care about the consequences it puts on them. Your job is to fulfill the ‘value’ of the business relationship and work your tale off to fulfill the promise you gave for the money they spent.

    Anything less is unacceptable! Customers do have choices and they will exercise those choices somewhere else where their money is appreciated!! How long can airlines keep making detractors?


  3. Jake McKee says:

    I once asked American if they know who their real brand manager(s) are:

    It’s the person at the desk. It’s the attendants on the plane. I get that wages suck. I get that hours have been slashed. I get that people are angry in the airport. That doesn’t give American the right act like pricks and let their employees get away with it. This isn’t “warfare” with customers on one side and employees on the other. Well, at least it shouldn’t be. Sadly, it is.

    Here’s a few more stories of my experiences with American.

    But hey, they know how to run a customer-centric brand. Their facebook marketing promo apps prove that, right?


  4. Neil Hartley says:

    As you have said many times Bruce, improving the customer experience needs to be a top to bottom initiative within the organisation that every employee believes in. With Southwest this even extends to suppliers. I recently approached a number large enterprises from a sales standpoint for my business Top Right Corner. Southwest Airlines came back to me in the form of Jackie Eagle in Product Development telling me they had no need for our offering right now. Not only is this a) unusual, b) welcome, but most importantly c) it demonstrates that SWA truly believe in how they represent themselves to the outside world (customers and potential supplier)…keep up the good work, Neil

  5. B-Rad says:

    Get a pilot’s license and fly yourself. You would be surprised how much time and money you can save. With or without a license you could have made that trip in a small airplane in the same time with the all the layovers. Check out your local F.B.O. or airport. They should be able to give you some other options as well.

    Oh, and the customer service in general aviation far exceeds that of the commercial realm. The customer is the boss in general aviation. You pay our bills!!

  6. Bruce, I just realized you are the same Bruce I follow on twitter. If you travel enough you have a whole book of disturbing stories.

    The Airline industry is not even a contest anymore –most agree only one good airline out there. And they don’t necessarily put customers first, they just treat employees well and ask them to treat customers the way they want to be treated. Oh, yeah, I am speaking of SW if you weren’t sure. I have been flying Delta/NW alot lately because they go to the one terminal airport that services a new client. I tried to check in on my return flight online and it pulled up my flight and asked me to check in. When I hit the button it said it was sending me to NW site, when I got to NW site it said that I had missed my flight as it only had record of my outbound segment. Both legs were Delta flight numbers on my itenerary. Needless to say I checked in at the airport. When I told them I couldn’t get my boarding pass online they said “at least you should have checked in”. I explained that it would’t let me and their system clearly had some glitches. The response was a stare and they handed me my boarding pass. It was only 6am, perhaps they were not yet awake.

    What people don’t realize is mistakes happen, it is how you handle them that matters. And when mistakes become the norm, there is definitely a systemic issue. No they don’t get it, and any other industry that gets bailed out because the simple laws of competition didn’t allow them to “win” are causing more to accept average as good enough.

  7. Vidya Drego says:

    Bruce – I saw an interesting article on the small business blog on the NY Times recently titled ‘How To S.A.V.E. Customer Service”. It’s interesting how the principle of SAVE outlined there (Sympathize, Act, Vindicate, Eat) are exactly what you mention are ways AA could have “saved” your customer experience.

  8. Bruce Temkin says:

    Hi everyone: Thanks for sharing your thoughs and commiserating with me about this horrible experience. There’s no reason for airline experiences to be this bad. I’m off to Minneapolis on Northwest this Monday. I have my fingers crossed.

  9. My experience of air travel in Great Britain is unfortunately no more positive than yours.I absolutely agree that if employees were willing and able to take more accountability to resolve issues as and when they arose and if they tried to put themselves in their customers shoes in dealing with issues, problems would be resolved so much faster.

    Poor examples of customer service (which seem to have become the norm these days) are why I set up my own Customer Experience Consultancy in the UK. It just shouldn’t be acceptable! Good luck with your travels to Minneapolis (it makes me thankful most of my travel can be done by car!)

  10. Ray Brown says:

    Hi Folks Just to let you know it happens worldwide. On my first (and last) trip with Tiger Airlines between Sydney and Melbourne last Friday I had a horrendous experience. Arriving at the airport there were no signs for Tiger anywhere, result 5 minutes lost. Arrived at the check in desk (only after help from a Quantas employee to locate desk !) only for the lady infront of me to be told “i’ve just closed the flight” turns out they need you checked in 45 minutes before departure. The check in girl had pushed the “close this flight” button while we were the only 3 people in the queue. $70 plus $5 for using a credit card I was on a flight 3 hours later. No discussion, no apology, no protecting of the future relationship = no more flights with Tiger. How much has that poor experience cost them ? They are new in Australia and I have already told all my colleagues to avoid them like the plague. This performance (by a Tiger sub-contractor at check-in) and their inflexible systems unsuited for a new service will have cost the $000’s of dollars in sales

  11. Jan says:

    Unfortunately this isn’t the only story, nor will it be last of the most horrible customer experience created by an airline. At least they did let you off the plane, as opposed to the recent Continental Express flight where all passengers were forced to sleep in a cramped RJ on the tarmac because the TSA personal had gone home for the day. At least the Continental CEO appologized after it hit the CNN home page.

    But what is more intriguing about why the airlines have problems was described I believe in the Wisdom of Crowds if memory serves. As opposed to many work environments where the chain of command is farily well represented and oversight is readily available, the airline industry operates in an environment where the employees are often left in small work groups that constantly reconfigure, at times on a flight by flight basis, and where for extended periods of time they’re left without immediate leadership. That puts a lot more burden on the individual employee to use judgement, be resourceful, and committed to executing a job that has an above average rate of exceptions and unique scenarios happening every day. The pilots duties are carefully orchestrated to deal with all of these situations with a myriad of checklists, cross checks, routine, training, etc. That same is not the case for flight attendants, gate agents, and all the other tentacles of the industry.

    So given the overall state of the industry, the general morale of their employees, they seem to have a below average capacity to deal with these demands, while at the same time an above average need to solve these problems. That imbalance is what plays out in stories like this.

    This is not as much a customer experience problem, but an organizational design and leadership problem, which plays out in total lack of customer experience.

  12. Where is Gordon Bethune when you really need him?

    “You know how Chicago works? You’re either on United or American; that’s it, … You take what they give you at the same fare, which means the whole United States would look like Chicago.”

  13. You have perfectly summarized every possible situation a traveler could face. I have been in all of them. I seems like you become property, once you show up for a flight. The airlines just move you around like a weeble.

  14. It’s sad that so many people just cannot take pride in their work anymore. If all people tried just a tiny bit harder, everyone would benefit so much. Thank you for a great post.

  15. Bruce Temkin says:

    Hi everyone: Thanks for the comments.Elizabeth and Ray point out that the crummy customer service from airlines doesn’t just happen in North America. Too bad for all of us.At least, as Jan points out, I wasn’t forced to sleep overnight on the plane like the Continental Express passengers. If I was in their situation, I would have called 911 and told the police that I was being held hostage.

  16. Jan says:

    Now that you mention 911 that reminds me of one of those personal experiences – not on a plane but a trai:

    To mix it up I decided to take the Amtrak from Seattle to Denver instead of flying as usual. I thought it would be a nice change of pace. A change alright, but a good one. It was riddled with customer experience issues.

    But the final straw came after we made it just past Eugene OR when the train stopped mid track. Turns out a freight train ahead of us had derailed and the track would now be closed for a few days of clean-up. With no alternate routes Amtrak informed the passengers that the train would return to Seattle where everyone would get a refund of their fare and would then have to look for alternate travel to their intended destination. However the process of switching the trains engine to the other side for the return trip turned into a nightmare lasting I believe at least 4hr or more. During this time the passengers were trapped in the coaches without light, air conditioning, or any services (the engine was disconnected). The sole conductor was overwhelmed with the task of helping the engineer reconnect the engine and did not communicate status for hours. We could see the Salem train depot a mile away but were not allowed to disembakr mid-track. People were very angry and multiple parties did in fact call 911 just to find out what was going on due to lack of communication by the crew. Eventually we were suppied glow sticks to provide some light in the dark coaches. A total failure of incident management that overwhelmed the employees on the ground.

    Interestingly enough this happened during the rise of gas prices a few years ago and a significant number of passengers were first time train riders willing to give this option a try as a lower cost alternative. The botched customer experience made it also the last time it would be considered for most of them (me included). A lost opportunity to make a difference for an alternate transport method that is desperately needed.


  17. Ray Brown says:

    Thanks for the great comments from everyone. A thought I had this morning. Isn’t it interesting that none of the companies mentioned, AA, Tiger etc have picked up on any of these comments and chosen to respond. What a missed opportunity. There is so much technology around now to pick up and “harness” the voice of the customer but it takes the energy and skills in a business to “listen” to the customer and respond appropriately. I feel the tide is turning though !

  18. Need to relate one more story from a different company–Toyota Financial. I’m buying off my loan to sell the car. I go through three different reps asking them for the best, most efficient way to get my pay-off payment processed..the best answer: just send your certified check via regular mail. Really? In this day and age there’s not a more secure system for sending $x000s to pay off a loan? Then on top of it, I sent the check, tracked it and saw that it arrived at it’s destination (a PO Box). Called TFS to follow-up and all I got was, “we can’t tell you when it’s going to be processed…I’m sure it’s been received by the correct department…you’ll receive your title in the mail in 4 to 14 days.” You have a check from me for $x000 and I’m just supposed to twiddle my thumbs looking in the mailbox and hoping that everything went ok in the black box of TFS?

    I like your framework; would give TFS:
    Communication: D (took me two reps and 30 minutes with a manager to get clarification of the process)
    Accountability: F (not even the manager made any effort to help…i’m just supposed to call to check in again)
    Responsiveness: C (at least they answered the phone)
    Empathy: D (no one got or acknowledged that I was steamed and was justified in being concerned about what’s happening with my money and my title)
    Solution: C (at least I’m able to call to check on the status)

  19. Jenni S. says:

    I just got off AA flight from DFW to IND with my infant son in my lap. NEVER AGAIN. After 2 gate changes and a 50 minute delay in departure…I needed to gate check his travel stroller. I got absolutely no help. An attendant pointed at the elevator on the ramp and I had to take the stroller to the elevator, break it down with one hand, and load it onto the elevator myself…all while holding my 8 month old and his diaper bag. Got on plane…there is no where to stow his diaper bag because they have decided to charge huge fees for checked bags so everyone carries their luggage onboard now. Again, stewardess would not help. Literally said “that’s not my job” and walked away from me. I sat with the bag on top of my feet. No one ever checked or knew that I never fastened my seatbelt for the entire trip. I requested the back seats in the plane, and to sit on the aisle. I was given the second row from the front of the plane, window seat. The sweetest lady in the world traded seats with me so we could sit on the aisle. The baby did great, didn’t make a sound all the way to IND. Got off plane and went to get that gate checked stroller. Asked 4 AA employees where to retrieve it from. Someone finally grunted and pointed at a door. Behind this door was the elevator. Again, I had to unload the stroller, set it up and all while holding my baby. I will be returning to DFW next week on AA since this was a round -trip ticket. What I can promise is that this will be the last AA flight I will allow my family to take part in. I would rather deal with an on-time connection and fly out of Love Field than deal with American Airlines.

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