Monday, November 23, 2009

American Airlines Sucks Part III

As you may recall, I sent an email to American Airlines' Customer Relations manager, Sean Bentel, complaining about the level of (dis)service I received when being denied boarding to a flight, and the poor compensation offered.

I just received an answer from American, in the form of a direct email and a comment on that post. Both contain the same text. I really, really, really wanted this to be over. I wanted this post to have the title "American Airlines unsucks" or "AA redeems itself" - but this is what I received:
November 23, 2009

Dear Mr. Vider:

We've received your additional email to Mr. Bentel, and have looked into the facts and record of your flight where you were denied boarding. While situations like this are very rare, they do happen on occasion and we are truly sorry it happened to you in this case. We historically have one of the lowest denied boarding rates in the
industry, but we also know that statistics don't mean much to folks like you whose
travels do not fit the usual pattern and end up being affected in this manner.

Our policies were correctly followed in this case and we believe most other airlines
would have handled it quite similarly since their policies are much like ours.
Unfortunately, as you have stated, your flight was oversold by five passengers, which
simply means more passengers showed up that day than we had seats available.
Historically when this happens, we are usually successful in finding volunteers who
are willing to fly on a later flight and receive dollar-for-dollar vouchers spendable
on any American Airlines/American Eagle fare within one year. In this case, that did
not happen, and involuntary denied boarding rules set by the U.S. government were the next step those rules were followed exactly as they are set forth by the government.

Overbooking of flights has been a common practice of all airlines for many years. The
reasons are simple nearly every full flight has passengers who simply do not show up
for that flight for any number of reasons. The example of a 100 seat airplane in
which only 100 seats were sold would nearly always leave the gate with some empty
seats (four or five empty seats would not be uncommon on that mythical 100 seat
plane). Those empty seats could have ultimately been provided and sold to other
customers who also need and want to travel that same time and day, but would otherwise be turned away. This practice also helps us provide the low fares we offer to be competitive with other airlines. To estimate the number of empty seats for each full flight, we use historical data for that flight, that day, to estimate how many
"no-shows" it will have, using both computer and human input, and also considering any
special factors that might skew the historical data. Most of the time we are quite
accurate in our estimates. Occasionally, passenger behavior on a given flight does
not match our best estimates. As we said, this is what unfortunately happened to you.
It's rare, but not unprecedented. And again, we're sorry for your inconvenience.


Russell Shady
Customer Relations
American Airlines

Couple of points about this response:
  1. As far as apologies go - this is quite a weak one. Again, more an explanation than an apology, educating me on what is overbooking and why is it so great for me and fellow travelers. You see, it's better for airlines, nay - every provider out there! - to oversell his/her product - in case people pay but decide not to use it.
    How come Amazon never thought of that? To hell with stocks! - just sell to everyone who wants and expect some of your customers to cancel.

  2. Saying "Overbooking of flights has been a common practice of all airlines for many years" does not make it any more acceptable. Just ask every Wall Street weasel who traded in CDS (Credit Default Swaps) and brought us the current economy crisis - he was just doing what his colleagues/competitors were.

  3. I guess I'm more affected because my "travels do not fit the usual pattern". Can someone please explain this sentence to me?

  4. This email/comment completely ignores the compensation issue. No reference, apology, or offer is made.

    A diligent reader named John commented on the post and pointed me to the following Department of Transportation document that deals with compensation in the case of boarding denial. I quote 250.05 (emphases are mine):
    Sec. 250.5 Amount of denied boarding compensation for passengers denied boarding involuntarily.

    (a) Subject to the exceptions provided in § 250.6, a carrier to whom this part applies as described in § 250.2 shall pay compensation to passengers denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight at the rate of 200 percent of the fare (including any surcharges and air transportation taxes) to the passenger’s next stopover, or if none, to the passenger’s final destination, with a maximum of $800. However, the compensation shall be one-half the amount described above, with a $400 maximum, if the carrier arranges for comparable air transportation [see section 250.1], or other transportation used by the passenger that, at the time either such arrangement is made, is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s next stopover, or if none, the airport of the passenger’s final destination, not later than 2 hours after the time the direct or connecting flight from which the passenger was denied boarding is planned to arrive in the case of interstate air transportation, or 4 hours after such time in the case of foreign air transportation
    John thinks I may actually have a case against AA, first for not notifying me of my rights and second - a $100 is definitely not 200% of my fare. If there's a lawyer in the crowd, please feel free to comment on this, or contact me personally. I'll definitely keep this option open.
I feel like I gave American a fair chance to respond and I'm sure they feel they have. I still think their customer relations responses should be taught in business schools as how to NOT manage an incident. I shall consider my next moves, but until then American Airlines still sucks.

So this coming Thanksgiving and holiday season, say NO to American Airlines - unless you want to take the chance of spending your Christmas eve at an airport somewhere, just because all passengers decided to show up.

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