Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Consumer Rant: American Airlines Sucks

Should you fly with an airline that screws you up and thinks that you should do your best to see their point of view? I think not - and that's why American Airlines sucks.

3 weeks ago, on October 12th, I had to visit a customer at Montreal. Due to the short notice, I could not find a ticket for a reasonable price, so I had to resort to an American Airlines flight from San Francisco. I had a few problems with American Airlines in the past, so I tended to avoid them over the last 5 years, but I was ready to give them another chance. Boy, was I disappointed (to say the least).

My flight had a connection in Chicago. I checked-in online, verified all is OK, arrived at SFO well ahead of time and arrived in Chicago early. And that's where my problem started. American Airlines has overbooked the flight to Montreal - big-time. About an hour and a half before the flight was due to leave, they started asking for 4, then 5 volunteers to stay behind for the night, for the "amazing" compensation of a $250 American Airlines certificate. Needless to say, the underwhelmed crowd did not volunteer. (Just for comparison's sake, I've heard calls for volunteers before, but usually these included an immediate booking with another airlines, and usually a much more generous compensation - I remember one overbooked Lufthansa flight were they offered 400 Euros in cash). They kept on announcing for more than an hour, asking for people with flexible plans.

Apparently, American Airlines sold more tickets than were seats on the plane and were taken by surprise when all ticket holders appeared for the flight on time. This is what airlines call "overbooking" and I call "outright theft". If you have a 100 seats, you should sell a 100 tickets. If a customer cancels or changes his booking - you charge him an exorbitant change fee ON TOP of what he already paid for the ticket - and make even more money. But if you sell 105 tickets to a 100 seat flight - you better have a contingency plan for a case 105 customers arrive. Oh, and muttering "that's just the way we do business" is not a contingency plan - more on that later.

The way I see it, if I buy a ticket, for a large chunk of money, to a certain destination, on a certain date - the only thing that can prevent me from making that flight is weather, a technical difficulty, or an act of God. Anything else is a breach of contract. Hey, try telling your airline that you are not willing to pay for your ticket, because you "overpaid".

10 minutes before boarding time, I heard my name called. I went to the check-in counter, and the attendant informed me that I just "volunteered" to spend the night in wonderful Chicago. They would not book me on a flight to Montreal with another airline (and both United and Air Canada fly to Montreal from Chicago) - presumably to save American Airlines some money.

I had a meeting planned that evening in Montreal, and an early start planned for the following day, so I tried convincing him my plans were not "flexible". To no avail. He told me that they sorted by the dates tickets were booked - and mine was booked just 7 days before the flight. That made no sense to me at all, but he wouldn't hear me further - he was busy selecting 4 other "volunteers". All the other people boarded the plane, and it left the gate. The attendant then gave us vouchers for a night at an airport hotel, a ticket on a flight the following day, and a $10 certificate for dinner (when I asked him what kind of a dinner he expected us to buy for $10, he said, and I quote "this is the maximum the computer allows me to give" - yeah, blame the computer).

And then came the "compensation". Since I didn't "volunteer" in time, but was forcefully taken off the flight, my compensation was to be either a certificate for $159, or a check for $102.29 (I'm not making this up). The other 4 people were offered $500 and $800 checks. When I asked why, the attendant claimed that compensation is given based on the ticket's fare. Again, he was not open to discussion. And I ask - how does the fare of the original ticket matter, when the ticket itself was not respected? And if my ticket was purchased with miles - how can you put a price to that?

Well, needless to say, my evening was shot. I had to call my customer and apologize (imagine how lame an excuse "they overbooked" sounds), leave the airport, sleep in a hotel, come back the following morning, clear security again ("take off your shoes, laptop, belt, watch....") and arrive at Montreal in the afternoon.

I got an email address for the Customer Relations person in charge of complaints from the attendant, and sent them a complaint email. After a week without reply, I tried finding another way.

The only way to submit a complaint to American Airlines is going to American Airlines’ site, and drill 4 levels down to a horrible, outdated web form, that forces you to fill in all your details (I counted 30+ fields) and limits you to 1500 characters. I filled it all in, and tried typing my complaint, but no matter how much I edited it, I couldn’t get below 1500 characters. I finally printed my complaint (PDF) and mailed it the old way. After a week, I received a reply email (PDF), containing the following:

Our seat management system is highly sophisticated (my emphasis GV), and usually we are able to accommodate every confirmed customer who shows up for a given flight. Inevitably, though, there will be rare occasions when there are not enough seats on the aircraft

The offer made to you was applicable based on the fare rules of your ticket. I'm sorry that we are unable to offer additional compensation

I know that you were inconvenienced, but hope that you will give us the opportunity to win back your respect.

Oh, and let's not forget the instructions on how to respond to this email:

This is an "outgoing only" email address. If you 'reply' to this message by simply selecting the reply button, we will not receive your additional comments.Please assist us in providing you with a timely response to any feedback you have for us by always sending us your email messages via AA.com at http://www.aa.com/customerrelations.

Ah yes, back to the amazing form. I took the time, filled in the form and send my response (link to PDF):
I received your reply to my complaint. It contained neither an apology, nor a satisfying explanation to what happened to me - just some vague corporate excuses. Your overbooking policies, described as “highly sophisticated” are based on an assumption that not all people will show up for a flight – with no provision for what happens if they do.

I also find your policy of compensating people by the fare they paid misplaced, to say the least. My ticket was purchased by my cousin for 50,000 miles + whatever fees you charged him. How do you put a price to that? And how do you put a price to the damage I incurred from being late? And is that price a $100?

And this morning I received their final reply, which I bring here with my interpretation of what the person who wrote it thought while typing:
Dear Mr. Vider: I'm sorry to hear that our overbooking policies and procedures do not meet with your approval.
(In other words - it's your fault for not getting our policies - not ours for making them.)
While we understand your position and regret your disappointment, we do have very specific policies and procedures, and we are unwilling to make an exception in your case.
(We could care less about you and customers in your position. We have corporate policies designed to increase our revenue. Be thankful you got a $100.)
Mr. Vider, we hope in time you will understand our position and again choose American for your travel.
(If you are ever stuck on a volcano island and the last flight you can take to save yourself is operated by American Airlines, we hope you'll be kind enough to forget our transgressions and take that flight. Or not - frankly, we couldn't care either way.)

The last thing I did today before typing this post was to send an email to the person who sent me those emails (I omitted her name from the quotes, as I’m hoping she’s representing her company, and not her personal opinions), and asked her permission to use her email to train customer relationships and support people on how to NOT WRITE TO CUSTOMERS.

So, this is why I think American Airlines Sucks, and I’ll do my best to share my opinion with the world. Look for the #AASucks channel on Twitter for some future activities I’m planning (maybe print some T-shirts, write a song... Stay tuned). To include the badge that appears at the top of this post in your blog, paste the following HTML into your post:

<a href="http://bit.ly/AASucks"
target="_blank" title="American Airlines sucks">
<img style="width: 175px; height: 91px; cursor: pointer;"
border="0" />

All I ask from you, my readers, is to spread this story and link to this post, from your blog, twitter, Facebook – whatever you can do to spread this tale. Oh, and DON’T FLY WITH AMERICAN AIRLINES – they do not deserve your business.


Unknown said...

I have to say that I had only one flight with AA and it was one of the worst flight I have ever had....

I will never fly AA


Georg said...

I have to say that I've had similar experiences with American, Delta, Continental, AirTran, USAir, United, Northwest, JetBlue and Spirit - I've got the emails and letters to prove it.

I'm flabbergasted as to where these companies get off (just as you are).

The only airline that ever was helpful was Lufthansa (missed connection in Frankfurt due to late arrival). Not only did they put me up at a decent hotel (on their dime), but once I got to the hotel, I had a message that they booked me with AirBerlin for that same night, but, get this, I had the choice of staying at the hotel or taking the flight. All I had to do was have the concierge call them. That's customer service. Oh, and they apologized profusely (in German) to me.

But, in general, it's too bad that flying beats driving.

santafetraveler said...

Try contacting Chris Elliott, National Geographic's travel ombudsman. He has great results with this type of issue.
On Twitter as elliottdotorg.
I, too have had issues w/ AA and they are the airline of last resort for me at this time.

Traveling Tech Guy said...

Thanks for the suggestion! Will ping him at once.