The Broken Promises of American Airlines

Broken Promises from what airlines and mobile phone carriers have in common? They both exploit customers.  Well, to be fair, I really just think they are both in the same class of companies. Companies that often exploit you unfairly for their own benefit, extracting as much money from your wallet as possible without genuine concern for the bad experiences they are creating. This is what I was talking about in my Social Cash keynote last week in Stockholm.

But let me recap what I experienced with American Airlines flight 177 from JFK to SFO last night. (yes, I know I should be relaxing and not writing with my recent health issues, but this may be the biggest benefit of slowing down for me, that I find time and willingness to write, so please let me)

I was flying back from Stockholm yesterday morning, which means I started out to the airport from my hotel around midnight PST, 7am CET. First flight was simple, short hop on Finnair to Helsinki on a newish Airbus 319. It was fabulous. They offered up the standard nordic breakfast sandwich and orange juice and coffee. They didn’t charge for my bag. There was a problem getting my tickets printed in Stockholm for some reason, but the desk agent went ahead and did everything she could, but could not, for some reason, print my JFK-SFO boarding pass, so I had to leave without it afraid I would not be able to board in JFK or transfer easily. Whatever.

I got to Helsinki where they promise to be the easiest airport for transfers, and I have to agree, it was actually pleasant. Because of my platinum status with American Airlines (Sapphire in One World) I was able to enter the Via Lounge in Helsinki, which was just terrific. One of the best airline lounges I have ever seen, it even had a spa, though I had no time there to use it. Had an incredible bowl of minestrone soup and a short glass of white white, which in European lounges are provided to guests for free. Oh yes, of course, in the European (and most Canadian) airports, the small baggage rolling carts are also free, making the travel experience much easier on everyone, particularly people traveling in ill health like me. They care about the experience and the customers.

On board the brand new Airbus 330 from Helsinki to JFK, I really had a great experience, though I ate some chocolate sugary thing and some lasagna which may have induced a minor attack later (sorry for weaving stories/issues here but its important). I struck up a conversation with my seat mate, JJ whose best man in his wedding was actually flying the plane. The new seats were comfortable and the nice family who was traveling around us with their baby were kind enough to not lean back into us, so I actually had plenty of room despite my sarcastic tweet about it. During the flight I started sweating and having chest pains, so I told JJ of my experience in Sweden and said “I just want someone to know, I forgot to tell the gate attendant during boarding”. He suggested I needed to stay hydrated and had a conversation with the flight attendant in Finnish a short while later.  When she came back through to pick up garbage she also brought a water bottle and kept bringing water throughout the flight. It was a smooth crossing and when we landed, something incredible happened.

I had the most amazing experience in JFK airport. Seriously.

First, there was a woman standing at the exit of the jetway holding a sign with several names on it, including mine. Since we were about 95 minutes to departure of my flight, I briefly hoped it was a lift through the customs area and to the gate or something really cool like that. Instead, it was my boarding pass for the next flight which I thought I was going to have to fight to get. Instead, without checking my identification, I told her who I was, what flight and she handed it to me and I was on my way racing to beat the queue of over 500 people from other planes that got to the gate in front of me. Not necessarily smart for my condition, but I was feeling ok and I really didn’t want to miss my flight (knowing that it could take 2 hours to clear customs, border control and recheck my bags).

Somehow, the US Citizens queue was wide open and I literally walked right up to a border control agent who scanned my passport and sent me through to baggage claim. At the baggage claim I sat down to rest, prepared for a long wait. But no, the belt began to move in just a few minutes, surprising myself and another American on board the same flight. Within a few more minutes, my bag was off the plane and I was headed to the customs agent with my pass. After being screwed around with for a minute because I didn’t put the flight number on the document (my bad) I went to recheck, where I explained why the bag wasn’t checked through and checked my bag. I then went upstairs and got through the security line in just a few minutes for a grand total transfer time of just about 20-25 minutes from exiting my plane to getting through security again.

Incredible luck. This was definitely going to be my day.

I then got to the Admirals Club near my gate, walked around to see if there was anyone I knew and lo and behold, found a free drink ticket laying on one of the tables. Score. After getting a glass of red wine (help’s blood flow if drank in moderation I hear) I sat down and started making calls. Then I noticed, that I was sitting near Danielle Staub from Real Housewives of New Jersey, who was just as sweet as can be (sorry no gossip from me, just a nice woman and really friendly). We were both commenting on how incredible the woman who ran the bar there was in looking after passengers, going to them and offering them water, snacks or bar drinks or whatever.  She reminded us of Delores who ran the best coffee sales 7-11 store on the Undercover Boss show.

Back to the Airlines Story.

So it was getting closer to boarding time and I decided to check Flightview to see if the plane was still leaving on time and if I needed to go. It wasn’t. New estimated take off time was now 625pm, so I called Kristie and told her the plane was going to be late. After hanging up with her, I looked back at the screen and saw that it said the plane was a 757, not the 767 I had expected. Huh, that’s odd. So I went to the Admirals Club desk just to see if the 625pm time was even accurate, and she said, “oh, so you got the news about the equipment change” and I said, no I hadn’t but wanted to just check in. She told me, you are in luck, you still have your business seat and she booked me into 4F. Whew, I thought, that would have sucked big time. All I wanted was that nearly lay flat business seat in the 767, but I would settle for a warm meal and a business class seat anywhere as long as I could get home after 16 hours of traveling by that point.

So I went back to my seat in the lounge happy that I didn’t have to go get dinner in the airport. I also went back to the web site where the plane info was still showing the 767 as the plane we were on and there were no notices in my reservations, or calls to my phone about this very major change.  As I found out later at the gate, there was little to no notice given to the rest of the passengers either as one after another tried to board with their old tickets only to be told it wasn’t valid any longer.

After a few more phone calls, it got to be 6pm, so I packed up and headed to the gate thinking we were boarding. Well, it was more then thinking we were boarding, the signs said in the lounge NOW BOARDING. But it really wasn’t. It was pandemonium as the gate agents struggled to deal with all these last minutes changes. The crew hadnt even been allowed on board by this point and the departure time was updated to 650pm. I simply asked at this point of the gate agent, are we really leaving at 650pm and do we still have dinner in first class on this flight, to which she replied yes. So I was standing around relaxed, ignoring the chaos and just waiting to sit in my first class seat, which I was promised by the folks in the Admirals Club when they rebooked me and handed it to me for 4F.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. When they finally opened the gates and I handed my ticket to the check in agent, she said, wait, “You are not Mr. XXXXX” and I said of course not, see my ticket says Heuer, 4F. To which she replied, “Oh, well we aren’t able to process upgrades. You know we changed the equipment right?” Of course, that is why you are at a different gate and have all these angry folks around. So I was instructed that they would have to find me a new seat and she would do her best to get me to one that had no one sitting next to me in the middle. Very nice I thought, but how could they do that going from a 767 to a 757? Whatever, I said what are you doing about food, my travel plans were based on getting a meal. She very kindly said, I will get the ticket, you can go get something now from the airport if you like. So I had to run down to the deli and pick up a crappy chicken wrap which in the end was probably best from a health standpoint.

When I returned with my sandwich, the chaos had grown even worse, with priority access members trying to board and being told not to by one woman, and then being told to do so by another. To be fair, the gate agents were just as screwed as the passengers here, it was probably a middle management decision and a pretty poor one at that, but more about this towards the end of the post. They were doing the best they could in the face of the dilemma and the atrocious behaviour of some other passengers who were just berating and cussing at them non-stop. Eventually, the gate agent handed me a new ticket with a 12a seat assignment. At least I was going home I thought, “I will deal with it”.

I wish the story ended here, with just the few promises made broken, but it doesn’t. And it may be even an even more insisidious problem beneath the thin veil of this horrible experience. Which of course is nothing compared to people stranded overnight or left on planes for hours, but for me, being told one thing, then another, then another with no one having the full truth available, it was bad enough. At this point, after one mild ‘attack’ during the day and over 17 hours into my travel day, it was bad enough.

Before being told to turn off our cell phones, at 710pm I got a call from American Airlines who said in that great computer generated voice of theirs that the plane was now scheduled to depart at 715pm. I thought to myself, no way, they aren’t going to make that timeline, so I tweeted and turned off my phone. After sitting at the gate for about 30 more minutes and being told then by the pilot that they were still loading bags AND CARGO, I turned my phone back on to #twitch about it some more (my new word for bitching on Twitter, surely I didn’t coin the phrase, but I like it). Wouldn’t you know, while I was writing my tweet, I got another phone call from American Airlines telling me the flight was taking off at 750pm (about 5 minutes). Again, I thought this couldn’t be true. But in fact it finally pushed back from the gate just around there if not a few minutes after.

So the problem here is that none of the front line people want to tell us anything about what is going on in the back of the house because none of them can say so with confidence whether it is really accurate or true. There are so many dependencies on things like this, it is understandable. And with airline customer rage at an all time high, who wants to say I think we are taking off at 750pm when in fact they may be called out later for lying to us. Or who would want to tell an angry mob of passengers that the real takeoff would be 750pm when they can perhaps get them handed to another employee to deal with directly. So I understand why they dont disclose enough information often, but it creates a horrible relationship between company and customer. If we could only trust the employees and therby the airlines a bit more it would all be different. If we could only trust them and like them for their earnest attempts to provide us with great service and as much honest information as they could, we might be a bit more forgiving. But they can’t and we won’t.

Flying an Old Bird

So whatever the reasons American Airlines provides later on this equipment change, one thing is sure, they are flying some old airplanes. I got in my seat, and there was in fact no one sitting next to me. I usually fly aisle seats forward so I can get up and stretch and move around without bothering other passengers, so at least I was forward if not in the aisle. But my seat would not recline properly – if I put pressure against the window side armrest and leaned back with all my weight it would go back, but not if I just sat there. Weird. The real problem is that it felt like it was 32 dewgrees farenheit up against the window. I had to use 2 blankets just to shield me from the bone chilling cold of this way too thin membrane between me and the cold upper atmosphere. Thankfully, at least there were blankets, if there werent, I might have caused an incident. No pillows though of course, and no comfort in those overly worn seats with way too little cushion for my overweight body.

In looking at the seats that passed for first class in the early 1970’s plane they pulled from retirement, I was somewhat thankful that I didn’t waste my upgrade tickets (worth $180usd for JFK-SFO) but at the same time, still upset I was stuck where I was. At least I made it to SFO by 11pm PST and to my house before midnight (before heading into the hospital for another visit due to the stress that had started causing my chest pains again). But let’s not worry about me anymore, lets talk about American Airlines and allow me to share my opinion on what I think may have happened before this to create this bad situation. (Am sure they will respond here, as they said on Twitter last night, they are “listening” and the guy running the late shift twitter account (good process to run 24/7 shifts btw) promised a followup to see what happened on their end)

In Conclusion

From my perspective, I feel lied to and I trust American Airlines even less then I did before. As you may recall, I am a proponent for something I call a Net Trust Score to replace the aging Net Promoter Score as a system for measuring how well a company is doing in the market, with trust as the ultimate barometer, more important then promoting. If the company is trusted, they will be promoted, whereas with Apple I promote the iPhone (or rather I did) even though I didn’t trust or promote AT&T.

I have been loyal to American Airlins for the past decade plus because they fly to all the major cities I frequent most and usually have competitive rates on those flights. I have had gold and platinum status for years. After experiencing how they treat regular customers (how all airlines treat non-loyalty customers in fact), I never want to deal with that level of service again, so I stay loyal, because I have to or get even shittier service from other carriers (though I often choose to fly Virgin now if I can because they really do rock and JetBlue occasionally and then Southwest). The problem is I can’t trust American Airlines like I used to after this experience and many others I have had over the past year. In fact, when I upgraded my flight from DFW to LHR on my way to Europe about 10 days ago paying $450 and 25,000 miles for one segment, there was a miscommunication that almost cost me my seat on the plane if it were not for a good mannered well meaning gate manager, but I will let that story slide for now.

How can I be given a seat from one point in the system and then have it taken away in another? You promised me at this point that I had a seat in business class. I made all my planning at the airport on this promise, and it caused me undue stress as a result. Then there are the multiple changing promises about take off time. I know you can’t control when things go wrong all the time, but how odd is it that your phone system calls people to tell them of delays even when they are supposed to have their phones turned off and are sitting on the plane. Perhaps just an unfortunate system design in an edge case, but it was striking to me and furthered my distrust of your company.

I will spare you what I think about making us wait for CARGO to get loaded on the plane so you can make a few extra bucks. OK, so I didn’t. I guess I lied too, just like you did to me.

As for bringing an old ass plane like that out to fly us across the country (and my friend Bryan Thatcher on one from Paris to NYC), well I know the economics of maintaining an older fleet and the huge cost for modernizing it so I understand why you HAVE to do it, but I don’t like it and I may leave you if I get stuck on too many more of these when I could be flying in comfort on Virgin or Jetblue instead. In fact, if I see equipment on any flight I am considering is a 757, I will not complete the reservation and instead will go somewhere else, regardless of what it costs.

Now for the part that American Airlines will be happy I saved for last, but will get quoted by the most number of people. I think this whole situation may have been part of a decision management tree and may have been a middle management move to squeeze the most profit out of the situation that deserves a real investigation. Perhaps I dont have all the story here on why the gate agents were overheard using the phrase “downgraded equipment” by several people, including my very relaxed and uber smart seat mate in 12c. But when I looked at the seating chart last week in Europe to see if I was going to have a chance of getting the upgrade, there were only about 8-10 seats showing available in economy. So I thought my chances were slim. When I got the upgrade notification 72 hours in advance, I was shocked but delighted. (part of the broken promise thing again, I was looking forward to this leg of the flight for 3 days!)

It turns out, that the woman sitting next to me, also saw there were no seats available on the seating chart last week. But instead, the smaller 757 we flew had plenty of open seats on it. Meaning the original 767 was way underbooked, else there would have been a huge problem trying to get them all in.  While many people like me were denied their upgraded seat assignments (some of who received extra snacks and drinks for the trouble though I didnt get such an offer), everyone it seemed got on the plane easily enough. Or maybe they didnt and people were screwed over in economy so people like me could have more room which if true would be even worse.

So given this information, that their were few seats to choose from on the bigger plane, but plenty left open on the smaller plane, could they have been deliberately presenting false information about available supply in order to get a higher price per available seat without anyone noticing? I know the car rental industry has recently been managing its available supply of cars in order to change pricing points on the demand curve (can’t find the article on this, but someone sent it to me in response to a twitter inquiry into high rental car prices in the fall). Could the airline be presenting false information about available seats in order to get a higher price on the seats it was selling?

While this is all conjecture and there is little but my anecdotal experience as proof, given how little trust we have left for companies who make so many broken promises, I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this.

As I can imagine it might work if someone were to be so aggressive in the marketing of their services, if you aren’t selling enough seats on a plan at a price that makes the flight profitable, you present false information about there being fewer available seats in order to create a perception that the last seats on a particular flight are more valuable and worth paying the higher price. If you as the airline hit your profitability mark, you fly the plane as planned. If you don’t hit that revenue figure for the flight, you change the equipment at the last minute, as may have been done with my flight AA 177 on March 31, 2010 and force all the humans behind the shadows on the cave wall, otherwise known as the spreadsheet, to suffer through the very difficult human experience we all had.

If it is happening, I am sure there will be someone out there who can speak to this, because it would be so wrongheaded they probably couldn’t live with the lie, even if it meant their job. I have seen enough flights cancelled where there were clearly not more then a dozen or two people affected by it to know that such things have been handled by airlines in similar ways before, but who knows for sure? Only the managers making such decisions and a few of their colleagues in other departments who they have told about it.

As far as I can see this wouldn’t necessarily be an illegal thing to do, just an unfair and non-transparent trade practice that would cause such a PR nightmare, it would really hurt everyone from employees to stockholders to customers. Which is why again, I must point out this is only an imagined scenario at this point, based on conjecture, my experience, my imagination and my knowledge of business decision making processes. Still, I hope someone can look into this and I hope that American Airlines can tell us the full real story of what happened on this flight and how we all ended up in this crazy experience.

UPDATE 6April2010 10:30am: American Airlines sent me a form letter (customized of course) that basically said it was an equipment/maintenance issue that made them change the plane and offered 3 electronic upgrade coupons (value=$90) for my troubles and 73 minute delay. My reply was, thats great to know, why didnt you tell me that last week because that is a really simple thing to find out. What about the other issues like the freezing 757 and why the system allowed me to get rebooked in the first place, then denied. The form letter thing was quaint, but expected I guess, including this wonderful gem “eager to continue the beneficial relationship we have developed to date”.

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