Troubleshooters.Com and Steve's BSD Resources Present

The American Airlines Way
How to lose customers without really trying

Copyright (C) 2012 by Steve Litt, All rights reserved. Material provided as-is, use at your own risk. 



It had been an ideal business trip. AeroMexico got me from Orlando to Mexico City nonstop, quickly and effortlessly. The Sheraton Suites Santa Fe had given me a wonderful hotel room, treated me like royalty, and assisted me with cab transportation. My client, whose name for contractual reasons must remain unsaid, provided me with twelve smart and skilled people to train -- the training went excellently. In order to make this business trip perfect, all that remained was that American Airlines deliver me safe and sound from Mexico City to Orlando, reasonably on time and without too much hassle.

Would American Airlines do its job? It was a pretty easy job to do. I'd paid about a thousand bucks for a full fair economy seat (the only ones they had left that were refundable), and had priority boarding. I'd allowed two hours between landing in Miami and departure from Miami to go to Orlando. Plenty of time to clear customs, even if their plane was a little late. I'd arrived at the Mexico City airport four hours early, cleared security, and was sitting in the terminal with three hours to spare.

So now, 1PM Friday, 12/21/2012, having cleared security, I was now sitting next to Gate 30 at the Mexico City Airport, awaiting news of my American Airlines flight 2100 to Miami, en route to Orlando. A perfect trip seemed so easy -- a slam-dunk. But sometimes things go wrong...

The Wait for Flight 2100

My boarding pass said flight 2100 boarded at 3:55pm, and I made sure to be near the front of the line. We all lined up, the first class people in one line, and we economy (whether full fair or non-refundable) in another. After the lines got long, the gate people told us there was some maintenance on the plane and our flight would be delayed. No biggy, it happens. I asked one of the gate guys whether this would impact my making my connection flight from Miami to Orlando, he said it shouldn't be a problem -- he'd checked with the necessary people about all connecting flights, and Orlando was safe.

A few minutes later an announcement was made for us to board, we all lined up, and were immediately told the announcement had been a mistake, and the plane would be boarding an hour later. No biggy, it happens, we all sat down again. A little less than an hour later, we actually boarded. I was in the middle of a huge line, and it appears to me they had forgotten to board the priority people first. But then they remembered, and had the priority people step forward. I actually found space for my two laptop-sized bags in the overhead compartments <note 1>. It took forever for the multitude of passengers to board and jam their suitcase sized carry-ons into the overhead compartments. There were some arguments. But finally we all ended up sitting. So far so good. Then one of the flight attendants demonstrated the American Airlines Way...

The Flight Attendant

If you were the female, blond flight attendant with her hair up and wearing a leopard spotted vest or shirt or jacket or something, on American Airlines flight 2100 out of Mexico City on 12/21/2012, this document is where you can read about how you helped lose your employer a customer forever. If you're American Airlines, you might want to think about re-training some of your flight attendants.

I was seated at row 17F, a window seat in an unusual row where the middle seat had some sort of thing preventing someone sitting there. It looked like it might be an exit row, except I couldn't find a handle, nor could I find any relevant information in the instructions in the pocket of the seat in front of me. No problem, I'd ask a flight attendant when I got a chance.

You see, I take the safety of a plane full of passengers very seriously. In the few cases where I've sat in an exit seat, I've made sure I fully understand how to open it and deal with the removed door. I make sure I can do the job, so if there's something preventing it, I can get switched. As a matter of fact, my vigilance in such circumstances extends to the following philosophy:

I'd rather as a stupid question than make a stupid mistake!

The hair-up blond, leopard sweatered flight attendant was standing a couple rows ahead of me, lecturing on how to operate exit seats. In hindsight, her attitude toward those she was lecturing wasn't very friendly, but I didn't notice it just then. Anyway, those seats ahead of me were marked "Exit", and mine wasn't, so mine probably wasn't an exit seat, and I just wanted to double check and make sure. So as the hair-up blond, leopard sweatered flight attendant passed me a couple seconds later, I asked her the following question, pointing to the wall above the window next to me:

"Is this an exit seat?"

It's a yes or no question. It could have been answered with one word, without breaking stride. But apparently that's not the American Airlines Way. She stopped, and in an incredibly snotty voice said "Does it say Exit?"

I stared at her with disbelief. In my decades of air travel, with countless airlines, I've never been treated so rudely. Apparently she took my disbelieving stare as a challenge, because she repeated her question, this time not only snottily, but in the tone a irritated yet patronizing mother would use with her five year old.

Now I was angry, and said "Look lady, I've had a tough day, and I don't need you trying to make me wrong!"

As I was finishing my sentence, I realized a beef with a flight attendant, regardless of whose fault, could get me kicked off as an unruly passenger, so I added "I'm done talking to you", folded my hands on my lap, and stared straight ahead. In my peripheral vision I could see her standing there, waiting for something else to happen, desiring a fight. Finally, after a few seconds, she realized her hoped-for fight wouldn't materialize, and she want on to do whatever mean people do when their job no longer offers the opportunity for conflict.

Did I mention my question was yes or no and could have been answered with a quarter second reply instead of a minute's conflict? Could it be that on this full plane, already an hour late, this flight attendant didn't have enough to do and was bored?

The Offloading

The plane finally got to the gate in Miami about 9:20pm -- 55 minutes late, but still an hour and five minutes before departure of my connection, and 35 minutes before boarding began on my connection.

I've been on other late planes, and a lot of times, while still in the air, the flight attendants collect info on passengers with connections to make effort to get these passengers safely on their way. Many airlines even request, on the intercom, for passengers who are now at their final destination, to remain in their seats for a few more minutes so connecting passengers can make their connections and not lose hours or days of time. American Airlines could have done these things, but I guess that's not the American Airlines Way. They just let us get off the plane in a herd, with each passenger delaying the whole line getting his/her suitcase sized bag out of the overhead. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get off the plane. I have reason to believe those ten or fifteen minutes are what made the difference...

The Rush

I knew I was in trouble, so I rushed through the airport to get to Immigration and Customs. I got in the first of several lines and rushed. All told, it took me 20 minutes to clear customs. It was 9:55pm as I exited customs. My plane's boarding time was 9:55pm. It was tight, but still possible. If American Airlines had cooperated in the slightest. But that's not The American Airlines Way...

The Trick

American Airlines: what a sense of humor. They're such jokesters! As I rushed out of Immigration and Customs, my checked luggage trailing me, a woman said "American Airlines passengers, go to your left. All others to your right.

Finally, it looked like American Airlines was doing something right for their customers. Knowing the time pinch their late arrival had caused, it looked like American Airlines had set up their own, quick place for us to put our baggage and be rushed to our awaiting connections. But then we got stuck in a line manned by two guys with heavy accents. I looked at my watch. Time was slipping away while I was in this line. Finally I got to the front of the line, these guys looked at my boarding pass, and told me "go to ribbuckin".

"What?" I asked.

"Go to ribbukin!" they said exactly the same way.

"I don't understand, what's ribbukin?" I asked.

Exasperated, they said "ribbukin", and pointed in a general direction.

I shrugged my shoulders. Finally one said "Where the sign is."

I scanned the tens of signs visible in the general direction they had pointed, and finally saw one that said "Re-booking". <Note 2> Now maybe it's just me being picky, but personally, if I operated a large service business in an industry as confusing as air travel, I'd make sure my customer-facing employees spoke English clearly enough that "re-booking" didn't sound like "ribbuckin". But I guess that's just not the American Airlines Way.

Anyway, finally realizing what they were saying, my heart sank with the knowledge of what American Airlines had in store for me. But who knows, maybe they could get me on a later flight that night. Still hopeful, I went over to the re-booking line. At the entrance to the line, I found a guy I'll call "Mr. Personality", a guy who loved to talk to customers as long as the customers had no serious problem. Big guy with a red jacket. When I asked why I couldn't just stow my luggage and jump on the plane that was boarding this instant, he said you had to have your baggage stowed 45 minutes before takeoff. Smiling, he told me to get in line -- they'd get it all straightened out for me. He also told me the next flight out was the next day at 12:30pm, so they'd give me a hotel. How generous! How about my cab? How about the extra restaurant meals. I didn't even ask these things. I was getting used to the American Airlines Way. Hoping somehow there would be unexpected good fortune, I got in line.

The Line From Hell

After about three minutes in the line, I began noticing things. The line wasn't moving. The line was much longer than it seemed, because it snaked around in a way (perhaps intentionally) to hide a long extra loop of of people. This is just an estimate, but it looked to me like the line contained a hundred people.

At the counter stood two agents, helping people who had reached the front of the line. This isn't an exact measure, but it looked to me like each agent was averaging a customer group every five minutes. I'd estimate the average customer group to be two people -- sometimes it was a single customer, sometimes it was a group of four, but I think it averaged out to two. So let's do the math: 100 in the line, 2 agents, each helping a customer group of 2 every five minutes. How long does it take to help 100, and clear the line as it currently exists?

(100 customers)/(2 agents x 2 customers/group x (1 group/5 minutes)) = 100/(4/5) = 80 minutes

An hour and twenty minutes!

I called the customer service number on my plane reservations (thank goodness I'd brought those and not just the boarding pass), told them the problem, and asked them to put a lot more agents on the line. They explained they couldn't do anything about the way American Airlines ran their re-booking line, but she did give me a ray of hope. My connection flight, flight 1334 to Orlando, was also delayed for maintenance, so perhaps I'd get on board once I cleared the line. She told me that the plan was that at 11:30pm, American Airlines would evaluate when 1334 took off. This meant I still had at least an hour. Overhearing my phone conversation, one of my neighbors in line commented that, given the fact that I had a boarding pass, I shouldn't even be in this line, and suggested I ask someone. She offered to watch my luggage, so I trotted over to Mr. Personality, showed him my boarding pass, told him 1334 was late and I could still make it, and asked him to make it happen. He said he'd talk to his supervisor. He ambled over there. Five minutes later he ambled back toward me, but stopped to talk to several customers. Finally, when he had absolutely nothing else to do, he ambled up to me and said the supervisor said no. The supervisor said the flight was closed.

What the hell does that mean, the flight is closed? I went over to talk to the supervisor. It was about 10:40 at this point. I told her the plane wasn't taking off til 11:30 at the earliest, she argued that it was about to take off now. I asked her if she wanted to speak to customer service, she said no. I called customer service anyway, they gave me the exact same information given me earlier, and I handed the phone to the supervisor, who told them the same thing she'd told me. She handed the phone back to me, and customer service said they couldn't influence the counter at the airport. Sorry.

Turning to the supervisor, I asked who was sitting in the seat printed on my boarding pass. She said she didn't know. It seemed to me she didn't care, either. Perhaps that's the American Airlines Way. I got back in line.

Now I began to notice my fellow passengers. Up near me, the ones who'd only been waiting a half hour or so, faces were cheerful, joking, fun. The farther toward the counter you looked, the more stressed the faces of the inconvenienced passengers who had been waiting over an hour.

A couple minutes later I went back to the supervisor and asked if they could just pay for a one way car rental to get me to Orlando. A woman next to the supervisor, wearing a white shirt, assured me that if I kept the car rental receipt and submitted it via customer service on the website, they'd reimburse me for the car rental, because this problem "wasn't my fault". Maybe it's just me, but at this point I had my doubts about American Airlines doing right by their customer after the fact. I asked her again why they couldn't pay ahead, she said they don't, I asked if they'd really pay, she said she's been working there for 20 years, and when people in my situation ask for their car rental to be paid, it is. I doubted it, but it was now 10:50pm, fifty five minutes after I emerged from customs, and I hadn't yet made it half way to the re-booking counter.

A few minutes later I went back to the counter to ask the white-shirted lady something, but she was on the phone to another customer and walked away. I followed her, and exasperated, she told me she couldn't help. I gave her a hard time until I noticed she wasn't the same white shirted lady who had told me about car rental. I just walked away. I didn't even apologize to her, but now, in this document, I'll fully apologize to her, because I was wrong to give her grief, and even more wrong because, with the grief I'd been given the last hour, I should have had much more compassion on this innocent lady who had nothing to do with this situation. I don't know your name, but I'm sorry for the way I treated you.

One of my pieces of American Airlines paperwork, I think it was my boarding pass, had an ad for Budget Car Rental, complete with an 800 number. I phoned that number and reserved a car to drive to Orlando and leave there. The drop off point was about 5 miles from my house. With full insurance and a GPS, it would be $178. At 11:10, an hour and five minutes after emerging from customs, I exited the line which I still hadn't made to the half way point. I briefly tried to find somebody to report my decision to, so it didn't mess up their paperwork and cause them to think some kind of terrorist plot was being cooked up by this missing passenger, but there was nobody to tell. I headed toward the car rentals.

Down the hall toward the car rentals, Mr. Personality was talking animatedly with a pretty girl. Who knows, maybe he was on break. Anyway, without even breaking stride, I told him I'd rented a car, I wouldn't be on the plane, there was no terrorist plot, and he and his airline were incompetent.

Budget Car Rental

A long walk down people movers and a short train ride got me to the Budget Car Rental. The line was about ten people long, but there were about six agents so things moved fast. Within ten minutes I was at the counter with a friendly young woman. Next to her was another friendly young woman. ALL the Budget people were friendly. With a minimum of fuss I was given a car, a contract, a GPS, the address where the car needed to be dropped off (did I mention it was only five miles from my home?), and directions to my car. A little after midnight I showed my contract to the friendly man at the gate, who noted the car's existing scratches and refined the directions given me at the counter. His directions proved exactly right. A couple local roads to I95 north to the turnpike and home.

Going Home

I was hungry, but none of the gas stations were open, so I stopped at the first Turnpike rest stop I found. The only thing open was Dunkin Donuts, so I had one of their tuna on bagel, a large diet coke to keep me awake on the coming drive, and a donut. After finishing, I went across to a rest-stop convenience store that was still open and bought and drank a 5 hour energy. Both Dunkin Donuts and the convenience store were quick, efficient and friendly. I headed north toward Orlando and home.

I got to my neighborhood at 4:30am (Flight 1334 was supposed to land in Orlando at 11:20pm), filled the rental car with gas, went home, unloaded the car, and celebrated a successful business trip with my wife and kids (yes, they had waited up for me). We all finally went to bed about 6am. Mindful that the neighborhood Budget facility closed at 4pm, I got up at 1pm, had breakfast, and had my daughter follow me to Budget, where I returned the car to a nice, friendly, efficient lady. The American Airlines Incident was officially over.


Writing this, it's obvious I should write more about businesses doing exceptional work. AeroMexico, the Sheraton Suites Santa Fe, my client, Budget Car Rental, Dunkin Donuts, and the convenience store all treated me with excellence. Only American Airlines dropped the ball.

Things go wrong in any business. If people were perfect, pencils wouldn't have erasers. What distinguishes good businesses from bad ones is how they handle those mistakes. Do they move heaven and earth to make sure their late departure doesn't make their passenger an additional 13 hours late, or do they just jam him in an 80+ minute line, ensuring he'll miss the connection? Do they try to get him on a flight, any flight, even with a competitor, or do the just say "sorry, nothing til noon tomorrow"? Do they foresee the problem, get the connecting passengers off the plane fast, shepherd them through customs and luggage re-stowing, and on to the plane, or do they just stuff standby passengers in the seats reserved for those they made late? Do they instantly give customers what they want and need, or do they trick them into standing in an 80+ minute line, with the airline hoping that some, like me, will just take matters into their own hands at their own expense, and save the airline the cost of a hotel stay?

My family has suggested I try to get my flight money back, or at least get reimbursed for the car rental and gasoline. I don't think my family appreciates the situation. Every interaction I've had with American Airlines personnel suggests that pursuit of any kind of repayment would take hours or days navigating websites, waiting in call queues, and talking to people telling me I have to talk to someone else. If and when I could actually talk to someone with the power to make it happen, I'm sure they'd make it a negotiation rather than a profound apology and refund of the entire flight as a gesture of goodwill. It's the American Airlines Way. And I just don't have time for that noise -- I have a business to run and a family to pay attention to.

I'm sure American Airlines would have offered me free miles. But isn't that kind of like a doctor who blinded you in the right eye offering you a free operation on the left? No thanks, I don't trust American Airlines to get me where I need to go.

There's a silver lining in this incident. I learned, relatively harmlessly, never to fly American Airlines. Suppose I hadn't learned this, and in a later business trip, American Airlines had done their trick-and-shuffle on the way to the customer instead of the way home? In such a case, it wouldn't be just a day out of my life. It would make me late to teach a course that a customer has taken great pains to put together, and paid me thousands to teach. Can you imagine how horrible that would have been? I actually got off easy for the mistake of flying American Airlines. Thank goodness I learned now, and not on a later flight that would have jeopardized a course.

Best Business Shootout:
Troubleshooters.Com vs American Airlines

If you regularly read Troubleshooters.Com, it's likely either you have your own business, or you're in charge of a business or a department. In either case, you can take guidance from this incident. I know it's opened my eyes to how I run my business, compared to how American Airlines runs theirs.

First of all, American Airlines is big. I'm not saying they're too big to fail, but consider that in the aftermath of 9/11 the government offered the airline industry an aid package, loan guarantees, and short term assistance; all told billions of dollars. If your small business encountered similar problems, do you think the government would rush to your aid? American Airlines is currently (this being written on 12/24/2012) in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, keeping their creditors at bay. Do you think your small business, lacking an army of lawyers, would fare as well if its debts were in danger of exceeding its assets? I'm sure not counting on it.

American Airlines can afford to anger its customers, occasionally getting bad publicity like what you see in this document. You and I can't. Here are some customer service tactics I use to keep my customers happy. Contrast them with American Airlines: If you've been in business for more than a year, you know that some customers are bad news. That doesn't mean you try to punish such customers, and you sure wouldn't want to inconvenience the vast majority of your good customers to guard against the bad. If you're anything like me, you set up your system to make it easy for every customer to be a good customer. Stay in touch, tell them what to expect, and deliver on your promises. That's how small businesses like yours and mine stay in business year after year.

If you want your business' employees to troubleshoot more productively, Troubleshooters.Com can help. You can get our books for your employees, or have your internal trainers teach from our courseware, or have me come out to personally teach your technologists and maybe train your trainers to teach the majority of your staff. Whichever alternative you choose, you'll get top notch service, the Troubleshooters.Com Way!

Note 1
Yes, yes, I know, I know. Small bags should go under the seat in front of me, leaving room in the overhead compartments for people with huge carry-on bags. But I'm not a contortionist, and grabbing that bag in the confusion following landing, and keeping control of it while I fish for my other bag in the overhead, can be a little challenging. And of course that bag under the seat in front of me further constricts the sparse legroom. But yeah, after seeing what happened on this flight, next time I'll be a good citizen and put one of my bags under my seat to make room for the people putting suitcases in the overheads.


Another way to look at it is this: My two laptop cases consume much less room than one of the wheeled suitcase behemoths thrust up there by the other passengers. If everybody brought two laptop cases like I did, there would be plenty of room in the overheads, and NOBODY would need to place anything below the seat in front of them.

Note 2
Yes, I know, I know, America is a melting pot, and I should take the trouble to understand people with accents. And usually I do. Because when dealing with people whose pronunciation differs substantially from standard American English, you can often put things together with context. But in an airport, in a rush to make your flight so you're not stranded, with a line of stressed people behind you, context is hard to find. It doesn't help that the people you're talking to are experts in all things aviation, but you do this only a few times a year. As it turns out, I'd never before needed to know about re-booking, whether pronounced right or wrong, so context was of little help.

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