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
IntroductionIt 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
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 2100My 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
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 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...
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...
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Troubleshooters.Com vs American Airlines
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.
- I investigate customer complaints instantly. If it turns out I had any
fault in the matter, I immediately apologize, correct, and often offer
free ebooks. Or, if the customer prefers, I refund in full. I have emails,
from people who earlier emailed me with complaints, telling me they like
my customer service and will order from me again. And they do.
- Unlike American Airlines, I never run too close to the edge. If I
can't do something well, I don't do it at all. If I don't have enough time
to prepare for a course, including preparing the customer, I don't take
the business and don't accept the money. And on those rare occasions when I
do overpromise, I spend whatever time and money it takes to deliver
what I promised, or else I refund. Of all their faults, the fact that
American Airlines was too cheap to put a few extra employees on the
re-booking line is the most customer hostile. I never do anything like that to my customers.
- In my company, the culture is that the customer is our friend. I
suppose that's easy to do considering I have a microbusiness,
but when my business grows larger, I'll make
sure that my employees know the customer is our friend, and that's more
than just a slogan. From my vantage point, all too many American Airlines
employees seemed to view customers as adversaries to be mollified with
fake niceties if possible, or criticized or just plain screwed if
necessary. I would never do that. If I couldn't be nice to the customers,
I'd get out of that line of business.
- I plan ahead. When I see a time crunch coming down the road, I let the
customers know so they can choose whether to stay or refund. When
Troubleshooters.Com was out of business half the summer of 2004 because of
hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean, I let our customers know well
beforehand. And after each hurricane,
once the power was back on and the roof was tarped so it didn't leak, my top
priority became filling orders. I had to delay major house repairs into the following
winter, but that's the kind of guy I am. Customers come first.
I book a maximum of one onsite training per month, because I want every
customer to get complete benefit and plenty of preparation. I don't feel the need to earn more money
at the customer's expense, and I make sure to charge enough that I can
stay in business giving each customer top quality, rather than cramming
customers in like sardines to compensate for low prices.
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!
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.
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