Avoid American - even the pilots complain

Old Feb 21st, 2005, 07:44 AM
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Avoid American - even the pilots complain

I flew American for the first time in ages last week, and the bankruptcy proceedings show in the Kafkaesque customer service. Below is my story; if you do a Google search, you'll find blogs and other boards out there telling very similar stories about American -- with problems related to weather, contacting customer service, redeeming miles, abrupt no-notice seat and gate changes, AWOL crews, and rude ticketing reps.

I booked on Orbitz, which I always do. I had a NY-Chicago-Cedar Rapids itinerary, and when I got to the gate at La Guardia, I was told my flight had been weather-delayed 90 minutes. They'd had an inch of snow in Chicago the night before, and it was drizzly there. I tried to change my connecting flight to the next Chicago-CR run, but the gate agent told me that since there was a chance I might make my flight, I'd have to wait till I got to O'Hare to make the change. She said there were a few seats left.

When I stepped off the plane at O'Hare, I found one of the few functional departure monitors in American's concourses, and discovered my Chicago-CR flight had been cancelled while I'd been in the air. I called the rebooking number advertised all over the concourse (apparently this is a chronic problem for American), and asked if they'd switched me to the next flight. The lady said no, they hadn't, and that it was my own fault, because I should have done it myself.

For five minutes she tried to a) insist I hadn't had the conversation with the gate agent; and b) tell me that the gate agent couldn't have told me what she did, because the next flight was all sold out. We argued for a while, and I ended up yelling at her that I didn't care what screen the gate agent at La Guardia had been looking at, I couldn't have changed my flight while in midair, the effect was that American had made it impossible for me to solve the problem myself, and I wanted to be rebooked. She agreed to rebook me on another flight and vanished for almost ten minutes. She then returned and asked me to describe the bag I'd checked, and I asked if they'd lost it. She told me I was being sarcastic, and then said it just "helped them" to have the description. She disappeared a while longer, came back, and rebooked me through St. Louis.

I went to the new gate to get boarding passes, and when I got there another flight's passengers were being warned that their flight was overbooked and had a standby list of 60 people. I got to the front of the line and found the only helpful customer service person I'd encounter. At first she was going to drop me and go take care of something else, but when I said I'd been jerked around since morning, she stayed. She gave me my boarding passes, noted that I might get stuck in St. Louis, too, and that the connection would probably be late. She said there was one seat left on a direct Chicago-CR flight leaving a few hours later, and offered to book me on that one too as a hedge. (Later I'd find out she wasn't supposed to do that.) Not that she had any great hopes of that one leaving Chicago. But at least she was helpful that far.

Now it was starting to get rainy, and since there was no weather info in the concourses, I called my husband and had him check the radar from the next state over. It looked like we had snow to the north, rain to the west, but St. Louis was clear. We decided my best bet was to try the St. Louis route.

As I watched other flights get delayed and cancelled, I started trying to shore up my defenses by getting on standby lists on later flights to anywhere near Cedar Rapids. It took forever, since gates were left unattended, and when I was able to get to a gate with an agent, the agent would often _leave_ in the middle of signing me up and go attend to other business. I had to argue aggressively with one woman to get her to finish putting me on standby; at first she told me she would take care of loyal customers first, and tried to ignore me. Another agent told me that there was no guarantee I'd keep my standby wait number, since I'd be bumped for any Platinum or Executive class member who wanted to get on the list.

As evening wore on, I tried to buy tickets on later flights, just so I could get home. But the rebooking agents -- who seemed to need things explained three or four times -- wouldn't do it, saying it was back-to-back ticketing, and that I'd have to wait till my current flights were cancelled. Nor would they tell me how many seats were available on later flights.

By this time, I was seriously angry, and I tried to reach a customer service rep to get a voucher for compensation. Well, I guess with that many angry customers, they don't want phone calls, so there's no customer service number. Emails only. (Search blogs to see how the emails are ignored.) I argued with a ticketing supervisor about that, said I'd settle for marketing, and she finally gave me a main switchboard number for American; if you're interested, it's 817-963-1234. Of course, since it was Sunday, nobody was there.

The St Louis flight was pushed back till I'd have missed the connection to CR, and since the lines were long at the gates, I called rebooking to find out if the St. Louis-CR flight was on time. After an excruciating go-round to get the rebooking agent to check the correct flight, I found out it was on-time, and that I'd miss it. The next seats available from St. Louis to CR were for the following evening. I stood in line to trade in my boarding pass for a later Chicago-CR flight, and hoped it would leave the airport. By this time there was only drizzle outside.

The boarding time for the Chicago-CR flight came and went, and the gate stayed unstaffed. Eventually the monitor showed our flight delayed, and people started trading stories about their own delay/cancellation problems and ludicrous things they'd been told by American staff. Generally we agreed they had about half the support staff they needed.

Finally an agent arrived and told us our crew of 5 had gone missing, maybe to go eat dinner, and that they were tracking them down. But at least we had a plane. An hour after our original boarding time, we started boarding, then stopped again so they could find someone to get a lady out of a wheelchair and into a seat. Ten minutes later, a man arrived with an empty wheelchair and rushed down the jetway with it, and everyone groaned. A while later boarding continued.

Our pilot started his speech to us with "I don't know what kind of stories they've been telling you people," which is never a good sign. It turned out the crew (of 3, not 5) had called in fatigued (not AWOL eating supper), and that he and his co-pilot were the relief. Thanks to a speedy co-pilot, who'd been given only one hour's notice instead of the required two and could've delayed us another hour, we were actually getting out of Chicago. He landed and thanked us, saying tiredly, "Give us another chance, we'll get it right next time around."

Bottom line: I had to spend hours tearing around the airport being awful to people and yelling on the phone in order to get home without paying for a hotel in Chicago and hoping for a flight the next day. When I was polite and waited my turn, I was ignored and left standing at gate counters; when I didn't argue with rebooking agents, they gave me incomplete information. Employees blamed everything on the weather and my own failure to do the impossible; nothing was American's fault. It was an awful experience. I don't think it's all the employees' fault, either. I'm guessing they've been told to respond this way, and it's not their fault American doesn't staff adequately. I wouldn't want their jobs, to be honest. They must deal with angry people nonstop.

It's a shame, because their seating is by far the most comfortable I've sat in. But you couldn't pay me to fly American again. When flights go smoothly, it's great -- but if anything breaks, they won't take care of you unless you're a corporate client who spends a lot of money with them.
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Old Feb 21st, 2005, 08:18 AM
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- American is not in bankruptcy proceedings.

- Your experience can happen with any airline during bad weather days.

- Being angry at airline agents usually will not get things solved.

In short, travelers should know that such things can happen all the time.

[And maybe rent "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" when you're in the mood.]
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Old Feb 21st, 2005, 08:34 AM
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NY-CR and Chicago-CR are both frequently-flown routes for me. I usually fly ATA or United. Never had problems like the ones I just had with American. Yes, there are weather delays; yes, there are overbookings and (very occasionally) reroutes. But I've never seen the kind of chaos I ran into in American's O'Hare concourses before. Never gotten so much wrong info from gate/ticket agents, never been blown off the way the American agents seem to blow off their non-VIP customers. Never had to walk so far to find working departure screens, frankly. Never heard of 60-deep standbys on a non-college-break/non-Christmas flight. Never had a pilot be so refreshingly honest about how much we'd had our collective chains yanked.

AA is not currently in bankruptcy. It flirted with bankruptcy some time ago. I'm guessing the understaffing is still in response to that.
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Old Feb 21st, 2005, 02:47 PM
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flygirl's not wrong in suggesting that being nice doesn't get you anything in such a crunch situation. All gate and res. agents will tell you they much prefer to help the nice people, but they will also have to admit that loudly squeaky wheels are often the ones that get fixed first. When things get really bad, you have to try everything, and sometimes being unpleasant is unavoidable -- sadly.

In general, what displeases me about AA is one or another new policy, fee, penalty. And I have to say I've only infrequently had bad exchanges with the people -- but not never; and once something goes sour at American, their official stance is "never apologize, never explain," and it often gets worse from there.

Flygirl, my condolences for one of the traveling nightmares that caught you last week. It was less unusual than it should be, and occasionally a passenger has no choice, having tried everything else, but to get noisy.
 
Old Feb 23rd, 2005, 03:47 AM
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I've had my share of weather mishaps -- indeed, I'm infamous for them, to the point that my friends jokingly give me their travel itineraries and beg me not to travel at the same time so as to avoid the seemingly inevitable weather disasters. I also fly AA, almost exclusively, and will say that I've always been satisfied with the way things worked out.

A couple of things I always remember:

- The airline cannot help the weather.
- The FAA often directs airlines to cut/cancel/delay flights if there is difficult weather, even if the flight could safely land or take off.
- The best way to get an agent's complete and undivided attention is by telephone; bring your cell phone and have your airline's phone number handy. Use it even in an airport.
- Ticket agents are people, too, and they are likely having as bad a day, if not worse, than you.

Case in point: About a month ago I had to get to LAX from IAD to catch a transpacific flight. Snow and ice were causing weather delays at IAD and my flight was cancelled; I rebooked to another and that was cancelled too. I got on the phone yet again with AA, but calmly and patiently talked to the agent. She was so relieved to be talking to someone who wasn't yelling at her and blaming her for the weather that I know she went to extra effort to help me. While the solution wasn't ideal -- I had to drive to the airport in Richmond (south of the snow) to get a plane to DFW and then LAX -- it saved me missing my transpacific flight. The agent was creative and patient with me, and even re-routed my return flight through Richmond (which required her supervisor's approval, since an outbound re-route doesn't mean that you get re-routed on the way back).

I know you always have the chance of getting an ornery agent, no matter how nice you are. But in general, my experience has been that you do better if you can calm yourself down enough to treat the agent the way you would like to be treated yourself.
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