Monday, January 7, 2008

American Airlines Customer Dis-Service

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

If you are a marketer, feel free to use this as a "What Not To Do" guide to the customer experience.

Today is the last day of a get-away to the Caribbean Island of Nevis. My wife and I are traveling with a group of about 95 people made up of co-workers (hers) and their significant others (that’s where I come in). We’ve been here since Wednesday and have had a spectacular time on this small island next to St. Kitts. Today we travel home. Ending a vacation is always a bummer. We decided to take the earliest flight possible in order to get home at a reasonable hour, settle back into reality, and relieve my sister-in-law who has been watching our two kids for the past 5 days.

Our American Airlines flight out of Nevis was scheduled for 6:55am. We were to connect thru San Juan in order to get back home to Boston. We needed to leave the hotel at 5am to get to the airport with adequate time. That put our wake-up call at 4am. Ouch.

We get to the Nevis airport at 5:30 am to find out that our flight was delayed until 9am. That’s a delay of over 2 hours. There was no plane there. I guess it didn’t come in the night before. So we needed to wait 3.5 hours for our plane to arrive and get turned around. Now, don’t you think that someone knew that the plane didn’t come in the night before? Could someone have alerted the passengers that there would be a significant delay? Two extra hours of sleep matters at 4am. But maybe I’m asking too much. If everything went smoothly from here on out, all is forgiven.

But the plane didn’t get in between 8:00 and 8:15 as expected. It arrived between 8:30 and 8:45 and by the time it got fueled, loaded with baggage and boarded, we didn’t take off until 9:30. San Juan is only a 1-hour flight from Nevis, but even so, catching an 11:00 connection would be tight. When we learned that we needed to collect our baggage and clear Customs before rechecking the same baggage on our connecting flight (same airline, mind you), it became clear that we weren’t making the connection.

The race was on to find another way to Boston. Good thing we chose the early flight out. It was still only 11am, there would be plenty of options, right?

The first thing we did was dial the 800 number for American Airlines customer dis-service. After navigating thru the menu designed to avoid all human interaction (I should have used the gethuman 500 database), we got an AA customer service rep named Diana on the line. She couldn’t find our reservations. After reciting various passenger numbers and record locators, Diana confirmed that we did in fact exist. (Thanks for confirming). Unfortunately, the 2pm flight to Boston was cancelled due to maintenance issues (don’t they schedule that ahead of time? I picture a mechanic picking up the phone and saying “Hey, I’ve got time for an oil change this afternoon. Cancel that flight and wheel the 757 over to the garage”). The last flight of the night, at 6:45pm, was full. She added that AA wouldn’t transfer us to another airline and if we chose that route, we’d need to buy the tickets ourselves. Diana did inform us that she could help us out with a flight on Tuesday, two days from now.

In her “I’m starting to get pissed” voice, my wife informed Diana that that didn’t really work for us. After being put on hold, Diana found a way! We’d need to fly to St Thomas USVI and catch a 4:20 flight from St Thomas to Boston. The fact that St. Thomas was back in the direction that we just came from was irrelevant.

Off to St. Thomas we went without incident…until we got there. That’s when we discovered that another couple that we were traveling with had been issued the exact same seats that we had. At this point we were a bit skeptical that any of us were actually getting on this flight. The airport at St. Thomas was a madhouse. Of course, there was no gate agent to help straighten this out. She (from here on, I’ll call her “Sunshine”) was dealing with an overbooked flight to Miami at an adjacent gate. Apparently, there were at least three cancelled AA flights to the mainland today and passengers everywhere were scrambling to be rebooked. When we approached Sunshine for help, we were dismissed as soon as she heard the word Boston. If it wasn’t Miami, Sunshine wasn’t dealing with it. Back to the unmanned Boston gate we went. A line of ticketed passengers without seat assignments quickly formed behind us. At this point people started getting testy. The short, sweaty lady behind us was on the verge of going postal.

Finally, someone came to the gate to help. It was Sunshine! How nice. Luckily, we were first in line and all four of us got on the flight. Five other passengers did not. My seat? 36F. The last row of the plane just before the lavatory. As soon as I sat down I was embraced with the pleasant aroma of urine mixed with that blue toilet liquid. Yum. The flight left 30 minutes late.

At this point, The flight crew informed us of all the things that we could buy onboard ranging from a $5 headset to a $3 package of cookies.

The moral of this story is that my American Airlines experience was terrible in three ways:
1. American simply did not have planes in the places they were supposed to
2. The Customer dis-service process was difficult and they acted like they were doing me a favor by routing me all over the Caribbean and getting me home 6 hours late
3. The gate agent (Sunshine) was rude and dismissive.

My flight ended with the standard hollow thank you of “We know that you have a choice in airline travel and we hope that you choose American Airlines in the future”. Fat Chance.

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