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Why I Will not Fly American

OK, that's it. I've been moving away from American Airlines for years, and they had sort of dropped to the "if there are no reasonable alternatives available," category. They managed to rise to the "after this last time, it's just not worth getting there." I feel dehumanized, manipulated, and I can't sleep because I have this sneaking suspicion that I'm a bad person for being upset that they're screwing me over. I hate it when I feel like I'm the one who has to apologize and beg when at some level I realize that someone else is being unreasonable. So, I'll rant in the hopes that I'll convince myself that it's not my fault and I can get back to sleep. If I convince others to take their business to a company that cares about customer service, all the better.

So, we're going on a family vacation this February to St. Kitts, as we often do. We bought tickets. American was the only airline that had an itinerary that got us back to Boston the same day that we left St. Kitts. All the other airlines required us to stay over somewhere else. We paid significantly extra for that itinerary; a couple of thousand dollars extra across our entire family. Tonight we get e-mail that they have made a schedule change and now we'll have to stay (at our expense) in Miami for a night. However if we bought the tickets today they would be significantly cheaper than what we paid. The difference would mostly make up for the hotel room.

So, I called. We'd like them to refund the difference. The agent talks to a supervisor and says she'll waive $50/person of the $100/person re-issue fee. So, for a fee of $100/person, they will give us the difference. This doesn't seem right to me. I ask what would happen if I just wanted to cancel the whole trip. The supervisor said they would be happy to fully refund it. I asked what would happen if I then went to purchase the tickets on their website. She said I could do that but we'd out the cash while I waited for them to process the refund and we might not get the tickets depending on availability. She doesn't see why I think that's a fairly high price to charge for $100/person when this is all because they changed the tickets after we bought them. Grumbling I ask her to go ahead and perform the re-issue. I've been on the phone for about an hour, when I suddenly find I'm disconnected.

I call back and after waiting another 25 minutes am connected to an agent. The supervisor I've talked to previously is unavailable; she's now on break. After waiting an additional 20 minutes I get connected to a new supervisor. The old supervisor made a note about the re-issue in only one of our three reservations. The new supervisor says she's unwilling to waive the change fee at all, and points out that a refund is not available only a travel voucher. If I want the old deal, I'll have to contact the old supervisor. The only way to do that is to call back and wait in the queue, talk to an agent and ask for that supervisor. If she's available I may be put through; otherwise I'll be asked to call back. The option of a full refund is no longer available because I've somehow already accepted the reschedule as being OK during my conversation with the first supervisor. By this point it's been around 2 hours, and I'm feeling really disgusted. I know I've been used badly, but I'm
feeling horrible about myself and horrible about the experience and I just don't have more energy to fight it.

What really interests me is why I feel bad about myself. As I try and deconstruct the situation, I realize that every time I've had a customer service problem (other than the time they refused to let me get off the plane because I was blind), American has done things that I think are calculated to make me feel bad and that it's my fault and otherwise manipulate me. Here's a list. Note that there are details here that are not described above.

The entire experience is set up to make them feel more important than me. There are long hold times. It's always my job to call back. Their break is more important than me.

It's very high-pressure. You must resolve things now. The first supervisor suggested that if I was unhappy with her answer I should call back and talk to another supervisor. She said that I might get a better deal, I might get a worse deal. She couldn't transfer me to someone else. I'd have to start all the way over and wait in the queue again. While on the surface this is intended to sound like it gives me the power to have some recourse, it's misleading. First, there's the record of what has been offered me. What supervisor is likely to be more liberal in interpreting policy than the person who has already dealt with things? Also, the subtext is all about whether I'm willing to take a risk and pointing out that I might well get a worse response. "Well, you could spin the wheel again, but you should be aware it could come up far worse than you got here."

There's a lot of hiding behind policy. "You wouldn't complain if the gas company or the electric company had a policy you thought unreasonable, would you?" Well, actually, Ms. Hudson, I would, but let's move along.

However what I've really noticed is that American supervisors try to focus on some small set of facts and ignore the bigger picture. Here, they were arguing that the schedule change was not a factor, nor was that we'd initially purchased more expensive tickets in order to get home in one day. We were simply talking about being annoyed that the fair had gone down. In a previous incident, I remember being graciously told after a huge mess involving them failing to correctly rebook me after weather, and some really unacceptable customer service incidents that they'd waive the fee to downgrade me to economy as compensation. That is, they had focused on how I was asking not to fly in business class, and that was all they could care about. There is explicitly no acknowledgement of my view of the situation. Not to say "well I can understand where you're coming from," or anything. If pressed you can get them to acknowledge that they understand what you're saying.

Together, these and a number of things I'm probably not noticing end up being really powerful emotional manipulation. I leave the situation questioning whether I'm being reasonable and feeling bad that I'm applying so much pressure to get what I want. At one level these are probably quite effective to reduce people's willingness to complain or request refunds or special treatment. Other than the part where I want to do everything I can to avoid doing business with American it might even be a winning strategy for their bottom line.

Writing this at least makes me feel better and feel more certain that I'm not being unreasonable. I still think it will be a while before I can wash the taste of the experience out of my mouth.

Comments

Serious rage triggers for me here. They're being complete fucksticks. The sheer timewasting customer-abusing jackassery of old-style business in general is what drives me to do business with dodgy startups and upstarts whenever possible. Smashy smashy and other general affirmations.

Edited at 2012-01-07 07:52 am (UTC)
ZOMG. No, *you* are not the one being unreasonable here, and not every airline is a complete jerk about reissuing, for that matter. Thanks for the heads-up about American.

... also, I've never had an airline reschedule my tickets so that I had a layover that was overnight. That's a whole level of appalling by itself. YEESH.
The amazing thing to me is that they rescheduled us to have an overnight layover, and the only way I found out was through a routine-looking rescheduling e-mail. As far as I can tell, no one has even offered the zero-cost courtesy of apologizing for doing this.

Even more surprising, to me, is the fact that they rescheduled all three of our itineraries (we are flying in 3 groups at different times), and I only got e-mail for two of them. So, technically, Gwen's flight has been rescheduled to include an overnight layover, and she hasn't even been notified! Gwen is flying a week later than the rest of us, so I wonder if they won't bother telling her until a week later...?



Wouldn't want her to have too much time to object! Wow, this airline is sleazy. :(
Just rework the old line from Laugh In: "We don't care. We don't have to; we think you can't take your business elsewhere".

It's been years since I've willingly flown a US airline when I had a non-US alternative.
That's stunningly bad policy. Wow. A few thoughts:

1) Going forward, do you fly enough to get frequent flyer status on any airline? All airlines treat FFs with more care. I'm 1K on United and they will bend over backwards to make me happy (unlimited reimbursement for delayed luggage, gave me a free ticket because I got bumped from the seat I had booked, etc.) As long as you pick someone with a good amount of service from Boston, it usually doesn't cost a lot more to standardize on one airline.

2) Try contacting their Executive Customer Service / Office of the President equivalent. See here; this is old but may still work. http://consumerist.com/2008/06/call-american-airlines-executive-customer-service.html

Be apologetic about bothering them, and explain your situation as if the earlier people you had spoken to at American simply hadn't understood the situation or American's policies. "I'm so sorry to bother you, but I've been having a serious problem with the reservations for my family's vacation that I just haven't been able to resolve through the normal customer service number. Do you have a minute that I can explain? [..] We recently received a rebooking notice on our trip next month that introduced an overnight layover, but we weren't offered accommodations (even though we're traveling with children) nor the opportunity to rebook. Surely that can't be right? [..]"

3) Write a letter afterwards, if they don't resolve the situation to your satisfaction before the trip.
I have platinum (the new 75k level) on United and Margaret just got her million mile status on United. I used to fly 50-75k on AA but moved most of my business to United because of previous customer service joys like this. We chose to fly AA this time explicitly because they could get us back in one day. There are not United flights to that desitnation, but there are star alliance flights.
I have not dealt with United about this specific issue, although I have dealt with them about issues where I got a refund because some failure on their side caused us to fly a significantly cheaper fair and it was relatively painless. I did have to fill out a bunch of web forms indicating every ticket number, rather than simply pointing to the reservation number, but the refund happened and was reasonably prompt.
Calling their president's office seems like a good idea. I know there's a jis story about doing that with some airline when the airline screwed up his return flight form somewhere and told him that even tho it was there mistake they could get him on the flight, but not sitting with the person he was traveling with.

If you really want to fight them (and it's not clear that you do) you can try working thru your credit card company on the grounds that AA is not planning to deliver the services that you contracted for. I've never done this and don't know about what any legal ramifications might be, but I think that credit card companies have a procedure for it.
Well damn. Your story sounds very like the string of incidents that made me walk away from Delta forever+ever.
Well, one thing I could mention is that if the fare goes *down*, that means they're having trouble selling tickets. Unless you think the lowered price is enough of an incentive for a bunch of people to suddenly notice and buy tickets, I wouldn't worry about availability if you cancel and rebook.

THAT being said, the way you were jerked around was ridiculous. If I were you, I'd never fly American again. They don't deserve your business.

But one thing does bother me...you were planning to do a day trip to Miami? With kids??? (Have you done that before? Do they behave? Mine certainly wouldn't.)
No, we're going for a week to the island of St. Kitts. We fly back SKB->MIA->BOS. We wanted to do that all in one day. Now we do SKB->MIA in one day and MIA->BOS in the next. So putting everyone up over night in Miami. Which will not work great, for the obvious reasons involving kids, stress etc.
if they let you cancel the flights, would it be as much of a layover to go with another airline? you're already stuck overnight, now...
*sings* "We're American Airlines, Something Special In The Air"

I didn't know that the implication of that was "YOU aren't special, WE are, so we can and will walk all over you."