AA.com, you guys have an accountability problem
TL;DR Hard situations bring out the best and worst in people. Our experience with American Airlines has been the worst experience with any airline ever — mostly because of people who would rather lie to you than do the right thing.
There have been so many stories about crazy things happening to passengers that have been making the news lately. But when you look at revenue numbers, these seem to too often get dismissed as isolated occurrences as most buyers continue to largely give money to airlines who offer the cheapest fares for a given flight despite bad customer service. I wanted to share the story of a recent personal experience that showed me how large airlines with low prioritization for the quality of their corporate culture and a lack of genuine care for customers could create an environment where such big incidents could happen.
My girlfriend and I both love to travel. Like many of our like-minded friends, we adopted changes to become better at it so that we could indulge in it more often and more smoothly. We’ve got global entry, CLEAR memberships, frequent flyer memberships to nearly all major airline partnerships, subscribe to flight deals (love them), have rebooking telephone numbers for a number of airlines on our mobile phones, and even switched over to credit cards that had better travel offers or mileage points for flight or hotel credit. In short, we generally feel well equipped to handle unforeseen circumstances that are inherently a part of leaving home via air (e.g. lost/delayed baggage, delayed/cancelled flights, last minute gate changes, getting bumped off flights, etc.). However, it turns out that all of this means nothing if you simply can’t trust the folks at the airline to not lie to you. Not miscommunicate. Not misphrase. Lie.
Customer Relations Tip: Lying to the customer is one way to manage them
Susie and I flew out Weds (9/6) on AA931 (SFO>MIA) bound ultimately for Punta Arenas, Chile to run in this year’s Patagonia Marathon (9/9). We flew out on time, but the Captain came on the speaker less than an hour in to alert us of an “electrical issue with a fuse that couldn’t be reset mid-flight.”
We flew back to SFO but not before spending an additional 30–40 minutes burning extra fuel circling around (we were told that this was for safety reasons) before landing. Strange, but the crew seems unfazed by this, so it’s probably normal(?).
By the time we landed, we were pretty sure we weren’t going to make our connecting flight. But hey, that’s okay: The copilot announced shortly before our descent back to SFO to assure us that all rebookings would be taken care of without fees since it was AA’s fault for the delay and that he would share more details once we were at the gate awaiting repairs. Strangely, he also asked all passengers to have patience and “just let us do our jobs so that we can get you there as soon as possible,” despite no passengers getting visibly upset or loud on the plane. This was a really odd choice of words because it looked like while many passengers expressed some concern and asked for additional information from the crew, everyone appeared to remain incredibly polite and respectful. We landed and then proceeded to sit at the gate for almost over an hour.
As time passed, more announcements were made regarding connection info forthcoming and the repairs still underway, but no concrete details were shared. At one point, one rude flight attendant decided that he didn’t want to answer any more questions, so he stormed past us to walk over to the nearest handset to condescendingly tell the entire cabin, “like I said earlier to some of you, I have no information. We are aware of the situation and your rebookings will be taken care of. Please stop asking me for updates.” Coincidentally, I soon after got a notification on my AA app that our connecting flight to Santiago (AA957) scheduled for that night was cancelled.
Knowing it was the last flight out that night and concerned we’d have fewer options if we were stuck in MIA as standby the next day (especially with Hurricane Irma looming), we asked to deplane along with a few other passengers who reached the same conclusion since the door was open for the repairmen. Before standing up, I called AA’s customer service number to ask about our options to get to Santiago given the situation and the rep informed us that there were still a few alternative options from SFO that avoided MIA altogether that would leave later that day or early the next morning. Great! Except one caveat: he couldn’t book anything for us while we were still physically on the plane and would have to deplane before he could finalize anything. Seemed simple enough. Get off the plane since we’re at the gate anyway, book a new flight, and get back on track with our trip.
No dice. Folks near us who asked to deplane were pretty quickly shut down, citing that (1.) rebookings would be taken care of since this kind of thing happens all the time, (2.) MIA shouldn’t get affected by the Hurricane until Sat/Sun so that also isn’t an issue to folks traveling early the next day, and (3.) since we were going to leave soon, we need to sit back down so that we don’t time out. 10 minutes later, a young lady’s voice came on the air to assure everyone that there was nothing to worry about re:our connecting flights since she would personally take care of all of them herself and that it included “those of you trying to get to Lima, Santiago… you’ll be met in MIA by a gate agent who will give you your new itineraries.” Really? I guess they have things under control. We didn’t put up a fight since it seemed like everything would work out, so we settled into our seats and turned on F8 back on (don’t judge).
We got into MIA around 12:30AM (now, Thursday 9/7) and figured that at worst, we would miss the race on Saturday that we had looked forward to this past year (there was no way we would be able to make it to packet pickup by Friday in Puerto Natales — another flight and a bus ride that would’ve followed our arrival into Santiago), but we still had a silving lining with over a week to backpack Torres del Paine since it’s been on our bucket list for quite some time. But as we waited for everyone to deplane, I noticed that our itinerary wasn’t updating on my app, so I asked one of the flight attendants if this was an issue. “No… they should’ve rebooked you by now, so it’s probably just an issue with the new information not being refreshed in the app. Go ahead to the rebooking counter in the next terminal and they’ll be able to help you with hotel for the night.” Skeptical as I was, we headed off the plane.
As we walked off the plane, a gate attendant was on hand to direct individuals to American Airlines’ Customer Service desk near gate D25. I asked her if she knew about the rebooking info they promised us, only to be met with a confused and tired look on her face. She repeated the same phrase over and over again, “All connecting passengers, please head over to D25. D25…”
Wait, why are you even here?
It looked like approximately 25–30 people from our flight took that same confused walk to the already crowded customer service desk. With litter from empty bags of chips, cans of soda, and water bottles strewn around the area, a line of folks snaked three or four times before meeting the counter of AA service reps. With 2 to 3 AA representatives helping customers sort out the mess we were now in, things moved slowly. Very slowly. Spoiler alert: We didn’t get to the front until almost 4AM and no rebookings ever took place. We were all going to have to wait.
Along the way, we got bits and pieces of information from folks around us. Some passengers were able to find flights by calling a phone number and were told that they could fly out as a few hours from that moment (9AM). Others were told that they would have to be put on standby for flights that were scheduled to leave on Friday, but already had standby lists over 30 names long. And even still, others were told they could be booked on flights for Saturday morning. What none of the AA reps there or on the phone seemed to really talked about was the fact that news had already broke mentioning the confirmed plan to shut down all flights out of MIA by Saturday AM, if not earlier. Instead, since the system still seemed to enable the agents re-book people on flights, so they did.
When I called, I found out we fell into the second bucket: they had flights to Santiago the next day, but we would be on the lower end of very long standby lists. So, the phone rep apologetically advised us to wait for the onsite reps to potentially offer some other solutions, because it was possible that someone at the desk was already aware of the situation as the young lady in SFO promised.
When we finally got to the front, our agent was running on fumes. We patiently and calmly asked her what our options were for the situation we were in, since we were told one thing before and during our flight that contrasted against what appeared to be true now. Did we have a way of getting to Chile in time and was that already taken care of, or how quickly could we get there?
“Honestly? Probably Monday”
“No, not likely. They cancelled your connecting flight this evening, right? It’s highly likely that tomorrow night’s flight will get cancelled as well given the Hurricane looming; they’ve already cancelled a number of flights before the weekend, so I really don’t feel good about putting you on standby for a flight unless you want to risk being stuck here until Monday or Tuesday next week. Why did they fly so many of you here knowing the situation we’re in (alluding to the general unavailability of seats or diminishing number of flights left leaving MIA before Irma hit)?”
“Honestly, no idea.”
Sigh. She then proceeded to try every reasonable combination of flights to get us out of MIA, to any airport, as early as possible the next morning to then use to find us another flight to Santiago. No luck, sold out and too many on standby. And the option of flying out Monday or Tuesday essentially meant we would spend more time in transit than actually there.
Could we at least go back home from another airport if we don’t want to risk getting stuck here once the hurricane hits? Yes. But she recommended skipping any airports in Florida given the evacuation underway. (Sidenote: AA, I’m sure you can figure out who she is. Did I mention that she’s a good one btw? She couldn’t solve our problem, but even after a long night, she tried to find us a solution despite a really nasty customer who continued to give her a hard time throughout the length of our conversation)
Ultimately, she found us a flight back home out of Charlotte, NC that she felt confident putting us on, so we decided to go with it. She added that since our flight was cancelled, our bags should be waiting for us down in baggage claim. Sad and exhausted, we headed down to baggage claim around 4:21AM.
The next few hours are a blur. We went to baggage claim, didn’t find either of our bags there, spoke with baggage claim agents who insisted that Susie’s bag was stuck in SFO (lie #2) despite the status showing that it had be loaded onto our plane and that mine was in MIA somewhere and should be out shortly. We checked out two different baggage storage areas (no luck) and then proceeded to file a request for someone to find and retrieve my bag so that we could head to the rental car office. 3 hours later, still no bag, despite there being a status update saying that my bag was retrieved. Nope.
After being told by one of the luggage specialists that our baggage would get returned to us at the new final destination (SFO) since our itinerary now got cancelled altogether, we rented a car and headed out.
We give up. Let’s just get home.
I’ll keep it short, but essentially our 10 hour drive ended up taking nearly 20 hours and 900 miles to cover between detours, immense amounts of traffic, looooong lines waiting for gas stations and two stops for gas station sandwiches. We flew out of Charlotte the next day and made it back to SFO that Friday afternoon.
Upon reaching the luggage center in SFO, we were informed that both our bags were actually in MIA but not properly scanned. Somehow, instead of being rerouted back to us per their “process,” it made it on some flight and was now in Santiago, Chile without us! But how could that happen?
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t checked in properly and for some reason no one redirected it given your itinerary change.”
What do we do now?
“We can file a trace on the luggage and that usually resolves with bags being returned in 24–36 hours.”
Are you sure it won’t also get forwarded to Punta Arenas?
“Absolutely. It won’t get pushed further, especially since we just filed the request. I apologize for the mishandling, but the MIA ground team weren’t probably looking and just were trying to get bags out of there with the hurricane coming.” (I totally empathize with the situation, but I don’t know how to feel about situations like this where customers are asked to just be okay with failures by businesses due to stress/urgency).
At this point, Susie started tearing up out of frustration. We were spent, told that her bag was stuck in SF, told both would be in SF by the time we arrived home, and it hit us that we just spent 3 days being yanked around with very little to show for it, when so much could’ve been prevented.
Our bags didn’t show up for another 3 days, because, of course, they were actually sent to Punta Arenas. I received an email later that evening from the LATAM agent alerting us that our bags were there and ready to be forwarded to the hotel we were staying at…
After a few more email exchanges, they made their way back to SFO that following Monday (9/11)
AA takes care of their customers, I hear.
All along the way, multiple AA folks told us not to worry about the costs incurred with renting a car to leave through Charlotte, the monies lost on deposits or payments made in advance for Patagonia, or more importantly, the frustration and complete waste of time/energy we endured for no real good reason when we could’ve deplaned in SF that first day (according to the AA manager at the ticketing desk in SFO) because of one thing: file your report to customer relations and they’ll make it right. Really, they take care of their customers.
I filed a customer relations report around 9/14 and subsequently had to write 9 additional replies or new requests in addition to a lengthy follow up phone call to get to a point where they were willing to offer a full refund back in the original form of payment (she initially insisted that neither she nor any manager could provide a refund, but later said she was able to do it because she finally empathized about how rough of a time we had). I’m sorry, but there’s a difference between can’t and won’t. (lie #3) (p.s. the original evoucher never got sent out — hence the phone call)
We would appreciate another chance to serve you since you were unable to complete your trip as planned. Accordingly, I am returning to you the full value of your original ticket in the form of an eVoucher (via a separate email), which can be used toward future travel on American Airlines.
At roughly 6 weeks after the initial request for help with customer relations was submitted, we are still without a refund for the trip we never got to make with them and no signs of American Airlines caring about anything but the bottom line. Instead, it appears it takes 3 weeks get a check sent out. Then at least another 3 weeks for it to arrive, though I’m not sure what mail service in the US possibly takes anything longer than 5 days to get delivered.
As of today, it’s overdue and AA continues to just ask us to have patience.
Unfortunately, still holding our breaths… but one thing’s for sure, I don’t think we’ll ever fly AA again.