American Airlines to Marooned Passengers: Drop Dead

American’s advice to disgruntled customers? We suck so much that in the future you should purchase private “travel insurance” to protect yourself from our abysmal unreliability and lousy “customer assistance.”

All air travel is subject to the risk of delays, and even cancelled flights, due to weather events, but my recent experience with American Airlines is noteworthy. Like many hundreds of other travelers, I found myself stranded in the DFW airport last Saturday at midnight, hungry and tired. All the airport restaurants were closed. Numerous flights had been cancelled. Even though DFW is an American hub, and the American corporate HQ is located nearby in Fort Worth, American was totally unprepared for the number of displaced travelers. Customer service desks were inadequately staffed, the lines for assistance were miserably long (and slow), communications were virtually non-existent, and the “assistance” offered to those willing to brave the lines was pyrrhic: Because the travel disruption was caused by weather, American said, no overnight hotel accommodations would be comped, and no alternative travel arrangements (such as bus service or bookings on other airlines) would be provided.

The sole recourse was to wait at DFW, in some cases until Monday (36 hours later), to take the next available flight. In the meantime, weary travelers who had checked their baggage were marooned in a chaotic airport, with no food or clean clothes. Many opted to rent a car one-way at DFW (with a financial penalty) and drive to their intended destination. In our case, this was a three-hour drive home to Austin, in the middle of the night (we finally hit the road, in pitch darkness, at 4:30 am on Sunday morning), having been up for 24 hours.  Not exactly how we planned on ending our trip.

Needless to say, we were very frustrated, and annoyed, by American’s lousy reliability and “customer service.” Our circumstances were different than other travelers’, whose flights were delayed or cancelled solely due to weather. We were returning to Austin from Knoxville, and our mid-afternoon flight to DFW (where we were scheduled to change planes to a connecting flight to Austin) had been delayed for two-plus hours due to unexplained “equipment problems.” The mechanical delay put us squarely in the middle of the weather event at DFW. To my mind, the mechanical delay, and American’s subsequent record of inaccurate and confusing communications regarding our connecting flight, warranted redress.

When we finally arrived home, and got some much-needed sleep, I began a series of written complaints (by email) to American, seeking reimbursement of the cost of the rental car and gas to drive to Austin, and a refund of the unused portion of the airfare and the baggage charge. After initially refusing to refund the unused airfare, American eventually relented, but only after I informed them that someone at American (who returned my call more than three hours after I left a message) had promised a refund over the phone. Otherwise, American’s only “concession” was to offer a $175 travel voucher for each of my wife and myself. Despite appealing this decision all the way to the Chairman/CEO and President of American, the airline resolutely refused to reimburse the cost of the rental car.

Here are some of the comical statements made to me by American’s “customer relations” personnel:   

“From reading your email, it’s clear that you did not have the best experience traveling with us.” The understatement of all time!

“Our policy is that we don’t reimburse food, alcohol, transportation, or other out of pocket expenses. The voucher was intended to make up for the inadequate service you experienced. Our goodwill represents an amount we believe to be fair and reasonable considering the circumstance you described. Mr. Pulliam, thank you for choosing to fly with American Airlines. We appreciate your business and look forward to having you onboard again soon.” Translation: If you made the mistake of booking travel with American, your’re screwed!

“Since we cannot guarantee on time arrivals or departures, it is recommendable that our customers protect themselves by purchasing travel insurance. While we don’t sell insurance ourselves, we provide a direct connection to an independent insurer providing trip insurance for a nominal fee based on a ticket price. The next time you book with AA.com, please check out the Allianz Global Assistance website from the “Buy Trip Insurance” link on the payment screen on AA.com, or, you can learn more about this option at www.etravelprotection.com/aa.” Translation: American is the air travel equivalent of the Allstate advertising character Mayhem. Since mayhem—in the form of unreliable flight schedules and lousy customer service–is inevitable, you’d better insure!

“To remain fair and equitable when considering all customer requests Mr. Pulliam, we have made a decision not to assume financial responsibility in situations such as this. We believe this decision to be fair and reasonable.” Translation: Tough luck.

“Thanks for writing us back. It was clear to us when you brought your concerns to American’s Corporate Headquarters that you felt strongly about this issue and were escalating it beyond our other customer service teams. In effect, our previous response serves as the supervisory involvement you request. Because we have been given the authority and responsibility to resolve customer concerns of this nature, we must confirm that our position has not changed. Again, I am sorry you felt that your situation wasn’t addressed.” Translation: Still tough luck.

“Mr. Pulliam, thanks again for writing us. We’re always looking for ways to improve and your feedback will help us do just that.” My response: American sucks, and I will fly Delta, Southwest, Frontier, or United to avoid the mayhem and intransigence of American. 

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