There's plenty of philosophers out there. Most of them have “day jobs.” It’s hard to…
File this one under the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.” I was once scheduled to fly from SFO to JFK on American Airlines. I rarely fly American and prefer Jetblue or Virgin America and I fly cross country at least four times a month. Everything started off just fine, that is, until I got an email from AA telling me I can now check in for my flight which is 24 hours away. Pretty standard stuff. I click the link and attempt to print my boarding pass and keep getting some sort of error message telling me I can’t check in at this time. I take a look at the seat map and notice there’s a problem. I’m assigned to seat 37G but the schematic for the flight only shows 32 rows. Now I’m not a pilot, but I quickly deduced that there’s an issue.
I called the 800 number well aware that this would probably be a half hour waste of my time trying to get the system to respond to my voice commands. After 13 different versions of an apology from the female computer voice I resorted to pressing zero about four hundred times. Nineteen minutes later a real human introducing himself as “Mike” although I have a feeling his real name was something closer to “Mikhalabastiankinoveloyniabutreas” based on the accent and the horrible quality of the connection. I explained to him (four times actually) my issue and he said the problem was that they changed aircrafts from a very large one to a medium sized one. I quickly did the math and realized that if there are 250 passengers attempting to get on a 150 seat plane 100 will get screwed and I was in the lucky 100 club. He suggested I get to the airport 2 hours early (Hello? 7:20 AM flight? Ugh…) and hope for the best.
Not wanting to just “hope for the best” I asked for a supervisor. I’ve now invested 42 minutes of my life into this call and am losing the little confidence I had at the beginning of the call quickly. The supervisor told me I could take a red-eye (No thanks, I’d prefer a root canal.) or take a flight at 4pm and layover in L.A. for 90 minutes. I told her I’d prefer option A – get me on the flight I paid for and reserved. Apparently she could not control the seating assignments (silly of me to assume that a customer service supervisor could actually resolve a customer’s problem) and I had no other option but to get to the airport very, very early.
When I got to the airport I went to the kiosk and something came out of the machine that I hoped was a boarding pass. No such luck. It looked and felt like a boarding pass but it was just a pass that let me go on the “high priority” line at security and instructed me to go to the gate. I arrived at the gate 90 minutes before my flight. There were half a dozen passengers (or optimists I should say) waiting in line, but no agent at the gate. I went to another gate to inquire and they informed me the agents wouldn’t arrive until 45 minutes before takeoff. Thank you AA for insisting I show up in the middle of the night to stand in front of an unmanned gate.
The agent finally arrived and told us in a very abrupt manner that there’s no need to crowd her, she knows we want to get on the plane and is doing the best she can (big confidence booster). When people asked why, she lied and said they changed equipment last minute. (24 hours is last minute?) She then proceeded to ask for volunteers…people who have no reason to be on a flight because they can easily wait around an airport for 11 hours to get a voucher of some sort. I asked her what happens if I don’t volunteer. She said you get on the next flight we can put you on or we can refund your money.
I got very lucky and somehow got a seat. I was never more grateful for a middle seat on a cross country flight. As I boarded the SS Officer, the head flight attendant told me that because I was boarding so late (like I wanted to wait until 10 minutes after takeoff to get on the flight) there isn’t any bin space so she will be checking my carry-on bag. At this point I let out what may have been a growl and said, “Excuse me but I see empty space right here (in first class) and that is where my bag is going.” She tried to explain to me why I couldn’t do that, luckily with a combination of logic, sarcasm and arrogance I won the “carry-on debate.”
Here’s where this story really gets strange. After they failed to be proactive about an equipment change that caused havoc and aggravation; after they spewed forth a bundle of misinformation and lies, after the gate agent and the stewardesses showed us how it is possible for cranky, incompetent people to be in a “service” business I thought it would be best to email a complaint to AA and let them know about my experience.
It took 15 minutes of pecking around on their web site to find a link (in what appeared to be 2 point type) that may be a complaint link (comments? complaints? praise?). I hit the link and the form that popped made the IRS 1040 form look like a true false quiz. I entered my frequent flier number, name, address etc. and than needed a record locator and a ticket number. That took 10 minutes of pulling emails to find this information which was certainly cross referenced to my frequent flier number but I assume this was designed to be a test of endurance.
In the part of the form that allows you to write about your experience I did, in great detail. I hit the “proceed” button and got a weird error message in a triangle that said “please fix error.” I looked and looked and couldn’t find any errors. At this point I was way too invested to simply bail on the complaint. I’m frustrated and pissed off and I know they designed this so that I would bail.
I called the 800 number once again (hoping my good friend Mikhalabastiankinoveloyniabutreas might be on duty). I needed to punch in the combination to Fort Knox, my third grade standardized test scores, my good cholesterol and a few other data points to get the web help desk. I explained that I was trying to send a complaint and apparently no one has done this before because it doesn’t work. The rep (Bob or Bobalaboobobaroniestafitanmohmebon) giggled and asked me how many characters it said I had remaining in the free form part of the form. What? How many? On the very bottom it said 9, he said they know about the problem and if I edited it down so that there was greater than 25 characters remaining it should work. I could not believe it. I said to him you know this is broken, and it’s a complaint form so no one is using it to tell you how blessed they were to experience an American Airline flight. He said he knew and he repeated his suggested fix.
So what’s the point? Being someone that travels often and also believes you can learn from almost any experience, I believe there is a lot to learn from all of this. If you are dealing with a company (or an industry for that matter) that isn’t proactive, has no regard for their clients’ time, takes no responsibility for their incompetence, knows of specific, detailed problems it has and does nothing about it, there is probably plenty of opportunity to serve that market in a better way. All of the major carriers in this country have either been in and out of bankruptcy (or flirted with it) merged, reduced amenities and charge for every possible service, yet we don’t have all that many alternatives. I fly Jetblue and Virgin America as often as I can and the experience, while not always something to write home about, is exponentially better than the legacy carriers.
There is a vast market to be served, but it needs to be served well. If the carriers can’t do that more and more new entrants will and they should be allowed to die a death of natural causes. I vote with my dollars daily and American Airlines if you are listening I’m no longer voting for you.