Holiday Travel Hell Part 1: American Airlines really doesn’t care

Like many other travelers in 2007, I’ve experienced several flight delays. Since I mostly traveled from Anchorage to Seattle, none of the delays were that big of a deal — I usually ended up exhausted (I always have to fly on red-eyes, and it’s a two-hour trip to the airport on either end), which I can deal with. I’m generally a patient traveler, and don’t get angry about situations out of my control. But as I wrote yesterday, my travels in December 2007 made me realize just why travelers get upset. I believe that it’s not necessarily the delays or cancellations; rather, it’s the behavior of customer service reps that get travelers fired up.

The first segment of my holiday trip from hell was a flight from Seattle to Dallas, en route to Tampa. Naturally, our flight out of Seattle was delayed, so naturally, my sister Ali and I missed our connection in Dallas. The gate agent at Dallas/Ft. Worth, who was disinterested and silent, silently handed us vouchers for a hotel stay and told us we were booked on a flight the next day at 12:25 p.m. There were close to a dozen passengers who missed the 9 p.m. flight to Tampa, and I overheard a few of them working with other agents reserve flights early the next morning. When I asked if other passengers were getting early flights out of Dallas, he replied “stand-by. They are all on stand-by.” As Ali and I walked away with our vouchers, a couple from our flight asked us the situation. We told them that we were confirmed on the 12:25 to Tampa, and had requested to be on the stand-by list for the 9 a.m. When the couple approached the same gate agent, he told them, “Don’t listen to them [my sister and me]. Listen to me.” And he booked them on a 6:30 a.m. flight! What gives?

Several of us ended up on the shuttle to the hotel together, where we were able to compare notes. One passenger had to pay for his hotel room. Another received food vouchers on top of the free room. Every single passenger was booked on either the 6:30 or the 9 a.m. flight, including people who approached the counter after and Ali me. We couldn’t discern any reason for the differences — no one was MVP, for example.

When we got to the hotel room, Ali called Expedia to make sure our rental car in Tampa would be held at least another 12 hours, while I got online to write a complaint to American Airlines. My complaint was not that our flight was delayed; instead it was the flippant attitude of the gate agent and the seemingly whimsical manner in which each passenger was treated. Why, for example, would our gate agent tell the couple behind us in line to listen to him, and then book them on an early flight? Ali and I were in no way rude — I always make sure I’m friendly and polite. Why didn’t we receive food vouchers? Why couldn’t we catch an earlier flight, since our vacation was already delayed a night?

The next morning we arrived early to try and ride stand-by on the the 9 a.m. flight. We didn’t get on, but we did find out about a 10:30 a.m. flight that was available. We were both able to fly stand-by on that one, thank goodness. No one had mentioned that flight to us before then.

I received a reply to my complaint yesterday from American Airlines. The response was a cheap attempt at disguising a form letter — it focused on our delayed flight, and repeatedly mentioned being unable to compensate monetarily for flight delays, even though I never asked for money and made clear that my problem was not with the delay but with customer service. At one point in the email the rep wrote that the customer service complaint “concerned” her and that she had reported it to her manager. Nothing specific, nothing about the fact that her gate agent had complete control over passengers’ flights and was able to pick and choose who he wanted to fly when.

So what did I want from American Airlines? I think just the reassurance that despite appearances, the airline was looking out for me. That those in charge actually care about my travel plans, and are doing their best to get me where I need to be as soon as possible. Instead I received an insincere apology aimed at removing blame for flight delays, when the actual delay was never the problem.