American Airlines Tried to Send Me to the Wrong Airport

The airlines have cut back on a lot in recent years. There’s a charge for checked luggage. It takes more miles to earn a free trip. You don’t even get peanuts anymore.

Last week, American Airlines sunk to a new low when they tried to send me to the wrong airport.

I was traveling from San Diego to Washington Dulles, connecting through Dallas Fort Worth. My flight from San Diego to Dallas Fort Worth was delayed because American didn’t have a flight crew available on time. This caused me to miss my connecting flight.

The good news is I was automatically rebooked on a new flight. The bad news? The new flight was to Washington Reagan, not Washington Dulles. 

As you can see from this handy map, these two airports aren’t the same.

It was an error caused by a big, dumb computer system. It was exacerbated by unfriendly and unsympathetic employees. 

The only apology I received was a perfunctory “sorry for the inconvenience” sent via direct message on Twitter. (I had contacted the American Airlines twitter team for help getting re- re-routed to my correct destination.)

I eventually landed at Dulles five hours late. 

Perhaps I should feel lucky. In January, a Southwest Airlines plane landed at the wrong airport. The incident prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to issue a bulletin to airlines that was headlined by this blinding flash of the obvious:

Check and confirm destination airport.

Ok, so I’m lucky. I ended up in the correct destination. But this experience still highlights three big customer service lessons:

  1. The experience must match the promise
  2. Your employees can fix problems
  3. You have competition


Lesson #1: The Experience Must Match the Promise

The CX Journey blog provided some nice coverage last year of American Airlines’s rebranding effort. One of the posts contained this quote from an American Airlines representative:

Through the fusion of technology and the human touch of our people, we aim to elevate and modernize the travel experience so our customers feel at ease and connected.

Denise Lee Yohn’s terrific new book, What Great Brands Do, does a terrific job of explaining how the best brands work diligently to ensure the customer experience matches brand promise. Great brands know these statements aren't just marketing slogans. They're blueprints for doing business.

American Airlines clearly has their work cut out for them as my experience was the opposite of their promise.

The technology tried to send me to the wrong place. I felt uneasy as I tried to connect with a helpful human or the right technology to fix the problem.

The human touch was non-existent. No empathy. No courtesy. Not even a smile. Gate agents on this trip didn’t even make eye contact or return my “Hello” when scanning my boarding pass at the gate.

It’s okay to make brand promises. Just make sure that’s what your customers actually experience.


Lesson #2: Your Employees Can Fix Problems

It was just a year ago that I wrote about another service failure caused by a big, dumb system at American Airlines.

That time, I gave a few of their employees credit for their kindness and empathy. It was enough to earn my continued business.

So, what’s different a year later?

It’s probably been pretty hard to work at American Airlines lately. There were widespread layoffs threatened. A merger with US Airways created uncertainty. The airline has been navigating through bankruptcy.

That’s the real shame. I encountered several American Airlines employees on this journey. Anyone of them could have given me what I really wanted: a heartfelt apology and a little empathy. I didn’t get it.

I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post if someone at American had made it right.


Lesson #3: You Have Competition

The Communicate Better blog recently had a terrific post describing how a website offering the same product, for less, as Amazon lost the business to Amazon anyway. The reason? The experience lagged far behind what Amazon could deliver. 

Apparently, American Airlines hasn’t figured out there are other airlines. Their service is consistently awful with a lowly 65 point rating on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. That’s United Airlines territory.

Other airlines, like Alaska, offer much better service. 

Ironically, I recently flew Alaska from Washington Reagan to Los Angeles. My flight was delayed when the airport temporarily closed due to a snow storm. Alaska employees were cheerful and helpful the whole time. 

It wasn’t a great travel day due to the weather, but the service I received nonetheless cemented my commitment to fly Alaska whenever possible.

Why I'm rooting for American Airlines to improve service

Customer service at American Airlines generally leaves a lot to be desired, but I'm rooting for them to improve. A stronger American Airlines creates more competition and can bring some much needed stability to a battered industry. This should result in better overall service from the airlines, even if you aren't flying American.

Competition is Good

The airlines may be much maligned for their overall service, but their industry score on the 2012 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) was the highest its been since 2003 (see the results here). The traditional carriers like American, Delta, and United continue to lag in service quality, but newer airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have picked up the slack considerably.

Without competition, things can get ugly. Look at what happened to Continental Airlines after merging with United. Their ACSI score was 18 percent higher than United in 2010. Two years later, the combined airline's ACSI score declined 13 percent. It will probably get worse since they were responsible for a whopping 33.6 percent of passenger complaints filed with the Department of Transportation in the first half of 2012 (source: The Consumerist).

Competition in the airline industry often comes down to where you fly.

I'm based in San Diego, which isn't a hub for any airline, so my options vary depending on where I'm going. If I want to fly nonstop to San Francisco, I can shop three airlines for the best combination of fare and service. On the other hand, when I travel to Dallas in October to speak at the 2012 ICMI Call Center Conference and Demo, I am literally going two hours out of my way to avoid flying American even though they are my only option for a nonstop flight. I instead chose better fares and service at Southwest Airlines.

Taxing on the runway at DFW

Stability is Needed

Customer service often suffers when businesses struggle. It might start with employee discontent, where employees' concerns over their own jobs create a distraction that negatively impacts their service. This has been happening at American Airlines for quite some time, though their flight attendant union ratified a new labor contract on Sunday which might improve things a bit (see the story here).

Service gets worse when companies start making radical moves in an effort to turn things around. American Airlines is actively considering a merger with another airline, most likely US Airways. Recent history suggests that won't bode well for customers, as evidenced by the United-Continental merger and even the recent decline in service at Southwest Airlines as they merge with Air Tran (see Five Reasons Why Ratings Are Down at Southwest Airlines).

Perhaps worst of all is when an airline goes completely out of business. In March 2008, Aloha Airlines filed for bankruptcy and then abruptly cancelled all of their flights. Ten days later, ATA Airlines (another airline that primarily served Hawaii) followed suit. The result was thousands of stranded passengers and a temporary spike in air fares to and from Hawaii that made it difficult for many people to even get home.

What's Next?

I really don't know, but I fear the worst. Do any airline industry experts care to handicap their chances of turning things around?

Yelping for joy in Beantown

My wife, Sally, and I have just returned from our vacation in Boston. In a town not known for service, our experiences were generally terrific. Even American Airlines, which I alternate between loving and hating, treated us very well and handled a weather-related flight delay admirably. The question I always like to ask is, "What can we learn?" Here are a few of my favorite take-aways.
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