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When you look at things in the cold light of day and approach things from a non-emotional standpoint there are quite a few things to like about American Airlines. Its long-haul Business Class cabins offer (mostly) excellent seats, it has a very good domestic network, some of its airline partners offer fantastic premium cabin options, and as a member of the oneworld alliance, its mid-tier and top-tier statuses offer the best alliance benefits around.
And yet sometimes American Airlines makes is all too easy for flyers to dislike it.
I’m not referring to the horribly cramped seating the airline offers in its ‘Oasis’ interiors (was there ever an airline product more inappropriately named?), and I’m not even referring to the inability of the airline to operate a reliable service. I’m referring to the things that should be so simple to get right but that American fails to handle time and time again.
To illustrate what I mean I’m going to use one of my recent trips as an example.
Issue 1 – Rolling Delays
Recently, I was taking my first American Airlines domestic flight of the year and it involved a flight between New York JFK and Miami.
I was enjoying a visit to the much improved Flagship Lounge in Terminal 8 and, with the departures information in the lounge indicating that all was running as expected, I headed to the gate with 40 minutes to go to departure.
At the gate, the information screens still showed the flight departing on time so, being in boarding group 1, I joined a few other passengers waiting in line to board (I wanted to be one of the first to board so that I could get good pictures for a future review).
With 15 minutes to go before departure, there was no sign of anyone being allowed to board and the information screens were updated to show a 15-minute delay.
15 minutes later an announcement was made telling us that our cabin crew had been delayed on an incoming flight and the information screens were updated with another 15-minute delay.
There were two more 15-minute delays posted before the crew turned up and boarding was allowed to commence.
American Airlines must have known that its incoming flight was delayed well before the first 15-minute delay was posted and it also must have known that the delay was going to be longer than the 15 minutes that was first suggested….so what’s with the rolling 15-minute delays?
Had this been an isolated incident I could put it down to incompetence on the day but this is far from the only time American has (a) failed to update the departures boards when aircraft are delayed and (b) instigated a nonsensical ‘15-minute delay’ procedure when the end result is an aircraft that is delayed by significantly longer than that.
It’s almost like American doesn’t actually know what its aircraft are up to, so it keeps posting 15-minute delays until it finally hits upon on a departure time that’s vaguely accurate.
As someone who prefers time in the lounge to time standing in line at a gate, this is an incredibly annoying feature of travel on American Airlines and there’s absolutely no good reason for it.
Issue 2 – Staff Who Don’t Appear To Care
There are countless stories of airline staff (across all airlines) behaving in an apparently rude or antisocial manner but, to play devil’s advocate for a minute, most of these stories are only told from one side of the issue so it’s entirely possible that a large number of these issues/incidents were originally started and inflamed by a rude/antisocial customer.
However, when it comes to American Airlines there are just too many of these stories going around for them all to be customer induced, and most American Airlines frequent flyers will confirm that there’s a very good chance that any given flight will have a cabin crew that simply doesn’t care about customer service.
Some crews are genuinely fantastic…but they’re more often the exception than the norm.
To that point, I’d like to go back to my delayed flight between JFK and Miami.
When updating everyone at the gate on our delay, one of the agents let us all know that the aircraft our delayed crew was on had “just pulled into gate XX” (I don’t recall the actual number) so, unsurprisingly, every now and again, a number of us would glance in the direction of that gate to see if we could see our crew.
Quite a bit of time passed (cue the rolling 15-minute delays) but eventually the first of the crew members were sighted and we could finally start hoping that we’d soon be boarding.
Clearly, someone had forgotten to tell some of the crew.
In plain sight of a planeload of delayed passengers (a lot of whom were now looking in the direction of the delayed crew), some of the cabin crew were laughing and joking with each other while walking in the direction of our gate at a pace that a snail would have considered slow.
Some even stopped to exchange pleasantries with other cabin crew going in the other direction.
The faces of some of the passengers at the gate were pictures of stunned amazement.
One gentleman looked at me, looked back at a couple of crew members (who were now stationary and in conversation with some colleagues), and then looked back at me again while asking incredulously: “do they think we can’t see them?”
The optics were terrible.
Here we have a planeload of passengers who have been delayed for over an hour, most of whom have been waiting at the gate for over 90 minutes and most of whom have connections to catch in Miami,…and they’re watching the reason for their delay make no noticeable effort to speed things up.
Where would something like this happen in the real world?
If I’m held up on my way to a meeting thanks to reasons outside of my control, I’m not going to be found sauntering through a building, exchanging pleasantries with others around me, while my clients wait for me to arrive – I’m going to get into that meeting room as soon as I can and make sure it’s obvious that I did everything possible to make up what time I could – it’s called common courtesy and good customer/client politics.
Clearly it wasn’t the crew’s fault that they were delayed, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you’re the reason 200+ people have been held up, the least you can do is look as if you’d like to get things going as soon as possible.
I don’t expect cabin crew to run or to even move at more than a brisk walk, but seeing them sauntering through the airport and stopping to chat to colleagues while customers are delayed because of them gives an impression of an airline where staff really don’t care about providing good customer service…and don’t even care about looking like they want to provide good customer service either.
Issue 3 – Lack Of Planning #1
I’m going to start this section by admitting that I may be out of line on this one as I’m not knowledgeable enough about American’s procedures to be sure that this is a genuine screw-up…but from a layperson’s perspective it sure looked like one.
Airlines and pilots know in advance what their flight plans are going to look like and they’re aware of the weather conditions on the route and at a flight’s destination – that’s how we get updates from the Captain/First Officer on what to expect while we wait to depart.
So, with all that in mind, I’d love to know why the Boeing 767 flying me between JFK and Miami (and which is easily capable of flying distances far greater than that) didn’t have enough fuel onboard to circle for more than 10 – 15 minutes when it had to hold north of Miami thanks to bad weather at the destination.
The flight was diverted to Orlando and was delayed even further when there wasn’t an available gate at which the 767 could park up and refuel.
I realize that airlines will only ever fuel up an aircraft with the bare minimum amount of fuel considered safe (the more fuel they carry the more fuel they’ll have to burn to carry it) but surely a decision on the amount of fuel a journey requires has to take into consideration the weather on the route?
Miami is a huge American Airlines base so the airline is more than aware of how the weather systems around the airport can behave, and it must have known what the weather systems looked like before we departed from JFK….so why did this 767 only have enough fuel to circle for 10 – 15 minutes before having to divert?
From a layperson’s point of view this either looks like terrible planning or a gamble to save fuel costs by hoping to get away without a diversion.
Once again, the optics here are terrible and they appear to suggest that American Airlines cares more about cost savings than getting passengers to their destination as close to on time as possible.
Like I said at the start of this, I may be out of line here so I’d be grateful if anyone with more knowledge could chime in and give their opinion.
Issue 4 – Lack Of Planning #2
There are generally two main possible outcomes when it comes to customer opinion following a bad flight delay:
- Passengers are annoyed by the delay and only remember how poorly an airline handled the delay.
- Passengers are annoyed by the delay but can also appreciate the efforts the airline made to rectify the situation and to get things back to normal.
American Airlines was never even close to achieving the second outcome on my delayed flight from JFK.
For me, the delay and diversion were just an annoying inconvenience as Miami was my final destination on the day in question. All I really lost was an evening in South Beach.
For a lot of other people, the delay meant missed connections (mostly to destinations in the Caribbean), missed nights at expensive hotels, overtired kids, and an unplanned overnight layover in Miami with no idea of where they may be staying or who was picking up the bill.
There was a lot of understandable frustration on board when we landed at Miami so the least you’d expect at a major American Airlines hub was that the airline would have people ready to meet the aircraft and ready to handle customer issues.
Not American Airlines.
There wasn’t even someone waiting to operate the jet bridge at our gate.
It took between 10 and 15 minutes after the “fasten seatbelts” light had been extinguished before someone moved the jet bridge to our aircraft….and then there was just one member of ground crew left to face an aircraft full of passengers who had just missed their connections.
I didn’t hang around to watch what happened, but I felt incredibly sorry for some of the holidaymakers on board my flight – had I been one of them I doubt I’d have been in a hurry to fly with American again.
While it wouldn’t have made up for the delay, diversion and missed connections, it would have gone a long way to soothing some very annoyed passengers if the Captain could have announced that the airline was incredibly sorry for the multiple delays and that there was a team of agents waiting to help customers find accommodation and rebook them on the next available flights.
What did we get instead?
Something along the lines of “ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say that there doesn’t appear to be anyone waiting to operate the jet bridge right now. Hopefully, they’ll send someone soon”.
If this is what American Airlines thinks “going for great” is all about I have to wonder how the current management team still have jobs.
I’m sure American Airlines would like to claim that everything that happened on this one flight is a one-off and that “delays happen“, “you just have to roll with them“, “we strive for the best service” blah, blah, blah… But all of that is just nonsense.
None of this is unusual for American Airlines.
American Airlines is known for handling delays poorly, it’s known for having a significant number of cabin crew that don’t care about offering good service and it’s known for caring more about its bottom line than offering an acceptable level of service to its flyers.
People wonder why an airline like Delta (whose loyalty program is atrocious and whose aircraft are antiquated compared to American’s) is so popular with those who fly with it…but the answer is a simple one – when you fly with Delta you get the feeling that the airline and its staff care about the experience their customers are having. When you fly with American, all too often you get the feeling that you’re nothing more than self-loading cargo.