(Photo Right: A "Tramp Chair" used by police departments to encourage tramps and vagrants to move on.
It’s disturbing to think how much in common it has with a modern day air travel.)
My wife and I just experienced the declined state of American Airlines firsthand.
My wife booked the flight on American because she was in a hurry, and mistakenly thought Southwest, the low cost provider, didn’t fly the route. (The trip was a sudden business requirement.)
After she emailed me our flight info, I checked, and found that Southwest did fly to that airport, and that Southwest would have been 33% cheaper. However, since the tickets were non-refundable we were committed.
I also noticed the seats were in the rear of the aircraft, and then checked to see about upgrading them to first-class using points from our personal account. “No problem.” I was told by a surly call center agent, I would just have to cash in 68,000 “Advantage” points AND pay American an additional $300 dollars.
68,000 points and $300 cash? OK that idea didn’t go far.
Before the flight, by way of apology, my wife went back into the AA system and “upgraded” our seats to “preferred seats” to the front of the aircraft for about $23 each.
The morning of our outgoing flight, the first thing I noticed was the absence of anything resembling an organized queue at the American Airlines check-in. All the self-service kiosks were at an odd angle, and there were no feeder-rails for a line. As I sleepily stumbled through the kiosk process with the help of a detached American employee, I figured out I was being asked to pay an additional $25 for my bag. I looked at the AA employee; he just shrugged and avoided eye contact.
As I “agreed” to the $25 fee for my bag, the kiosk screen also generously offered me the opportunity to upgrade to first-class for $45 for the first leg, and $90 for the second leg. “Hey John, remember the $300 and 68,000 Advantage points we previously asked for? We were just kidding about that.”
After printing out a luggage tag, we waited around for a few minutes trying to find an employee that would actually take the bag. Apparently taking the bag, or touching the bag in any way shape or manner was not in the kiosk guy’s job description.
After check-in, as we went through security that morning, I remember thinking TSA seemed like a model of efficiency and politeness compared to the American Airlines desk.
Once aboard, as we settled in, it quickly became obvious there was nothing “preferred” about our seats. There was absolutely no leg-room; and when the passenger in front of my wife reclined, my wife was forced to contort herself into a cartoonish manner * as she attempted to work with her laptop literally just inches from her eyes at a drooped angle.
For my part, I quickly came to the realization that the frame rail for the seat in front was mounted exactly where my left foot should go. I also became painfully aware that my worn-down-seat had no lumber support and no padding left in it. I remembered what I had once read about police “tramp chairs,” and using my Vulcan-like mental discipline, tried not think about the two hours in front of me.
The night before our return trip, my wife proudly announced that she had gone online, and for a fee, had changed our seats to the exit row, and that I had an aisle seat.
At the airport, I noticed the American Airlines counter had the same un-organized cluster problem as the Austin counter. Once I finally elbowed my way in front of a kiosk, I was once again given the opportunity to upgrade at the last minute to first class for $135. I looked at my wife, “Aisle exit row, right?” My wife smiled back with confidence, “Right!” So I once again passed on the last minute upgrade, and once agreed to pay $25 for the tenacity of actually having luggage.
However once onboard, we quickly realized we had been had by American. We were not in fact in an exit row. We in the row behind the exit row. My wife’s window seat, had no seat in front of it, so technically her left leg actually could be stretched out slightly, but her right leg was restricted by the exit hatch. If she moved her right leg forward, it would hit the metal frame of the hatch, and she would suffer hypothermia of that foot.
Since it was the return trip, and my Vulcan mind-discipline was weakening, I succumbed to the inevitable and agreed to pay AA an additional seven of my hard earned dollars for a small bottle of Scotch.
Post Trip Thoughts
I remember a time when American was one of the better airlines. It was our preferred airline on our yearly business trips to New York City and to Vermont for family vacations. That is no longer the case.
My gut feel is that they’re trying to compete as a low cost provider, and they can’t win that battle. (Southwest pretty much has that niche mastered.) Unfortunately, American can’t compete as a premium airline either. Not with uncomfortable worn seats, zero leg-room, indifferent or angry employees, poor operational procedures, and continual nickel-and-dime huckstering of customers for illusionary “better” seats.
I don’t pretend to fully understand all the problems a complex concern like American has- the labor issues, the impossible logistics ranging from fuel prices to flight schedules, and complex cost of working capital- but I do have a humble suggestion for the check-in process.
One: If nothing else, go back to feeder lines and clearly marked entry points to the queue. A bunch of people rudely elbowing each other to get in front of a kiosk is no way to start a flight. It creates needless hostility, which is then channeled to the employees, which then creates a feedback loop.
Two: For innovative solutions, consider contacting MBA programs at different universities and inviting them to study your check-in procedures and related customer services, and then have them provide re-engineering options. Sometimes, a fresh eye can provide new insights.
I would recommend that participation would be limited to:
• Second-year MBA students and their professors.
• Students that had actually been business travelers prior to entering the MBA program.
• American Airlines employees who have worked check-in and customer service positions.
The University whose re-engineering concepts were accepted would get publicity for their program and maybe some sort of cash award.
Finally as I finish up, I wonder if I’m being fair to American Airlines and whether I’ve overlooked anything positive to mitigate the criticism of this post.
There is one thing that left a favorable impression with me. During boarding, American allows uniformed military personnel to board the aircraft at the same time first-class-passengers board. I liked that. I liked that a lot.
* Note: My wife wants the reader to know that she is NEVER cartoonish. Rather, “Dignified adaptation to undignified situations,” is her motto.
Pablo Picasso, Woman Seated 1908
Related Article of interest:
“If American Airlines was a seat, it would be a middle one in coach, sandwiched between two behemoths, pledged as collateral for a loan.”
-Middle-Seat Syndrome at American Airlines, WSJ Article October 3, 2011
"Boarding an airplane can be a bit like the after-Christmas sale at Wal-Mart. Passengers jockey to get better positions in line as gate agents bark commands. On board, the aisles become clogged with travelers stuffing luggage the size of a fourth-grader into overhead bins."
-Airlines Go Back to Boarding School to Move Fliers Onto Planes Faster, WSJ Article July 21, 2011