Thursday, January 10, 2008

Got compassion? Rate your airline

How would you rate your airline? Right now mine is getting a big fat goose egg.


The call came about 8:30 at night. My mom, a stroke, hospitalized. Siblings out of pocket. We decided I’d fly up as soon as possible.

I checked online; American Airlines seemed to have seats, then they didn’t, then the prices changed with every log-in. I called them; many experts suspect that the airlines use cookies to push up the price when you check the same routing for the same doubt repeatedly through the same web browser, so you either have to move to another browser or make the call.

If you follow this blog, you know I’m a long-time premium frequent flier. But while AA was perfectly happy to take the revenue associated with the 50,074 miles I flew on them in 2007 and the 971,296 miles I’ve flown with them over my lifetime, they didn’t seem to have the same interest in me when my mother was striken.

The premium agent didn’t seem to care much; OK, maybe she’d had a thumper of a day herself. But her fares didn’t show much compassion, either. Since I didn’t know when I was returning, she checked one-way fares. To fly to Raleigh, N.C., the one-way fare would be $1,000-plus, and the first flight she could find would put me there 24 hours later….less efficient than what I was finding myself on American’s website.

“I’m having trouble remembering why I flew 50,000 miles on your airline last year,’’ I told her, thinking to myself “but I doubt I’ll have a lot of trouble figuring out whether to give the miles to your airline next year.’’


Compassion fares, you see, are all but a thing of the past on all airlines. American, I was told, limits the number of compassion fares per day -- the implication being that if you’re going to have a family emergency, you better schedule it wisely.

Alternatively, I was told I could use “anytime’’ miles to get a ticket -- a whomping 50,000 miles rather than the “regular’’ tariff of 25,000 miles. Like the compassion fares, the “regular’’ FF tickets were gone.

Before I go off on a rant about any number of things American could do to better serve their long-time loyal clients in such unhappy circumstance – and if you read far enough, you’re gonna get to that rant – let’s talk about other airlines.


Yes, legacy carriers have faced a tough financial picture in recent years. But travel has rebounded like a roundball that’s been slammed by D-Wade. Yet most U.S. airlines still treat passengers like cattle rather than people paying hard-earned money for a service. Yes, a service. Airline seats are now a commodity, and so, apparently, are those of us who fill them.

Consider the report this week from Florida's Attorney General's office that said travel-related complaints rank No. 2 among Florida consumers, just behind the dreaded violators of the Do Not Call list, and just above communication providers (that's the cable guy and the phone companies.) Granted, many of those travel complaints relate to billing and scams, but some have to do with ... you got it ... service.

Case in point: Former Miamian Karyn Herterich called the other day with a sadly familiar tale about her son, a Delta flight to Miami to catch a cruise, lost luggage. Her complaint was less about the lost luggage than poor service by the Delta representatives handling the matter. A dozen calls to Delta's offshore call center left her furious. You know the drill; someone who speaks English by language but whose cultural orientation leaves him/her completely unprepared to deal with American expectations, habits, idioms, even geography. (One agent even suggested they’d send the luggage to her son’s next shore call at a port in S.C., not geographically adept enough to understand that his next call was at a town by that same name – in the Caribbean.)

Herterich has an advantage: she serves on a national board with a top Delta executive and has shared the details with his executive assistant. “But what about normal people?’’ she says.

Good question. “Normal’’ people are likely in a rough ride. And apparently, being a platinum flier doesn’t mean a darn thing, either.


So let’s get to the part where we talk about the common-sense steps airlines could implement that would make them seem like they care about something besides $$ (like, say, brand loyalty).

A few ideas:

  • In emergency cases, airlines could put supervisors on the phone, who could check the long-time loyal flier’s record and find out if they’re a habitual “dog-ate-my-homework, my 25th-grandfather-died’’ abuser, or if they’re really what they claim to be: a flier with a lifetime mileage total of 971,000 miles whose family has suffered a crisis.

  • They could authorize supervisors to waive the “anytime’’ double mileage requirement in favor of the regular requirement but require some sort of verification letter from a doctor or hospital.

  • At the very least, they could train their personnel to act like they’ve got hearts, even if they can’t do a lot to help soften the pain of a stupidly costly airline ticket.

    Or they could actually have reasonable fares.

As for Herterich's off-shore call problem, let's just say that I vote with my feet. If I can't get reasonable service most of the time for ANY reason -- from my airline, bank, drugstore, mechanic -- I vote with my feet. And I do what Herterich is doing: I let them know why I'm voting with my feet. Enough people do that, and whatever ridiculous practice of the moment sometimes gets changed. (Yup, I'm Pollyanna.)


Before I tell you how this story ended, I want to take a moment for fairness.

Like any big company, American does have some wonderful employees. Like Keith, the purser on my New Year’s Eve flight from Boston to Miami. We were delayed by mechanical failure; Keith was cheery, helpful – even let me use his cell phone to call reservations. And he had a sense of humor.

And Bill, the purser who works First Class on the Miami-Dallas run. Sure, it’s First Class (I snag the occasional FF upgrade) but he’s still nicer, more attentive, than any other First Class server I’ve seen on any AA flight.

The problem is that for every noticeably positive experience I’ve had on AA, I’ve had a noticeably unpleasant one. Let’s call that a 50 percent average. That’s isn’t so bad in baseball, but on a math test, it would earn you an F.


Yes, I did get to Raleigh.

Southwest, the airline of humor and reason, had several flights available at acceptable pricing. I snagged one for early the next morning. Yes, I had to drive to Lauderdale when I live 15 minutes from MIA, but it was worth it.

When I got here, I explained to the agent, Karen, at Alamo that I wasn’t sure how long I’d need the car. “If you need to stay longer, just call us. There’s a $10 fee for extending the rental, but I’ll make a note, and we’ll waive it.’’

Now that’s compassion.


How’s your airline? Share your stories, good and bad; just CLICK TO COMMENT below.


Anonymous said...


First of all, I hope your Mom is doing better.

Compassion from AA? Are u kidding me? I'm an Executive Platinum and you can't believe the attitude they gave me when re-scheduling my planned flight to a later one due to a death in the family.

Living in Miami, you don't have much choice but to use AA. The biggest problem I have with them is their baggage service. I never check my bags when traveling on business. However, when traveling with the family, I have no choice.

The last three trips with the family they have temporarily lost my bags. One time, it was my son's stroller, which I deposited AT the gate. We departed from San Juan on a cruise; stroller showed up in Aruba on Day 5. In 2006, I was in Heathrow the day of the terrorist alerts, and no carry-ons were allowed. I ended up having to pack my house keys in a separate box. Lost! AA's verbatim response, "we regret new security procedures put in place by the British Government." So it's the British Government's fault that they lost my keys!

Makes you feel great that Dade County taxpayers are funding a humongous terminal for them (after they bungled construction management at the onset).

However, I'd be remiss not to mention the kiss-ass nuts they provide in first class while chased with Vodka/Cranberry or Bacardi/Pepsi.

Anonymous said...

I too have had a horrible experience with AA. First & foremost when you book online flights many of the flights do not exist. I showed up at the gate to be told the flight I had booked & paid for 3 months in advance did not exist so I was placed on stand by. AA starts the day behind from the debacle of the previous day. My nerves were shot, luggage lost & delayed, I was lied to over and over and over by people I would equate with the same level as a felon. They assure you the next terminal will have it all fixed for you & they don't. I ended up purchasing a car and driving the remaining 9 hour distance myself. Nothing was reimbursed due to that cute clause that AA is not responsible for weather related issues. Well as you can guess every issue is weather related when dealing with them. I will never never fly with them again. And rest assured I tell everyone I come into contact with. It is my opinion this airline needs to shut down.

Anonymous said...

United is the worst when it comes to "compassion": for my honeymoon I had international first class award tickets to Europe when my father (who lives in Europe) had a heart attack followed by a debilitating stroke that paralyzed him. I called UA to change the return date (he was still at the hospital a week after it took place) and I was told big flat NO -- because it was their POLICY not to allow changes on those awards, even when your own father is at the deathbed. So they quoted me $14,000 (fourteen thousands) to fly back in the same class of service at a later time! I ended up losing my miles and having to buy a new ticket (on another airline, of course) later -- and still don't fly United.

Anonymous said...

Just had the Star treatment on flights from Denmark to Mexico and back all with Continental.......something i will never do again....bad service, rude staff and no help when flights are delayed. In the future i will use European Airlines instead they seem to have a much better level of service,