Thursday, June 21, 2012

Airline Behaving Badly

I just returned home from another long work travel, a round-the-world trip.  I do several of these each year, some years more than that.  Flying a very lot of miles/kilometres some years.  So I have a lot of experience on the customer/traveller side of the flying public side of the equation.  If I say an airline is behaving badly, then I feel a bit justified.

Recently I was flying through DFW (Dallas Ft Worth) airport in USA.  Transiting to change planes.  on American Airlines.  DFW is one of their hubs, so they have a lot of flights in and out of there and it is a big operation for them.  The first day I travelled through this trip, there was bad weather, severe winds, rain, thunderstorms, etc.  Just before arrival, my inbound flight to DFW diverted to a small airport at Shreveport and sat on the tarmac for nearly 3 hours, waiting to be allowed to take off and proceed to DFW.  Eventually we got to DFW, several hours late of course.  Little did I know the adventure had just begun.

I had missed my connecting flight, and AA rebooked me onto one leaving just before midnight, as they pushed back many flight departures to accommodate many delayed flights in and out.  So four hours to kill.  Not so bad, I found a colleague also delayed and we caught up in the lounge.

When we went to board our near midnight flight...we learned that they were cancelling it !  Leaving a big crowd of people to queue up and find out what options there were.  My colleague and I felt lucky we could go find the Admirals Lounge to queue up there.  Probably it was better than waiting in queue at the gate.  But we still waited an hour there before getting helped.

This is (just one of many areas) where I think AA could have done better.  First, they cancelled our flight so late there were NO more hotel rooms to be had near the airport.  Second, they did not have rebookings at the ready, they left everyone to battle it out for themselves.  The staff on hand were not all the most skilled to do the rebookings (and impression, seems reinforced by the outcome).  For instance, they did not offer direct flights to our destination for the next flying day...they said late the second day afterwards was the best they could do.  Unless we wanted to fly to some other airport and hire a car to drive to our destination.  A call to my corporate travel agents said that drop off in a different city would incur fees my company could not on the spot authorise, so I continued to press AA's rep for a better option.  Instead they offered flights all the way across USA and criss crossing back again, with transit time in between.  So 7 hours journey after 14 hours wait, for a flight less than 1.5 hours flight time away.  No offers that night whatsoever to put us on the standby list for direct flights.  And we were both OneWorld Emerald status flyers (and I was traveling on a First Class for US segments of my ticket).  So not very impressed.  I took a coupon for a city hotel room, thinking I might get a mere 4-5 hours rest.

The Admirals Lounge then CLOSED !!  I know people need to go home, but if they have hundreds to a thousand passengers stranded, perhaps they could put on some people to keep some services open for their customers ?

In addition to this, several AA staff at gates left to go home, leaving dozens of customers waiting.  One said to those waiting, "call a supervisor" !!  I thought these attitudes were pretty shocking.

I did try to get to the city hotel, but outside the terminal found myself about 50th in a long queue of people.  And no taxis at almost 2AM.  I went back into the terminal before TSA screeners quit for the night at 2A, and so overnighted in DFW Terminal D.  A very uncomfortable sleep too, on a bench with an arm rest that dug into my back (too low to roll under it !).  My colleague slept on the floor.  The shops, bars, restaurants all closed in the terminal.  But amazingly the huge screen TV in the area where we camped out kept blaring all night long.  And the terminal was air-conditioned and rather cold and crafty.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were camped out like we were.  I did my best to get some sort of rest, using my handbag as a makeshift pillow.  (which I later learned caused a snap break in my all time favourite sunnies that were inside !)

After waking up every 45 minutes or so (who can "sleep" under such circumstances ?), at 530AM I headed to see if I could freshen up a bit in the Admirals Club.  And on flashing my boarding pass (which showed I am allowed to use the lounge), I got shouted at !  There was a queue of people waiting to rebook flights, and I was meant to stop behind them and wait before I could be allowed to use the washroom.  Grudgingly they let me in on leaving a bag with them (I did not like doing this).

Later I came back and had a "customer service" chat with them.  They said weather events happen frequently there and they don't have enough help.  I feel this was a real cop out, of course they did not enough help...but why is it the customer's fault and why should customers (premium customers no less) be yelled at ?  I expressed some empathy, but also said I thought they should be making suggestions  to their management to improve service.  I have written to AA before and not gotten much reply, so not sure the customer's voice matters much.  (I will be writing again though).

After getting a coffee, I did go back to the desk and they did help me and my colleague get onto stand by flights.  Perhaps they felt bad about previous treatment, because they did make a bonafide effort.  It shows that it is possible to be decent, even when under pressure of not having optimum levels of help/staff on duty.

In the end, we did get on a standby flight and escaped.  However, our luggage was lost for another day.  And the online and telephone systems one checks for status did not provide much info (they said it was lost in fact).  Did not inspire much confidence (and my feet were killing me, I needed a fresh pair of shoes !)

On the return through DFW, deja vu all over again.  Flights delayed due to storms and severe weather.  This time I felt lucky to escape another night in Terminal D.  However, on arrival at my destination, I found contents of my checked bags soaked !  I can only assume the bags were left Uncovered in the raging rain for hours.

Dear AA;

Please consider to take the opportunity to improve your customer service processes and also your handling of delays caused by weather, especially at your hub, DFW.  I have flown through this airport many times before, but never had such impacts to my travel and such poor customer service from an airline either.  I did not feel you staff were empowered or motivated enough to make a difference in their treatment of customer service.  Also, if you have so many passengers stranded in the terminal, you could make efforts to help more of them, and make available some food and drink and other basic services.  Your lounges could stay opened for premium passengers.  Your staff should not go home leaving dozens of customers who have queued up for hours waiting to be helped with rebooking options and other help.

I will write about your onboard services another time.  Suffice it to say there is a reason your airline is not a world top one for customer service, or much else.  I know all about the demise of customer service in US carriers (and financial pressures), but can tell you there is a big road to hoe before you reach parity with other airlines, especially in Asia Pacific and Middle East.  Still, if you listened to customers and travellers and took on board to improve your service, I am sure some things could be possible.  Starting with the mindset of your staff, who seem fatalistically defeated in their attitude and remarkably unwilling to treat your passengers like customers !

I did not appreciate spending the night in an airport.  Or losing luggage.  Or having delays.  Or having wet clothes when you left my bags out in the rain.  And being yelled at in your premium first lounge.  Being given a run around when rebooking.  If your staff think it is ok to treat its first class passengers like this, what are you doing to everyone else ?  I did not feel like a very valued customer last week.

Customer service starts at the top and needs to be part of the culture to permeate the organisation.  There is a lot of work to do here to have a better show.

A Passenger

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