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We know you have a choice in air travel …

July 7, 2007

The world seems a little out of true this morning. I am on a plane from London to the US, and it’s not American Airlines. For the first time in over a decade I have broken one of my oldest loyalties. It is so unfamiliar that I went into the wrong lounge at Heathrow, the pathway to the Admiral’s club has been well trodden over the years and I turned to the right without thinking about it. So why this disloyalty? The United flight I am on is more crowded, the seats less commodious and I miss not knowing at least one of the cabin staff. However as the pilot says at the end of every flight, we know you have a choice in air travel. I was less than pleased with American when I booked this weeks flight soI did precisely that; I exercised my choice.

So why did I change? Well its not so much the errors, it’s the way they are handling them. At the start of July I went onto the American Airlines web site to formally complain about my treatment by Michael Jobsworth. Given that I was writing I took the opportunity to express some concern about two other incidents, both examples of bureaucratic process preventing good service. They were (i) charging me for use of the arrivals lounge at Heathrow on June 6th and (ii) a refusal of any compensation for lost luggage on 15th May. I was reasonably confident that I would get some sort of positive response. It was the first time I had ever complained and if had not been for Michael I might have left the other incidents go.

Now the response was interesting. Incredibly they ignored completely my main reason for complaint, namely the behaviour of Michael.

For the two additional incidents, which for me were minor, I got a fairly soulless repetition of the rules. In the case of the lost luggage their position was as follows: since you were “home” and ultimately had access to your necessities, they would have declined to provide compensation or to cover the cost of consequential expenses. This is a standard policy and we believe it to be reasonable. Now I can agree with this but they had missed the point. I was not at home, I was flying on an couple of hours later to a major presentation to some very senior people in Brussels. I had no choice but to buy new shoes, trousers, shirt etc as I could not turn up in a tracksuit. For the entry fee I got some pitch about the arrival lounge not having capacity to accommodate the same policy as they apply to departure lounges. I use it often and its never had a capacity problem, but as they said rules is rules.

Now I was still feeling OK, They had obviously failed to follow the link through to my blog where the details of Michael were set out. In respect of the luggage, well , I probably had not explained the facts properly. These things happen so I went to reply to the email from one Clifford Herron in Customer Relations (the personal touch always helps). Then I saw the sign off, it told me that any reply to that email address would be ignored and that if I wanted to reply then I should do so on the customer relations web site. It was the same site I had been to originally and in classic bureaucratic fashion it required me to reenter all the original flight data etc. To add insult to injury the amount of characters one is allowed to enter is restricted. The limit would not have accommodated their reply to me, let alone mine to them.

This is classic, taking an approach to customer relationships which is based on your needs for efficient process, rather than making it easy for the customer. Given there was not enough space to explain the issues, I used the site quote my reference number and said simply Please give me an email address so that I can write to you. I sent that on the 3rd July and got an automatic acknowledgment shortly afterwards. Given the US holiday I did not expect a reply within 24 hours, but I did expect a reply by the weekend given two working days. As of my departure from Heathrow this morning no reply had been received ……

Its funny you know, you put up with all sorts of minor inconveniences. American Airlines are not perfect, but their service normally varies between good and excellent. But then you reach a tipping point, one small incident can be enough and then all the other minor irritations come to the forefront of your consciousness. Instead of just booking on American this week, I checked options and given a 50-50 choice I chose United over American. I haven’t even checked other airlines in the last decade ….

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