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The too-often neglected facet of PR: Good customer service—my personal experience with American Airlines

by | Sep 8, 2023 | Public Relations

On August 28, The U.S. Department of Transportation posted the following:

“WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined American Airlines $4.1 million for violating federal statutes and the Department’s rule prohibiting tarmac delays of three hours or more on domestic flights without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane. DOT’s investigation found that American kept dozens of flights stuck on the tarmac for long periods of time without letting passengers off. DOT is ordering American to pay the largest fine ever issued for tarmac delay violations and cease and desist from violating the law.”

I, too, was a victim of being held “prisoner” by American Airlines. However, my experience was on the ground, when I decided to splurge the $35.00 per person for my wife and I for curbside check-in at Miami International Airport.

Rather than recreate my experiences with American Airlines, below are copies of correspondence I had with the unfriendly skies of American that detail my experience

January 24, 2023
Mr. Robert Isom
Chief Executive Officer
American Airlines
P.O. Box 619616
DFW Airport, TX 75261-9616

Dear Mr. Isom,
As a public relations executive with considerable air travel both domestically and internationally over many years on U.S., European and Asian airlines, I am writing to inform you that the most appalling experience I have ever experienced was at the Miami airport on January 22, 2023.

I was told that the curbside charge of $35.00 per person would expedite my check-in process without further delay and checked two suitcases for a total of $70.00 and also requested a wheelchair. No problem, I was told. But that’s where the problem began. Instead of expediting the check-in process it did just the opposite. My wife and I were directed to sit on dirty and broken chairs in the curbside check-in area next to cleaning materials for about 20 minutes until a wheelchair arrived.

Instead of being taken to a location near our flight we were deposited in another waiting area where our flight information was taken and told to wait until wheelchair assistance arrived. After waiting for about a half-hour and seeing people who came after us being taken to their flight area, I asked the individual in charge why we were being passed over. It was only then that I was told that wheelchair assistance was based on the time of your flight. No one had informed me of that and if I didn’t inquire about why I couldn’t be taken to my departure area I would still have not known that.

What is even more ridiculous is that when I complained about the wait the individual in charge said, “baggage check-in is one thing; wheelchair assistance is separate,” as if they were separate companies, even though immediately after checking in you’re taken to the wheelchair waiting area.

I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told none was available. After another half hour of waiting we finally were taken to our departure terminal.

Mr. Isom, I requested wheelchair assistance because I have a bad leg. But if I was told that the aggregate time of waiting for wheelchair assistance would be close to one and one-half hours and would keep my wife and I from the comfort of our departure terminal where our children were waiting for us, I would not have chosen curbside check-in.

(A couple sitting next to me from Philadelphia in the wheelchair waiting area said in all their years of air travel they also had never experienced such a terrible experience.)

Instead of a “need-to-know basis,” my experience resembled a “need-not-to-know” occurrence.

My trip to Miami originated and concluded at JFK, where the experience with American personnel was the exact opposite of what occurred at Miami. But having half of a good experience is not what a consumer should expect regardless of the product involved.

Today. January 23, when I called to lodge a  complaint at your customer service telephone number, I was told that all complaints have to be done via computer. Not a way to make friends for American Airlines.

Sincerely,
Arthur Solomon

Over the years, several times, I have written to CEOs when I thought a problem was serious enough to be brought directly to their attention.    

I always received a letter signed by a person that I could contact or a telephone call within a few days from a person saying that the CEO passed along my complaint and that they are looking into the matter and will get back to me. 

But not in this case. On February 6, I received the following from AA:

February 28, 2023     

Hello Mr. Solomon:    

Thank you for reaching out to us. I am very sorry for the delayed response. We are currently experiencing a higher than normal incoming volume and our reply time is longer than we’d prefer. Your feedback is important in identifying areas which require our attention. We appreciate the time you took to write, and we welcome the opportunity to address your concerns.

Mr. Solomon, we want our customers to feel appreciated and cared for during their time with us. As a traveler myself, I know that the customer service we provide can impact your overall experience. I am sorry that, in this case, we didn’t provide a positive experience while you and your wife were traveling especially with your circumstances. I know the curbside check-in process, the dirty and broken chairs and the wait and process for wheelchair assistance added to your disappointment and frustration. We want our customers to feel appreciated and cared for during their time with us. I’m sorry this was not your experience in Miami, and I can absolutely understand your concern and disappointment.

American Airlines is required to provide prompt assistance requested by or on behalf of a qualified individual with a disability with boarding, deplaning, transport between gates and other key areas of the airport terminals. However, we must rely on each passenger to self-identify any special service request to our employees at the time of travel. We are continually working to improve our process to make for an enjoyable travel experience for our customers, especially those with special needs.

We have specific procedures to ensure that wheelchair assistance is provided upon request for boarding the aircraft, deplaning and connection assistance. While we want to provide this type of assistance once the customer arrives at the airport, occasionally we may be unable to do so as quickly as expected by our customers. Sometimes we must keep people waiting because we have received more requests than the number of wheelchairs or personnel available. There are many variables involved such as the time a customer may arrive for their flight, the time their flight is scheduled to depart and the number of requests for assistance.

Based on your feedback and our report indicated, wheelchair service started at 11:47am shortly after it was dispatched approximately at 11:35am. From a regulatory perspective, we believe there was no regulatory violation as [the] wheelchair was provided. Nevertheless, your comments and situation, while disappointing, remind us of our responsibility to provide our customers with quality service. We sincerely regret that you were disappointed with us and we will work with our teams and service providers to ensure the highest possible service level.

Mr. Solomon, I also share your disappointment that the curbside area at Miami wasn’t as clean as it should have been. We depend on airport sanitation vendors to ensure our airport spaces remain clean and comfortable for our customers. I regret that was not the case when you traveled with us on January 22, 2023. Furthermore, I sincerely regret that you are disappointed that Customer Relations can only be contacted via email. By writing to us, it allows us the opportunity to review your feedback while also completing the necessary research to properly respond. This prevents the need for our customers to hold while we review travel history and flight details. We believe that this process is generally more convenient for you.

While we cannot change the circumstances that affected your travel with us on this occasion, please know that there is absolutely no disregard of your description of events; your concerns have been taken very seriously. Rest assured, I have documented your concerns and provided our leadership teams access to your insight and perspective. Your experience with us will be a part of our review process to reinforce the level of service we strive for every day. To remain competitive in the airline industry, we must consistently provide good service. Your constructive criticism has given us the opportunity to ensure that we are accountable for the kind of service we afford our customers.

Again, please accept my heartfelt apology for any discomfort and undue stress you experienced. It certainly was not our intention. While you are always free to contact the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division about the difficulties that occurred, I hope that I was able to resolve the issue for you. Should you ever need disability related assistance following a trip your mother had taken with us, you can call our Past Travel Disability Assistance Line at 800-892-3624. We’re here to help.

Mr. Solomon, please know that we are committed to providing great service and we are working hard to make every American flight enjoyable. We will continue improving on making travel with us hassle-free. We are grateful for your business, and hope to have the opportunity to  rebuild your trust in us. It would be our pleasure to welcome you and Mrs. Solomon on board an American Airlines flight in the future.

Sincerely,
xxxxx
Customer Relations
American Airlines

Because the above reply did not acknowledge that what I wrote in my initial letter was even partially correct, I decided to again write to Mr. Isom.

March, 1 2023
Mr. Robert Isom
Chief Executive Officer
American Airlines
P.O. Box 619616
DFW Airport, TX 75261-9616

Dear Mr. Isom –

Below is a copy of my response to the email I received yesterday from xxxxx of customer relations:

Ms. xxxxx —

Your reply in your email is not accurate.

You mention a trip my mother took. My mother died decades ago and I made no reference to her in my initial email.

Also, despite what you might have been told, my wife and I had to wait for over an hour to get wheelchair assistance to take us to our departure gate. Please review my original email regarding this situation for the correct details, and not what you might have been told by your representatives, who refused my request to speak to or to contact their supervisor so I could discuss the situation.

Also, blaming contractors for the dirty and broken chairs is not a valid excuse. Your reps at the express check-in facility had to know about this condition and nothing was done to alleviate it. And sitting close to cleaning fluids is a definite health hazard.

Also, don’t you think we should have been notified before selecting express check-in, with a fee of $35.00 a person, that waiting for wheelchair assistance depended on the time of the flight and by checking in early we would have a wait of over an hour before being taken to our departure gate? We easily could have checked in closer to our plane departure and spent the time in a more comfortable place.

As a journalist, I have written about good and bad customer service. My experience at Miami airport might be the lead of a future article on bad and misleading customer service.

I am sending a copy of my reply via mail to Mr. Robert Isom.

That ended the email correspondence between us. Instead, I received a telephone call saying the same thing that was expressed in American’s email.

Airlines always make excuses when consumers complain about bad service. Bad weather problems are to be expected. But problems that are the result of bad management, at all levels, should not be excused.

In my case, the squalid conditions at Miami International ‘s curbside check-in site had to be known—it was in easy sight of the check-in personnel who also didn’t provide information that checking in early would mean a lengthy wait in an undesirable part of the airport.

It’s been often said that the most effective type of public relations a company can receive is free: It’s when a consumer talks well of an experience with a product or entity.

The reason that “word of mouth” praise is taken seriously is that it comes directly from an acquaintance without being filtered by a third party, unlike public relations and advertising campaigns.

On June 9, 2022, on this site, I wrote another column about why good customer relations should be an important element of a public relations plan

In that column, I wrote, “But the truth is that all the paid media in the world can not turn an unhappy consumer into a happy one.” That’s why clients should insist that public relations plans include suggestions about making the customer service experience a happy occurrence. My personal experiences prove that it’s possible to do so: Apple does it. Pfizer does it. And an account that I worked on for many years while at Burson-Marsteller, G.E., does it. More recently I’ve had a very good customer relations experience with Braun regarding their fever thermometers. So I am not adverse to giving credit when credit is due.

I’m sure that over the years I’ve also had good customer service experiences with companies that I can’t recall because as William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” 

Based on my experience, as well as those of passengers not permitted to leave planes after being kept hostage on the tarmac for hours, American Airlines’ conduct is inexcusable. On a public relations scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, American Airlines rates a public relations grade of zero.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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