At the beginning of last week I came back from a personal three-week trip to the United States. I choose to fly American Airlines (AA) despite its reputation for poor customer service but also because British Airways was far too expensive and no other flight times were convenient. My decision turned out to be a disaster - my 2100 flight (which was already delayed by an hour and a half) was eventually cancelled and I spent all night at the airport waiting to be re-booked onto another flight. As my issue of the week, I have decided to publish a copy of the letter I sent to AA's head of customer 'experience', named, curiously enough, Craig Kreeger (no relation, as far as I know)! It's a long story, but one that I feel needs to be told, so make sure you are sitting comfortably.
Dear Mr. Kreeger,
As your pilots often remind us when thanking us for our custom upon touchdown, today we have a choice over which airline we opt for. When, on 1 August, my eyes scanned down the list of available flights between Paris and New York brought up by the comparator I was using, I faced a dilemma: was I to choose American Airlines, whose times suited me best but whose reputation is no longer what it once was, or should I go with a slightly less convenient schedule with another airline. In the end I decided that my time was more important than any impression I had of the various airlines on offer and I plumped for AA. I was hoping that the esteem in which your company is held, sir, would not come back to haunt me. I am, however, saddened to say, especially to a gentleman who shares my name, that I was not only left thoroughly disappointed by my experience with AA, but I am shocked, angry and bewildered. What's more, working for an online travel magazine, I would say that I have a reasonably rich experience of air travel. At no time in my professional life, or my private life for that matter, have I encountered such incompetence and disorganisation from an airline.
When I arrived at JFK airport I was frustrated to see that my flight had been delayed by an hour and a half. Usually this, together with the absence of an apology or any attempt to give an explanation, would have been sufficient to get my goat, although it pales into insignificance compared with the comedy of errors that ensued. Soon after boarding the plane just before 1:00am, it became evident that there was some sort of problem but we didn't know exactly what as none of the staff bothered to inform us. When several engineers came on board my heart sank and I could only wonder how long we would be stuck on the ground with no information. To their credit, the staff did offer us water and snacks, although an explanation and apology before 2.30am would have been more welcome.
Eventually (and predictably) the flight was cancelled and being close to the back of the plane, I was one of the last to disembark the aircraft and to join the interminable line at the gate desk. I had, however, no idea what I was queuing for as, again, there was a distinct lack of information. Suddenly a group at the front of the line broke away and disappeared down the concourse while the remaining passengers made a rush for the counter and formed three very approximate new queues. It was left up to us to painfully and slowly extract information from the three representatives at the gate as to why we were queuing, where our luggage was and what the next steps were in order to get us to our final destinations.
We were all to be rebooked onto other flights although no warning was given as to how long this process was going to take. Informing us would not, of course, have shortened the operation, but it would at least have prepared us for the four hours that followed.
The attitude of several members of staff at the gate left a lot to be desired and I personally was made to feel like they were doing us some sort of favour by merely being present. The fact too that there were only three ladies trying to sort out the situation was a poor show given the number of passengers needing to be attended to. There was no one who seemed to be in charge or to take the situation in hand and after a couple of hours my fellow passengers and I started to get quite agitated.
I was just minutes away from being seen to by the lady who was at the head of my line, just behind two young Hungarian girls who were, understandably, in quite a bit of distress, when the member of staff disappeared unannounced, with the girls' tickets, through a door inaccessible to the public just across the concourse. We all presumed that she had simply gone to check on something or ask a question to a colleague, however, after perhaps a quarter of an hour we suspected that another twist in the tale was just around the corner - and indeed it was.
Several of us asked the lady who was taking care of the people in the queue next to us if she would not mind trying to find out where her colleague had vanished to and if whe was ever coming back. Without even having the grace to look up, she said that she did not know and that she was only dealing with the person in front of her. So here we were, in a queue just like everyone else, with no prospect of being aided within the foreseeable future. After further protestations, it was suggested to us that we go and talk to a supervisor just along from the gate. An Italian gentleman nominated himself as spokesperson for the group and ventured off to see what he could find out. After a few minutes I took it upon myself to go and lend my support, only to find that he was being dealt with by the aforementioned supervisor (good for him) despite the fact that there was yet another line of passengers right next to him!
I asked the supervisor to find out where our representative had disappeared to but she had no idea and said that I should join the queue. I, as calmly as possible, explained that I had been queuing up just as everyone else had been doing and that I was certainly not about to join the back of another line. When I pleaded with her again to investigate the whereabouts of the agent she informed me that her colleague had actually finished her shift and that she had gone home! After recovering my jaw from the ground, I insisted that she, in her role as supervisor, find someone to take care of me and my fellow abandoned passengers still queuing in vain at the other end of the concourse. Instead she suggested that I slip in front of a gentleman in the queue just next to her after he had rather animatedly expressed his disgust at our treatment. I refused her proposition on the basis that he too had been lining up and that his outburst, which quite frankly was understandable after what we had been through, was no reason for me to jump the queue.
By this time we had been at the airport for so long that a whole new group of AA staff had come in for their early morning shift. Finally, extra staff to take care of us. No. Just a bunch of clueless, suited and booted officials, with hollow promises to sort out the carnage. The lady and gentleman who seemed to be the most senior of the group simply disappeared from the scene never to be seen again.
Then, lo and behold, after an hour away from her desk, the lady who had supposedly gone home after her shift, suddenly reappeared! She had in fact not gone home at all but had instead spent all that time attempting over 20 times to rebook the two Hungarian girls onto another flight! So not only had the supervisor lied to us but the lady in question had used that one hour in the least efficient way possible while the rest of us had been waiting like fools. The worst is that even after that number of attempts she still had not solved the problem and I was forced to wait even longer until finally being seen some time after 7:00am. At that point I should have been in London waiting for my connection to Paris.
After being rebooked onto a flight that evening, I received my hotel voucher, taxi voucher and food vouchers ($7 for breakfast, $12 for lunch and $12 for dinner, valid at the airport or at the hotel). Not wanting to spend a minute more at the airport, I went straight outside to wait for the taxi to take me to my hotel.
I think it pretty reasonable to assume that, having received a call to come and pick up passengers (I was accompanied by a Spanish family with two young children) and take them to the Marriott Downtown, the driver would have either known how to reach the hotel or, if not, looked that information up. I am obviously not a reasonable person. The driver had absolutely no idea where he was going and it was up to me, a native Londoner, to give him directions!
When I arrived at the hotel, I was flabbergasted to discover that the Marriott no longer accepted American Airlines food vouchers and that they had told the airline as much on many previous occasions Not having eaten for over 12 hours, I went straight to the appallingly over-priced restaurant to have my breakfast (for which you will find the receipt enclosed for my reimbursement). Not only was the food of astoundingly poor quality, but the menu featured nothing for $7 aside perhaps from juice. And anyway, even if the restaurant had accepted the vouchers, I would still have been out of pocket.
After several hours sleep on an uncomfortably soft bed, I headed downstairs to the reception to ask whether they would grant me internet access just to let people back home know what was going on and to alert work that I would be a day late. I was told that this was not possible. I was also asked whether I had a laptop computer but replied that I only had a smartphone with me. Not impressed, I asked a few more questions before heading out for a while.
At 4:00pm when I came back to the hotel (after having bought lunch, receipt also enclised), I asked whether I could call the taxi company that brought me that morning simply to confirm what the driver and I had agreed; that he come and pick me up at 6.30pm to take me back to the airport. The receptionist barked that she was not authorised to hand me the phone to which I replied that seeing as American Airlines was not prepared to absorb the cost of any calls, I really did not see why I should foot the bill. She handed me the phone without a word and dialled the number. To my bafflement, the gentleman on the phone said that confirmation was not possible as he had no idea what the driver and I had arranged. I repeated the agreement to him, explaining that I had no tangible confirmation and that I really couldn't risk missing this flight. He persisted in telling me that essentially he had no idea what his drivers were up to and that I could not even make a reservation as if two cars ended up coming to fetch me this would be a waste of time and money on their part - how ironic. He then put me on hold without notice and when he came back several minutes later simply bellowed "Yes?!" Startled, I tried again to resolve the situation and questioned him as to how he was able to operate a car service without communicating with his drivers. Met without response I then asked what I was supposed to do if the driver from that morning did not turn up. His answer was simply "You're on your own." I thanked him for being so helpful and put the phone down.
While I was on the telephone, I overheard one of the other, more polite, receptionists inform another guest that there was in fact complimentary wifi in the hotel lobby. Why the gentleman I asked about internet failed to mention this when I told him I had a smartphone is beyond me. Thanks to his memory slip I was forced to go to Starbucks several times and buy drinks simply to get internet access (no receipts unfortunately, but the total was around $10).
Of course it was no surprise when at 6.45pm the driver had not turned up and so I jumped into a yellow cab and went to the airport to catch my new flight (again, receipt enclosed).
After such a horrific ordeal it was almost no surprise that the AA flight I was moved onto left an hour and a half late as the stewards could not get their heads around the principle that no matter how many times one swaps passengers around in the seas, if there are too many people on board there will never be enough seats.
I feel, just as the lady who eventually rebooked my flight did, that I remained incredibly patient and calm throughout what was a very testing ordeal. I think you will agree from having read about my experience that not only was the service from American Airlines less than shoddy, but that of your partners was also pretty shambolic. I paid considerably more for my ticket than I have done in the past and was subsequently let down in an almighty fashion by your airline. I feel all the more aggrieved, and I imagine my fellow passengers feel the same, for the fact that this was a codeshare with British Airways, ElAl and Iberia, three airlines with whom I have experienced only exemplary service.
So, I call out to you, from one Kreeger to another, to take on board (no pun intended) my grievance and to find a satisfactory way not only to recompense me for the great deal of inconvenience caused but also to help me put my faith back into your airline.
I thank you very much in advance for the interest taken in my case and I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future.
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