How to lose a customer: Learn from American Airlines

sunrise planeThe trend in sales and marketing has shifted focus from selling to “helping” customers. Your customers expect you to build a relationship with them, and they are concerned with how you are going to treat them throughout and beyond the sales cycle. To me, this isn’t a new concept for small business owners. Our customers are often like family to us.  However, that’s not so for all companies; fortunately for us, we can learn from their mistakes.

The March 20, USA Today article, Trip Report: American’s 777-300 bringing luxury back, says that American Airlines is taking efforts to “…court the highly coveted, premium paying flyer.”

The airline has added a first class suite with turn-down service and a complimentary pair of pajamas. What strikes me about this upgrade strategy is that it focuses on a very narrow market, albeit that market is the airline’s bread and butter. However, the airline is still significantly deficient in other service offerings, case in point, the services it offers travelers with disabilities. (According to a Harris Poll, in one year, this group took 32 million trips and spent more than $13.6 billion on travel.)

A real story.

I contacted American Airlines last week because my husband and I were preparing for a trip to attend my parents’ anniversary celebration.  The airline tickets are going to cost $1300.00.  Ouch.  My husband is a C 4-5 quadriplegic, meaning at his level of injury, he is immobile from the chest down. He uses a customized electric wheelchair that won’t fit on every airplane, so when we travel, we have to do a LOT of planning.

Once finding a few schedules that might work, I called several airlines to ask important questions. Can his wheelchair fit through the cargo opening because the chair won’t collapse? Can he take his chair all the way to the gate?  How much layover time should I allot? These are all questions that need answering, to help me with my buying decision.  When I called the American Airlines reservation system, I followed the instructions on their website and asked to speak to their Special Assistance Coordinator (SAC).

I was told by the reservationist, “They won’t talk to you unless you have already booked your ticket.”

I clarified with her to make sure she in fact said, “they WON’T talk to me unless I buy a ticket,” and she confirmed.  I explained that I needed to know specifics about the plane to see if they could even accommodate us.  She didn’t have the answers, so she offered to call them to see if they’d talk to me.

When she returned to the line, she said, “They told me they will not talk to you, but that you can give your questions to me and someone will call you later.”

Yes, that’s what she said.  (I’m wondering if those premium passengers who buy the “suite tickets” also have to buy the ticket before their questions are answered.) But, I gave her the questions and as of five days later, I still have not heard from anyone. We can’t risk spending over $1300 on a flight that we can’t actually take.

Here’s the issue: I don’t matter.

The truth is, I’m not a coveted premium passenger, although a $1300 price tag seems pretty premium to me.  But for whatever reason, American Airlines has set up a process that severely and negatively affects their customer service.

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to disclose any limitations on the airplane’s ability to accommodate a passenger with disabilities and availability of storage for assistive devices. American Airlines only helps its existing, booked passengers. But switch to the power of social media.  All the regulations and processes in the world go out the window if you use social media to voice a concern. Companies go into crisis mode because the consumer now has an audience listening to them. I sent American Airlines a private message on Facebook explaining what happened. Here is the reply I received. Unfortunately, it mirrors the service I received earlier.

American Airlines response one

Call to have my situation reviewed?  Or call the SAC again? Why, have they improved in the last half hour?

As with any good social media fight, I responded.  And please forgive my frustration-induced type o’s, mistakes, and spelling errors.

American Airlines Response 2

I, like any customer, hate to be dismissed.  My business is worth something. To their credit, American Airlines quickly responded again with a very apologetic message (below). This should have been their initial reply to me, but it was too late. What I believe to be true is, their first and second replies were a clear demonstration of how they treat customers, the one below is how they respond to a crisis.

American Airlines third reply

What is missing with American Airlines?  

1. Consult with your special needs audiences so you understand their needs and are able to accommodate them, if at all possible.  If you’re not disabled, you have no idea what it’s like to be disabled, so reach out to this audience for help with setting up your services.  Talk to the people you are helping.

2. Educate reservationists so they can answer questions and help assist the passenger through the buying process.  Consider empathy training and exercises to help employees understand their passenger’s perspective.

3. Empower employees to help people, whether they are your current passenger or a prospective passenger.

4. Educate everyone on the team about the ramifications of poor service and how the issue isn’t over when the call is disconnected.  Strive to be the image you portray through social media. Customers want your help, it’s how you win their trust and loyalty.

5.  Publish your mission statement online. I can’t find American Airlines’ mission statement on the website. However, creating a mission statement is only the first step. Inform employees of the mission statement, so they can have a solid foundation from which to base decisions.

If you are operating in a highly regulated industry, that’s OK, we get that, but don’t take our business for granted and don’t dismiss us. Can you really afford to?


  • alfranco17

    You are absolutely right when you say they don’t care. I am preparing a presentation on strategy, and thought “I have the mission statements of great companies, what are the mission of the worst ones?” and by looking for American Airlines mission statement came to your post. I am happy you took the right decision and saved yourself and your family a ton of grief. 
    Last year I had the absolutely worst experience I have ever had with an airline, and it was American Airlines. Before my experience I would have wished for them to follow your suggestions, but now I only hope they go bankrupt for good and that a better airline takes their place. 
    I was traveling with my wife and two very tired girls, seven and two-years old, who were weeping and tired after hours of waiting and being rushed from gate to gate, and I got no sympathy from American Airlines. At one point I asked to see a supervisor, and was told to post a complaint on their web site because there are no supervisors at Dallas (their hub). I went online, and guess what: they did not care either. After that, I posted the whole account at a blog I created for this, at

    • alfranco17 Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like it was a very rough day for you too.  I’m not sure if it is the fact that it’s such a highly regulated industry that causes so much disconnect or what the reasons are.  We really love Southwest and I recommend them if you are ever traveling with your family to a destination they serve.  Thank you for commenting.

  • Linda R

    This is not the American Airlines I knew when I worked for them, however “many moons ago”. I worked in sales/reservations and we were all about service then. Even if it meant helping customers beyond using a AA flight, if there was a better solution for travel with our competitors, we informed and referred them. We answered all questions. We gave the level of service that customers regularly wrote letters thanking us – there was joy and pride in working for a company who understood this is what makes the difference. Sad to see this bar has fallen so low. I hope they wake up and raise it high again.
    And as a customer who requires special needs, to ensure the care of another like this, there is no excuse for this shoddy kind of response. You deserved to have your questions answered and be cared for, to ease your mind, and look forward to your trip…on your first call.
    Safe travels & here’s to better days ahead!

    • Thank you, Linda. The AA you worked for seems like a very progressive forward-thinking airline. That level of service certainly would have changed the direction of this blog! I imaging it’s especially hard to have come from that environment and to see where it is today. I believe you have to look up, toward the leadership team. You must have been supported by a terrific leader during your time. Thank you again for your kind words.

  • Wow! This makes me angry for the poor customer service from AA – and incredibly sad for you. It’s a challenge for anyone with a disability to get around the house let alone move around the country. Why do companies have so little sensitivity to the needs of others?! They won’t be getting my service either!!

    American Airlines is not alone. I don’t quite understand the poor customer service that seems to penetrate business – large and small. It’s as if they (business with little or no service) have plenty of business and don’t need to foster additional business by treating people well.

    As consumers, we all need to stop putting up with it.

    • Thanks so much, Jackie. You’re so right about not putting up with it and consumers have more power than they ever have to do just that. Coming from the research side of these situations, I think social media is changing how businesses do business. The consequences of poor service are much more far-reaching than they ever have been. It’s a consumer’s market and those businesses that don’t focus on service and building relationships won’t be in business for long.