I had to run up to New York City over the weekend for a photography workshop (which I’ll be talking about soon). I realized, as I was walking down the jetbridge towards my first flight, that these would be my last flights with Executive Platinum status, as I’ll be losing it at the end of the month (and I don’t really care, here’s why).
What followed represented what I consider the full spectrum of the current customer experience with American Airlines, from the best to the worst/most frustrating, at least without delays to travel or weather disruptions.
Booking a ticket with miles
Good: there was availability close in
Bad: American punishes people who like saving miles
There was plenty of availability, since American flies like 5454375635624 flights to the NYC area from Dallas each day. I even found low-level Saaver availability on the way there with a nonstop flight…which is incredibly rare (which is a problem). On the way there the Revenue Management Gods allowed me to use 12500 miles to fly nonstop to New York. On the way back, because it was a Sunday or whatever reason The Algorithm (hail Algorithm!) decided, 12500 miles would put me on a connecting flight through St. Louis. Getting the nonstop flight I wanted on the way back cost me 20000 miles for really no reason, but whatever.
American offers absolutely putrid options for low-level awards. Sure, they say they have added low-level award seats, but they typically make you connect in 28 different airports instead of the 3-hour nonstop flight that’s the most logical.
Good: I was upgraded on an award itinerary
On the bright side, I was upgraded both ways, part of American’s new policy which allows Executive Platinums to be upgraded on domestic award itineraries. I like that policy and was frankly shocked I got the upgrade, since my upgrade percentage was pretty terrible last year.
The flight there
Good: the absolutely amazing captain who set the tone for incredible service
Bad: how rare service like that has been on American and how American does nothing to set the tone, depending on heroic efforts from customer-facing personnel to achieve amazing service
This flight was freaking wonderful. It started with the captain waiting for Groups 1 and 2 at the door of the aircraft to welcome us on board! I mentioned to him I hadn’t ever seen this before and he said “well it’s something I like to do, I’m proud to fly for American and I’m grateful for customers like you who keep our planes in the sky.”
That captain gets it. American is not an airline. It’s a customer service organization that happens to sell seats on planes.
The flight attendants saw the captain doing this. It’s impossible to see the captain of a jet doing something like that and not be motivated yourself. I have no idea what level of service they were planning on providing but man they nailed the service on the flight there. Pre-departure beverages were taken for everyone in First, each guest was referred to by name, and the lead flight attendant personally thanked each one of us for flying as we started our descent into LGA.
What this means for American
This represents the absolute best of American and proved what I’ve long said: American has just as high a ceiling of service level as any other airline. That’s not the problem. The problem is American depends on people who are just that intrinsically motivated to provide levels of service like this. Nowhere in their branding or their corporate lingo do they talk about how proud they are of their airline or how great their service is. It’s gotten so bad that American had to mute the clapping at the end of their in-flight safety video!
American needs a mission statement (that’s right, they don’t have one). They need employees to talk about how proud they are to work for American. They need to thank their customers more. How can they possibly do this, you ask? Easy, like they do for every customer-unfriendly change they make: copy Delta. When I flew Delta recently I was bombarded with messaging and branding about how proud they are of their fleet and their service levels. It set a tone for the flight that the flight attendants followed, just like that amazing captain did.
The flight back
Good: They tried really hard
Bad: They boarded early, there were three credit card pitches and everything was just sloppy
The flight back was a bit of an adventure. I breezed through security at LaGuardia (a feat in and of itself) and went to the Admiral’s Club, since it was directly across from my gate. I walked downstairs and walked to my gate at the exact boarding time it indicated on my boarding pass…to find that they were already boarding Group 4.
On board the lead flight attendant was taking pre-departure beverage orders but ran out of time to get everyone’s order in. No big deal, it happens. Then there was a credit card pitch (using flat-out illegal marketing language) after the safety video.
The flight attendant definitely had his own brand of service, old-timey and fun. He was kind and courteous but seemed a bit dissheveled. Just before dinner service he did another credit card pitch, going WAY off-script, saying things like “ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to offer you two free tickets…FREE…to anywhere in the continental USA. No funny games, no restrictions, none. FREE.”
He took dinner orders from the back of the First Class cabin (where I was sitting) first but served from the front to the back and somehow ran out of my choice by the time it came to serve my dinner. He apologized very sincerely and did everything he could to make it right and grabbed something for me from the coach buy-on-board stock and served it as properly as possible on the tray and everything.
He welcomed us to Dallas by playing us a song from his phone (I think it was from the TV show Dallas) over the loudspeaker, which was nice but felt a little Southwest-y. As we deplaned he stood there with a big smile on his face holding, yep you guessed it, even more credit card applications.
What this means for American
American needs to decide if they want me to spend time in an Admiral’s Club that I paid $450/year to access or waiting at the gate to try and be the first on board (if I’m concerned about overhead bin space). At the very least send me a notification when boarding commences, like Delta does, so I would’ve known to get my butt to the gate. In other words: be predictable. Boarding early is inconvenient for the premium customers you’re wanting to fly your airline, just like boarding late is inconvenient for everyone. Board on-time. Be predictable.
Reign in the credit card pitch and don’t depend on credit card issuers to pay your flight attendants more. You’re creating a precarious situation where eventually credit card applications are going to dry up and you’ll have thousands of flight attendants who got quite used to that extra income wanting it back. The constant credit card advertisements annoy your most frequent flyers and are just chintzy.
In-flight service is wildly inconsistent. The lead flight attendant on my flight home meant very well and wanted us to enjoy our flight but his level of service just couldn’t keep up, which made the songs and Southwest-y jokes fall a bit flat.
Summing it all up
American copies Delta constantly, that’s not news. They use Delta as a scapegoat for making wildly unpopular moves like Basic Economy, Revenue-Based Mileage Earning, and Unpublished Award Chart Levels (although, it needs to be said, American at least still publishes an award chart).
American doesn’t copy any of the good parts of Delta, however. They’re lagging in revenue, lagging far behind in on-time percentage, and I’d submit that American isn’t even on the map compared to Delta’s in-flight service, with the exception of super-rare captains like my first flight.
I think American’s executives think they can analytics their way out of this. That’s always been Doug Parker’s calling card, after all, the strength of his analytics. In their most recent earnings call, Robert Isom indicated that operations “would be getting better” but didn’t really talk about how. Doug Parker wanted the largest airline in the world and, now that he has it, doesn’t know what to do with it.
Doug Parker is incredibly personable. I’ve heard from numerous American employees that he’s relatable, fun, and did a lot of work to tear down the walls (literally) between the executives and the front-line employees. He needs to be that. Doug, quit relying on your analytics. Quit letting wall street analysts tell you what to do. Chart a unique path and create a mission statement that all of American Airlines can look toward and be proud of. Quit trying to be two airlines in one with the Spirit-esque basic economy nonsense. Spirit is better at being Spirit than American is, and they’re also better at a predictable customer experience than American. Learn from them without trying to become them.
I know it exists in American’s HQ building. I know there are operations experts in the IOC. There are caring flight staff in the skies. Quit trying to fit it all into some sort of equation and let yourselves be great. Learn from who is doing it well and let your employees and customers show you how to become better.
American, it’s been a fun ride. I’m sure I’ll see you again in the skies very soon (likely in two weeks, in fact). I hope you fight for my business and hope you get better. I know it’s in there!