American Airlines overnight lock-in: Executives detail investments in customer experience

American Airlines is the world’s largest airline.  With hundreds of destinations, roughly a thousand aircraft, over one hundred thousand employees, and millions of customers, American Airlines has to juggle almost unquantifiable challenges every day to safely provide service to their airline and cargo customers.  American recently invited media to participate in an all-night lock-in at their Integrated Operations Center in Fort Worth, Texas, for an inside look at their overnight operations.  In this multi-part series we’ll take an inside look at overnight operations at the world’s largest airline.

Part I: Executives detail investments in customer experience
Part II: Touring the IOC and Landing an A350
Part III: Overnight Maintenance, American’s DFW Virtual Tower, and Epic Plane Pictures

Most of you probably know that I blog on a part-time basis in addition to a full-time career in finance.  When I received an invitation to an all-night American Airlines operations “lock-in” I was 1) honored to receive an invite and 2) hilariously doubtful regarding my energy levels.  No matter, last Monday I finished up at Real Job around 5pm, went home for a quick nap, packed my camera gear, stopped by Starbucks for a quad latte, and showed up at exactly just after 7:45pm for an event which wouldn’t end until 7:30 the following morning.

I met with my American contact and a few other local media representatives and we carpooled over to American’s IOC (Integrated Operations Center), a new state-of-the-art command center for the airline, built to withstand an F3 tornado.

Other media attendees were already there, representing a veritable Who’s Who of publications: The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Skift, The Points Guy, CrankyFlier, a legendary airline expert from Atmosphere Research Group (you might be asking yourself “Geez Andy how the heck did you get an invite with all those other elite publications?” I can assure you I had the same question).  Everyone exchanged pleasantries as American Airlines Corporate Communications staff arrived with all manner of caffeinated beverages and boxes of other things.  We were all nervously excited about the evening ahead.  Since everything was on-record, I felt very at home snapping pictures and started with the beautiful art installation behind the security desk at the IOC, detailing American’s hubs and focus cities.

A welcome from American Airlines president Robert Isom

We assembled in the main command center within the IOC, a large meeting room which can be spun up during emergencies to assemble critical staff and decision-makers.  As we were grabbing seats, none other than Robert Isom, American Airlines president, walked in to welcome us to the evening.

Isom spoke about the importance of American’s Right Start flights (the first flights of the day at each hub), emphasizing how critical they are to the overall operation, and gave us a brief history of the IOC.  When the merger was complete, American executives realized a need for a much larger IOC and the building was approved, funded, and built in short order.

Isom lauded the IOC’s accomplishments as “integral” to the operations of the airline and, therefore, its customers.  The IOC was fairly quiet that evening, which, Isom correctly pointed out, “usually means things are going well, that’s great news for us”.  He then passed the torch to Corporate Communications and wished us all a pleasant evening, as he was probably heading home to go to bed like a normal person.

In-flight and airport amenities

After a quick briefing about the evening from Corporate Communications, and introductions around the room (“Yes, I’m THAT Andy from Andy’s Travel Blog”) we were introduced to Erwan Perhirin,managing director customer experience marketing, onboard products.

Perhirin, an airline industry veteran, detailed the investments American was currently making in the customer experience.  Among the notable mentions:

  • The brand partnership with Casper for in-flight bedding has been a massive success.  Casper mattress pads will roll out on all Trans-Pacific flights beginning this summer.  The Casper slippers will be on all international flights soon
  • New amenity kits (which I covered here) feature brand partnerships to provide what customers have been asking for the most
  • The goal is for all narrowbody aircraft to have the new XL overhead bins (which allow for rollaboard luggage to be stored on its side).  This will reduce the unfortunate congestion at the gate when boarding begins as people feel like they must get on board ASAP in order to secure overhead bin space
  • Bose noise-canceling headphones are going away.  Bose has decided to no longer manufacture headphones with the 3-prong plug (which to me seems like they’re getting out of the airline business).  Starting very soon, American flights will feature Bang & Olufsen noise-canceling headphones.  American is considering ideas for allowing passengers to keep the headphones for longer at the end of a flight but didn’t have anything to announce during the event
  • All narrowbody aircraft will feature high-speed gate-to-gate internet from Gogo and Viasat within the next few months.  The rollout of high-speed internet has been super fast and American has been really happy with the product so far.  American also features 12 live TV channels on domestic flights (4 for international flights), and customers have liked the live TV
  • Similar to amenity kits, American will continue to look for partnerships for all elements of the in-flight experience, evidenced most recently by their partnership with Apple Music for free in-flight streaming for all Apple Music subscribers
  • American Airlines will always look around at the competitive landscape when jets like the 777-300ER (which has an absolutely superb business class seat) come in for their labor-intensive maintenance checks (C and D checks) to see if it makes sense to upgrade/change any seating.  Nothing to announce at this time, however

Of significant note: the new Flagship Lounge at DFW is scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2019 (there could always be delays, but this is the estimate they have right now).  Combined with the new Admirals Club and Flagship First Dining, the lounge complex will total over 35000 square feet (almost double the size of the new American Express Centurion Lounge at DFW)!

Erwan then let us know they had some amenity kits, pajamas, Casper slippers, and international blanket and pillow sets for us each to take home with us.

We also had a variety of meals available from American’s in-flight meal partner, Zoe’s Kitchen.  I dived into the hummus before getting a picture of it but Brett Snyder from CrankyFlier unknowingly posed for a picture with one of the Zoe’s sandwiches while everyone else had some chit-chat, and by chit-chat I mean CAFFEINE.

I’m a pretty terrible model, but luckily a few of the other attendees enthusiastically changed into the pajamas, and Brett, from CrankyFlier, put the bedding to a thorough test on one of the conference tables.

Social media team deals with millions of comments from customers

Annette Hernandez, senior manager social media customer service, presented some truly incredible statistics about the sheer volume of messages American Airlines consumes across their social media channels.

  • There are 25 full-time social media team members who provide customer service across Twitter and Facebook (primarily Twitter)
  • Social media team members are fully-trained as reservation agents and many are recruited from the Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey reservation desks
  • Last year, American received 1,657,261 incoming tweets and direct messages, an average of 4500 per day!
  • Per Annette, all tweet replies are hand-typed, there are no robots and no copy/paste reply templates

She showed us a sample of different “categories” of tweets they received (all were publicly shared on Twitter by public accounts) to show the true spectrum of everything the social media team has to handle, everything from compliments about American staff to security threats against the airline.  She explained that, as the team grew from 12- to 18- to 24-hour coverage of social media they gathered for intense talks on the “voice” of American’s social media team to ensure a consistent experience for customers.

Social media team members have access to myriad other American systems (baggage, ticketing, etc.) in order to provide a wide variety of services for customers, thereby providing another outlet of customer service in addition to reservation desks and airport staff.  American’s IT department built a home-grown solution for the social media team not just to track tweets but to tag and categorize them in order to follow up with the proper department.  Last year there were 29000 pieces of feedback tagged by the team!

Social media has grown increasingly important to the airline mainly due to the immediacy of the feedback received.  When American revealed their new livery in 2013, executives just walked down to the social media team to see what the public was saying about it, instead of waiting for focus groups.  More recently, a passenger complained about a pathetic-looking food item compared to the picture on American’s menu.  That feedback was sent to a F&B manager, who was horrified and immediately pulled the item from the menu, fleet-wide, within an hour.

Plenty more to come!

The social media session wrapped up the first part of a very busy schedule for us.

Stay tuned for the next part of this mini-series of posts, where we head out onto the floor of the IOC to meet the people whose fingers are on the pulse of American Airlines!

3 Comments

  1. You may want to review the ethics of accepting invites to press events like this one as someone who claims to cover customer experience in some form.

    A couple of notes:

    – American eliminated customer service contacts through phone channels. This approach explains their volume of social media activity, as they leave consumers no other choice.

    – Their social media coverage is miserable. Unless they cited an SLA ( and they don’t/won’t), they’re cherry picking. And you helped them by believing that their claims were something other than a diversion from having eliminated customer feedback.

    As a blogger, when you re-broadcast their claims without commentary, context or even a grain of salt, you cease covering American and begin promoting them.

    The fact is that by any measure,American has atrocious customer service. These things you write about are in no way “enhancements “, they are without exceptions changes made to trim costs and squeeze consumers. Or did you think that partnering with Apple would lead to improvements for the overwhelming majority of fliers who are not subscribers?

    Reply
  2. Andy,
    You mentioned Amex Platinum when you were discussing the social media part of this.
    How do the two companies go together in this?
    I’m trying to learn because I am an Amex Business Platinum member.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Cheryl, I re-read the article and couldn’t see where I referenced Amex Platinum. During the social media session they mentioned that many social media team members are recruited from the Executive Platinum/ConciergeKey desks, was that the part to which you’re referring?

      American does not have a partnership with Amex Platinum (of which I’m aware). Sorry if I worded it confusingly!

      Reply

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