Saturday, May 16, 2015

American Airlines: a tale of dysfunctional digital tools

I was surprised when, earlier today, evinced an interest on Twitter in hearing my tale of woe. It's surprising because the customer service agents I spoke with for TWO HOURS on Thursday evening had apparently no such interest. So, below are the details., I do indeed hope you are listening.

February trip: ticket 0180. In February, I had to go to Austin TX for a medical emergency (my mother was dying). Because it was at a moment's notice, I had to buy a very expensive ticket: a round-trip RDU-Austin Austin-RDU ticket ended up costing me $1203.20 (ticket number xxxxxxxxx0180).

February: ice storm. I was supposed to use the Austin-RDU portion of ticket number xxxxxxxxx0180 on February 28. But a series of ice storms had hit Dallas, and I realized on February 27 that my flight was sure to be canceled, so I called American Airlines to rebook, but I could not get through. It was not the usual "please leave your phone number and we will call in you in four hours" delay; the customer service system had collapsed completely, and it was impossible even to get a callback. Online, the system told me I could not rebook my flight; I had to call an agent. And yes, my flight was canceled (I think that finally happened around midnight), but no, I was not automatically rebooked. Of course, I was not alone in this mess: probably a hundred thousand American Airlines customers or more must have been affected.

February trip: ticket 4111. So, I kept calling hour after hour after hour, hoping to get through. But I never got through. I watched all available seats on outbound flights disappearing one by one from the online reservations system. Finally, in desperation, I bought another ticket at 4:30AM (now February 28). Yep, I could buy a new ticket online, but I could not rebook my existing ticket. And of course this was also a very expensive ticket because I was buying it at the last minute, on the day of the flight itself. Austin-RDU RDU-Austin. Cost: $950.20 (ticket number xxxxxxxxx4111). I planned to use the unused half of that ticket and the canceled leg of my first ticket to make a return trip to Austin in May. That meant I was basically paying double what I would normally pay for a round-trip to Austin, but in the context of my family's tragedy at that moment, I didn't have any emotion left to care about the cost.

Tickets rebooked for May trip. So, on March 3, American Airlines finally responded to my many messages to customer service and rebooked my flight. They took the unused portion of ticket number xxxxxxxxx0180 (Austin-RDU), which they had canceled, plus the unused portion of ticket number xxxxxxxxx4111 (RDU-Austin), which I had bought with this plan in mind, in order to create a new round-trip. I even got aisle seats. And a complimentary beverage coupon. And first bag checked free!  M-hoo. They also sent me a $3 refund. That is what they claimed was the difference between the cost of my canceled Austin-RDU flight (which they had canceled, not me) and my rebooked Austin-RDU flight. Given that I was booking this leg of the flight over two months in advance, there is no way it should have been that expensive. I guess they were charging me based on a one-way ticket price Austin-RDU — but, like I said, I wasn't going to argue about the money I had lost as a result of the total tragedy that was my life in February.

May trip screw-up. And now: the unforgivable screw-up. I flew on my rebooked ticket from RDU to Austin on May 11. No problem. Then, on Thursday, May 14, I got my usual "your flight is ready for check-in" email for the Austin-RDU return flight. I logged on, confirmed my seats, agreed to the hazardous materials policy, everything just like normal, click click click through all the screens, but then... the boarding passes were "not available." An error message on the screen informed me that I should speak to an agent at the airport when I arrived for check-in.

Phone call from hell. Luckily, I know American Airlines better than that: I dared not wait and do this at the airport. I called. And I spent TWO HOURS on the phone with customer service agents. They claimed that while I had a reservation for the RDU-Austin flight, I had not paid for the ticket. I explained what had happened. I even supplied them with the ticket numbers (thank goodness for my email archive, where I did find the ticket numbers; I had no idea they recycled record locator numbers and those were not enough!). But none of the agents had any interest in understanding what had happened and how I had paid American Airlines $2150 for two round-trip tickets between RDU and Austin. Instead, they insisted I owed them another $500 for my "new" Austin-RDU one-way ticket, i.e. the new one-way ticket that they said would cost me $1100 because it was a new ticket I was booking the day before the flight, minus a $600 credit from the unused portion of ticket number xxxxxxxxx0180.

AA recordkeeping failure. Despite the fact that I was staring at a ticket confirmation email in which my flight was listed as "ticketed," the AA customer service agents denied that I had a ticket for the flight. I asked them why I received a "ready for check-in" email showing "ticketed" status if I did not have a ticket. I asked them how I had successfully flown from RDU to Austin if I did not have a ticket. I asked them why in the hell they could not find a customer service record of my rebooking on March 3 (the exact date on which I rebooked), to which they replied: "We do not have records like that; only 'corporate' has those records." I offered to email them all the records that documented the entire transaction from start to finish, both tickets, all the credit card transactions, all the record locator numbers, all the ticket numbers, everything, but they had no interest. Instead, they said, I owed them $500.

Conclusion. In the end, after I literally yelled at the worst of the agents (I'm tempted to put her name here, but I won't), she gave me a "complimentary" fare reduction.


That would mean, uh, no cost. Well, tell me, American Airlines, what is the cost of your taking away from me the two hours I would have spent that evening with my father? What is the cost of having made him listen (he was sitting right there with me) to a very stressful two-hour phone conversation, all of which brought back painful memories of my mother's death? That cost: incalculable.

Of course, like most Texas residents, my father has plenty of American Airlines horror stories of his own. So, after I hung up the phone, we spent a VERY anxious hour waiting to see if the promised ticket would come through (I fully expected another screw-up, another phone call, more shouting). While we waited, my dad opened a bottle of wine, and we traded stories of being mistreated by American Airlines over the years. We were still talking about how much we hated American Airlines when, at last, the ticket came through.



So, American Airlines, as you remind me every time I fly, I have a choice of airlines. I will not be choosing American Airlines again. But because your social media managers at Twitter had an interest in my story and I promised to provide the story, now you have it. Contact me at if you have any questions. I certainly hope you investigate this incident to see what went wrong so that it will not happen to anyone else again. You need to figure out why your computer system sends out "ready for check-in" emails to people who supposedly don't have tickets but who really do have tickets. In my case, an overpriced ticket purchased in desperation during the ice storm of 2015.

And now...... a meme for the occasion. I say I won only because, despite customer so-called service, I did manage to get home, and without paying even more money than the amount I had already overpaid.

Update: May 20. When rejected the complaint I filed with a link to this case history, they told me to fill out their little box online instead. Use as many boxes as you need, they said. It took 8 boxes. Why don't they just make the box bigger...? Meanwhile, WITH GREAT PLEASURE, I booked my next flight to Austin on Delta (via Atlanta). I am very glad that I do indeed have a choice when I fly, as AA always reminds me at the end of every flight.

Update: May 22. I have received an apology from American Airlines. Not just an apology, but a sincere apology. They need to change the canned response about "a little longer" to answer, though, since the whole point was that they NEVER answered; the system was so completely broken that there was no callback at all. Oh well. At least they want to apologize. Sincerely. But you know, it would have been nicer if it were not just copied-and pasted. Is it possible to copy-and-paste sincerely? I wonder.
During high call volume, we have the capability to send calls from one reservations center to another to ensure the most efficient handling possible. Still, despite our careful planning and sophisticated equipment, there will be times when it may take us a little longer to answer. We are sorry for any additional inconvenience or frustration. The other matter you mentioned concerns us as well. What happened with your return ticket should not have. We are sorry you were inconvenienced. Additionally, we expect our employees to be courteous and helpful at all times and especially in situations such as you described. Please accept my sincere apology.


  1. I'll fly United before I'll fly American, and I *loathe* United.

    1. Ha! And alas, there are no saints in the airline world anywhere anymore I guess. At least now I know that I have to document EVERYTHING on my own. I will never go to the airport again without ALL my records in hard copy before I leave the house: credit card transaction, ticket number, all emails. I used to think record locator number meant something. Silly me. :-)


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