AAvoid at all costs

How far will travelers go to avoid the world’s largest airline? Austin Wolff paid an extra $360 to stay away from American Airlines, flying from Albuquerque, N.M., to Jacksonville, Fla., on Delta Air Lines on a recent holiday weekend.

Why no AA? “It’s more a statement toward the overall approach to customer service,” says Wolff, who works for a news organization in Albuquerque. “It’s the general apathy displayed by this company.”

Avoiding American isn’t easy. It’s in the throes of a merger with US Airways, which will make it the largest airline in the world. With only three legacy carriers remaining in America, the number of choices is dwindling. But that’s just fueling the anti-American sentiment.

Wolff’s reason for staying away from American is common. He feels as if the company doesn’t care. Wolff says he tried to complain about its service, writing a detailed account of what went wrong on a recent flight.

“When I submitted the actual account, the airline’s website wouldn’t allow it,” he says. “I could only use up to 500 characters. That’s really what sent me running away from flying with them at any cost.”

Craig Conroy steers clear of American, too. “I know what I want in an airline,” says Conroy, a professional speaker who lives in Pittsburgh. “It’s customer service.”

He goes to great lengths to stay away from AA, even when the airline offers a lower price or a more convenient route. Conroy would rather make a stopover in Cincinnati, Atlanta or Chicago with Delta Air Lines or United. He even prefers to fly on Southwest, with its one-class configuration and egalitarian attitude toward service.

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Conroy says he’d forfeit the ability to collect enough frequent flier miles for elite status — that’s how badly he wants to avoid the airline.

What could possibly stir such strong feelings among air travelers? A look at American’s customer satisfaction scores and complaint numbers reveals one possible answer: Some passengers don’t like it. American scored a 66 out of 100 points in the latest American Customer Service Index, unchanged from 2013. That’s 5 points below the industry average.

The Department of Transportation received 3,083 service complaints about American Airlines in 2014, up 546 from the previous year. It’s the third most complained-about airline, behind United Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

American acknowledges that it can do better, and says it’s trying.

“This year, our customer relations teams have worked around the clock through an extremely difficult winter and the complaints that come with that,” says Joshua Freed, an American Airlines spokesman. “We answer every complaint – most within a couple of days, and each one is categorized so our executives can see where the problems are and fix them.”

But industry-watchers aren’t impressed by its efforts. “American Airlines proves the adage that customers will only put up with so much rudeness and discourtesy before they respond,” says Harlan Platt, a finance professor at Northeastern University.

The complaints aren’t all related to the weather. They’re the result of airline policies, a changing corporate culture and, of course, the ongoing merger between US Airways and American. In March, American combined its loyalty programs without incident. Now, they are aligning company rules, and later this year the carriers will combine their reservations systems, which is often the most difficult part of any airline combination.

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In a sense, having people say they’re avoiding American doesn’t really matter. The fact is, they’re not. The airline just reported a record quarterly profit of $1.2 billion, triple its year-ago net profit, excluding a special credit. With earnings like that, which are the result of lower fuel costs, higher fares and the cutting capacity after the merger, who needs happy customers?

But writing off American should worry the airline in the long term, say experts. That’s because, while there may be fewer airlines, people still have options. If too many people try to avoid American, that could be a problem — and, perhaps, a reason to up the airline’s customer-service game.

“Actually, most Americans still have a reasonable number of choices when it comes to air travel,” says Seth Kaplan, editor of the trade publication Airline Weekly. “Even if it’s fewer choices than they once did.”

How to avoid American Airlines

Cast a wide net.
Check out alternate airports near a hub city. Chicago O’Hare, for example, is home to airline hubs for American and United. But head over to Midway and you can also find a hub for Southwest Airlines.

Consider alternate transportation.
Trains offer a competitive product with East Coast shuttles. But buses are growing at an impressive pace, too, and can often get you to your destination in about the same amount of time that it takes to check in, go through the TSA line, wait for your flight, and fly.

In some cities (Philadelphia, Dallas) American is so dominant that it’s almost impossible to avoid, particularly if you’re flying internationally. If you feel so strongly about staying away from American, you may have to relocate to another city.

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This story first appeared May 17, 2015.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • technomage1

    I on,y fly when absolutely necessary. I will take the bus, train, or drive whenever possible. Between the TSA and the airlines, flying is an absolutely miserable experience now. The system is broken.

  • Alan

    In some odd way, consumers are responsible for this situation. When we constantly chase only the lowest fares we create an industry where price is king and customer service disappears. I think the explosion of high priced amenities (different classes) is also a function of this consumer behavior. People who wish to, and can, pay higher ticket prices do so. But I agree there needs to be some basic level of service available at a lower cost.

  • caruso81

    “Move”? What an idiotic comment.

  • Kairho

    I rarely fly AA unless I get a huge bargain. Or an award flight: I find them the easiest for piling up miles and easiest for finding flights. And then, only in business class where I have never had a problem with even a surly FA, and almost never speak to anyone on the phone. Also, I never (even on awards) us any former USAir flights or services.

  • Gary Moll

    How old is this rehashed article? Mentioned twice they are merging. Their reservations systems are being combined. $1.2B profit was in the first quarter of 2015. Is any of this current information or just another old stab at an old problem?
    Says “third most complained-about airline”. Is that absolute numbers or per passenger? Doesn’t say much about United and Frontier.
    Yes, you cannot submit a novel via a feedback link on a website.

  • ChelseaGirl

    Totally Agree. I have been flying AA for years, but a recent experience demonstrated that they don’t care about customer loyalty or goodwill, and I will now try very hard to avoid them.

  • Carchar

    On the bottom: “This story first appeared May 17, 2015.”

  • AJPeabody

    How to solve the 500 character limit, aside from being concise:

    When you hit the 500 character limit, erase enough characters to write: “Part 1 Continued in next submission.” Send. Reload. Start with “Part 2.” Repeat as needed.

  • Gary Moll

    Missed that. I was focused on: “By Christopher Elliott | January 3, 2016”.

  • Pocahontas

    then there’s the “rent a car and drive” option. It’s about getting where if I can’t do that, I don’t go, with very few exceptions.

  • pauletteb

    I’ve done the same to avoid flying Southwest.

  • stephen_nyc

    Yeah, me too. I waste time reading a story that’s 7 months old. I already asked them to put those ‘first appeared’ notes at the TOP of the page. We can see how well that request has gone.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    And they posted one the other week and forgot to put the reprint info on the article which gave everybody reading it the impression it was brand new.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    500 characters is very short. I actually am a big proponent of character/word limits from a customer service perspective but that seems too short to really work well. That’s roughly 100 words and you could use 10 or more by the time you entered the flight/class/destination info.

    The idea of limits is to give customer service something concise so they can quickly determine the main problem and get to solving it as quickly as possible. Is it a common issue where there is a canned response? Does it need to be forwarded to somebody else within the organization? It doesn’t help anybody if they have to read War and Peace first before making a determination on what to do with it. If additional info is required they will contact you back, at least in theory.

  • BMG4ME

    It really pains me to do this because I actually like American and know a lot of executives there that I find to be very responsive, however I also avoid American in favor of Delta. This started when I discovered that American’s claim that the reason they no longer provide special meals whenever a meal is provided is because that’s what all airlines do. I discovered by accident that Delta actually still does provide a special meal whenever a meal is offered, and so I voted with my feet even though in reality this has actually made a difference to me about twice in the last few years! In the process I unfortunately for American discovered that while American is a good airline, Delta is even better, and now it would be hard to go back. I know several others that have left American for exactly the same reason.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I hate to bump up against those limits, too, but after volunteering here at Elliott for a while, I definitely understand them. We don’t impose a limit, and you’d cringe at some of the “books” our customers send to us. Who wants to read something like that?! :-o

  • Joe_D_Messina

    You have my sympathy. The laundry list examples are the worst where there’s one main issue buried in a ton of lesser things. I don’t know if it is just that people get so upset they feel the need to mention absolutely everything or if they think that including the kitchen sink will make the case seem stronger. But the end result is the same: The wheat gets lost in all the chaff.

  • Lee Delong

    Austin , wise move.

  • Gary K

    IMO, this story is ridiculous, and to republish 7 1/2 months later is just silly. Why anyone thinks that, on any given day/flight, any airline/employee does not have the ability to destroy one’s travel plans, strains credulity. After all, how many horror stories do we have to see to understand about many different airlines that this is not a consumer-friendly business. And to read that the OP prefers UA (which has an even worse complaint rating than AA), borders on hilarious. As for the suggested solutions, #3, ‘Move”, seriously?

    BTW, I don’t fly AA because I live in the SF Bay area, so UA, warts and all, is unchallenged for convenience where I travel. If I lived where a connection was required regardless of airline, it might be a different story, but I can tolerate an occasional miscue (and lousy customer service) given how much time I save by flying non-stops.

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