The American way to handle a mechanical delay — or not

About half an hour into the redeye flight from Maui to Los Angeles last Wednesday, the cabin lights abruptly flashed on. But that didn’t wake me up. It was the captain’s announcement that jarred me to alertness.

“We’ve had a fire in the forward galley,” he said with the professional detachment you’d expect from an airline pilot. “The fire has been put out. We’re diverting to Honolulu.”

It was stranger-than-fiction way to end a fascinating trip to Maui with my son (more on that on National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog next week). Our adventure began with a tsunami warning a week before and an evacuation from our ground-floor room at the Grand Wailea.

I didn’t think it could get any more interesting than that. I was wrong.

American Airlines flight 14 landed safely in Hawaii’s capital a few minutes later. All the while, I was thinking: What a great opportunity to experience a mechanical delay, the American way. I was looking forward to seeing a how a full-service legacy carrier treats its valued passengers when something goes wrong.

To be sure, the airline got the important things right. The plane didn’t crash. The airline didn’t rush the aircraft back into service, preferring to send us to a hotel at its expense rather than risk a transpacific flight with a fire-damaged oven. “Safety first” isn’t a meaningless Madison Avenue slogan like “We know why you fly” – they do really mean it when they say it.

Before I get into what can best be described as an almost total customer-service failure, let’s review a little fine print. American’s contract of carriage – the legal agreement between the airline and me – has been watered down to the point of irrelevance over the years. Words like “shall” and “will” have been quietly replaced with “can” and “may.”

But it’s generally understood that when a carrier has a mechanical problem, it will take care of meals, transportation and hotel accommodations. And American did that. Kinda.

Seems the American Airlines staff at Honolulu had all gone home. Two Delta Air Lines ticket agents generously offered to help handle the questions from passengers. (“When are we leaving?” “Will I make my connection?” “Why is it taking so long?”)

American divided the passengers into two groups: First class and everyone else. It tried to discreetly send the premium passengers to the Pacific Beach on Waikiki in taxis, while making the rest of the customers wait for buses that were scheduled to arrive more than an hour later.

Since I was traveling with a six-year-old who was half-asleep, and since I didn’t have any checked baggage to wait for, I decided to position myself at the taxi stand. I asked the first-class customers if they didn’t mind sharing a cab to the hotel. They readily agreed, and we ended up hitching a ride in a minivan with three other passengers.

I was taken aback during the ride to the hotel when they admitted they felt guilty about being first in line. Why guilty? Hadn’t they paid thousands more for their tickets, and in doing so, deserved preferential treatment?

No. Turns out they were either deadheading crewmembers or relatives of American Airlines employees. Some of them hadn’t paid for their tickets at all.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I can’t really complain because they shared their taxi voucher with me, and I’m grateful for that. I also think that in an industry where benefits are evaporating faster than jet fuel spilled on a hot runway, employees have a right to be treated special. But still, there’s something wrong with putting all your employees in the front of the plane. Maybe it’s just me.

American was not proactive about the delay, from a customer-service point of view. Although airlines have the capability of rebooking passengers before a plane makes an unscheduled landing, and could have probably been waiting for us at the gate with new tickets and vouchers for lodging and meals, it did no such thing. Over the next 48 hours, we waited in a series of long lines, spent what seemed like hours on hold, and spoke with agents whose attitudes ranged from indifferent to surly. We felt as if we were being processed instead of served.

Here were the most obvious avoidable breakdowns:

• American didn’t always volunteer to cover passengers’ expenses, as required under its contract. You had to ask for meal vouchers, and some people didn’t, making them spend their own money on food. That doesn’t seem like an efficient way to cut costs.

• The voucher system left a lot to be desired. The meal allowances only subsidized our food in places like Honolulu and Los Angeles, where we overnighted. Why not eat somewhere cheaper? Because the vouchers forced us to eat at a restaurant of American’s choosing – not ours. Also, the merchants had no way to offer change or credit when we ran up a bill that didn’t meet the value of the vouchers. This forced us to either spend more money on food or the restaurant would just keep the difference.

• American left me with the impression that it couldn’t be bothered by the problems of a paying, non-elite, economy class passenger. I abandoned several attempts to call the airline after running down my cell phone battery. I tried to reach it by Twitter, but it had changed its handle recently and apparently was no longer checking its old account. When I reached it on the new account, @AmericanAir, a representative asked me for flight details, which I quickly provided. Then it ignored me for the rest of the trip.

But one conversation near the end of my trip will always stay with me. It was with a longtime customer-service agent in Los Angeles. I politely asked her about the dinner vouchers, believing there had been a mix-up. I said the vouchers didn’t pay for our food, and asked if we had maybe received the wrong paperwork.

“No,” she said, explaining that the amounts for breakfast and lunch ($5) and dinner ($10) were all American could offer. All it had offered for years, actually.

“You should let them know about this,” she said, sliding a printout with the website across the counter. “They don’t listen to us.”

“Really? American doesn’t listen to its own employees? I can’t believe that.” (I really can’t.)

But she was serious. “It wasn’t always like this, was it?” I asked.

She shook her head and looked down.

“Service used to matter,” she replied. “Loyalty used to matter. It doesn’t anymore.”

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