American shrugged

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, is a heavy piece of melodramatic fiction.  Or so I thought.  Then I was stranded two weeks ago in O’Hare Airport.  I realized about six hours into my 18-hour ordeal that one of the themes of the book —  the decline of the railroad industry — was coming to life before my very eyes.  Only this time, it was an airline.

The day was truly a lesson in management, customer relations and operating performance.  The lost opportunities as well as the outright mistakes.  So for much of my time there, I was absorbed by the circus.  Buffeted by fellow passengers and their sanity, I actually was able to relax and observe just how much the ability to think has been devalued in the airline industry, except when it comes to the elite — the executive platinum flyers.  [Once, I was a platinum flyer.  Don’t fly enough on any one airline anymore.  In fact, I was flying on the last of my points, which explains why I was at the airport so long.]  For the rest of us, if anyone took the risk of reflecting on the whole experience, it was demeaning and debasing.

  • The gate agent who, once he got his hands on the microphone, would not stop talking.  Or lecturing.  Or threatening.  He was attempting to entertain but came up patronizing and controlling.
  • The passenger who told me how she had approached the same gate agent and offered to give up her seat.  This was around 6 pm.  She lived near O’Hare and when she arrived and saw the scene, she figured she could just go home and give her seat to someone who had been there all day.  Well, she approached Mr Standup and offered just that — as long as they could get her a seat later that night or the next morning.  Guess what he said to her:  "you’ll have to pay the $100 change fee."  Here was someone offering to inconvenience herself to help another human being, and this guy could not find a way to make that happen.  Think of the story Mr Standup could have told from that podium:  how a fellow passenger was making it possible for someone to get home that night.  No, he couldn’t think off-script or off-computer screen unless it was to pontificate about how we were crowding his desk.  So the airline lost a goodwill building opportunity.  Not to mention a nice story that would have been told and re-told.
  • At another gate, sitting next to a guy who had logged five years in the hotel business.  Here’s how I knew that.  We were all sitting there in the waiting "pen," when all of a sudden, an experienced airline employee [with his badge turned around so that you couldn’t read his name] started screaming at a distraught woman about how he was going to "call the police because you touched me."  Now, none of us had heard or seen anything until this guy started yelling.  Of course, this only got the woman more riled.  So now there was a real scene, with dozens of eyes trained on it.  My fellow traveler, the ex-hotel guy, just sighed and explained that there were a million ways the guy could have diffused the situation.  Instead, he chose a power trip and added tension to a stressful situation.
  • The pilot who growled at a weary passenger that he was blocking a thruway near the men’s room.  I understand the pilot got the appropriate response.
  • The equipment tango.  At one of my standby gates, the equipment for a flight to New York and the passengers had been waiting and waiting.  Then all of a sudden they had an "equipment problem."  That one caused a near riot.
  • The gate changes.  This was the biggest mystery of the day.  If they’re flying less equipment in general right now, and fewer planes were landing that day because of the weather, what is so difficult about assigning a gate, putting it up on the monitors and on the agents’ screens and notifying the 800 number that many of us were using in frustration because the lines were interminable?  Or, when you must change gates, making some general announcements?  They were forcing everyone to go to the fancy new plasma screen monitors to keep updated — which would have been fine, but I guess because they’re more expensive than the old TV screens, there are not as many of them.  Which only created crowds in the middle of the concourse.  This is apparently the airline’s only intersection with today’s new technology.  If I were a large systems integrator, I would be chasing some business right now in this industry.  But first, get yourself to an airport on the day of a big storm — the research value would be immeasurable.

This was my first, and I hope last, experience of the kind.  Despite all my travel over the years, I felt like one of the Clampetts arriving in Beverly Hills, filled with wonder at everything I beheld.  Or Dante descending into the Inferno, circle by circle.  Since then, friends and colleagues have shared some tips for how to maneuver through this kind of a situation.  One of them:  if you choose to gamble with the standby game, do so only if you’ve paid a lot for your ticket and/or you’re an elite flyer.  Otherwise, just get yourself confirmed on a flight the next day and get the heck out of Dodge.  The airline will string you along just to make sure they pack the plane.  In contradiction to the teachings of the late Professor Theodore Levitt, it’s not about helping you get to your destination, it’s about putting a derriere in every seat.

I believe the true test of a company’s performance is not when the going is good but when the system is under duress from unforeseen circumstances.  As one traveler said that day, the whole experience just showed him that the system is a house of cards.  Or as another one asserted, "it’s easier to get out of Beirut."  If the airline is trying to streamline operations and improve employee relations to put forth true ambassadors, the only evidence I see is the article in THE NEW YORK TIMES from July 23.  The competent, patient, respectful employees were few and far between that day.  It was the passengers [except for the line jumpers, of course] who made it bearable.  And the slapstick surrounding equipment and scheduling was unfathomable.  Good businesses keep enough slack in their systems to accommodate more demand.  Then they charge for it.  And they don’t reward you with free gifts — like air travel — if they’re going to punish you for using for them.  And I felt punished, even though I had earned every point I used back when I was flying this airline on a biweekly basis.

Yesterday, also in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Joe Sharkey explained what’s really going on this summer in the airports.  He invites travelers to share their stories with him this week.  This should be fun.  And illuminating, if the powers-that-be choose to read the papers.  Of course, they could just pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged to read on their beach vacations.  If they can get there.

7 thoughts on “American shrugged”

  1. I arrived at Abilene TX airport at 1:30pm March 17, 2010 with hopes (and some assurance from previous experience with other airlines) that I would be able to get on an earlier flight if there would be availability. Well, THERE WERE SEVERAL AVAILABLE SEATS but because the most stupid new policy that there’s no STANDBY anymore available to non-gold or platinum members THEY COULD NOT HELP ME and made me wait 4 HOURS AT THE AIRPORT. Not being helped AT ALL at the airport because nobody has any authority to accommodate “not so important passengers” and raged at the lack of customer service I called the 1-800 number expecting some professionalism AND SERVICE. BOY WAS I WRONG! I talked to somebody named Ms. Taylor that is supposed to be a SUPERVISOR. PLEASE get your employees some serious customer service. This lady did not let me talk and basically told me this is my problem that I have made those arrangements to my flight, that the new policy did not allow them change anything (by the way, I WAS WILLING TO PAY TO BE ABLE TO TAKE AN EARLIER FLIGHT). American Airlines managers, if you would like to be the leading airline in the country you OUGHT to take seriously your employees’ professionalism, ethics, and preparedness to handle customers. The employees in the front lines dealing face to face with customers NEED TO BE THE MOST EFFICIENT, QUALIFIED, PREPARED, AND WILLING to help. They also need some authority and good sense to help and accommodate customers at the circumstances they are. This new policy is hurting your business because as a frequent flier I could be making sure I would fly AA ONLY despite the amount the ticket would cost me. I WILL MAKE SURE MY WORDS ARE HEARD. I have seen lots of complaints online. Please, this is 2010 and your revenue comes FROM OUR POCKETS ! Please do not hire employees that look at the wrist watch all day waiting for 5pm. Ms. Taylor was not courteous, impolite, unprofessional, and unpleasant .


  2. February 2009 American Airlines charged me $125, for each leg of my trip (a total of $250), to carry the sporting equipment I required for my holiday, it would be reasonable to assume they would take all due care in delivering it to the tagged destination. At the time of this charge, no one ever suggested I would have to produce receipts for the ownership of my personal equipment if it were lost or damaged; however, the agent refused to check said baggage unless I paid the additional fee. The fact that American Airlines was negligent in caring for the items entrusted to them, and there by ruining my vacation, I have not submitted these damages as part of my loss claim, however perhaps I should. I will speak to my solicitor on that point. In fact, the hard sided carry case was smashed beyond repair and the fishing rods inside were missing as witnessed by the Agent in Baggage Claims at the Miami Airport. The one rod that remained in the case was damaged beyond repair. All this was examined by an AA Agent in Miami on arrival.
    As American Airlines charged me for the transportation of my fishing poles, in addition to my personal airline fare, it is reasonable to presume American Airlines assumed responsibility of the equipment and therefore are responsible to ensure it was properly insured for its safeguard and delivered to the destination tagged.
    Eight months later and several letters AA Management advised me if I cannot produce receipts for my property then the incident never happen. Now that is what I consider client abuse and a management philosophy that condones their employee’s theft practices. I have always believed that you treat others as you wish to be treated and that what goes around comes around. They lost a lot more than just my property they lost my respect.


  3. I have spent the past six months trying to get refunded from AA for a cancelled flight leg from Heathrow to Lyon, France which occurred during December 2006. After dealing with their automated email customer service system, and being completely unable to get a live person on the phone who can help explain why my refund (which should have been at least $200) is $35.75 only, I am ready to find another airline.
    Anyone have experience transferring frequent flyer miles from one airline to another, and can recommend a good airline to switch to? I was thinking Delta.


  4. Hi Mary,
    I just read about your experiences with the airlines, and recently had a similar experience. I will personally NEVER fly American Airlines again, nor allow anyone on my family to do so. If another airline has a higher ticket price and I can get my family where I need them to be- I’ve just informed them I will reimburse them the difference between an AA ticket and the other airline, on the condition they do not under any circumstances fly AA. Sad thing is, we, The Customer, are once again the object of disregard by the airlines.
    Feel free to link back to my blog,
    And good luck on your future travels.


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