Sucking Air (August 10, 2011)





American Airlines is the nation’s largest carrier, having gobbled up competitors such as TWA in the Aughts, and despite flirting unsuccessfully with the acquisition of US Airways in late 2009. According to Wikipedia, American “is the world’s third-largest airline in passenger miles transported, passenger fleet size, and operating revenue.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I could sing the airline’s commercial jingle in my sleep, “We’re American Airlines, something special in the air!” A ticket to board an American Airlines flight must have been something magical! When I was a grown-up, I would find out by God!

The company now uses the tagline, “We know why you fly.” However, if my experience of this past weekend is any indication, the carrier must think the purpose of my travels is to experience a frustrating lack of communication and a desire to sleep on the floor of Boston Logan Airport on the eve of my 33rd birthday.

In other words, to put it academically, American Airlines sucks.

Sunday morning I awoke in my high school chum Euridice’s apartment in Medford, Massachusetts to the soothing sounds of light rain. Though the showers intensified somewhat as we enjoyed a leisurely brunch downtown, followed by some mall walking (insert old fart joke here), I was only minimally concerned about flight delay. There was no accompanying lightening or thunder and though, like Pavlov’s dog, I have been trained to have my time wasted by airport security and airline personnel at the slightest provocation, I expected I would be on my way back home at some hour close to the 6:50 PM scheduled departure.

I arrived at Logan’s Terminal B in plenty of time to check my bag and wade through security procedures, only to discover as I started the self-check-in process that my flight had been cancelled. Five hours earlier. And in a surprise twist, the cancellation was due to equipment failure, rather than Mother Nature.

Let’s get over the fact that I am an American AAdvantage member and the bureaucratic apparatus of the carrier sent me neither email nor phone call nor text to make me aware of this schedule change. Let’s try and sidestep the disheartening news that American had no other flights from Boston to Chicago that evening and that they swore the best they could do was put me on a 2 PM plane the following day.

What really irked me was the mass confusion, poor customer service and utter lack of willingness to issue refunds or assist with accommodations for the night. At 6 PM I was staring down the barrel of having to ring in a birthday, which I already bore a humbug attitude toward, drunk (because really, what else could I do?) and alone on the cold, industrial floor of an East Coast air travel hub. Can you imagine anything more pathetic? No, then how about the scene of weeping mothers and fathers, forced to call their scattered homes to inform children, spouses and parents that they were unable to return, in some cases, before two days following? I haven’t witnessed so much misery first person since my sister Jen finally realized at the age of 10 that there was no Easter Bunny.

As a former corporate travel agent, I was aware that there is but one carrier that does not share its booking system with any of the other major airlines. That is of course Southwest, the only operation that has yet to institute charges for checked bags, the sole provider of air travel who issues comfy leather seats to all passengers without some other bullshit upcharge, and the only company who appears to conduct customer service training for its call center and onsite personnel. It is not by accident that the carrier is one of few that regularly turns a profit. In May 2011, Southwest Airlines was ranked as one of the top ten companies in MSN Money’s 2011 Customer Service Hall of Fame, and its flight completion record is currently 98.8 percent as of first quarter 2011.

Why do I highlight all of these distinctions? Because unlike at the American counter, where I and my fellow strandees were treated like gum on the bottom of a shoe and provided zero resources in our time of hardship, after running three terminals over to the Southwest vestibule, I encountered something like human compassion.

I had the forethought to book another flight by phone (where I was pointedly wished a “happy birthday” by the friendly rep who assisted me), but was advised to go to the counter afterward to try and get standby on a yet earlier flight. The customer service representative was unable to grab me a seat herself as it was too close to flight time.

Did I mention that this last minute one-way ticket cost me a mere $330? That’s not chump change to a struggling writer, but more than worth it in the long run to get home to my cat Jordan, my work and my life before an additional 24-hours elapsed. Compare this to a figure of $618 for a comparable ticket on American.

Southwest’s flights were delayed that evening, but they did take off. Icing on the cake: the fees for alcoholic beverages were waived once my plane finally taxied off the runway. The flight crew knew we had all suffered enough, were feeling quite cranky and a little liquid calm was bound to make everyone’s experience just a bit less stressful.

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, I am forced to bemoan the perceptible and lengthy decline of airline service. It’s not just the endless delays, lack of food and nickel and dime surcharges for EVERYTHING. It’s not the increasing invasiveness and dehumanizing effects of airport security, for which the carriers issue yet another fee. It’s that we pay so much, and are hassled so incessantly, for the privilege of being treated like shit and shoehorned into a seat we would deem capital punishment in any other environment.

If I must fly, and at this point, I would prefer Amtrak, or even dare I say it, Greyhound, it won’t be as an American Airlines passenger. Think I am alone in my aversion to the carrier? Check out these links:

  2. My personal favorite:

Southwest, thank you for making a pretty terrible night just a tiny bit easier to swallow – with a red wine chaser.



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