How Does the Average Passenger Even Make it to Their Destination (At Least Without Strangling Someone)?

There’s a viral essay circulating, “Dear American Airlines, I Hate You With My Whole Heart”. It’s been sent to me by half a dozen readers, it’s been in my Facebook feed several times, and Google keeps suggesting it to me. To be clear, the language isn’t entirely safe for work but I think it captures something of the travel experience for the once a year traveler that’s easy to forget for those of us that travel frequently.

The short version is that an American Airlines passenger discovers they spent $1300 on two tickets and bought basic economy. They mistakenly purchased travel too late in the day to make it to the wedding outside Dallas they were going to, so needed to change to an earlier flight.

Since they were told their flights were completely non-changeable they bought new outbound tickets on American one hour earlier for more money, only to find that not using the first flight of their original $1300 tickets meant they forfeited their return travel — so they had to spend more money for new return tickets, too. You and I may know this is how it works, but when the average flyer writes about this they do so with real rage.

There’s nothing really American-specific about the rant, except they happened to buy tickets on American (that said, I’ve found Delta a little better with making exceptions.) As often as I wind up running into problems with airlines though , and I generally know what I’m doing, I frequently wonder how the median passenger winds up just making it from origin to destination.

You don’t expect $650 tickets to be totally non-changeable, even for a fee. Most passengers don’t have an airline preference, so they search schedule and price through a site that shows all of their options – not just a single airline – like Expedia or Orbitz. And those sites don’t do a great job disclosing basic economy restrictions. Unusual and draconian penalties ought to be disclosed with a clear popup (which airlines do on their own sites and online travel agencies do not).

Airlines could make this better. They could demand online travel agencies provide better disclosures for their customers, but their concern in travel agency contracts isn’t customer experience. Online agencies should want to do better, but if I’ve discovered anything over the past two decades it’s that online agencies don’t appear to be concerned with their customers either — they want to appear to be the cheapest, offer the least amount of service consistent with that goal, and just want the sale out of fear the customer moves on to another site.

In the end the author blames himself for not understanding the rules, which is generous, but still thinks the airline could have done better to actually tell him what those rules were,

What I also know is that the woman I spoke to at American Airlines in the first place could have told me I needed to book a whole new flight. She could have done that. She knew what I was asking. But instead, I’m out an extra $1,400.

…And for the rest of you, look up the no-show policy for whatever airline you’re flying and make sure your ticket is changeable. I learned a lesson the hard way, and even if it could be chalked up to being my fault, it stings no less because an agent of the company I spoke to decided she needn’t tell me the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

DFW Airport

Travel is complex and hard and folks who aren’t well-versed, who don’t read blogs about it, who don’t do it every week run straight into what feels like a kafkaesque bureaucracy. My takeaway from this piece is a reminder of that, and it’s something that should be front and center for every travel executive — not just airlines (it’s a huge issue for Marriott Bonvoy as well).

Read as a cautionary tale about what it’s like to deal with how complex airlines have made buying air travel for the once a year flyer, rather than a rant about American Airlines, this may be one of the most important things airline executives can read this year, because profiting primarily by not delivering travel for customer money isn’t going to be a great strategy in the long run.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I know this isn’t the point but I can’t get past this sentence:

    “A week before the wedding, I talked to the bride and she let me know that the actual wedding ceremony was happening the day we arrived at 7 p.m. CT”

    We all know people like this who just “wing it” and don’t plan their lives, and then make it everyone else’s problem when everything goes to hell. Who buys plane tickets to a wedding without having some kind of schedule in their mind first? This is the original sin. All the airline stuff is secondary…

  2. Yeah, this article frustrated me a lot. And I say this as an AA Executive Platinum as well as someone who is deeply annoyed by their customer experience and overall direction.

    But man, this article is going viral, and AA didn’t do anything wrong here (well, the author does talk about a major delay on the return; that’s annoying but not even close to, on its own, being worthy of a seething attitude about AA that gets this kind of widespread attention). The author’s deep disdain just isn’t justified, as all of the biggest complaints are the author’s fault, and they would have happened just the same on UA or DL.

  3. If it is truly “going viral”, I think it is warranted for you to bring up. I think in this case, I would be embarrassed to link to any article of such a low level of writing. Thus giving the writer more clicks and credibility. I closed it half way through the second paragraph. I try to give you credit when you write interesting articles, which you certainly do your fair share, but there has been an increase in articles like this. Anyone reading this blog knows these rules. Even the title doesn’t convey what is being discussed.

  4. I do think American (could have been UA or DL) did indeed do something wrong, in designing and making the travel experience so difficult compared to how it used to be. I started flying in the 90’s, and it was pretty much an absolute given that you could fly standby on any same day flight between your origin and destination, and co terminals too very likely.

    Basic economy, bag fees, use it or lose it ticketing, and charges for seat assignments in coach were absolutely un heard of! We hated with a passion the $25 (twenty five dollars) change fees, and since it was easier not to charge the fee rather than reissuing a paper ticket, the $25 fee was waived a lot.

    So I’m not sure why some of you are giving American (and all the major airlines) a pass, as they have severely devalued the travel experience. I suppose if you just started flying in 2018, you would never have known what the “good old days,” were like, and maybe you don’t have the reference point travel life experiences that I have?

    I don’t have any sympathy for American (and the others) for devaluing the travel experience with things like basic economy, $200 change fees, lack of reaccommodation on other carriers, bag fees, and the like.

    I hope this piece gains 100,000% traction and virality as it speaks to the industry devaluation since the 90’s!

    Why would any of you “like” the devaluation items I noted above? Why would any of you defend something like basic economy which is just asking for a disaster if anything goes wrong, and fueling the fire of devaluing the travel experience.

    Basic economy is almost like keeping prisoners in a hot van for 6 hours without water! Its not guaranteed to happen, but all the ingredients are there for a crisis whether it be a medical one or one of unrest.

  5. I know it’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the article that is being referred to is written so poorly that you’ll want to bail out by the end of the second paragraph. The writing style sucks, the grammar sucks and the content leaves you without pity for this fool. In an earlier age, we’d say that it was originally written in crayon. And yet, this dreck was published?

    Frankly, I am a lot more irritated with whomever gave this illiterate an online forum than I am with AA. After all, how dumb can you be? You wait until the last minute – on a holiday weekend, no less – to purchase tickets and then at an even later moment, you figure out when you need to be there? Sorry, but I have no sympathy for idiots. He’s out $4000? Good, hope he learned not to be an idiot next time. End of story. And if you read my comment before reading the linked original rant, there – I just saved you seven minutes and a migraine headache from reading a rant that a third grader would be embarrassed about, with the added bonus of a liberal sprinkling of profanity throughout. You’re welcome.

  6. @Boston. – This isn’t a uniquely Air Travel issue that you’re upset about but consumerism and business as a whole changed in the last 30 years with it no longer delivering a quality product that will last a long time. Instead our entire business culture is derived from separating you from as much of your money as quickly as possible, with no regard to your experience or what you actually wanted or needed at the time. Mobile phones, Cable/TV/Internet, electronics and vacationing are all about extracting all your dollars.

  7. Obviously the just outcome here is for the guy to get a voucher less change fee for the original ticket since the agent’s instructions were unclear. It’s highway robbery for two $650 tickets to be utterly worthless if not taken as originally booked, particularly with the type of operation that American is running right now which virtually ensures some part of the itinerary will not operate as scheduled.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the guy tossing around thousands of dollars without looking at schedules but I also don’t think AA is entitled to the type of actions just short of theft that they apparently have taken here.

  8. @Boston – “I suppose if you just started flying in 2018, you would never have known what the “good old days,” were like, and maybe you don’t have the reference point travel life experiences that I have?”

    The “golden age of travel” is a myth. It used to be expensive, full stop, to the exclusion of a large majority of the American public. Load factors were low (“you could always get same day standby!”) and non-refundable fares were less commonly purchased.

    The fees that we have today are seen as punitive but they are INFORMATION to consumers about which behaviors are to be avoided in order to be able to offer the lowest price.

  9. Frankly everything these days is complicated and continues to become more so. Travel is complicated, loyalty programs are complicated, taxes are way complicated, retirement planning is complicated, investing is complicated, can’t fix your own car without a diagnostic computer, cell phone plans are complicated, anything medical is so complicated it is impossible, so many options to watch as simple movie hell, eating is complicated what causes cancer this week and what is it’s saturated fat content? Frankly I think there should be a required high school home economics class dealing with a lot of this stuff.

  10. @Gene – wtf?

    I have always felt bad for people who don’t travel much who unknowingly have their return ticket canceled when they skip an outbound. Basically nothing else in our society works that way, it’s not intuitive that it would be the case unless you understand details of airline pricing, and it’s not prominently disclosed during the ticket buying process. And they generally don’t find out about it until they go to check-in for the return and at that point are forced to pay huge amounts for a last-minute ticket.

  11. Policies like this drive more people to Southwest every year. I feel sorry for front line employees who have to enforce confiscatory rules day after day.

  12. This is why God invented Southwest Airlines. And one-way tickets.

    Who plans to travel to a faraway city, arriving only slightly before a giant important event? And when there are thunderstorms/delays everywhere in the summer all the time?

    No sympathy.

    Jesus, dude, fly the night before and stay at the Sleep Inn. Put a smidgeon of thought into your life.

  13. You buy basic economy, you get basic economy. I don’t fly or care for flying AA, but how is this their fault?

  14. @ Sco — It was meant to be a sarcastic remark mocking Trump’s new line that The Squad (and I suppose anyone who disagrees with him) “hates America”.


  16. It’s crazy to think that anyone who doesn’t spend hours a day reading travel blogs doesn’t know enough to buy a plane ticket and fly, but here we are.

    What other industry requires that much research by customers?

  17. @Steve S
    Practically speaking, most middle class Americans don’t have a real choice to buy a changeable and refundable ticket. I mean if the cheap ticket costs $79 oneway and the refundable ticket is $500 oneway, most people can’t afford the $500; unless either your in the 1% or your a rich corporation.

    So to imply this is a real choice is misleading. In other words, 99% of Americans can’t afford refundable and changeable tickets.

    Also throughout the 90’s I don’t feel like air travel was terribly expensive, yet there were far fewer rules, more consumer friendly policies, and more flexibility.

    If this guy experienced his situation in the 90’s, AA would have just put him on an earlier flight to get to DFW earlier that day.

    I don’t have any sympathy for the airlines raising fees, adding more complicated rules, and elliminating benefits such as meals that this guy would have gotten if he flew in the 90’s. His bags would also have been free in the 90’s.

    It is entirely the airlines fault, as they cave to the wishes of Wall Street, that we have these issues.

    I don’t see how consumers are better off in 2019 than the 90’s, and they are just getting wripeed off and getting less for their money. So its no wonder people are pist!

    And I agree its not just airlines, the employer system of 401K’s and other changes can devalue the situation for employees (aka consumers/the public) instead of getting a retirement pension plus social security. So the risk and volatility has been transferred to the employee; how is that good for 90% of workers! Also a devaluation!

  18. I’m really surprised by the lack of sympathy in the comments area.

    I read the Boarding Area for fun and travel a lot more than I used to, so I understand these rules. For example, just last week I knew that requesting to change a Korean Air award ticket would’ve cost me some (nominal) money, but I could ask the same agent to cancel my ticket and then rebook at the same price for free. Nevertheless, these odd rules are unintuitive and frustrating. For the majority of Americans who haven’t taken up the hobby of reading about travel nuances, all it takes is a tiny misstep to have devastating outcomes.

    I feel bad for the OP and I could see myself in those shoes just several years ago. Please don’t blame the victim for not having done research on the unintuitive. We all click through plenty of end user agreements (software, etc) without reading them. Imagine if your phone had weird rules like the airlines and you end up getting charged lots of money for restarting your phone at the wrong time of the day.

  19. Air travel is crazy complicated. And also crazy cheap. And it seems to be getting cheaper in real dollar terms. Like I don’t even get excited about sub $300 coach airfares to Spain anymore.

    But if you’re inexperienced, or an idiot, the “complicated” will often trump the “cheap.” In a perfect world, airline tickets would be more easily changeable. Mind you, they’d also be more expensive that way, but more-expensive-but-more-flexible airfares would certainly help the idiots and the rest of us whose travel plans sometimes change.

    I don’t know if more expensive but flexible airfares would make travelers happier. They might. They wouldn’t make me happier, as I’d travel less if I had to pay “real money” to do so, but then I’ve got a few million miles under my belt so I know almost all the rules.

  20. BTW, while I constantly criticize the airlines for making air travel complicated, they are by no means alone in the modern world in doing such things. Like try to do you own taxes if you have an Obamacare plan. Our own government makes this essentially impossible, especially for the type of folks who likely NEED Obamacare. Indeed, airline rules are a piece of cake compared to our tax code. The KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle is sadly ignored by many people in commerce and gov’t who should know better.

  21. I don’t really have any sympathy for AA in this case. I’d just charge it back via the credit card company and deal with the consequences. It’s just as likely that the aircraft was overbooked and they got to sell that same seat twice due to the way the rules are set up.

  22. No sympathy.

    This is the same kind of customer that would blame the airline if an hour flight delay caused him to miss the wedding.

    Caveat emptor.

  23. I for one am glad he got taken to the cleaners. This was a tough article to read due to the poor grammar, ebonic speak, and profanity. He agreed to the terms of his ticket and needs to pay the consequences. Hopefully next time he loses more money!

  24. I’m sympathetic to the general issue that infrequent flyers sometimes get caught by rules that are not intuitive, and do not anticipate what might happen. Flying is very complicated. I learned some travel lessons the hard way myself a couple of times. This person has learned their lesson. It is too bad that you have to have so much inside knowledge to do it right (thanks, blogs and FlyerTalk). But you do. That said, if the rules were more flexible, we’d all be paying more for our tickets. And then some of the same people like this would not be able to afford to fly, or at least would be complaining about how expensive it is.

  25. The lack of cultural awareness by some in these comments is a bit staggering. Not everyone grew up in the same time and place that you did and yes, this is quite comprehensible to a different, albeit likely younger audience.

  26. Looking at Orbitz/Expedia reveals ‘Rules and restrictions apply’ where you can actually click on. It reveals something magical: ticket conditions… Although the airline could perhaps inform a little better on the first call, I don’t feel any sympathy for this guy who’s making his problems, the airline’s problems and making them look bad. And yea, tickets in the rang of $1 up to a 1000 can be non-changeable. People should read better before purchasing stuff.

  27. The key point here — and something that nearly everyone who reads this article seems to fail to notice — is the article writer specifically says he was primarily peeved that the American agent DIDN’T INFORM THE HIM THAT HIS RETURN FLIGHT WOULD BE CANCELLED. The agent just blithely let him book an earlier outgoing itinerary without saying a word about all his other flights. What did the agent think he was going to do, flaps his arms real hard to get home?

    At the very least, had the agent informed him of this he could have made an informed choice about whether or not making it to the ceremony on time was worth the thousands of additional dollars it would cost. It would ALSO have allowed him to make an informed choice about whether or not he should book his new itinerary on American Airlines rather than doing a new search for different flights which may well have been much cheaper.

    So, yes, this IS about American Airlines, not just about “airlines in general”. Completely aside from whether or not the policies in question are fair or whether he should have known about them, and aside from whether or not AA should have made an exception in his case — at the very least they should have told him what was going to happen to the rest of his itinerary.

  28. @everyone – Just move to SE Asia where major carriers still genuinely care about its passengers and their experience, including the coach ones.

    Even some short-haul European major carries flying coach have far exceeded my expectations anywhere close to what I get with US Big 3 airlines in short AND long-haul flights…including being mid/top-tier loyal with all 3 of them!

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