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.
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.