How to Get the Best Customer Service From Airlines (and Saying Thanks When You Do)

The most important customer service lesson I ever learned was on an easel pad in Randy Petersen’s office (“The House of Miles” which was located on Frequent Flyer Point in Colorado Springs) the first time I visited: “Don’t ever say no. What I can do for you is…”

In other words, it’s not enough just to listen to what a customer asks for and tell them whether it’s allowed. You must address their problem. You can’t always give them what they want, but if you understand their needs you can offer a solution that’s the best available given constraints.

The first week of October is Customer Service Week which dates to a 1992 Congressional proclamation. I’m not big on days or weeks as set-asides for various groups or interests, whether it’s National Donut Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day. But I am a big proponent of customer service. So at a minimum I need to say thank you to the people who keep me moving and help me accomplish my goals each week. Once I look beyond my wife for me that’s all about business travel.

I don’t want to give short shrift to hotel staff. We tend to take that for granted because hotels are in the hospitality business.

Former Starwood CEO Adam Aron (who helped launch Pan Am’s frequent flyer program, Hyatt Gold Passport, and was also Chief Marketing Officer at United) thinks the intense safety focus of airlines – it’s literally life or death – limits the customer service focus. I don’t agree, but it’s an interesting perspective and airlines usually do have greater customer service challenges than hotels do.

While I’ve been flying other airlines more over the last two years, I still fly American Airlines most. And there’s two groups that I’d like to offer specific thanks to.

  • The American Airlines twitter team, which really listens to problems and solves problems usually with a good sense of humor.

  • The agents (“AAngels”) in the Austin Admirals Club

Austin Admirals Club Entrance

Two years ago American’s twitter team managed to get my home internet fixed. Last year they went to some lengths to fix my reservation when it looked like I wouldn’t make it to the airport before the check-in cutoff time and I couldn’t check in. I offered some suggestions on how to get solutions via twitter (that are generalizable to most customer service interactions) at the time.

Early on the twitter team prioritized requests from top tier elites, the airline’s app introduced an option to tweet and these tweets got extra attention. So I can’t say that an Executive Platinum’s experience is generalizable, but I’ve certainly seen the American twitter team help plenty of people. And twitter is still a great way to cut through bureaucracy or get someone empowered to do it for you.

There are other ways I know that I’m spoiled, my phone calls are answered by many of the programs I deal with quickly because of elite status. If I had to spend long times on hold (cough, British Airways) I’d ring their non-US call centers using numbers for countries with large English-speaking populations. For instance, Singapore is a go-to for Delta and Australia for American. Sometimes those do require a little more patience.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to interact with an airline. There’s the check-in counter, gate, customer service desk, club lounge, phone, twitter team and e-mail customer relations (and in some cases online chat). That makes it easy to do the most important thing in getting good customer service — know when to cut your losses and move on to someone else who may be more helpful (“hang up, call back“).

I don’t go to airports early to spend time in the lounges. And goodness knows when I do use the lounge I have to leave earlier than I’d like. But American’s lounges are worth it not for the made-to-order guacamole but for the agents who solve problems during irregular operations.

With a mechanical delay or cancellation they’re going to get you where you need to be more efficiently than the phone and with more options than the auto-rebooking tool. American has wanted to limit the tools they work with in order to enforce business rules but if you want someone who won’t just say ‘no’ but will creatively come up with ‘what I can do for you is’ it’s these ladies (and indeed they’re all ladies). I’m fortunate to live in Austin, where the lounge staff are regarded as among the best in the system.

The Putting Green in the Austin Club Will Eventually Be Going Away

When we travel we depend on so many people to execute their assigned tasks — ideally flawlessly, but to really solve problems when things go wrong.

Our days and our successes rely on others. We couldn’t accomplish even the simplest things on our own. Thank you not just to the American Airlines twitter team and Austin club agents but to each and every person who keeps me moving each day on the road.

I find that if you want great customer service,

  • It helps to be nice don’t come off as entitled and don’t blame your problem on the person you happen to be talking to (who likely didn’t cause it)

  • Empathize with them. They’re people, and odds on they are dealing with mostly unhappy customers. Smile.

  • Be clear about what your problem is. Don’t unload extraneous detail and make them sort through your feelings to find out what you need.

  • Offer solutions. Don’t be pompous and approach them as though you know more about how to do their job than they do, but come armed with suggestions. They don’t know you, what you’re willing to go through to get where you’re going, so their starting point is going to be that you’re the median customer. They may not suggest a forced overnight option, even if you’d be open to it, for instance.

I happen to fly American most, and live in Austin, so my shout outs focus there. Who are the teams or companies that really go out of their way with customer service to get you where you’re going and make you more productive when you’re there?

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. AA’s twitter team usually responds to me after at least a day, typically 2 days. Even AA’s phone hold time is better than that.

  2. My experience with the LAX Admirals Club “AAngels” has always been near-hostile on their part. They’ve never kept eye contact, say “No” more times than “Let me see what I can do,” and rarely say thank you. It’s always felt like they’re doing me a favor out of their busy lives when I ask them to print a paper boarding pass, for example.

    And I always say “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I appreciate your help.” This has always a rule for me from when I was in Customer Service.

    Overall, I think there’s a big difference in AA’s customer service when you’re an ordinary EXP vs. being Gary. And don’t get me started with the inflight service.

  3. I appreciate your thoughts about customer service here, but I have not had the same experience with American’s Twitter team. They are not very swift in responding, and I don’t always successfully answer my question.

    They reason I notice is because I think Southwest, Alaska, and Hilton Honors’ Twitter teams are amazing. Comparatively speaking, American’s team is lacking. At least in my experience. FWIW, I don’t hold American status (Alaska MVP).

  4. I agree generally about what you’re saying here, Gary, BUT AA’s Twitter team is very poor to us “regulars”. The team used to have special abilities, it seemed, but now basically quickly apologizes and says they’re can’t do anything.

  5. Gary, maybe it’s time for a test.
    Create a new nondescript twitter account for each of the next 3 or 4 times you need to reach AA and see how long the response takes and what the tone is.

  6. I have gotten exceptionally good service from Customer Relations at United and Southwest. Then there was the time a Lufthansa counter agent spent over an hour (!) fixing a complex Mileage Plus reservation problem. Fortunately there was nobody in line behind me. I wrote a commendation letter for that one.

    As I see it, a customer’s matching responsibility is to accept No for an answer graciously when that’s clearly the only answer he’s going to get. And to write commendation letters whenever they are warranted. That way the best people earn promotions.

  7. AA EXP and I must say they take good care of me. Is everything perfect? Nope, but I have priced out the competition and out of LAX AA is the clear cut winner for my business. The Twitter team has been exceptional getting me rebooked many times over the last couple of years. The Admirals Club has been hit and miss. A lot of that has to do with the construction at T4.

  8. I am glad that you receive auch excellent service from AA, Gary. I have noticed that The AAngels at least at LGA (in the LAA terminal) and JFK to have lost ability to go above and beyond because of the next program that replaced SABRE. Most of them empathize with us because of the very customer infriendly moves American has imposed post the US Airways takeover. As far as Twitter and most of the newer phone-reps, I have received tones of an “we can’t do anything” attitude. I work in the service indistry and have so for 15 years. I belive I know how to use patience, grace and understanding to my advantage as well as those who are helping me out when I am the customer. Overall, AA is losing my loyaly after this year finishes. I have been actively flying Delta and while their rewards program isn’t anything to write home about, I receive a consistent, pleasant experience from the employees. Oh, and they have IFE on almost ALL of their aircraft. Whereas AA is ripping out all of the TV’s and adding more seats. Welcome to America West dba as The “New American.

  9. Call centers that offer a survey after the call should provide a reminder before the customer hangs up. 90% of the time after getting great service with a problem or concern, I’m so relieved that I forget about the survey and hang up.

  10. This is all excellent advice for all customer service situation, especially empathy and suggesting solutions.

  11. Honestly pretty much all Delta employees are customer oriented. Twitter team takes 15-45 mins to respond depending on load, lounge staff are almost uncomfortably nice, and I’ve never asked the phone agents to waive a fee without them offering to at LEAST reduce it by half.

  12. Yep, I agree, Gary. If you want great customer service just be a decent human being. Works for me every time.

  13. We’re very quick to complain when we have bad service, but we often forget the other side of the coin… we must reward and reinforce good behavior so that the employees are incentivized to continue putting in the extra effort.

  14. So true, I have no status with any airlines, so while I recently bragged on American, I was also pleased with my call back to United. My FF ticket change fee went from $150 each to $60 each on the second call. Good for the second person for knowing what she was doing.

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