No, Customers Aren’t Booking Away from American Airlines. Why Do You Ask?

Some people react to stories about an airline with pure mood affiliation. Most of the reports I’ve seen of this Christopher Elliott piece from USA Today — asking ‘why people are avoiding American Airlines’ seem more like a rorschach test for one’s own opinion of American than any kind of thoughtful response to the piece itself.

Because the actual article is practically incoherent.

Since I’ve seen discussions across frequent flyer forums, and clogging up my Facebook feed all day, let me explain.

The article opens with the story of a customer who says he’ll pay more money to fly Delta or United. Why? Because he doesn’t think American cares.

Wolff’s reason for staying away from American is common. He feels as if the company doesn’t care. Wolff says he tried to complain about its service, writing a detailed account of what went wrong on a recent flight.

“When I submitted the actual account, the airline’s website wouldn’t allow it,” he says. “I could only use up to 500 characters. That’s really what sent me running away.”

Perhaps this customer will consider going back to American upon learning that their form to email customer relations actually allows up to 1500 characters (not 500, as the article suggests). Complaints should be succinct in any case.

But does this one customer’s experience mean what the article leads with, that people are trying to avoid American? The article itself concedes it does not:

In a sense, having people say they’re avoiding American doesn’t really matter. The fact is, they’re not.

Indeed, American’s load factor last month was 81.6%. Their load factor on domestic routes was 85.6%. Overall loads are down from 82.9% last April, driven largely by weakness on transatlantic routes.

Nonetheless, the piece makes its case with DOT complaints.

The Department of Transportation received 3,083 service complaints about American Airlines in 2014, up 546 from the previous year. It’s the third most-complained about airline, behind United Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

So customers prefer flying United over American, because American has fewer DOT complaints than United?

Sometimes DOT complaint data is meaningful, often it is not. Most customer service complaints don’t get sent to the Department of Transportation. And many that do are ludicrous.

The article makes suggestions for how to avoid American. Get this:

  • Fly out of a less convenient airport. If you used to use O’Hare, use Midway instead.

  • Take the bus… because you’re looking for good customer service, and Greyhound is where that’s at?

  • Move. Because you hate your airline enough to uproot your family, leave your job, and incur significant transaction costs. Even Elliott’s lead complainer was only willing to spend an extra $360 for a ticket. So I’m not sure whom this suggestion is meant to help.

The author has chosen bad arguments that do not support the claim that customers are booking away from American over customer service issues. And the piece offers bad advice for how to do so, in case someone decides that they really do want to. That’s too bad.

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. Im actually trying to switch to American from Delta. I have 3 transpacific business class tickets to book and I made the offer to book with them if they give me EP status. (I’m DM with Delta). So far no response but I’m hoping to give them a chance. Delta is just too expensive these days.

  2. @Brian: Do you currently hold any status with DL? Often, American will grant a status match and/or challenge depending on status with other airlines. I would include this in your correspondence with them. Here’s to hoping you get EXP status. It is awesome (I type this currently sitting in the ORD Admiral’s Club with a complimentary alcoholic beverage of choice in hand!).

  3. Typical Elliott – Find someone to quote, mangle some statistics and inject a heavy dose of his own biases. I’m not sure why anyone considers him a serious journalist (or maybe nobody does). He does do some solid work in cases where consumers get ripped off, and is spot on regarding the TSA, so his work is not all bad.

  4. @Brian Are you planning on actually flying AA or just going for Oneworld Status?
    Because I don’t see any reason to fly AA TPAC in J (or DL/UA for that matter).
    I’ve been avoiding AA for the last 2 years and DL/UA even longer.

  5. Load factors are an incomplete metric.

    What if yields are up (or worse….down).

    AA was pretty adamant it doesn’t think the yield environment is as strong as it wants given all the capacity increases out there.

    And with its cut to US Airways standards premium product no wonder people are shopping around.

  6. @UAPremierGUy and JayP
    Yes, I have Diamond Medallion Status with Delta and 114,000 MQM to date this year. I’ll achieve next years Diamond status next week. I usually fly twice per month from DTW to ICN. Delta is better for the direct routing, but their points are not as useful as I would like. The costs of some overseas business class returns are over 300,000 Skymiles. Air France and KLM availability is almost 0 during peak times. Even though I fly a lot, my miles disappear very quickly. The point is that I could easily keep Delta Platinum and American EXP in the same year, I just don’t want to have to earn it from the beginning if I don’t have to.
    Also, just a quick note: from my investigations, American F on TPAC is cheaper than Delta J, by about $1000. I haven’t been able to confirm with pictures yet, but coincidentally I’ve also found that when I log in to Deltas website they don’t show me all of the cheaper options with connections that I can find in ITA. Then when I go from a different VPN, not logged in to the site, I can see the cheaper fares. It may be nothing, but it’s been my experience during my last bookings to EU.

  7. You had me at Christopher Elliot, the Geraldo Rivera of consumer advocates. His articles and blog are all the same, instead of focusing on the real problem and how to resolve it, he hypes up the issues and things surrounding the issue. He generally appears to be the least informed person on the matter despite claiming to be an “expert” and the only benefit he provides to those who come to him is very public big mouth.

  8. Switched to AA a few years back and haven’t looked back. Loving their FF program and easier upgrades. Customer service is pretty good too (especially on twitter). Used to be 1K UA.

  9. I give Chris Elliott great credit: despite limited talent and judgment, he punches well above his weight. He is the Joe Biden of airline journalism.

  10. Getting travel advice/correct information from USA Today is like getting medical advice from VFW. I always chuckle when newspaper people try and put together a travel article.

  11. I read google new every morning…. almost every article published in the USA Today… is like watching “FOX NEWS”… an absolute joke. I’ve flown on AA over 30 times in the past 2 years, and have yet to have a problem, or encounter rude staff. Delta and United… has been average at best.

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