This Airline’s Customer Service Response Is Everything That’s Wrong With Big Companies Today

I recently wrote about a man ejected from an American Airlines flight to Miami after throwing up in the coach lavatory prior to departure. He threw up again – on a passenger in first class – as staff guided him off the aircraft.

Fortunately the first class passenger had a change of clothes in the cabin with him. Since American employees literally guided the man, leading to the mess, he wrote in to customer service about the experience. After all, this wasn’t part of the bundle of experiences purchased with a first class ticket.

And the response he got from American says a lot about modern customer service. It’s common for major companies to have canned responses, with staff given mere moments to review a complaint and figure out which pre-written response most fits the situation. However any decent use of the strategy,

  1. Figures out whether these canned responses are in fact apropos
  2. Tailors them, repeating back specifics of the issue so it’s clear they were heard and understood
  3. Offers concrete next steps

None of these things, unfortunately, happened here. Judge for yourself:

Thank you for reaching out to us here in Customer Relations. I’m sorry to hear of your recent experience on board your flight to Miami.

Our employees strive to provide all of our customers with a safe and pleasant flying experience. In any public gathering, there may be occasions when conflict arises between people or when one individual’s actions bother another. We want to respect everyone’s rights, and we try to ensure you are not subjected to uncomfortable situations by other customers. For that reason, our flight attendants are instructed not to serve alcoholic beverages to any customer who appears to be intoxicated. In the face of any serious disturbance, our crews are trained to diffuse potentially volatile situations so as to ensure the safety and well-being of all our customers and crew members.

The comments that you shared with me today will be made available to our leadership team for further review and will be used to refine and update our practices. We want our customer journey to be the best in the industry, and we thank you for giving us the opportunity to drive change.

XXXXXX, from all of us at American Airlines we appreciate your loyalty since XXXX and we look forward to offering you a better experience aboard your next flight with us.

They clearly picked the generic “another passenger created a disturbance” not the “American Airlines staff guided a passenger to my seat where he threw up on me” email. And in the former case American’s position is stuff happens and it’s not our fault so pound sand.

Stuff that makes flying less than “pleasant” happens “in any public gathering” and American’s obligation is met by refusing to serve alcohol when a customer already looks intoxicated. Of course here the passenger came on board incapacitated in some form, and likely shouldn’t have been boarded. However the airline’s new push to limit staffing at gates makes this more difficult to screen for.

I’m not sure, though, that this is the best customer service response to the situation, or to a decades-long AAdvantage member who frequently buys first class tickets – even in the current environment where the prices aren’t reduced but the service provided in exchange is.

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. Four calls that took two hours and I received a personal response from an Avis customer service representative that was even less satisfying, though it was “tailored” to me. I guess I should have emailed?

  2. Canned responses like this are a symptom of corporate structure.

    Execs see customer support as a cost center. Need to keep costs low for shareholders.

    Customer support middle management needs some sort of objective metric to work toward. Percentage of messages replied to within X hours is something that can be acted upon by staff. Of course nowhere in that metric does it say anything about the quality of those replies. But who cares? Surely not execs

    Execs need to see data that shows high-quality customer support leads to higher customer retention/value and therefore higher net revenue. This is not something the average business analyst is equipped to handle, if for no other reason than high-quality support is nonexistent so there is no data to build any models.

  3. Thanks Gary for this article. I had an example of contrasting customer focus two days ago from Alaska Airlines. We arrived in Seattle and the temperature was 110 degrees. The ramp workers were getting heat stroke, so we were forced to wait on the tarmac for 45 minutes. Even though it wasn’t Alaska’s fault, they sent each of our party of four (and presumably every passenger) a $50 discount code…and I never complained. Does anyone wonder why I fly Alaska whenever possible? Cheers.

  4. Yes we appreciate your loyalty and taking one for the team
    Please be reminded we offer complimentary barf bags included with your first class afe to catch most pieces for your flying pleasure
    Have a nice day!!

  5. There are some good companies that care about their customers and some terrible ones. I recently asked Bombas socks about an exchange for larger ones and they not only sent them but told me to pass on the first set to anyone who needed some! On the other hand a big insurance company seems to have no customer service at all. I got the following recordings: 1) “Have a blessed day” (and no call-back), and 2) “We’ll call you at this time”, which they did, with the message that “The mailbox is full”, followed by a disconnect. I just sent them a real paper letter about these rotten conditions, wonder if I’ll get a note back. Why should big airlines be any better?

  6. What moron at AA wrote/edited that canned response? It would be an understandable mistake for a personalized message, but there’s no excuse for a copy/paste job to misuse defuse and diffuse. The crew certainly “diffused” the volatile situation… all over the first class passenger… -_-

  7. Another poor customer service story – I have a cancer insurance policy with Washington National Insurance Company. They delayed for months paying the claim after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two weeks ago, they finally sent me a check – and the check bounced. When I called their “customer service,” the person never expressed any apology or regret. Nor did they offer to pay my bank’s returned check fee. Just, “Yes, we had a computer problem and a week’s worth of checks went out that were returned. Be patient; we will be sending replacement checks.” “Customer service” is quickly becoming a lost art.

  8. That complaint should have been ‘escalated’ to the manager of the department. It required a unique response, with an offer of compensation like dry-cleaning costs, replacement costs if preferred, a few first class vouchers, a large slab of miles and a heart-felt apology (if some-one has a heart of note).
    A generic ‘shit happens’ letter, no matter how longwinded, does not cut the mustard; not by a long shot.
    AA was totally negligent, and, the US being the litigious nation it is, would be lucky to dodge a pesky lawsuit.

  9. AA pulled SWU on flight I didn’t request. Was told by gate agent that my upgrade was “complementary” due to oversold flight. AA removed the SWU from my Advantage account anyway. Called AAdvantage today to ask for the return of my SWU. Was told that this is impossible even though I have screenshot of AA alert to confirm the complimentary upgrade. ZERO Customer Service or responsibility for AA error. 🙁 / United Customer Service is a click up as is Alaska Airlines.

  10. Remember, US Air took over American, not the other way around, so should we really be surprised?

    I’ve received better customer service from Spirit and Frontier. In fact, my experience from the last few years shows Spirit is now superior to American as an airline. No joke.

  11. Just like Jeepie, I had an opposite experience a couple weeks ago on Delta. As the first few rows started to exit the aircraft, it was discovered that a man was unresponsive. CPR and defibrillation was attempted in the aisle to no avail. The process blocked everyone else from getting off for at least 45 minutes. Obviously not Delta’s fault at all, but they sent a blanket email out to those on the flight sharing their condolences, apologizing for the incident and depositing 7500 sky miles into our accounts.

  12. Nothing wrong with it Gary, you just cant stand AA … The PAX acts like a moron and its AA’s fault ? Its public Transportation its time to take responsibility for ones own action !

  13. @Tim – the passenger in first class who was thrown up upon failed to take responsibility for what, exactly?

    You think this email response is appropriate customer service?

  14. @ Gary -The PAX who got drunk acted like a moron … Where is the apology from him and HE should pay the dry cleaning bill.

  15. While there is no doubt an emphasis on metrics like “number of customer service complaints handled per minute,” companies that care send out a quick survey afterwards saying, “You recently contacted customer support. How did we do?” Those that don’t bother with any sort of feedback on their customer support simply don’t care.

  16. Years ago, my aunt wrote a letter to a hotel’s headquarters after finding a roach in the bathroom of her room. She received a timely response from the chain but when she opened their letter to her, her original letter was enclosed and scrawled on the outside was the message, “Send her the roach letter.” LOL. So the form letter hasn’t changed, just the delivery method.

  17. This article should have been all about customer responsibility. Bad behavior needs to be accounted for, not ignored or tolerated.
    If I were that first class passenger, you can bet the offending passenger would be facing assault charges!

  18. I thought the response was OK, but they should have offered to reimburse dry cleaning expenses and given him a generous amount of miles. This is a large corporation. They can’t compose a unique personal response to every letter received. Many of you who complain about canned responses either work for small companies or companies which are not so exposed to the public as companies such as airlines are.

  19. I have received those canned emails from AA the few times I have complained. It is always “Our employees strive to provide all of our customers with a safe and pleasant flying experience” then quickly becomes a well, it sucks to be you and our customer, but thank for being a loyal customer.
    I do not agree with the Biden administration on much of anything but one place I do agree is invigorating the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to go after monopolies. The airlines should be a prime target. Through control of gates at hub airports and other means there is actually very little competition between airlines. We need more competition among the few U.S. carriers left. In Europe airlines can control only a certain percentage of gates to insure competition. AA is famous for saying publicly, if you fly thru DFW you will fly on AA. Federal government should also up domestic U.S. flights to foreign airlines. The U.S. auto industry grew complacent and started providing shoddy cars and after the sale service. It took Toyota and Nissan coming into the U.S. market to shake Detroit up and get Ford, GM, and Chrysler to up their game. We need more competition in the U.S. market from non U.S. based carriers! The legacy airlines all have the mentality of how can we screw the passenger instead of what can we do to gain customers thru a better traveling experience.

  20. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

  21. If someone barfs on you in a grocery store, does the grocery store owe you something? A restaurant? A bar? Bloomingdales? So why does the airline? It happened. It’s unfortunate, and it happens.

    The only one who owes an apology is the drunk who barfed. I like the suggestion he be arrested for assault but that’s highly unlikely.

  22. I’m sure they all listen to Airlines Confidential where this would be called a “Whine” because the customer didn’t fully understand every last bit of fine print.

  23. Incredibly self-absorbed to complain about a sick pax on an airplane. Seems like a huge number of people just lurk around waiting for something bad to happen to them so they can wring something out of a hotel or airline. All the entitled jerks out there need to get over themselves.

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