The story of my life is last minute saves at the airport, just squeaking onto a flight and just making it home. It’s one of the reasons I’ve valued elite status, because it helps me jump to the top of the list not just for upgrades but to get onto another flight when things go extra right or very, very wrong.
Unfortunately a policy change that accompanies the American Airlines move to single agent boarding for flights that are less than 80% full will make it tougher to get onto an earlier flight or to have options during irregular operations, too.
Agent Assist (automated system) will “auto clear revenue and non-revenue customers on certain domestic mainline flights with load factors below 80% …at D-60.”
- I’ll get to the airport early – or arrive a bit early in my connecting city – and run up to a gate to get added to the standby list for the flight just as they’re starting to board, or even during boarding. Now American will have given away many of the seats that I might have been able to get, a full hour before departure.
- My flight hits a delay, whether because of weather, maintenance, or crew coming off of a different flight (since American no longer keeps crews together with planes) and I’ll get rebooked onto something that’s about to leave. Rebooking options for flights that are leaving within an hour are going to be much more limited.
- American is going to be giving away seats to employees (non-rev) and to non-status and lower status customers who are on the standby list an hour before departure, that in the past would have been given to paying and higher-tier elite status at the gate.
The same story, by the way, goes for seat assignments. Even if someone can get on a flight, there are going to be fewer seats available to give those last minute standby passengers better seats.
This process attempts to automate gate agents out of a job, reducing the amount of work done at the gate so that it’s more manageable for one person, but still makes those most important customer touchpoints difficult.
- The most important moments are those last minute “will I make the flight or won’t I? Will I get home tonight or won’t I?” Those make or break a relationship with an airline, especially for a top elite customer. In fact, the great benefit of status is in those moments where the customer rises to the top of the list at the last moment to get that last seat and make it to their destination.
- Fewer seat options for that customer (because some of those seats will have been given away at T-60) is compounded by no one available to help them when they do make it to the gate. A solo agent can’t easily stop boarding to add someone to the standby list. Even if they’re supposed to many won’t. And the company will ultimately stand behind them if they say “I couldn’t risk delaying the flight’s departure.” But the problem wasn’t risking an on-time departure, it was the airline’s failure to adequately staff customer service at the gate.
This change devalues elite status and it devalues traditional business travelers. Perhaps it represents a long term bet that these aren’t the customers American Airlines is going to be able to attract in a post-pandemic world, even if we do return.
Update: an American Airlines spokesperson offers,
No agents will lose their jobs when this new technology comes onboard this summer, and we will continue to be fully staffed at the gates. Agent Assist is part of our initiative to modernize systems through better technology for agents and customers. When we can automate time consuming processes with technology, we reduce lines at the airport and give agents more time to spend with travelers who have more complex itineraries or need additional support. Our agents will be less rushed to process manual transactions and can more meaningfully help those who need it. Agents will still have full ability to make the changes customers need.
I think I would disagree with American over the definition of ‘fully staffed’ and whether or not current agents lose their jobs is hardly the issue for customers or for employees. If employees were satisfied with job (or even base!) protection we wouldn’t have seen American’s mechanics put everyone through a summer from hell in 2019 over outsourcing, since every current mechanic was guaranteed their job and place of work.