American Learns a Lesson in Communications (Or At Least, They Should)

I’ve written here before about the importance of good, quick communication when it comes to dispute resolution in the world of social media. Most notably, United’s confrontation with a broken guitar made headlines, but there are countless examples from around the web every day. Today, let’s talk about the saga of Chris Heuer and his flight on American.

Chris American 757 and 767 LOPAwas on American flight 177 last week from New York to San Francisco, and he is not a happy man. In fact, he wrote a blog post entitled “The Broken Promises of American Airlines.” This can’t be good.

To make things worse, this is a guy who clearly doesn’t trust American in the first place. For example, he checked Flightview to see if his flight was going on time instead of relying on American to actually let him know. While he was on Flightview, he noticed that the plane had been swapped from a 767 to a 757 and that’s when it got ugly.

From Chris’ perspective, he was told he’d have a seat in First class, then he didn’t. He was told he’d leave at a certain time, then he didn’t. He just wasn’t getting the information he needed. Chris doesn’t know the airline industry, but he has an audience, and that makes him dangerous. Misinformation can be spread so quickly that American needed to step in and respond quickly. They apparently didn’t do a good enough job, so I’ll do it. (Others have tried via Twitter, but it hasn’t exactly been taken very well, so hopefully he’ll be willing to listen here.)

How can I be given a seat from one point in the system and then have it taken away in another?

He was given a new boarding pass for the 757 in First Class, but then he was pushed down to coach later. Though I obviously don’t know exactly what happened, my guess is that they hadn’t finished re-seating everyone so when he received his first boarding pass, they had yet to use whatever algorithm they use for determining who gets downgraded when there are fewer seats to be had up front. Since he was on an upgrade, he certainly was a prime target. It sucks, but it should be easily explainable.

As for bringing an old ass plane like that out to fly us across the country, well I know the economics of maintaining an older fleet and the huge cost for modernizing it so I understand why you HAVE to do it, but I don’t like it and I may leave you if I get stuck on too many more of these when I could be flying in comfort on Virgin or Jetblue instead.

It’s really not an issue of a plane being old but really just the interior. Possibly the funniest thing here is that he’s complaining that his 767 was taken away and replaced with an old 757. Well guess what? That 757 looks like it was aircraft N680AN, a 757 that had its first flight in 1999. Those 767s that usually ply the JFK-SFO route? The newest one is from 1988.

It turns out, that the woman sitting next to me, also saw there were no seats available on the seating chart last week. But instead, the smaller 757 we flew had plenty of open seats on it. Meaning the original 767 was way underbooked, else there would have been a huge problem trying to get them all in.

Oh boy. This is just not true. American’s 757s have 22 First Class seats and 166 in coach. The 767-200s that they use on this route are in a much more generous configuration so they have 10 First Class, 30 Business, and only 119 coach seats. So in fact, the 767 could have been completely full and the 757 would still end up looking relatively empty.

At this point, he delves head-on into his conspiracy theory. Though he keeps saying that he doesn’t know any of this for sure, it’s bound to stick in people’s heads.

Could the airline be presenting false information about available seats in order to get a higher price on the seats it was selling?

Huh? I don’t quite understand how that would work since most people don’t see the number of seats available anyway. So that would be a pretty strange and ineffective way to manipulate price if people don’t usually know how many seats are left.

I have seen enough flights cancelled where there were clearly not more then a dozen or two people affected by it to know that such things have been handled by airlines in similar ways before, but who knows for sure?

This is yet another common misconception. I haven’t seen an airline cancel a flight simply because it’s not full. That airplane flies a routing. If it doesn’t go, it won’t be able to make its next flight and that can impact a lot of other people. It also may need to be in maintenance that night. You just don’t mess around with schedules unless you have to.

I hope someone can look into this and I hope that American Airlines can tell us the full real story of what happened on this flight and how we all ended up in this crazy experience.

And that’s the biggest problem. It took American several days to respond, and when they did, they sent a form letter that Chris described as “quaint, but expected I guess, including this wonderful gem ‘eager to continue the beneficial relationship we have developed to date’.”

He was on Twitter blasting out 140 character missives to his 12,000 followers. He even engaged the @AAirwaves account that American uses, and they responded quickly on March 31, but then it stopped. The next public tweet on the subject came on April 2 when they said, “We’re wrkng closely w/ Customer Relations to clarify why there was an equipment change that affected your position.” Seriously? You guys couldn’t have figured it out in two full days? That’s light years in social media time.

I imagine that American swapped the plane because of a mechanical. There is no financial middle management intervention when it comes to how to handle a single airplane swap on the day of departure. That’s an operational decision, and it’s usually because there was a mechanical with the original plane. There’s no sinister plot here, but American didn’t act quickly enough with true information to counter the claim. Now this guy’s blog post is out there and his 12,000 followers on Twitter see it as well. And this isn’t an isolated case. It happens all the time and the airlines need to react more quickly.

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48 Comments on "American Learns a Lesson in Communications (Or At Least, They Should)"

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Joel
Guest

Great article. I remember when businesses left out little comment cards. You might fill one out, then it sat in a big box. Once every month or two, a person would collect up all those comment cards and maybe tally up the results or make a couple notes of problems.

Customers have much better tools at their disposal to comment and spread their comments around. Many businesses are still looking at their comment cards once in a while.

Gray
Guest
Thanks, Cranky, for taking the time to dispel the grandstanding of this ignorant blowhard. In an area that loves the penchant for scandal and to cry afoul of each error as conspiracies against the traveling public, commercial aviation really can’t take the musings of an ignorant alarmist. If he was a true biz traveler, he’d understand that downgrades do happen, and, yeah, while he misses out on the upgrade, it’s certainly in the airline’s operational best interest (duh) to run a plane that’s, uh, safe, as opposed to one that went mechanical. Instead, he made himself a victim, and inculcated… Read more »
stan
Guest

gee, another “cranky makes excuses for the airline industry” post…

sigh…

David SF eastbay
Member

More like he’s trying to explain that there are two sides to everything and explain what it all means.

David Z
Guest

And I suppose your trying to explain something to your boss or so for a certain issue won’t be considered an excuse?

LAFlyer
Guest
From an operational/logistics point of view, this Chris guy clearly doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, such as the difference between a 757/767 and the reasons for why airlines swap planes. As a traveler, I understand that mechanical issues occur, and it’s clearly preferable to arrive safely 3 hours late than to risk an unsafe plane. These things happen, and travelers should at least be cognizant of that. The one legitimate point he has, and it’s something that really irritates me, is the poor communication between the airline and it’s passengers. And I understand that it’s not always necessarily… Read more »
A
Guest
Sounds like someone is pi$$ed that he didn’t get to sit up front. Cry me a river. IMO, if you don’t pay for a F-class ticket you have no room to complain. It also drives me crazy how the general public is completely ignorant of equipment type and age. My father-in-law complained about flying on a “1970’s” 747 on a recent trip. Turns out it was a 747-400 that was probably delivered in the mid-90’s. Maybe airlines should start putting signs in the cabin clearly showing when the aircraft build date was. Then again maybe not Delta on those old… Read more »
Ed
Guest
I agree that the complaining about being in coach is a bit silly, but at the same time, managing expectations is an important part of customer service. Why not just throw him a couple miles for his trouble, even if it’s not AA’s fault? (Though I would note that most pax probably think of a mechanical problem as being on the “fault” side of the fault/no fault line.) As for the age of aircraft, well, I’m sorry that it drives you crazy, but if a plane feels old, it feels old, and it reflects poorly on the airline’s product. Perhaps… Read more »
Dan
Guest
Ed wrote: “Why not just throw him a couple miles for his trouble, even if it’s not AA’s fault? (Though I would note that most pax probably think of a mechanical problem as being on the “fault” side of the fault/no fault line.)” The funny thing is, from a CoC (Contract of Carriage) point of view, a mechanical *is* one of the few things that are actually considered within the airline’s control. (Most “trip interruption” clauses really limit the airline’s liability when the factors are outside of the airline’s control. Mechanicals are usually classified as an airline-controllable issue. I’m not… Read more »
Chris Heuer
Guest
thanks Cranky. no problem with facts, problem with communications and broken promises, and inability to communicate in even near real time by someone I have given a lot of money to over the years, which you point out accurately here as my real point. yes, as I updated, they said it was mechanical blowhard? spammer? tweet & run? you milers (or whatever youre called) in the airline industry are a real arrogant bunch, expecting everyone to know all the details of the equipment and getting pissy when the average public doesnt care. this is exactly where the SMC tagline “if… Read more »
Trent880
Guest

Another reason why I think Twitter is one of the horseman of the apocalypse

” in the airline industry are a real arrogant bunch, expecting everyone to know all the details of the equipment and getting pissy when the average public doesnt care”

Why bother? You’re upset, you’re going to lash out, regardless of the facts.

David SF eastbay
Member
If they had cancelled the flight he would have complained the same way as he is now. Sounds like he’s just blasting away as he found a good way to maybe get some miles out of AA or a free ticket to quiet him. Isn’t the important fact is he still got to make his trip? He’s just being a cry baby since he didn’t get first class. But if he was given -F- on the 757 and then had it taken away because someone ‘better’ in AA’s eye came along, to me that is wrong. Coming from an airline… Read more »
Jason H
Guest
I think first the two parts of this needs to be separated. There is the issues with the aircraft, seating, and on-timeliness (is that a word?) and there are issues with communication from American. Reading through Cranky’s post and Mr Heuer’s reply I think that the whole problem can be boiled down to the lack of communication. This is rampant in the industry and really needs some correction. Passengers should have been told that the aircraft was being switched for mechanical (as Mr Heuer seems to indicate they did), but they shouldn’t have stopped there. They should have told any… Read more »
Greg R.
Guest
While I agree that the speculation on reasons for various elements of the event as it unfolded is probably off base, there is a more important issue here that Cranky does point up and that is communication. It is 2010, not 1999 and certainly not 1989. The ability to get timely and accurate information hasn’t really improved so much as it has changed mediums. What I mean to say is that in the past you got this information primarily via phone or gate agent and today you get it primarily from internet access. The quality of the info really hasn’t… Read more »
Ken
Guest

Cranky, Thanks for a good post. But you must have had too much time on your hands to read all of Chris’s babbling article. Better you than me.

Ham on Five
Guest

Quick! Know what the difference between a guy like Chris Heuer and a JT8D is?

When they get to the gate and the crew shuts down, the JT8Ds quit whining… ;)

Jay
Guest

This is 100% WIN. I lol’d

Scott
Member

One’s a blowhard, the other a jet engine?

anon
Guest
chris, at what point are you responsible for your reactions? Many people have had bad experiences, I have had plenty. Every time I’ve reacted with kindness, with Amer Airlines, Delta, all of them – I’ve received free ticket, or a voucher. With millions of people flying all over the world every day, at what point do YOU begin to understand that there are human beings working for the airlines, and your conspiracy-like suspicious and massively loud reactions are hard to handle. Turning this into a movement against airlines is a silly route, when you could approach with an olive branch… Read more »
ASFalcon13
Guest
I’d say that this isn’t a problem that’s strictly limited to AA; I’m sure there pretty much everyone here has had some experience with *insert airline of your choice* where gate staff just seemed utterly clueless as to what was going on. I’m a private pilot, and an old cliche that describes our priorities during flight is “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.” Put another way, “Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground incapable of understanding it.” I definitely have this mindset…if I’m trying to solve a problem (not just flying), and you ask… Read more »
Ben
Guest
I read the comments on his site. Eric offers some explanations and engages a polite and reasonable debate. Chris pretty much tells him off and ends his responses, input and time by saying “move along already” Some can have a spirited discussion without being a dick. Chris is unable to do so. Even more of a brain stumper is that Chris promotes himself as a marketing consultant of sorts. Based on his attitude shown I wouldn’t let him near my employees. His jabs and insults are the exact oopposite of how I would expect a decent person to interact with… Read more »
Chris Heuer
Guest
I’ve privately apologized to Eric and will do so here publicly. It got off on the wrong foot for completely personal reasons relating to my state of mind, my health, and being fed up with the airline industry not responding. When I found out he worked at AA, and worked at AA at JFK specifically, I discounted his input and shouldn’t have. What’s the excuse for the rest of your colleague’s behaviours? nothing. PS – I know about the arrogance thing because I have struggled with it, and still do in providing simple tech support to my wife and friends.… Read more »
Jason H
Guest
I think a lot of the “flaming” or lashing out is because many frequent flyers (and infrequent flyers that love airlines) get tired of hearing the same rants against the airlines. In general people want everything on a silver platter, but want to pay 99-cents for it. We are all guilty of it in one part of our life or another. When anyone posts a rant like yours you know you are putting it into a rattlesnake nest of people that live their lives at airports and in airplanes and have come to view travelers as distinct groups; often with… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

News Flash! The airlines suck at communication. Sadly airlines could do better at communicating but people wouldn’t pay that much more to actually get better communication.

Its much better to get a third party advocate/information source such as CrankyConcierge than expect the airlines to get their stuff together.

Consumer Mike
Guest

Cranky, AA does have a way to see how full an aircraft is by checking the seating availability chart for each flight. I am flying to ORD in a few days and checked the chart to see how full the flight is going to be. It is a useful flying tool.

David M
Guest

But it’s not completely accurate. Airlines will often prevent certain seats from being assigned before check-in, or reserve “premium” seating for “premium” passengers. You may also have passengers that, for whatever reason, have a confirmed reservation on the flight but don’t have a seat assignment.

It’s good for getting a rough idea (either very full or very empty), but in the middle you can’t really be sure, and you certainly can’t say “there are 5 open seats on the flight” based on it.

E
Member
NB, nice shameless plug for CrankyConcierge… Flaming was counterproductive 15 years ago on usenet, and it’s no more productive now with Twitter, blogs, blog comments, etc. At @EyeForTravel, some of the most successful examples presented of social strategies had two things in common: employee ownership and localized engagement. Companies who try to manage everything centrally seem to have a harder time. From what I’m hearing offline from people far more in the know than any of us, AA isn’t even using its own employees to monitor and respond to @AAirwaves — they may be using their PR firm. I’d love… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Eric, I like CrankyConcierge, I don’t have any relationship with CF besides commenting here and providing some feedback on CrankyConcierge before it launched.

Airlines need to be centrally managed just due to the nature of them. Some airlines have done a pretty good job keeping the people at the lower ranks engaged, but ultimately they’re still managed from the top.

jaybru
Member
Cranky, I like your comments. Communicating wisely with one’s customers is a skill woefully missing in the airline industry. I believe such skill used to be there, and it was exercised very well. Maybe things have just gotten too big, but good communication ain’t there anymore and I doubt it will come back anytime soon. Operating and managing an airline is a sophisticated activity. And, most, if not all of us know that the airlines have some wonderful operational people doing marvelous jobs. Flight crews, dispatchers, reservation sales people, baggage handlers, ticketing/check-in folks, even pricing analysts and yield managers, [sorry,… Read more »
The Global Traveller
Guest

Nice post CF.

There are some airlines which do, in certain circumstances, cancel flights for not being full enough. One I’m familiar with is Qantas on their busiest route between Sydney and Melbourne. Typically there is a flight every 30 minutes on the route and sometimes they’ll combine 2 flights into 1.

Brian
Guest
Chris, You flew from the east coast to west coast in a pressurized metal tube at near the speed of sound in about 5 hours. What more do you want??? Seriously, crap happens, they got an aircraft. Clearly there weren’t as many seats as originally confirmed for first. They have process’ for dealing with this. Paid 1st class first, then upgrade instrument, then status. Crap happens. Unless you paid cash for first class, I really can’t feel sorry as AA’s upgrades are generally gifts to AA elites (or stickers sold at a crazy discount). It’s a perk not a obligation… Read more »
Jay
Guest

CF,

Great post!

Chris,

I love the conspiracy theories. As a UA 1K I have had more equipment swaps then I can remember and just because you got “downgraded” on this flight doesn’t mean that you won’t get an “op-up” on the next swap. I have found that it generally evens out.

Oh and the most likely reason you were bumped is because you are a Plat and not a ExPlat. Fly more or book into C and this won’t happen.

Stephen Dutton
Guest

Its very simple, he got downgraded and it sucked, he fumed, he turned red, he thought he was important and should be in his right place, instead he was in lousy coach, aaaaaaagh..a loser

eponymous coward
Guest
I’ve had much the same thing happen to me on American. Showed up at LAX with a boarding pass for business class on the redeye (spent 15,000 miles +$50) 5 minutes before checkin, plane was changed on a mechanical. I found out when they called “first class, rows 1-5” and went “wait, a 762 has 3 rows…” I still ended up in F (ended up taking away someone’s upgrade, actually), but in a less comfortable seat (not the big recliners), and got very little sleep. Oh, well. It happens. I’ve gotten bumped out of paid F on Alaska flights on… Read more »
William C. Bradshaw
Guest

Perhaps Chris should be teamed up with Hysterical Kate Hanni — and take Greyhound. They should realize that running an airline — which includes transporting “aged” and demanding children — there will be times when problems will occur. On upgrades — are they bucking for some “Frequent Whiner Miles,” if such a thing exists. From my travel experiences, I’ve accurately observed more passenger-created problems — than ones caused by the airlines.

Dave
Guest
Hi Brett, very well put answer, thanks for trying to set him straight. The following is my post back to his site. To his credit, he has posted both positive and negative comments, including mine. Again, Thanks Cranky Flier. Dave WOW, what a “Prima Donna”. Just reading your tales of woe are giving me an attack myself. Of nausea. Just how high of a pedestal do people like you need to be placed? I have been a commercial airline mechanic for nearly 22 years with UAL. And before the insults hurl towards my company, allow me to offer this about… Read more »
Rich
Guest
Wow, never thought I would side with the airlines… If mechanical or other issues cause an equipment change then one needs to accomodate the changes made and as a poster says, if first is necessary then buy a first ticket. Luckily AA have always accomodated my needs when equipment changed though I did once get moved to a bulkhead on a 767 200 which meant I could not recline the first class seat due to lack of legroom. My only exception to this accomodation to Airlines issues is overbooking. TWA always overbooked their planes and on one occasion returned to… Read more »
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