The Awesome But Little-Known oneworld Global Support Centers

Earlier this week, I did a quick roundtrip on American to London to try out the airline’s new Business Class on it’s 777-300ERs. I’ll have that write-up once I finish my Korean Air series, but there was something I saw on this trip that was worth talking about sooner… the oneworld Global Support Centers.

Before my flight out of LA, I was escorted to a back office on the north side of Terminal 4, right near gate 41. From there, with an excellent view of the airplane at T4 and Bradley I should add, a group of oneworld employees get together every day to help people making connections between alliance members.

My corporate communications contact kept telling me that they don’t really talk about these centers very often, and that seems crazy. They make for a great story. These centers started as part of the joint business between American/BA/Iberia but it has grown from there to the biggest oneworld hubs where people are more likely to connect between carriers.

One of the biggest complaints I have about alliances is the lack of coordination between members. When things go wrong, it inevitably becomes significantly more difficult to get things back on track when multiple carriers are involved. But these centers are designed to help with exactly that. And LA is an important place to see this in action.

In LA, you have a lot of different oneworld carriers connecting to American. There’s BA, Air Berlin, Iberia, LAN, Qantas, JAL, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysia. Basically, it’s everyone except Finnair, Royal Jordanian, and S7.

American staffs the center at LAX, but other airline representatives come in as needed when they have flights with issues. The way it works is that there is software that connects to each airline’s reservation system. It pulls out the connecting passengers either going from American domestically to another airline internationally or vice versa. Then the agents can monitor for potential missed connections.

American flights operate out of Terminal 4 while everyone else operates from the Bradley Terminal right next door (except for the one Qantas flight which operates in Terminal 4 with American). So they can use a pretty standard rule of thumb when determining if someone needs help or not. Inbound international passengers connecting to domestic flights, for example, start getting watched more closely if the connecting time dips below 2 hours. At 90 minutes, it becomes much more serious.

Now you might think that the next step is just rebooking people on other flights, but that’s not the case. Instead they have runners wearing purple that go and meet the flights. If the connection is tight but possible, then they will meet them at the gate and give them a pink Express pass (you can feel like you’re on the Amazing Race) to help them get through security quickly after customs for their connection. If they have bags, they put an express tag on the luggage when they recheck after customs so rampers know to expedite the bags.

Apparently this is also used for online international connections as well, because we had this guy and his dry erase board propped up outside our flight when we got off (and we were on time so I don’t know what that was about):

The runners then escort the travelers to and through security to get them on the flight. Sometimes, the inbound airline meets its own passengers. Cathay Pacific does that, for example. So Cathay will give them the pass and then someone from American will help them when they arrive at Terminal 4. It’s hard to miss the brightly-colored pass so runners can pick these people out easily (other than just by looking for the sweat dripping down their foreheads accompanied by breathless mumbling).

If those people miss the flight anyway (they don’t have the ability to hold the flight but they can try to ask ops to do so), then the runner will direct them to a counter where they should have already been rebooked by the center on the next possible flight. If a hotel room is in order, as is more often the case when connecting domestic to international, then that will be given too.

And of course, if the connection is already blown when the first flight arrives, then the runner won’t race through the airport with them but will instead just hand over new flight information along with a hotel voucher, etc as required.

In the last year, these centers have helped about 500,000 people get back on track. That is excellent. But this needs to be taken further.

Today, the centers just deal with the airport. They don’t put any documentation in the passengers’ itinerary and they don’t try to contact the passenger virtually either. They just meet them at the gate with the info. But I’m writing this post on wifi over Canada right now on American’s new 777-300ER. If I were worried about missing a connection, I would want to know more about what was going to be done while in the air.

Even without wifi, there are people on the ground (including Cranky Concierge) that might be trying to call American to get things back on track for others in the air. It would be nice if notes were in the reservation so travel arrangers or friends and family could then get that information instead of duplicating efforts or wasting reservation agent time. Or it would be great if the airline had email addresses in the reservation, it could just push it out that way.

Kudos to oneworld for putting together these centers, because they’re extremely valuable. Now it’s time to connect them up with travelers and travel arrangers so that the value can grow even more.

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