The Awesome But Little-Known oneworld Global Support Centers

American, Oneworld

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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26 comments on “The Awesome But Little-Known oneworld Global Support Centers

  1. That is awesome! Great post. It would be nice to see more carriers do this. It would make travel a little less frustrating. I fly transcon with a mid country (usually Chicago) connection a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had connections that end up becoming tight because of unforseen circumstances and I get to my destination without a bag. One time I flew southwest with a midway connection that was supposed to be an hour but ended up being 20 minutes. My connection was the very next gate over. Which was good for me but my bags didn’t make it. If they would have had a system like this, maybe it would have been different.

  2. I am glad to see oneworld’s great work here get highlighted. Recently, I personally benefitted from one of these centers, in DFW. I was on a Qantas flight from SYD, connecting to an AA flight to DCA. We were delayed out of SYD by about an hour, and I was worried about my connection, since it was about 2 hours. I shouldn’t have been worried: I got to the top of the escalator on my way to passport control and was met by a purple-jacket oneworld employee; this person had my boarding pass for DCA in one of the orange “express connection” envelopes seen in Cranky’s picture. I was escorted through expedited lines in passport control, baggage claim, and domestic re-screening and had no problem making my originally-scheduled connection. It was superb service all-around, and was especially impressive given the coordination between Qantas and AA. Well done, oneworld!

  3. I saw this in action recently in London. We were on the AA overnight flight from RDU connecting on BA to Prague. There was a super tight connection in the morning, but we passed on it, opting instead for a quick tour of nearby Windsor castle and the afternoon flight. Greeting our inbound RDU flight were the purple jacket team, armed with express passes and a golf cart calling out for passengers connecting on that morning flight to Prague. I suspect they are they every morning anyone tries to make that connection. I’m not sure it was even valid – certainly not sane.

  4. Sounds like they don’t want this service known as more people would expect it for even a flight that is a minute late.

    Oneworld may not be staffed to help everyone, but at times only help passengers with higher paid fares or high mileage members.

    But they are attempting to help travelers out which is something almost unheard of in todays airline world.

    1. David, they’re trying to cut down on their costs. I’m sure the bean counters.. Err excuse me, folks who make sure airlines are profitable, know that its cheaper to run this center than to have people not realize they were on a tight connection and ask for help. Hotel rooms can get expensive, and there is the operational hit as well.

    2. I believe they help only passengers with tight connections, not just high revenue or frequent flyer status. That’s what their concierge service or Admirals Club membership is for.

    3. David – Nick is right. While this is great for customers, it is also a big cost savings to keep people on their original flights. It’s great news for everyone. And SJU is right – they help anyone with tight connections. It doesn’t matter your status.

    1. My thoughts exactly. Is this just for premium/priority passengers? I’m guessing anyone back in Y is SOL when they have a tight connection, but hopefully am wrong.

      On a recent flight we were delayed and one passenger was very tight for a connection on a LHR bound flight. The FA’s asked everyone to stay seated so this pass could get off first, which everyone did. It would be nice to see more simple things like that as they do make a difference.

  5. Took advantage (AAdvantage?) of this in March on a biz class mileage award for three of us to HKG from ATL via ORD. After having the first leg delayed three times, we arrived ten minutes before the scheduled CX departure time of 3PM. But a representative met us at the gate, rushed us to the next terminal and through security. We boarded the plane exactly at 3PM and the door was closed behind me. Nice job.

  6. I had an absolutely horrible experience on an AA/BA flight from DFW-LHR-PSA that I am still hoping to receive some sort of compensation for (HA). There was zero cooperation between the airlines on the DFW-BOS and BOS-LHR leg – every person I spoke with from either airline pointed me back to the other airline. I’ll spare you the drama of how all it ended, but it was brutal and cost us over $4,000 in replacement tickets. Horrible customer service on the part of both AA/BA. I fly internationally several times a year and will do my level best to never again fly either of those airlines.

    1. vanessa – Boston isn’t a place where they have one of these centers, so I’m not surprised the experience was miserable. It’s the same on pretty much every airline when you deal across alliances. The coordination is terrible and there’s a lot of finger-pointing when it comes time to get things done. That’s why I love this idea so much.

    1. biscuitfarmer – S7 doesn’t fly to the US as far as I know. But the only mention here is that S7 is one of the few airlines not connecting to AA at LA.

  7. interesting to see this today, I have family coming from Australia today – with a very tight connection in Dallas – the Quantas flight was 30 min late arriving in DFW, but they made the connection because their connecting flight was delayed 75 minutes. I will ask them if they received any assistance. Yes – flying economy – Air France loves to force people into a very short connection in Paris – so short that one usually misses the connection. International flights park away from the terminal so a bus has to take passengers to the terminal – connecting flight is often very far away – help from Air France – ha ha ha ha – not a chance.

  8. The article addresses the strongest aspect of American flag carriers: customer support in crisis situations. I was in New York city during hurricane Sandy and ended up helping dozens of fliers navigate customer services websites to find phone assistance in their primary language. I was impressed to see how every passenger flying US carriers was immediately re-booked even if it meant to be transferred to another world carrier. My top rated Korean carrier refused to start re-booking until the airport was officially closed. Needless to say it felt lonely at the hotel watching all the other guests leave with their re-booked flights and me wondering in the lobby if Gone with the Wind would be my fate.

  9. Family members arrived in DFW yesterday on Quantas flight from Sydney, flying economy class. The flight was 30 minutes late in arriving cutting back their connect time to 90 minutes. They reported that passengers were greeted with AA staff asking who had a “tight connection”. They were taken to the express immigration line and were out of immigration and customs within minutes, and taken to the gate for their next flight. Obviously this service is for all passengers with tight connections – not just for B and First class.

  10. I wonder if Delta and SkyTeam have this in Atlanta? I barely made what was supposed to be a 2+ hour connection arriving on Korean from Seoul/Incheon to a flight to FLL because we arrived 20 minutes late and Immigration/Customs’ officials rerouted part of the pax (last off or back of the plane) to a line that was longer than the line that most of the earlier pax were already in. Took 90 minutes to clear I&C which left us 20 minutes to go from Customs to Concourse A using the underground train of course. This was the last flight out at 11 pm, and luckily our luggage made it.

  11. I am happy that service is working for you.
    I just came back from a trip to Colombia SA. The AA coordination was just fine but LAN posted a different gate on the board (screen) and I lost my connection. Unbelievable.
    Do you know how to contact directly Oneworld to escalate a complaint?

  12. I came into Heathrow from SFW on American on 14 April two hours late and therefore missed my ongoing paid-for and ticketed bus connection. I ;told the Oneworld agent at the end of the off ramp that it was the last bus out to my destination. She told me not to worry, just go outside the terminal, find the line of black taxis, take one to my destination, save the receipt, and send everything in to American Airlines. I’ve done all that, but American says they are not responsible. Any suggestions?

    1. Alan – I’m surprised that they would have offered to pay for that. If you didn’t have a voucher or anything in writing then there’s probably nothing that can be done other than trying to pester them. But if your flight was delayed in the EU they might owe you compensation for the delay based on the EU rules.

  13. I recently undertook a round trip to Kualumpur, Malaysia by Malaysian Airlines from Chennai. They offered me an attractive rate and I upgraded to business class.But the worst part is the airlines is refusing to allow my eligible miles and point for my Frequent Flyer scheme. There was absolutely no mention about any restrictive class disallowing the frequent flyer miles and points. I have raised the issue with Malaysian Airlines but they are maintaining stark silence on the issue. There is noway one can contact Oneworld to escalate any issue for resolution. Actually I am a member of Qatar Airways Frequent Flyer Scheme and adding Qmiles or Qpoints is in no way going to affect Malaysian Airlines. I request anyone to take this issue to the notice of ONEWORLD.

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