American Gets Harder and Harder to Work With (Tales From the Field)


You said you wanted to hear more tales from our experiences at Cranky Concierge, so here I am with another round. I’ve written here at length about American’s big sales transformation where it slashed sales staff, limited agency flexibility, and forced agents to use NDC even though it wasn’t ready for primetime. (If you need the backstory, read this first.) How’s it going, you ask? Not great.

And I have to admit that today’s post is a little self-serving, because I just feel the need to vent out my frustration… and the frustration of my entire team. It has been incredibly aggravating for all of us to deal with American’s shenanigans, and we’ve all felt exhausted and defeated. Here’s a Slack message someone sent to me last week. It’s a common sentiment.

So today, I present you a play in four parts. Some of these problems are due to NDC, some are just due to strict policies. But it gives you a sense of how American is operating today.

Act 1 – You want premium economy to Asia? Too bad.

American rolled out NDC in the domestic market and throughout the Americas pretty early on, but it has held off on making the move over the Atlantic and Pacific. I assumed this was due to its joint venture partners not willing to be so reckless, but some fares are quietly creeping in. Now, Basic Economy fares can’t be booked through traditional channels in those markets, and, strangely, neither can the lowest premium economy fares. Other fare types don’t seem to be touched.

This is mind-bogglingly dumb for American to tie one hand behind its back in Asia considering how weak the airline is there compared to everyone else, but apparently that doesn’t matter. Why is it so stupid? We had a client that needed to fly from St Louis to Osaka, a place American does not fly but its joint venture partner Japan Airlines does.

After much searching and failing, we could not match the lowest fares found on for this route. Why? Well, it’s because using American’s NDC connection, you cannot sell interline tickets. And American does not codeshare on every single JAL flight.

The options our client wanted to take involved a flight from Osaka back to Tokyo on JAL before connecting to American over to the US. That flight had no American code, so it was nowhere to be found in NDC. We could do it using traditional channels, but the cheaper fares had been removed from those channels, so it wasn’t an option.

What’s even more incredible is that this option didn’t even show on itself. The only way it could be found was by using Google Flights and then clicking on the link to go direct to

We spent far too long trying to figure out how to book this, and eventually we had no choice but to use Google Flights and book the client directly. There was no other way.

Act 2 – How much will it cost to change? It depends on who you ask.

One of the remarkably frustrating things about American forcing this change so early is that the largest agency booking system in the US, Sabre, is not ready. Specifically, it cannot currently support changes to any NDC-booked reservation if there is more than one person on it. It can, however, take bookings for itineraries with more than one person, so you can imagine how well this goes.

We had two people on one reservation who needed to change their flight, so we called American and asked. We were quoted a price, got client approval, and then called back. The price was completely different. These weren’t small swings. It ranged from a few dollars to $1,000 a person, and the agents were shockingly uncaring about the situation.

It took someone on our team 3 hours (and probably shortened her life by a couple of years) to get back to the original quoted price after calling multiple times to find someone who knew how to handle this. That person admitted that yes, most people on the support desk don’t even know how to deal with these NDC bookings.

Act 3 – Technical error? There’s a fee for that.

We had another client who needed to cancel her reservation and hold the value of her ticket for future use. No problem, right? Of course it was a problem, because the ticket was booked using NDC.

For some unknown reason, the ticket was not showing up in our NDC-enabled system at all even though that’s how the ticket was originally issued. The ticket did show as valid and good to go on, however. That would have been ok if the traveler wanted to travel, but she didn’t. So… what to do?

We went to to cancel the reservation and it errored, saying we had to talk to our travel agent. After taking AA’s advice and talking to ourselves about it, we still couldn’t solve the problem. So we called sales support for help, and what did they tell us? They’d be happy to cancel the reservation, but we would have to go through them to use the credit when the time came and there would be a $50 fee for the privilege.

Act 4 – No ADMs! Just kidding.

American likes to tout that by using NDC, you can’t do things against the rules and shouldn’t get hit with big agency debit memos anymore. These are the bills airlines send agencies when the agencies do something wrong, and they are feared and hated by all. So, this would be welcome news, but that doesn’t mean the system isn’t designed to do stupid things that will cost the agency money anyway.

We had another person who needed to cancel a ticket and hold a credit, so we followed what we thought were the correct instructions by clicking on the “Cancel ticket/EMD” link and NOT the “Refund ticket” link since we weren’t refunding. Apparently, what we needed to do was in a totally different path (great job, Sabre), but the way NDC works is just different than traditional channels, so mistakes aren’t surprising in the early days.

After clicking on the Cancel ticket path, the wording was somewhat confusing, saying that the total refund was $0.00, but that’s what we expected, no refund. We clicked “Cancel ticket” and that’s when we found out this was the wrong way to do it. Instead, when you click that, it processes a refund for $0.

Now, let’s just think about that. Why would anyone request a ticket refund if there is no money to come back? You wouldn’t. It’s stupid. This should not even exist as an option, but it does. And it now showed the ticket as refunded so the value couldn’t be used.

This is unquestionably partially a Sabre issue since it is displaying things in ways that aren’t clear, so yes, booo Sabre. But you would think that American would be helpful in trying to assist agencies that are trying to use NDC and get hung up with some of the different processes. You would be wrong.

When we called American asking them if they could reinstate the ticket so we could use it for the future, they said they would… if we paid them a $100 fee. That was more than half the value of the ticket in the first place.

It has now gotten to the point where every time we book American, we feel dread. We’ve had problems with Delta and United reservations and tickets before, and they are willing to work with us to make it right. American seems to have completely abandoned the idea that there is any value in grace and assistance. It is maddening.

As frustrating as it is, there is a very small silver lining. This kind of behavior arms us with examples that make it easier for us to explain to customers why they should book a different airline. Just this week a customer opted to book Southwest one way and United the other over American on a trip after I explained why it was beneficial. At least that brought a small smile to my face in an otherwise miserable situation.

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32 comments on “American Gets Harder and Harder to Work With (Tales From the Field)

  1. Well, you had me worried for a moment. Not until the end did you finally say the obvious, book with a different airline. American has a legacy problem. It’s called American West. Maybe you should tell your clients that you charge a surcharge for booking on AA. Or change your billing to by the hour.

    1. Alan

      That’s America West – not American West. I never had an issue with America West, and I live in the Phoenix area.

  2. We are RIGHT THERE WITH YOU……….A horrible situation. We have a sick feeling with every AA booking as well. Very sad, because they used to be the beacon on support for the community.

  3. Is this simply an issue for TAs and not for people who use the website? If so, based on how full flights are, I am assuming it isn’t important to aa since they aren’t losing much business and very few people use travel agents.

    Is it equally a problem for booking awards as well?

    I have used your service before and will again but am trying to understand the issue and why aa doesn’t see it as a big deal.

    1. The problem is that it’s east to point to full flights today, but come winter and next year with potentially depressed demand it will be a huge problem for AA. Alienating the travel agency community can work in peak travel times but you need those bookings in other parts of the year.

      1. I certainly agree it seems shortsighted but nowadays everything is about a quick buck. I’m in tech/computer security (although recently retired) but briefly spoke to Southwest about a job but the screener knew nothing about tech. Just had some pre-written questions and anytime I asked for clarification he was clueless.

        To get tech done correctly it requires talent and now talent doesn’t cost $50-80K but costs min of $150K and maybe $200K+. I look at some of the advertised salaries companies like Home Depot and airlines advertise and just laugh. I was making way more than that in government and a lot of other companies offered me at least 50% more than the government salary.

        Then you get people in charge of tech who aren’t knowledgeable and don’t understand how things should work.

        I haven’t been flying lately or using FF miles but had a last minute need to get someone roughly coast to coast and was surprised how easy it was to use BA miles for a first class ticket on AA. Within an hour or so it was ticketed and I could bring it up on the person’s AA login and select seats.

        And yeah, I have zero perspective from a travel agent’s view.

      2. Mark – This, exactly. Agencies are generally spineless and will run back into the airlines with open arms when they change their tone. But many of the changes that American has made here are much harder to reverse. I expect that when the cycle turns down, AA will be hurting for help more than usual.

    2. Flights need to be profitable, not full. It’s extremely easy to fill flights, just charge $1 and voilà. Or, in the case of AA, just charge 12% less than Delta (as per 1-Q filed with the SEC, cents per revenue passenger mile, aka yield).

      The more people book away from AA the higher this discount needs to be for AA to fill it’s seats, and the lower its profits/higher its losses.

      1. @Mark It is not as simple as that for a lot of flyers who are willing to pay a premium to fly non stop. I fly JFK-SNA only served non stop by AA. If you live in a hub city and want to fly non stop, you are going to fly the hub airline and pay a premium. If you are price conscious, then you will take a connection or fly a discount airline.

  4. What Cranky says X $100. And yes Rich – this does impact travelers. SABRE is not just an agency system – it’s AA’s system, so they have internal problems as well as inferred in several examples. And when prices are often wildly different [it’s not just tacking on GDS costs], then you can’t transfer value from an agency ticket to the airline or vice versa.

    People want – and ultimately businesses are better off – allowing a certain amount of dispensations to solve problems/inequities that are usually created by the terrible systems they’re using that are contradictory and don’t even serve the airline well. That creates loyalty instead of resentment.

    Both on the basis of crazy pricing differences, as well as risk to clients and the agency, I too will book other options whenever possible as I know that will be better for the clients, and far less stress for me. During times of intense demand, they can appear to get away with it – but over the long haul it has to hurt their bottom line. I presume once it does, those responsible will be long golden-parachuted gone.

    If GDS are inefficient, that’s largely at AA’s doorstep for having created it, and failed to invest/change it over the many years they owned and/or controlled large chunks of it. Now they want to replace it with an error-prone not-ready-for-primetime mess, and then hold agents responsible and drain them when they’ve removed virtually all support.

  5. I get the “call your travel agency” message every single time I try to do anything to a ticket, even though I buy from

    The other side of the coin is that in the last couple of months AA has really done well when I call in. I used to dread calling rhem, but the last few times the waits have been under 5 minutes, and they have happily done whatever I asked. The last time I was expecting a $135 fare difference, but the agent said she would basenrhe fair difference off the day I brought the ticket, which was $0.

  6. Why not simply surcharge AA tickets? Call it your own “mAAdening fee” or similar? Make it so that the expected income from that fee matches your expected outlays (expenses, time, etc) from having to deal with AA to fix their frack-ups ?

    1. Outer Space – It’s something we’ve thought about. But it’s just not how we want to do business. We want our fees to be clear and charged up front.
      Slapping on an extra fee after someone chooses the right option just leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

  7. American’s point of view can be summed up as… they bought their tickets… they knew what they were getting into, we say… no refund for you.

    1. If that makes Cranky Concierge the pilot up front spewing out gallons of sweat, then who is Otto the blow-up autopilot? The people who designed the new system and who have long received their bonuses?

  8. Cranky – You are doing EXACTLY the right thing by moving bookings to other carriers. Thinking back to your conversation with the UA sales exec, I recall thinking that if AA gets away with this, UA will feel compelled to do the same (reduce agency support and lay off a portion of the sales force.). If AA’s decision hurts AA in the wallet (and Vasu’s chances for promotion…), it’s likely that UA and DL will stand their ground and maintain agency support, and force AA to rescind their decision. Which should help professional agencies like yours in the long run.

  9. I’m not a travel agent, but you really summed up the totality of my experiences flying AA quite well: “American seems to have completely abandoned the idea that there is any value in grace and assistance.”

    I think this is just one example of a significant cultural problem at AA. It’s AAwful.

    My last experience flying AA left such a bad taste in my mouth that I’m not sure I will ever use the $600 voucher sitting in my account.

    1. “My last experience flying AA left such a bad taste in my mouth”

      I’m here with you on this. And the funny thing is, it wasn’t because of any of the usual flight problem. The company I worked for at the time sent me on a series of trips over a summer back and forth to a remote office, and AA had the best service to that particular city. And while across 20 or so flights I didn’t have any cancellations, etc., I came away from the experience feeling like there was something deeply culturally wrong with that airline. Every single public-facing employee up and down the chain across four different airports was inattentive, surly, and defeated, as if there was less than zero behind-the-scenes training or culture on how to interact with the public. I’ve dealt with airlines with thin or combative customer service before—Frontier comes to mind—but at least with an ULC you sort of come into it knowing what to expect. AA, as a legacy, has no excuse.

      Around the same time, I was flying extensively on Delta as well and the experience was just night and day. It was just such a more pleasant experience. Lately I’ve been flying on United which seems to be quite improved from where they were 5-10 years ago, and then there’s always Southwest which is usually inoffensive, at least when their schedule isn’t a high holy mess.

      I’ve never flown AA since, and never will, for any price, to any destination. Done. That’s how negative my impression was despite having no typical flight problems. And I’m sure, given Cranky’s experience, they couldn’t care less.

  10. Having been EP for years on American, I’m just going to let the privilege expire when it does in Q1-2024. No US airline is amazing, but American seems to do little to keep my business. They’re not always the first choice from where I fly from, and I’ve used the EP privileges for the benefits that come with it, but everything has neither been good nor bad. Just indifferent. The airline is clearly righting the ship around its finances, but it is essentially a domestic airline and seems to continue to lean into the US Airways and America West way of doing things, as opposed to what once made American the industry’s bell weather. My recent flights with American were all fine, but basic.

  11. I remind my friends – it is not American Airlines!
    They are flying USAirways! USAirways bought the use of the AA designator when they purchased American.
    Good rundown CF! Thank you!

    1. And it’s not US Airways either, by that logic. America West effectively bought US Airways in 2005.

    2. Here is another one. Don’t forget that United bought Continental Airlines and called it a “ merger of equals “ to prevent any hurt feelings. The United CEO had to go because he convinced the bankruptcy court to be allowed to default on pensions. So Continental management ran the airline…….. almost into the ground using not the best practices and procedures, but what they were familiar with. That included the convoluted Shares computer program that United employees were not trained on properly. I kept on hearing from many people that “ United ruined Continental,” but it was Continental that was ruining United. They also messed with employee seniority so that it would favor the many junior Continental employees for pass travel.

  12. Another data point: OTAs seem to be a lot more inconsistent with AA pricing than with at least UA/AS at this point. I’ve booked around 30 flights in the past few weeks, of which a handful were AA, and in all but one case wound up booking direct rather than via Chase Travel (which no longer uses Expedia…they switched the underlying OTA again) because Chase Travel seemed to be missing fare buckets…and this includes some cases where I wasn’t trying to book Basic Economy.

    By contrast, most of the AS/UA/AC flights booked were available at the same price in Chase Travel. No clue on DL as I burned a massive stack of SkyMiles directly with them, and of course booked a bunch of WN flights direct. But I’d wager a guess that DL doesn’t have this pricing parity issue.

    It’ll definitely be interesting to see how AA fares as demand softens post-summer.

  13. (sung to the tune of “Dixie”)

    Book AAway book AAway book AAway

    In the late 80s when I bought my first agency, I named my rescue cat “Debit Memo”

  14. This just makes my heart hurt. Mostly because I work for AA and I can’t argue with anything you’ve said or think of any reason why you wouldn’t book other carriers for now. Not all that long ago we were all about Elevating the Experience. Sadly, it seems everyone at AA has forgotten that – most of all senior management. I’ll just sign off without a name because I’m embarrassed by what we’ve become…

  15. I thought AA ran off “travel agencies” years ago when they reduced/eliminated commissions. Maybe they are trying to go the Southwest route by forcing you to use rather than any other avenue. Sounds like a gamble to me but the days of special treatment for high volume sellers, very frequent flyers, million mile-ers, are long gone. The loyalty programs are no doubt costly to maintain at decades old service levels, so they are no doubt reducing the freebies at every stage of the process, along with the employees required to support the give aways. Dumb down the process and reduce costs everywhere possible is their strategy. Agonizing over it endlessly is a waste of time. Move on.

    1. Hi Steve.

      It’s a sad situation. AA no longer pays most travel agencies a commission for selling their space. So, we book them, send them passengers and revenue for $0. Yep. Nada. When a flight cancels, they won’t touch that client. We have to deal with it. If a client needs something direct with AA, there’s a fee for that ‘because you booked with an agency”…..When there is a snow storm that shuts down the northeast, we have to deal with our clients and often sit on hold for HOURS to get them reaccommodated. Remember – we get paid ZIP, ZERO, NADA from AA. IF we make a mistake and re-issue a ticket for above mentioned cancellation and transpose a waiver code when doing so, we often get a debit memo for the full value of the ticket. I guess you can imagine how fun it is to try to fight one of those.

      The even more distressing part, after doing lots of work for nothing (and taking huge burden off their call center and infrastructure) we are treated as if we are the enemy. Back in the day, airlines appreciated the work we do. No more.

      Mind blowing.

  16. This is the kind of behavior you would expect with Ryanair. What is the strategy here? Pushing direct booking? Bilking agencies as a form of ancillary revenue?

  17. Perhaps this is a dumb question but why not just add an upfront disclaimer that your clients will need to pay a higher fee for your services if they wish to fly AA, then handle all of your AA business direct to make future handling easy? You won’t get your commission from AA, but financially that gets made up for by either bookaway to standard rebate UA/DL or by customers who are loyal to AA enough that they will pay the extra surcharge – and has the added benefit of reducing your own handling woes

    1. PK – AA has already pulled down commissions significantly and is clearing working toward removing them if it can get away with it (including joint venture partners). But there is still value in us booking in our system because then it allows us access to the sales support team. Now, as you can see, this may not always be all that helpful but it still gives us a different path we can take. But I do know some agencies that are using AA direct only. I don’t like that strategy because it is worse for clients and it inflates AA’s direct booking numbers so it thinks it can more easily eliminate third parties when that’s not the case.

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