American Continues Push to Create a Completely Different (and Increasingly Non-Existent) Sales Team


Over the last year, American has undertaken a complete reimagining of its sales programs. It slashed half its staff, eliminated discounts for mid-size companies, ended all waivers and favors, and all-but-forced agencies to use new and unproven technology to book. If that’s not enough… get ready for more. The sales “Modern Retailing” team — as American has now deemed it — is about to get smaller and less effective.

As American has seemed to prefer over the last several months, the airline continues to drip out news of this transformation, leaving people to wonder when the next axe will fall. The first rumblings of further change came about in October when the airline decided that it would eliminate its entire sales support team.

The sales support team was the bridge for agencies that needed help with problems that they couldn’t handle on their own… but problems that weren’t big enough to rope in the account manager. American had already slashed hours while Delta and United continued to offer very good, 24 hour support, so it was at a competitive disadvantage.

This phone number led to some very hard-working agents who were set up to be able to handle the specific needs of agencies. These people are all out of a job by the end of this month. But don’t worry, they haven’t been fired… they’ve been “sunsetted.”

I know it’s long, but here’s American’s full statement on this.

We are evolving many of our commercial offerings, enabling us to better serve the marketplace and support customer preferences. This includes the ability to book and manage travel directly through digital channels including, the mobile app, and SalesLink, through which retailers now manage their customers’ travel. While we are sunsetting a small number of roles that were previously part of our retailing support team, customers will continue to receive support from our roughly 5,000 travel professionals within our Reservations team, who are experts at helping our customers with their travel needs.

American Airlines is committed to helping customers manage travel with confidence and ease. Since 2011, American has empowered travel advisors to self-service our mutual customers’ travel through the digital SalesLink platform. Today, retailers can self-service more than 90% of their needs directly through this industry-leading platform which we continue to enhance to deliver exceptional service to empower our customers through the latest technology.

There is so much to pick apart here that I don’t even know where to start. So now, all those people with great knowledge and ability to help agencies with their specific needs have been sunsetted. (I cringe just typing that again.) The phone number stays, however. I’ve been assured that the regular reservations team is being trained to handle those same problems.

Raise your hand if you think they’ll be fully capable when they take over in the next couple of weeks? That’s what I thought. What agencies need is very different than what passengers need, so it makes sense to have a small, dedicated team to handle that work instead of just pushing those calls to clog up general reservations.

Part of the problem here seems to be that American thinks its self-service product is fantastic and can solve everything. The phone number is only for those fools who can’t figure out how to use these stellar tools, so let’s just make that problem go away by getting rid of the trained agents. But that’s not reality. In fact, the self-service offering — called SalesLink — can’t handle even some of the most basic of functions.

Let’s say there’s a schedule change and you, the agent, want to revalidate a ticket to match it up with the new flights the client picked. American’s SalesLink can handle that… but it will error if you’re booked in C or R class because those used to be upgrade classes years ago and American never bothered to fix it. The lack of investment is concerning when there are now fewer options to get help.

Of course, if agencies really need to escalate, they can try working with account managers, but there are so few left. And now, American seems to be trying to purge even more. Here’s a statement from last week on the next round of changes.

Business is best conducted face-to-face, both with our business partners and across our organization. To better facilitate real-time collaboration across the airline, our domestic Modern Retailing team will be centralized at the Robert L. Crandall campus beginning next summer. As is the case today, team members will continue to be encouraged to meet with their customers face-to-face, wherever they may be.

We are evaluating the structure of our Modern Retailing team to best support our customers. As we have more clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the organization, some team members will invited to reinterview for their positions.

When you think of sales people, you think of a team that is usually distributed into the airline’s important markets. Hubs all have salespeople in town, because it’s very easy for them to grab lunch, visit the office, etc. It’s also easier when they live in the same city to understand what matters to these companies.

Now, American is making the entire sales team relocate to Dallas/Fort Worth, arguably a place where it needs the least sales effort because of its massive presence. But somehow the airline thinks that it’s more important to have people in the office to get face time with the bosses than it is to have them out in the field.

Sure, American says that both iares important, but it’s obvious which is more important to American here. It will be much harder for these people to get out in the field and do their work. Yes, they work for an airline, but it will have to be a structured visit every time.

The final insult in all of this is that “some team members will invited to reinterview for their positions.” Oh my, so even if people are willing to move to DFW, they may not have a job there. I would imagine this would all but push out the last of the field sales people unless they already live in the DFW area. That’s probably American’s goal with this.

I continue to find American’s moves absolutely baffling in this regard. Yes, there is a bold vision of a completely different way of selling air travel, but it’s an enormouse change. The airline is trying to take on everything all in one year instead of trying to use baby steps. If there’s ever a decision that the airline should reverse course, every one of these moves makes it harder and harder to do that in a timely manner. You can’t just re-create a national sales and sales support team overnight after completely decimating it.

It all comes down to a religious belief that American has found the way of the future. If it’s right, then good job, AA. I just don’t share that vision.

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43 comments on “American Continues Push to Create a Completely Different (and Increasingly Non-Existent) Sales Team

  1. Sometimes the juice isnt worth the squeeze. American may have discovered the financial return in supporting independent agents with a dedicated support team isnt worth the cost. Probably not the answer you want, but the market is changing and AA doesnt see the return.

      1. This analysis says global travel agency sales to reach $213 BILLION worldwide by 2032.

        “The global traditional travel agency market is expanding rapidly due to changing consumer preferences and behavior, complex travel itineraries, and growing demand for one-to-one consultation.”

        Doesn’t seem like a declining business to me. My guess is AA playing an 80/20 game, i.e., maintain support for the very largest travel agencies but forego sales from the rest of them. Speaks volumes that they are flying solo on this endeavor.

      2. Thanks, Bill, it’s nice to hear that gross revenue number to get some context. It’s pretty straightforward math to determine a profitable level of support to maintain that, and the last I heard, American had a CFO. Got to wonder what they’re smoking over there, this certainly sounds as though it may not end well. Memo to American’s CFO: This is an irreversible decision, once “sunsetted”, highly trained professionals are highly unlikely to return.

        1. Worse, many will likely go to competitors!

          Just for the record, I’m not a “travel agent” guy. I’ve been making plane reservations for myself and my family since calling multiple 800 numbers at the tender age of 8. When I had to use a corporate travel agent, I still identified my own itineraries.

          However, as a recovering CPA, truth is in the numbers. These numbers show that (1) travel agencies remain a massive part of the sales distribution network and (2) this shows no sign of reversing. My .02 anyway.

  2. What am I missing? Is AA doing away with their ‘AA sales number”(you know..when you dial in and use your IATA # to speak to someone).
    I hope not! Sales link is too complicated to figure out when pax wants to be rebooked immediately.

    1. Claire – No, the phone number remains but it will just direct to reservations agents instead of the dedicated sales support team.

  3. AA’s commercial department is using the “Elon X’ approach to management. Good luck to us all….

    1. Yeah, you’re screwed (CLT). So is DFW. Fortunately the rest of us have other choices!

      1. I live in DFW. Why would I be screwed?

        You know, somehow I manage to use an elevator without an elevator operator. I manage to make telephone calls without operator assistance. I even managed to look up phone numbers without dialing 411 anymore.

        I am quite capable of typing in, and buying a ticket to where I want to go.

        I respect that this is Brett’s livelihood, But the reality is that the vast majority of passengers don’t need a travel agent to buy a plane ticket. It is an extra cost that the rest of us don’t need to pay. If someone wants to use Brett’s services for a complicated international trip, let them pay him.

        I’m not trying to be disrespectful Brett it’s just the way I see it.

        Times change, technology advances, and old ways of doing things adjust. If you think it’s difficult watching the travel industry change, wait till people figure out they don’t have to pay real estate agents a commission to sell the house.

        1. You’re right in that most people don’t need a travel agent to buy a plane ticket. But the people who do use a travel agent these days are far more likely to have complex problems if something goes wrong, and that’s why the network carriers (except AA now) have a dedicated, more thoroughly trained staff to deal with these customers’ agents.

          This isn’t at all uncommon. Even the IRS has dedicated agents for professional tax preparers that aren’t available to the general public.

          Since, all things being equal, these passengers are more likely to bring the airline more revenue, I really doubt that AA is going to save that much money once business travelers realize that if something goes wrong their agent won’t be able to help them as much as they could if they were on DL or UA and start avoiding AA. Corporate clients’ cost-saving policies may keep them at AA for a while, but the executives who set those policies also tend to be major travelers as well, those policies can be changed.

          1. Why would a business traveler need a travel agent? Those are smaller companies do it themselves and there are travel departments at bigger ones.

            Unless you are traveling from Portland Maine to Lusaka, Zambia via Boston, Paris, and Addis Ababa, you can just do your ticket online.

            And like I said, if someone wants to use an agent, let them pay for it.

            In a major irrop at 10 Pm on a Friday you aren’t getting that agent on the phone anyway.

            And I can guarantee you that DL and UA aren’t fighting to keep this. They are fine letting AA take the slings and arrows but they support them.

            I know it’s an unpopular opinion here and again, not trying to be disrespectful to Brett. I just don’t see the value.

            1. Sounds like the traveller going from PWM to Lusaka should route themselves via EWR and FRA

            2. John, with all due respect, you don’t seem to understand how the business world works. Most major companies that have a lot of employees flying regularly use a corporate travel agent. This helps them with recordkeeping and enforcement of travel policies, and provides assistance if things go wrong, as they inevitably will at some point. Some small businesses may just tell their employees “book your own ticket and submit the receipt” but that isn’t an efficient system if you have hundreds of employees flying around.

            3. “Why would a business traveler need a travel agent? Those are smaller companies do it themselves and there are travel departments at bigger ones.”

              At the bigger companies, what do you think the travel department is? Hint hint – it’s a travel management company AKA travel agency! ;-)

        2. CLT and DFW are AA fortress hubs and if you think travel agent support is the only place AA is going to trim seemingly necessary customer service, well, good luck with that.

          I’ve already seen it at pseudo-fortress DCA. They were crAAppy a few years ago compared to their peers and have steadily worsened. So when our self-purchased itineraries head into IRROPS hell, John, I think we’re screwed. At least compared to flying on their competition.

        3. You think the airline is going to roll over any savings from cutting (enter any department here) to you, the traveller and your ticket!?!? That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all morning!

          While I book most things myself, I’m not naive enough to think the airline is going to cut me a break for doing it. All I’m going to get is the inability to try and find the fare class I actually want in the three and a half options presented.

          Any actual savings is going back to shareholders, or executive pay, or bonuses for those who thought up the savings. All you’re going to get is fewer services and more attitude for it. C’mon now.

          1. I own a small company with 10 employees. I know all about savings and where the money goes.

            I try to put some of every dollar I save on something in my pocket…and I put some of into the company, whether it be better pricing power, wage increases, better equipment, or whatever.

            If AA saves money on travel agents and spends that on new planes I’m good. If they give it back to shareholders but then don’t raise fares as much next time that works too.

            News flash: companies are in business to make money.

        4. If the elevator is broken as many planes are, are most people able to fix it themselves? If you are a small to midsize company how do you regulate your travelers who want to book their tickets that will give them miles instead of what is best to the company?
          Yes, anyone can book a round trip ticket but a professional travel agent does much more than that.

  4. Cranky, I love your use of the word “reimagining” in describing AA’s changes to their sales team. For one thing, whenever you hear someone say that some entity has to be “reimagined”, that means “destroyed and rebuilt as something other than what it now is”. Usually for the (much) worse.

    So, based on your description here, the use of that term at the top was perfect.

  5. With all of these poor uunfortunates moving to DFW they will also have to deal with the difficulties of employee travel. Unless the employees are at a relatively senior level, they will have to travel “space available!” when they go to have a face to face meeting with a customer. They will have a higher priority than vacationing employees, but it’s still”space available!”. Crazy plan!
    Thanks for highlighting it!

  6. They continue to degrade their soft product whether the customer is the consumer or the agent.

    The whole wages go up, cut costs elsewhere is the new whipsaw.

  7. I would rather walk than fly American, so if they want to go out of business, well, I for one, won’t miss them.

  8. I remember several years ago AA had some sort of feud with Expedia and pulled their tickets from the site. They lost so much money that they were forced to relist their flights on Expedia in a matter of months. I know airlines have been trying for decades to get rid of third parties and force everything through their own channels, but it just doesn’t work that way. Unlike that fiasco, however, this is irreversible.

  9. Jim S…yes I get that large companies use travel agencies. AA just doesn’t think they need to pay those agencies on top of negotiating business fares.

    Here is what I think they are doing. They don’t mind making deals with larger corporations for better fares based upon the amount of business. But when they pay travel agents also, they pay are also paying extra for smaller companies.

    By doing this, they are trying to cut out the agents and just make deals with bigger companies.

    More simply, they are saying we aren’t interest in paying outside parties anymore. They will negotiate directly with larger businesses that can direct larger amounts of traffic to them, but they don’t see a need to do so for smaller ones or individuals.

    1. John G – I don’t understand why you keep talking about paying third parties. Nothing that I’ve written has had anything to do with paying third parties. Commissions are a completely separate issue. This is about allowing third parties to have the tools to do the work they do on behalf of the airlines.

    2. Travel agent commissions for domestic tickets went away a long time ago, and if there is corporate discount there are also no commissions on international fares. Some agencies do make backend money based upon moving market share which is only a benefit to the airlines.

    3. John, what are you talking about? Airlines don’t pay corporate agencies. The article is about the sales team.

  10. As a software guy, Brett’s problem seems to result from of a lack of trust and available interfaces into the airlines booking system. I hate having to call customer support just to cancel a service because the website doesn’t have a cancel button. I know that airlines make it relatively easy to book flights, but why not let agents have full access to make changes as they wish? The only complex portion would be pricing those changes – free if caused by a flight cancellation or delay, otherwise based on the conditions of the original ticket.

    Why not let agents make these changes on behalf of their clients? Systems could be implemented to catch bad actors, and some amount of trust or leeway can be given to agents who act in good faith.

  11. I have a question. How do airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and the ULCCs do this?

    I know, for example, that Southwest does not allow sales on third-party sites like Expedia. Just wondering if the legacies are thinking they are paying extra for things are competition doesn’t pay for

    1. John G – Southwest has spent the last several years building a sales organization from scratch. It doesn’t sell through online travel agents, but it has made a huge push to sell through corporate and leisure travel agents, allowing nearly full access to fares in the GDS, creating liberal policies to help them do their jobs better, and more. JetBlue has done the same as of late, trying to woo agencies. ULCCs are a different breed in that they don’t participate at all.

      1. From my experience, WN has had a sales organization going back to the 1990’s – it was just a matter as to how responsive they were to you. My former employer, a large southern California publicly-traded company ran it’s own ARC-appointed CTD, We used Apollo for bookings, except for Southwest where we paid Sabre every month for the “privilege” of booking Southwest segments in Apollo as “HK”, then re-creating the PNR in Sabre to easily ticket the Southwest segments.

        A side note – the folks at HP were always helpful to my staff – but HP was always hungry for business, especially when booking those “YUP” fares…lol

        The WN reps that would call on us from their then Brea, CA sales office were very nice and polite – but nothing ever changed to make the process of booking and ticketing WN any easier – unless we wanted to use Sabre, which for us, UAL offered the better deal tied to their Apollo CRS system and our significant Trans-Pac travel. It didn’t make business sense to switch to Sabre.

        I’m pleased that WN has finally joined the GDS systems. I know many companies and their respective corporate travel departments have been waiting years for WN to make their inventory available within the GDS’s.

        All of the “re-imagining” by AA is nothing but cover for cost-cuts and layoffs. I know, I was one of those who used to write that crap for our company when it was time to reduce headcount – all b.s.

        Until those within AA see that bookings have gone away, they probably will not do anything to change the levers available to you in order resolve problems, complex PNR’s, fare rule issues, etc. and effectively mange your business on behalf of your own customers.

        As you and I know, the mega agencies and large corporations will still be able to contact their account reps and national account managers – what is unclear is which group of agents are going to handle those day-to-day calls from the AMEX’s and companies with big contracts.

        What you didn’t mention here, but I will, is what priority queue you will be placed in at general res? Will agents have any priority, or be placed behind CK and Executive AAdvantage, etc. members?

        I also wonder if this is just cost cutting by AA to cover the increased wages for the reservation clerks as part of their new bargaining agreement? Internal shell games.


        1. SO_CAL – Yes, sorry, I was too vague in my answer. Southwest has always had a sales team, but they weren’t really serious about being a player. It wasn’t until recently that they decided to build a proper sales team, bulk up, and try to win corporate business.

  12. We owned a travel agency up until a year ago. Years ago, we stopped selling individual airline tickets. No commission plus the headache of the airlines and the time spent trying to service the tickets was unproductive and unprofitable. We pivoted to group and experience travel making money through service charges and commissions.

    I hate to say it, but AA is just taking the lead on this. DL and UA are watching very closely and will surely emulate if they can. They aren’t keeping the status quo out of the kindness of their hearts.

  13. For a lot of travel agents, is just something to suffer through? Or do you think it will trigger shadow decisions to drop AA fares from consideration when booking for clients? I could see shifting from booking AA “when they’re the cheapest” to “only if the client is in a fortress hub or absolutely insists on it”. Cutting some lower fares might be obvious if you’re only booking airfare, but not if you’re booking integrated vacation packages.

    1. Doug – It’s already causing agents to book away from American. The booking is a real pain, but the bigger issue is that it is exceedingly challenging to help clients when changes are needed or when there are irregular operations with delays and cancellations. So agents are booking away.

  14. What AA never addresses is the neverending system issues they have. Whether it is booked via or a GDS, they have myriad problems, and now no one [who really knows how] to solve them. General reservation agents with system overlays can barely make it through the basics.

    The smokescreen that this is all being done to cut costs is countered by the reality of their completely contradictory, wildly fluctuating pricing by source, i.e. GDS fares can be the same, somewhat higher, or wildly higher, having nothing to do with whatever the underlying GDS cost difference may be.

    Like all DIY projects, there are some who swear they’re better at everything themselves, from writing contracts to plumbing and car repair to haircuts. And some may be, at some things, compared to some “professionals” who aren’t really that good. But most people would rather have an expert assist, even if as insurance. And for me, that includes proactively doing things and responding 24/7.

    This warrants at the least special support agents, in the same way top elites have specialized agent support. This doesn’t even address all the other things an airline wants agents to familiarize themselves with and promote, like new routings, partners/alliances, promotions etc.

    Each airline can prioritize how much – and what kind of customer service they want to provide, and what premium in general they think that’s worth. But to pull a trapdoor on agencies while telling them it’s a step-up in service is a ridiculous expectation that we’re blind, deaf and dumb. As a result, there’s more booking away from AA, and they may not [admit to] feeling it in the moment, but demand is already slacking, and then those who have the best reputation/service will most likely survive/prosper more than those who feel they can kick their long-standing partners to the curb with no ramifications.

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