How far will travelers go to avoid the world’s largest airline? Austin Wolff paid an extra $360 to stay away from American Airlines, flying from Albuquerque, N.M., to Jacksonville, Fla., on Delta Air Lines on a recent holiday weekend.
Why no AA? “It’s more a statement toward the overall approach to customer service,” says Wolff, who works for a news organization in Albuquerque. “It’s the general apathy displayed by this company.”
Avoiding American isn’t easy. It’s in the throes of a merger with US Airways, which will make it the largest airline in the world. With only three legacy carriers remaining in America, the number of choices is dwindling. But that’s just fueling the anti-American sentiment.
Wolff’s reason for staying away from American is common. He feels as if the company doesn’t care. Wolff says he tried to complain about its service, writing a detailed account of what went wrong on a recent flight.
“When I submitted the actual account, the airline’s website wouldn’t allow it,” he says. “I could only use up to 500 characters. That’s really what sent me running away from flying with them at any cost.”
Craig Conroy steers clear of American, too. “I know what I want in an airline,” says Conroy, a professional speaker who lives in Pittsburgh. “It’s customer service.”
He goes to great lengths to stay away from AA, even when the airline offers a lower price or a more convenient route. Conroy would rather make a stopover in Cincinnati, Atlanta or Chicago with Delta Air Lines or United. He even prefers to fly on Southwest, with its one-class configuration and egalitarian attitude toward service.
Conroy says he’d forfeit the ability to collect enough frequent flier miles for elite status — that’s how badly he wants to avoid the airline.
What could possibly stir such strong feelings among air travelers? A look at American’s customer satisfaction scores and complaint numbers reveals one possible answer: Some passengers don’t like it. American scored a 66 out of 100 points in the latest American Customer Service Index, unchanged from 2013. That’s 5 points below the industry average.
The Department of Transportation received 3,083 service complaints about American Airlines in 2014, up 546 from the previous year. It’s the third most complained-about airline, behind United Airlines and Frontier Airlines.
American acknowledges that it can do better, and says it’s trying.
“This year, our customer relations teams have worked around the clock through an extremely difficult winter and the complaints that come with that,” says Joshua Freed, an American Airlines spokesman. “We answer every complaint – most within a couple of days, and each one is categorized so our executives can see where the problems are and fix them.”
But industry-watchers aren’t impressed by its efforts. “American Airlines proves the adage that customers will only put up with so much rudeness and discourtesy before they respond,” says Harlan Platt, a finance professor at Northeastern University.
The complaints aren’t all related to the weather. They’re the result of airline policies, a changing corporate culture and, of course, the ongoing merger between US Airways and American. In March, American combined its loyalty programs without incident. Now, they are aligning company rules, and later this year the carriers will combine their reservations systems, which is often the most difficult part of any airline combination.
In a sense, having people say they’re avoiding American doesn’t really matter. The fact is, they’re not. The airline just reported a record quarterly profit of $1.2 billion, triple its year-ago net profit, excluding a special credit. With earnings like that, which are the result of lower fuel costs, higher fares and the cutting capacity after the merger, who needs happy customers?
But writing off American should worry the airline in the long term, say experts. That’s because, while there may be fewer airlines, people still have options. If too many people try to avoid American, that could be a problem — and, perhaps, a reason to up the airline’s customer-service game.
“Actually, most Americans still have a reasonable number of choices when it comes to air travel,” says Seth Kaplan, editor of the trade publication Airline Weekly. “Even if it’s fewer choices than they once did.”
How to avoid American Airlines
Cast a wide net.
Check out alternate airports near a hub city. Chicago O’Hare, for example, is home to airline hubs for American and United. But head over to Midway and you can also find a hub for Southwest Airlines.
Consider alternate transportation.
Trains offer a competitive product with East Coast shuttles. But buses are growing at an impressive pace, too, and can often get you to your destination in about the same amount of time that it takes to check in, go through the TSA line, wait for your flight, and fly.
In some cities (Philadelphia, Dallas) American is so dominant that it’s almost impossible to avoid, particularly if you’re flying internationally. If you feel so strongly about staying away from American, you may have to relocate to another city.
This story first appeared May 17, 2015.