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.