How to turn a “no” into a “yes” (airline edition)

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Rajiv Gupta missed his recent flight from Miami to Columbus, thanks to a technical glitch, the TSA and Elliott’s Law.

American Airlines kept his money, even though it didn’t fly him anywhere that day. But Gupta’s circumstances were special — so special that our advocacy team brought them to the airline’s attention again. And again.

You know the three Ps of consumer advocacy, don’t you? Politeness. Patience. Persistence. This site is filled with stories that illustrate the importance of the first two, but rarely has a case come through that shows what a little persistence can do.

Gupta arrived at the terminal with more than enough time to check in. But it turns out American Airlines wasn’t ready for him.

“Unfortunately, the gentleman in front of us had an issue where the kiosk would not allow him to check in his bags,” he says. “He held up our line for a long time, as no agent was available to help him. Finally, when someone did show up, he was told there was a problem with his ticket. In any case, we lost more than 25 minutes before we could finish our check-in.”

He thought he was good to go. But he wasn’t.

“We were flabbergasted when we noticed that there was a line with at least 50 to 60 passengers waiting to hand over their bags to an agent — bags that were already tagged,” he says.

More delays.

Of course, his flight was at the far end of the terminal. (Elliott’s Law: When you’re running late, your flight will always be at the far end of the terminal.)

“We were perhaps 60 seconds too late and the gate was closed,” he says. “The gate agents would not let us through.”

As Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much.”

American didn’t charge him for a new ticket, but the best it could do was to get him on a flight the next day as a stand-by passenger. He decided to buy a ticket on another carrier, and American kept his $558 in airfare.

Written appeals to American proved fruitless. The final “no” seemed a little better than a form letter, but still ended by pointing the finger at the TSA.

We are disappointed to learn about the unsatisfactory level of service provided at our ticket counter in Miami as you checked in for your flight with us.

Meeting the highest expectations of our customers is our primary goal and we are sorry we failed to deliver the level of service you expect and certainly deserve from us.

Whenever possible, we try to obtain additional manpower — either to help customers check in at the counter or to identify those customers whose flight times are fast approaching so they can be given priority. When these efforts are still not enough, we feel it is the responsibility of each customer to let us know if his scheduled departure is at hand and he is in danger of missing the flight.

There is simply no way for us to know the itinerary of each person in line and act accordingly. Still, we apologize again for this undoubtedly frustrating experience.

Additionally, as you may know, federal legislation created a government agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which assumed civil aviation security functions and responsibilities, including passenger screening at the security checkpoints (departure gates).

The airlines are therefore, no longer responsible for checkpoint (gate) screening as it is now handled by the TSA. Accordingly, the TSA is also responsible for reviewing and responding to all claims or complaints involving the security checkpoints (gate screening), including the incident you have described.

From our point of view, Gupta had done everything he could to reach his gate on time. His request for a $558 ticket credit wasn’t out of line, given that he had to pay a far more expensive walk-up fare to get home.

The first response from our AA contact was a firm “no.”

I am sorry, but I am going to decline on this one. I looked up the flight. It went out with 73 passengers – the plane holds 76 passengers.

Of the 73, 53 of those originated in Miami — many had checked bags. The other 20 were connecting from other flights.

This was a Monday morning — multiple counters and kiosks were open. But of course it is the first Monday in 2016, and a lot of people are traveling. His bags were scanned and checked in at 8:34 a.m. ET. The flight wasn’t until 9:20 a.m. ET — and he had TSA Precheck on his boarding pass. He is enrolled in a trusted traveler program.

Our lead advocate, Jessica Monsell, reviewed the paperwork again and then sent the following reply to our AA contact:

Thanks for looking into it. You have better information than I do, so I appreciate you sharing those details.

The passenger wrote last month to Sean Bentel, and included some detail about the check-in process. American’s customer service department responded a month later. I didn’t share those exchanges with you earlier, because nothing stood out to me as particularly relevant.

However, now that you researched the time that the bag was tagged, I notice that the passenger said the bag was tagged but he then had to wait to turn the bag over to a single agent. I have highlighted that below. Not sure if that changes your analysis of this situation.

Looking to the response from American, it says that had he canceled the flight prior to departure, the credit for future use would be issued, valid for a year from the purchase date. I am pasting that message below.

Am I understanding correctly that because he checked in and could not get to the gate before the flight was closed, he doesn’t get to keep the credit? I just want to be sure I understand what to expect should I encounter this situation in the future.

To which American responded: “We will get back to him, and let him keep the full value of the ticket for future travel.”

And here’s the takeaway for the rest of us: When an airline says “no,” it’s not the final answer. It’s the start of a negotiation. If the facts are on your side, as they were for Gupta, you can still get a fair outcome.

Should American have given Rajiv Gupta his $558 ticket credit?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • AAGK

    I’m not sure I see this case as a special one. Sounds like a very typical one as I am always late to the airport and can relate. AA has a notice on its site that Miami requires extra time so at a minimum he should have arrived about 20 minutes earlier than he did, not to mention this was a super busy travel day. It seems like he got through faster than usual, actually, since he only missed it by 1 minute. He should definitely have received a credit, though. I always carry on unless my trip is 10 days or more. People travel with way too much stuff.

  • Pegtoo

    A wait at the kiosk (for the OP at least), and for the ticket counter. Too bad passengers can’t throw the tagged bag on the belt themselves. Its that the only service the AA ticket counter agent provides now? (Assuming the boarding pass is on the phone or printed at the kiosk also.)

  • MarkKelling

    Agent is supposed to verify that you are the person checking the bag and the tag is for the same passenger and correct destination. I fail to see how the new process (print the tag and affix it to your own bag then take it somewhere else to actually check it) is better for anyone.

  • MarkKelling

    I fail to see what the TSA has to do with any of this.

    There was delay at the AA bag check kiosk. This is not under the control of TSA.

    There was a second delay at the AA bag handoff counter. This is not under the control of TSA.

    There is no mention of any type of unusual or extra long time processing through security which is under control of TSA.

    Just another continuing attempt by AA to blame others for their own ineptitude.

  • Flatlander

    Obviously we don’t know exactly what happened but in my own opinion the most likely series of events was that OP technically arrived at the airport on time but was cutting it close but would have made his flight if there had been better staffing and things at the airport were running the way that they should (ha). I say that if his description of the line to drop off luggage was accurate and there was a huge and abnormal ordeal at the kiosk the airline should go ahead and give the guy his airline funny money. Of course there is no way in hell they would have ever done that without being (rightly IMO) leaned on by this website.

  • Pegtoo

    I reminds me of McDonald’s “double-window” fiasco. They admitted it saved no time for the customer, but wanted the customer to FEEL like they were getting faster service. Now you typically see the first window shuttered and the sign instructs you to proceed to the second window. Why would the airlines think we want to wait in MORE lines at an already stressful time. Oh, that’s right… it saves them money!

  • William Leeper

    Most of their new stores are single window, but do you remember the three window setup? Order at the first, pay at the second, pickup at the third? That was a real nightmare because there was no menu at that first window. And yes, that disappeared very quickly after it was introduced in the early 1990’s.

  • michelek

    I agree with you. It appears AA assumed the delay was with TSA because of the time from bag tag printing and the flight time. That would be a valid assumption if the AA agent was doing the tag printing process but that is not what was stated. I have actually recently flown out of Miami and it was a nut house at the AA check in area. They had about 15 kiosks, with around 5 people waiting at each kiosk to check in, and 2-3 agents (they finally added a 3rd person after the line was 50 or more people long) handling the ID checks and weighing the bags. TSA lines were long including the Pre-check line so we were sent to another checkpoint which was almost empty. I can see how it could have taken almost 2 hours to get through this new process.

  • Noah Kimmel

    AA also offered to fly him on next flights standby for no charge, contrary to its policy. The traveller didn’t want that friendly offer and wants AA to give up his revenue for a ticket for a seat it held for him for what is seemingly his responsibility (could check in online or on app and go straight to bag drop line).

  • Ben

    I didn’t vote because the voting options are nonsensical.

    It seems to me that American did not adequately staff their ticket desk, a trend that I see more and more frequently when I travel and which is infuriating because (1) the demand can be fully anticipated and (2) at that point the consumer has no options. I don’t expect check-in to be *speedy*, but nobody available to assist with the automated kiosks and dozens of people queuing to hand over their bags is ridiculous.

  • cscasi

    I am sure they also check the weight of the bag(s) so that they can charge you if a bag is overweight.

  • cscasi

    Was there only one kiosk available? Why not move to another one (if the one you were at remains occupied for whatever reason) when it comes open (if there was more than one).?

  • cscasi

    Or, one could check his/her bag(s) at the outside stations (and tip the porter a couple of bucks) and not have to stand in line. The porter will even check you in if you are not already checked in before arriving at the airport.

  • KanExplore

    I don’t vote on these when there are strawman choices. American messed up and it’s good the situation could be resolved satisfactorily.

  • michelek

    Yes they do but now the number of agents doing this has decreased. For example, last Fall there were 5 agents behind for 10 kiosks and now there are 15 kiosks with 3 agents. 2 passengers to 1 agent the old way and now 5 to 1 with the new way. There will be delays at the check in as adding the tags couldn’t be saving that much time.

  • michelek

    You would think that would work but the day I was in Miami the curbside check in had a huge line as well as the check in area for AA. I think it is just a supply and demand type issue – not enough gate agents to deal with the number of passengers. Not that AA doesn’t have an idea of the number of passengers for the number of flights at any particular time.

  • joycexyz

    Gupta states that the delay was apparently caused by another passenger with a check-in problem. Why wouldn’t the agent have asked that passenger to step aside until another agent arrived? Seems like common sense. Oh, wait. Common sense is the least common of the senses.

  • Ben

    Yeah, I came to say the same thing. Curbside *can* be a good strategy, but when the line inside is backed up it’s likely that the line outside is, too.

  • ajaynejr

    In the article above, the airline was quoted as writing:
    “Whenever possible, we try to obtain additional manpower — either to help
    customers check in at the counter or to identify those customers whose
    flight times are fast approaching so they can be given priority. When
    these efforts are still not enough, we feel it is the responsibility of
    each customer to let us know if his scheduled departure is at hand and
    he is in danger of missing the flight.”

    To which I ask,

    1. How does the passenger let the airline know he is in danger of missing the flight? Like, whom does he ask?
    2. After the airline has been so notified, what shall it do so that the passenger is ultimately transported at no extra cost to him?

  • just me

    You missed one point: American Airline’s scheduled departure time is not the departure time most people know – it has nothing to do with anything. It is an artificial concept with pretty bad justification. AA closes the door 10 minutes before scheduled departure time. Do the doors close 10 minutes before your traiin, bus, movie, anything “departure” time?
    AA must be somehow forced to get rid of the departure time. Door closing is the departure time. STOP that deception.