Is this enough compensation for a ‘difficult’ journey?

By | November 3rd, 2015

Air travel can be hard. It’s been that way since the dawn of commercial aviation — and people like Robert Oliver know it. But it’s how the airlines handle the little bumps and glitches that has changed.

The header on today’s feature is “Is This Enough Compensation?” so I’ll get to the point.

Something went wrong on Oliver’s flight. His airline stepped up after I contacted it. Did it do enough? Wait for the poll.

But Oliver, a retired judge, raises a more important question. Have airlines lost something important along the way? Have they forgotten the lost art of the service recovery?

Oliver shared a letter (remember those?) he wrote to American Airlines after a flight on US Airways from Phoenix to LaGuardia. (US Airways and American are almost done with their merger.) He and his wife were flying in first class.

“It was a difficult journey,” he says. “Long delays. We were essentially left to our own devices.”

Let me try to summarize what happened. Their initial flight to New York was delayed and then rescheduled. They were sent to a different New York airport, incurring extra costs. When they asked for compensation, a frazzled ticket agent told them, “You are entitled to nothing.” It was an unpleasant experience from start to finish.

Remember, the Olivers were flying in first class.

“I didn’t expect any remuneration, although it would have been nice,” he says. “But I did think I would receive at least a confirmation letter that my letter of concern had been received. Not even that. Crickets, as the expression for continuing silence is sometimes stated,” he says.

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I thought the Olivers should at least get an acknowledgment of their letter, so I asked American about it. I also furnished Oliver with some executive contacts and he re-sent the letter.


“I was immediately contacted by a very nice person from the executive offices of the president, a senior VP for customer expectations, as I recall,” he says. “She was most gracious and did note their records, indeed, showed a prompt email response — formatted, I am sure — to my initial letter. She provided me a copy. It was sent to my wife’s email address, and got caught in her spam catcher, I assume, as it never showed in her in-basket.”

American offered the couple 5,000 miles and a $200 voucher.

“What I will never know is if my constructive comments were sent to someone for consideration,” he says.

There’s a question beyond, “Is this enough compensation?” Do you really think American is going to take Oliver’s feedback seriously? Will it read … a letter?

I visited American’s corporate headquarters in Dallas recently, and they readily admitted that there’s a lot of room for improvement. One reason Oliver sent a letter, no doubt, is that American’s form only accepts a limited number of characters. Nothing says “don’t bother” like a form that cuts you off.

What happens when the email is sent? It gets processed. It goes into a system, is assigned a priority, and receives a form response, usually. But not always. I spoke with Sean Bentel, and he says he actually responds to some complaints personally. I was happy to hear that.

American can’t control spam filters, but if it sends a voucher or miles, it might be able to determine if those vouchers were opened and redeemed. If they aren’t, maybe someone like Oliver didn’t actually receive the email. Maybe it went to his wife’s spam box.

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All of which brings us to the lost art of recovery. Should you be responding to a letter with a letter? Isn’t there a time when picking up the phone is the best way to say “I’m sorry.” Yes, you need to have any promise in writing, but I think Oliver is saying that somewhere along the way, airlines forgot how to apologize.

Maybe it’s time they learned.

Did American Airlines offer Robert Oliver enough compensation?

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  • Bruce Burger

    Is this enough compensation? Impossible to say without knowing why the flight was delayed, how long it was delayed, and what additional costs were incurred.
    Should they have phoned? No, I would expect that only in egregious cases. But maybe they should send paper letters when they are giving something that the customer has to actively use (which is the case with a voucher but not miles).

  • MF

    All good questions from an ex-college professor. Is Heartwood still afloat?

  • RichardII

    All Oliver is due for financial compensation is the cost of ground transportation to his original destination. That should have been cash, but the voucher and miles are probably sufficient.

    As to a response, well I think Oliver bears some responsibility there. If he included an email address in his letter then he needed to make sure that address was correct, and also check his spam box occasionally. If he did not include an email address, I really wonder where AA found it?

    And, as to first class. He got the seats, he got the meals, but the issues he had to deal with should have been handeled equally well for passengers anywhere in the plane. There is never an excuse for rudeness and failure to deliver the passenger to the intended airport should also be covered for anyone.

  • Rebecca

    Unfortunately, the volume of correspondence any large business receives simply makes it impossible to write personal responses to every inquiry. Let alone the liability, there are so many things you can’t say because they could later be used against you. It would require educated letter writers, making well over the $10/12 the form letter handlers are paid, spending significantly more time crafting each response. The overhead cost associated with writing a personalized response to every email/letter is astronomical. And that translates to higher prices. I’m sure if you asked most people, they’d choose the usual form letters over an increase in price. It’s not pennies, it would be several dollars per customer. When there is an extrordinary circumstance that requires more than a form letter, it normally does get passed through the correct channels, it’s just that those aren’t normally the cases we see here.

  • sirwired

    It’s actually hard to tell if he’s even due the money for the taxi. Since his original flight was re-scheduled (not cancelled), it sounds as if he asked for the other flight (in a different airport) probably to get home a little sooner.

    In such a circumstance, getting yourself to the other airport would be on the passenger.

    In any case, since it’s doubtful their destination was LaGuardia itself, all they would be due is the difference in cost to get to his final destination from LaGuardia vs. whatever airport he ended up in. Unless they re-directed him to Stewart-Newburgh in Westchester, this is not going to be very much money.

  • AJPeabody

    The frustration comes when the form letter email response is the electronic equivalent “Your call is very important to us. Please hold on until hell freezes over.”

  • AAGK

    I think if someone takes the time to provide thoughtful feedback it should be acknowledged. A proper reply to the Judge was warranted.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Miles + $200 seems more than reasonable to me. I feel bad for the tough experience, and we don’t have a ton of details to go off of (length of delay, if they were notified, how the change was processed, etc.). But I cant imagine a taxi cost being that high, and we don’t even know if they changed his airport or he asked for it to get home faster. AA app does let you know when your flight is delayed / cancelled and allows you to rebook all using self-service.

    It would be even better if they communicated more clearly, but is it enough compensation? you bet it is.

  • unicorn

    FYI, Stewart is in Orange County, about 60 mi north of NYC and the opposite side of the Hudson River— much further and more difficult to get to than Westchester. You’d be talking about a taxi to get to Metro North across the Hudson then the train to Grand Central then presumably another cab to the airport. (Former Newburgh native).

  • tomg63

    I agree.

    Since there are no direct flights from PHX to LGA, we have to speculate that they were either put on a direct flight to JFK or a connecting flight to EWR. A taxi from LGA to Manhattan is usually in the $30-40 range. A taxi from JFK is $65 and a taxi from Newark is usually about $80. I would say that at the most they were owed about $40.

    Compensation of a $200 voucher + 5,000 miles (worth $50-100) is more than enough, especially if they fly American regularly.

  • tomg63

    I think it is pretty unlikely they would have been sent to Newburg and I think that was sirwired’s point. Difference in cab fare between LGA and JFK/EWR is probably $40 at the most.

  • sirwired

    Whoops; I thought Stewart-Newburgh was the Westchester airport.

  • Pegtoo

    The compensation is just only if the points and miles are of any value Mr. Oliver. I couldn’t answer the survey, because I don’t know if he has an account with American or if he’s able to use the voucher in the near future.

  • JCL

    In the summer of 2000, with all those horrid flight delays, I encountered several issues at O’Hare that could have easily been resolved given one small change in policy. I wrote an email to United proposing the change and how it would improve the issues that passengers and crew experienced.

    I did not hear anything until December when I got a letter thanking me, describing how my idea helped immediately and as a thank you, United gave me a free year at the Red Carpet Club.

    Days like this at the airlines are long gone. Too bad. This was enough compensation.

  • judyserienagy

    There’s insufficient info here … how did he end up at the wrong airport, for instance? I’ve observed the chaos that results from delays/cancellations several times and I think an agent would have to be on valium to deal with everybody fairly, since a good percentage of the passengers behave like jerks in these situations. I don’t think an airline would ever be able to respond by telephone to complaints, the numbers are just too large. If you have status at the airline, maybe a phone call … I surely would not expect it. The miles and voucher take the place of a personal communication, I don’t see that an airline has much choice.

  • Tricia K

    There are a lot of issues surrounding travel, air travel in particular, that can throw you off course. Weather, mechanical difficulties, computer issues can thwart the best laid plans of mice and men. The challenge isn’t the issues themselves, but rather how the airlines handle those challenges. A surprised a few pleasant tone of voice, guidance and more than anything, information, even if all they have to share at the time is “we’re working on, we’ll keep you posted.” Treating people decently goes a long way in this world. Noy all of us are looking for compensation either. When I spoke with my bank about bad information their teller gave me regarding foreign transaction fees, the woman said she would use it as a teachable moment in their training. While that was my goal in bringing it to their attention, a simple, “we’re sorry that happened” would have gone a long way.

  • Carchar

    Would you believe that the airport in Westchester is called Westchester County Airport? :)

  • Maxwell Smart

    In countries like USA employees are cheap. You can even literally use Mexicans to answer the phone.
    In Australia, there are no cheap employees. Wages are very high (which is probably why there is so much unemployment) Some businesses have tried using offshore phone answering services in Philippines & India, but generally that’s a disaster. (ie. cultural & language differences).

  • Bruce Burger

    Huh?

  • Mel65

    We had a “difficult” flight to Orlando. We left the gate, returned to the gate, disembarked and had to compete with everyone else on board. There were 10 of us traveling together (my family and my brother’s) to meet up with the rest of the family at Disney. Our 6am direct flight would have gotten us in at 10am. We ended up separated on 2 different flights with long layovers and ended up getting in after 7pm. We lost a day at Disney, our prepaid limo service that was unavailable at the later time, and had to spend hours hanging out in airports with small kids. I wrote to Delta. Expected nothing but wanted them to know and surprise I got a phone call from a Delta CS agent saying, “you sounded really upset in your letter and I thought I should call instead of send you an email.” He gave us vouchers and 5K miles per person and I ended up feeling a LOT better about the experience.

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