My Letter to American Airlines

Dear American Airlines:

Every time I fly on one of your planes, it’s a beating. And every time I talk to anyone else who has flown on one of your planes, they describe the experience by using some combination of the words “ass” and “whip.”

Then I read yesterday that you filed for bankruptcy. You have a near monopoly on certain routes. The last several times I have flown, the ticket cost a small fortune and the flight has been oversold. You extort cash for headphones that are as acoustically viable as an empty can of green beans with a string, blankets and pillows that should be quarantined by the Centers for Disease Control, and extra baggage. It now occurs to me that at 20 cents per share I could carry on my baggage and use the $50 fee to buy half your company. But I’m not here to bitch. I’m here to help.

My lawyer friends who handle bankruptcies advertise the process as a way to get a “fresh start.” I can’t help you with the number crunching but I can offer some suggestions as to other ways you can use bankruptcy to completely change the culture at American Airlines. Doing so will greatly impact the future viability of your company.

So here goes:

1. Make peace with your employees. There is a saying that to injure your opponent is to injure yourself. “But the unions are making petty, infuriating, stupid demands,” you say. No shit. They’re unions. But unions are made up of people, most of whom are more interested in the long term success of your company than in getting a hotel room away from an ice machine on layovers. When they see the CEO pocket $17 million in compensation during the 3 years leading to bankruptcy, they don’t want to hear you talk about concessions. And, contrary to what you may believe, it’s not really about the money, it’s about the message. Your employees do not mind sacrifice, they just want management to share a little of the sacrifice.

The relations have grown so acrimonious you need to get rid of every single person who has been on your side of the negotiating table and challenge the unions to do the same. It is a bold move that will signal your willingness to try something different. The real problem with breeding acrimony is that it filters down and permeates every aspect of your company, which brings me to my second suggestion.

2. Get a new vibe. You’ve seen the red neck bumper sticker that reads “When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Well your employees are “Momma” and they’re making your customers unhappy. Gate attendants look and act miserable. Flight attendants wear dour expressions. There is no spark, no pizazz, no fun. Hire 150 “American Airlines Amusement Ambassadors” whose only job is to walk your gates, fly your planes meet with your employees and learn how to make the experience of flying more enjoyable. Then give them the power to do something about it. This is like the restaurant manager who comes to your table and asks “How was your meal this evening? Did we meet your expectations?” This is the guy who calls the baggage handlers and kindly tells them to get the bags from Flight 162 to the baggage carousel tout sweet or who gives a personal assurance that a lost bag will be tracked down and delivered to the traveler by a certain time. This is the woman who intervenes and makes it right when a passenger gets bumped. Do not put this person behind an information desk. This person needs to be shaking hands, kissing babies, guarding luggage while a harried Mom runs to the rest room.

3. Offer creature comforts. Your gate waiting areas are horrendous. I know you are leasing the gates and that the gates are the responsibility of the airport. So what? Spend some money and upgrade the waiting areas or demand that your landlord do so. Segregate areas for families with children, offer more space to place luggage and spread out. Provide free Wi-Fi and multiple electrical outlets/charging stations. This is just the beginning. Survey the customer to find out what else they might appreciate. This fosters a dialogue with the allies who are most crucial to your success, the flying public.

4. Simplify. When I try to make a reservation at aa.com I feel like I am wandering through a maze constructed by Rube Goldberg’s demonic half-brother. The combinations of schedules and fares change by the minute and it’s almost impossible to find any comfort with the options. It’s similar to buying a used car. Every time I submit my destination and dates of travel, your website is the cyber-salesman winking at me and telling me “Let me go check with my manager and see if we can work this deal.”

For example, I recently decided to try to use my Aadvantage miles. I entered my information attempting several different dates for travel. Each time the response was “Aadvantage miles are not able to be used on the selected dates. Please try again.” Well here’s a novel idea. Why don’t I tell you how many miles I have and where I want to go and you can tell me when I can go there and when I can return? Simple.

5. Communicate. Give information. Get feedback. Start a conversation. People want to be informed. And lose the semantics. Every time I ask whether one of your planes is going to be on time the answer is: “It’s showing on time” or “It’s scheduled to be on time.” Oh, so you didn’t schedule it to arrive late? Okay. Gotcha.

If you screwed up a reservation, use a little common sense customer service and make it right. It will come back to you in spades. If a plane is going to be late, give frequent, honest updates. You might even try a little self deprecating fun. “The plane will be about 30 minutes late today because our computer is mistakenly displaying all of your names in Mandarin Chinese. No but seriously we are trying to locate a new sensor device for the flexor valve.” Then follow up every 10 minutes with additional updates. This will help disarm most people’s bitch mechanism.

That’s all I have for now. I can’t help your bean counters or your fuel hedgers or your passenger load efficiency experts but I do know that all of the concessions you achieve with bankruptcy will not make a whit of difference if you still offer a shitty product basted in a toxic culture.

Yours truly,

Tim Hoch

5 thoughts on “My Letter to American Airlines

  1. Yours is the first post I’ve seen anywhere that truly hits the nail on the head. Excellent. I am the wife of an 20+ year AA pilot first officer.

  2. Pingback: A Response to Tim Hoch on AA’s Bankruptcy - Getting Status

    • This is a considerate and well measured response to my post and I very much appreciate your feedback. A couple of items are worth noting. I am aware that the gate areas are not under the control or ownership of AA. However as lessee AA has quite a bit of clout in having the various airports make improvements. I agree with your comment about the headphones as well. My point, which I failed to articulate well, was that AA offers a vastly inferior “perk” and charges for it anyway. It’s more of a symbolic send up of AA’s overall approach.

      Thank you for your comments. I enjoyed reading your blog.

  3. I hate American Airlines but fly them all the time. I want to join a group that works to make their job as miserable as my flights. How can we get back at them?

    • I’m not sure how to get back at them other than to fly their competitors. Even in bankruptcy they are doing very little to prove they are a viable company with a sustainable future. Unless they clean out all of upper management, they’re done.

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