Something Special In the Air? I Beg To Differ (By Pam Selker Rak)

One of my all-time favorite movies is, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But never in a million years did I ever think I’d actually experience a few of those scenes first-hand. Oh but I did.

Pam Rak and Nick Selker caught in perfect storm of airline service

Pam Selker Rak and Nick Selker caught in perfect storm of bad airline customer service.

And I’m sad to say that it happened with the airline that I’ve logged over 250,000 miles with as a Priority flyer – American Airlines. I’m sad because, overall, I’m a pretty loyal consumer. But as a marketing professional, I take a very different, tougher approach to helping companies live-up to their brand promise. I work with organizations in a process-driven way to help them analyze each and every touchpoint or engagement with their customers.

The way I determine this is by documenting the customer experience – from the customer’s perspective – not from the organization’s standpoint. From that, I can pretty much tell if their brand promise is heartfelt or just all-talk. If it’s heartfelt, then great; I advise them to do more of the same (maybe with a few tweaks here and there). But if it’s all-talk, then their marketing process is overhauled at each step of the client engagement to realign it with their brand promise.

So back to my Steve Martin/John Candy experience with American Airlines. I had booked a trip for my nephew, Nick, and me to travel to Ireland. When my nieces and nephews graduate from college, a trip abroad is my gift to them – I want them to travel and experience the world. Before we left, I said to Nick, “My hope is that this trip will forever change your perspective by the experience you get.”

Needless to say, it did. But not in the way I wanted – or ever intended. We got caught-up in a perfect storm of airline delays and cancellations that ultimately threw so many wrenches into our plans that we had to abort the trip mid-stream. The furthest we got was from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

But rather than “tell” you this sad tale, I thought it would be more interesting to document it in the way I would if I were doing this exercise for my clients. During my experience, I had to engage with both American Airlines, whose brand promise is, “Something Special in the Air;” and Southwest Airlines, whose brand promise is, “The Love Airline.”

Below I’ve documented, via a timeline, each and every touchpoint with both airlines during my two-day experience in trying to get from Pittsburgh to Dublin. As you read through this timeline, keep in mind both airlines’ brand promise: Do you think American Airlines lived-up to their promise of being “Something Special in the Air?” And did Southwest live-up to their brand promise of “The Love Airline?”

You be the judge.

Brand Experience with American Airlines: “Something Special in the Air”

    • 1:30 PM: Arrived at PIT Airport for 3:40 flight to Charlotte
    • 2:35 PM: Received text from AA of flight delay due to air traffic
    • 2:36 PM: Realized we would miss connecting flight to Dublin
    • 2:38 PM: Called AA Customer Support
      • Re-routed to Dublin through Philadelphia flight leaving at 3:40
    • 3:10 PM: Received Text from AA that PHL flight cancelled due to weather
    • 3:11 PM: Called AA Customer Support
      • Told there were no options remainder of day
    • 3:15 PM: Called Travel Agent; found option through Chicago, connecting to Air Lingus at O’Hare
    • 3:30 PM: Went to gate to speak directly with AA agent
      • Booked me to 4:45 PM Chicago O’Hare and 8:20 PM Air Lingus flight to Dublin
      • Asked AA agent how to get boarding pass for Air Lingus
      • Told to go to gate upon arrival at O’Hare
    • 4:30 PM: AA flight to Chicago delayed
    • 6:25 PM: Landed in O’Hare
    • 6:40 PM: Took train to International Terminal 5
    • 7 PM: Went to Air Lingus desk for Dublin boarding passes
      • Air Lingus ticket counter closed
    • 7:05 PM: Called Air Lingus Customer Support repeatedly
      • No answer
    • 8:20 PM: Missed Dublin flight
    • 8:45 PM: Went to AA Desk in Terminal 3
      • Told Pittsburgh AA agent should have never booked the connection with Air Lingus due to inability to print boarding pass
      • Told there were no options to Dublin until Saturday; arriving Sunday
      • Re-routed tickets through London to Dublin the following day
      • Told we’d have to get a hotel but AA couldn’t pay due to policy (Spent $378 out-of-pocket for hotel)
      • Told luggage was stuck in International terminal at Air Lingus holding area but couldn’t be retrieved because they were closed until 3 PM the following day
      • Told there was no guarantee our luggage would be transferred in time
      • Told to go to Baggage Service Desk one level down to inquire
    • 9:30 PM: Went to Baggage Service Desk at O’Hare
    • 10:10 PM: Spoke to Baggage Service Agent
      • Told luggage would go on next Air Lingus flight to Dublin
      • Told to return to airport early the next day to figure out how to get luggage transferred
    • 11 PM: Checked into O’Hare Airport Hilton
    • 11:30 PM: Called AA Baggage Dept out of concern that luggage would go to Dublin via Air Lingus
      • Told that  I was given incorrect information by O’Hare AA agent; luggage is not permitted to travel internationally without ticketed passengers on board
    • Friday, 6/17; 6 AM: Arrived at AA Baggage Service Desk at O’Hare
      • Told AA transfer personnel wouldn’t be in until noon
      • Told Air Lingus personnel wouldn’t be  in until 3 PM
      • Told that it would take an addition 2 hours to get it transferred
      • Told that they couldn’t guarantee luggage would transfer to London/Dublin flights
    • 7 AM: Returned to AA Ticket Counter
      • Explained situation to agent
      • Told nothing could be done; had to be handled by AA Baggage Service Desk
    • 7:31 AM: Received Text from AA that flight to Dublin through London delayed by over 8 hours
      • Realized we would miss our connection from London to Dublin
    • 7:45 AM: Returned to AA Ticket Counter
      • Told there were no options until Sunday, arriving Dublin on Monday
    • 8 AM: Made decision to abort trip due to risk factors with delays and lost luggage
    • 8:15 AM: Went back to AA ticket counter to ask if we could re-route to PIT
      • Told no way to get to PIT that day
      • Told would have to stay at hotel but AA couldn’t pay
    • 8:30 AM: Decided to switch airlines (cost $662 out-of-pocket for two SW same-day fares)
      • Told AA couldn’t give me credit/refund for ticket for future use due to policy
      • Told to go to americanairlines.com/refund and fill out forms
    • 8:35 AM: Returned to AA Baggage Service Desk To See how to get luggage back
      • Told only option was to file claim report at AA Baggage Service Desk at PIT Airport
    • 11:06 PM: Arrived in PIT via Southwest Airlines
    • 11:30 PM: Went to AA Baggage Service Desk
      • Told to go to SW to file report; when I asked why since SW didn’t lose my luggage, was told it was the rules and I shouldn’t have switched airlines
      • Agent then pointed in direction of SW baggage office and said, “Go over there.”
  • 11:45 PM: END OF ENGAGEMENT TO DATE WITH AA

Brand Experience with Southwest: “The Love Airline”

    • Friday, 6/17; 8:30 AM: Booked Flights to PIT on SW App, leaving Chicago Midway at 5:10 PM
    • 9:05 AM: Arrived at Midway Airport
    • 9:10 AM: SW agent put us on standby for all flights before the 5:10 PM flight
      • Gate agents at each flight tried to get us home early; no luck due to full flights
    • 5:10 PM: SW flight to Nashville Left on-time
    • 6:30 PM: Landed in Nashville; SW gate agent apologized for flight delay
    • 8:45 PM: SW flight to PIT left 30 minutes late
      • Flight attendants congratulated customers on Stanley Cup win and led a cheer
    • 11 PM: Arrived in PIT
    • 11:45 PM: Filed baggage incident report with SW Baggage Service Desk
      • When they heard the scenario, the agent said, “I am so, so sorry this happened to you!” She assured me they’d work with AA to get luggage returned
      • Provided direct number but said they’d be in touch every day
      • Received first status call at 1:54 PM on Saturday, June 18th
  • 11:55 PM: END OF ENGAGEMENT TO DATE WITH SW
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