AOL Mystery Flyer: American Airlines Report Card

Posted May 10th 2010 07:56 PMUpdated Sep 1st 2010 07:56 AM

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No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?


Read on to see how American Airlines scored on last Wednesday's flight from Atlanta to San Francisco via Dallas/Fort Worth:


How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
4/5: I called American Airlines the day before my departure, hoping to get a seat that would put me closer to the front of the plane. The man who handled my call was very friendly, although I had the impression he was fairly new on the job since he kept putting me on hold to look up my seat and other basic information. He told me it was not possible to change my seat, but that I could try once I got to the airport. I inquired about Internet onboard and was put on hold for about three minutes. When he came back, he apologized for the hold time and told me there was no Internet on my flight (he was wrong), but he gave me a toll-free number to call if I wanted to find out about other flights that were wired. Throughout our phone call he was patient and friendly when answering my questions. It made up for the fact that he seemed like a newbie on the job.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
4/5: I arrived in Atlanta on an AirTran flight, and had carried on my luggage. So I did not have to exit security to get my boarding pass for my connecting American Airlines flight. I went right to the departure gate, where another flight to Dallas was about to depart. I considered boarding that flight, but decided it wasn't worth the $50 fee. The gate agent was stressed trying to close out the previous flight, so I backed off and waited until she was finished with that.

Once she had closed out that flight, she called to a man seated nearby that it was his turn to talk to her, not acknowledging that I was waiting, too. I thought perhaps that his matter must be more urgent. While she helped him, I stood patiently, hoping that all the good seats were not being taken and wondering if maybe I should go somewhere else to get my boarding pass. I decided to hold tight.

When it was my turn, she turned her full attention to me and was very empathetic and friendly about finding me a good seat near the front so I could make a tight connection in Dallas. While I had felt somewhat slighted initially, I realized it was just because she was busy. And when it was my turn, her focus was on answering my questions and getting me a good seat. Then I asked where to find the best food in the airport, and she told me her favorite terminal restaurant -- Le Petit Bistro -- was nearby at gate T8; she said it had a nice selection of fresh food. I asked her about onboard Internet, and she said she wouldn't know till closer to departure time. Later, when I was boarding, she remembered my question as she took my ticket and told me there was Internet on the flight.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
2/5: Since I connected after the flight from Atlanta, I'll share my experience requesting a seat change at the American gate in Dallas. There was no one in line in front of me at the counter. But when I approached, the agent working there gave me a startled, somewhat rude look, as if to say: "What do you want?" In fact, she didn't say anything; I was just met with an expectant glance. When I asked if I could change my seat for my flight to San Francisco, she replied: "Sorry, it's a full flight." There were many passengers milling about waiting for boarding to start, and the scene was quite hectic, so I suppose she was stressed. But her interaction with me was not friendly at all. Later, when I was boarding (in one of the earlier boarding zones), a gate agent intercepted my roller bag and said: "You're going to have to see if it fits in there," pointing to the Size Wise baggage checker. Now, my roller bag was small and nowhere near over-stuffed, but she said: "You packed it too full; see if it fits." And sure enough, it would not fit into the Size Wise device. I tried to argue that I had just carried it on from Atlanta and it had fit fine in the overhead bin, but she was having none of my argument, and before I knew it, she had slapped on a claim ticket, handed me a stub and was literally shooing me down the jetway. I had no time to argue, and I wouldn't have prevailed anyway. But I felt dismissed and hurried in an unfriendly way. I realize that boarding is stressful, and that there is pressure for airline personnel to have an on-time departure, but the unfriendly mood was quite a letdown after I'd received such nice service on the leg from Atlanta.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
5/5: I flew two flights on American on Wednesday, since I had to connect in Dallas. But in the interest of giving equal billing time to all airlines in my friendliness survey, I judged only the first leg, from Atlanta to Dallas. And I have to say that the friendliness and efficiency on this flight was some of the best service yet. I was seated in row 8, right near first/business class. Right after boarding, I approached the flight attendant in the galley at the front, where she was busy preparing drinks for the non-coach passengers. I feared she would be annoyed that I interrupted her to ask for a drink, but she smiled and said: "Just let me drop these off and I'll get you some water." I also asked to use the lavatory in the forward section, anticipating a scolding, and she welcomed me right in.

Despite the flight being fairly full, the FAs all seemed very relaxed and friendly. It set a good mood for the trip from the start. During the flight, I repeatedly requested everything from more drinks (immediately brought to me) to a blanket (met with an apology that they're no longer available). At one point, when an FA was coming through to collect trash, she noticed that my tea was empty and asked if I need more hot water. I said, "Yes, please," and she returned with hot water and an additional tea bag. Rarely have I had such intuitive service flying coach, and I was pretty shocked. Toward the end of my flight, I went to the rear of the plane and approached an FA who was reading. I apologized for interrupting her; she said, "Not at all" and answered my string of questions about connecting in Dallas, assuring me they would be providing gate information soon and telling me about the layout of the various American Airlines terminals at the airport to make my arrival easier.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
5/5: This was really one of the most relaxed and most friendly flights yet. Perhaps it was because the airplane was not entirely full that the FAs seemed so at ease. Whatever the reason, I can report lots of smiles and very friendly interactions both in first class (which I could see from my seat) and in coach. The three FAs I interacted with seemed very experienced, and were extremely professional. It made for a very pleasant flying vibe.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
4/5: When I arrived in Dallas, the scene was hectic. There was an American Airlines representative standing just outside the plane with plenty of passengers surrounding her, asking for directions. When I asked for my connecting gate she looked at her paper, told me where to go, and pointed me down the hall with a friendly smile.


My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
Filed Under: Air Travel