AOL Mystery Flyer: American Airlines Report Card

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



lrargerich, flickr

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
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AA is absolutely horrible. For a college graduation gift my parents sent my boyfriend and I to the Dominican Republic. Right when we arrived to the airport, AA would not accept my boyfriend's passport. After they promised us seats on the later flight and to rush downtown Miami to get a same day passport (almost $200), we get back to the airport, go through security only to find out we got bumped. We literally watched our plane leave the gate....we kept asking the boarding attendant when we were going to board and she ignored us or walked away from us almost every time, we realized we got bumped once we saw our plane leave the gate. Stayed in a hotel in Miami overnight with no luggage, nothing! AA wouldn't even give us a toothbrush. Lost 2 days at our all inclusive resort in the DR and was given a voucher that couldn't even get us a sandwich at the hotel restaurant because it was so pricey. Every manager we spoke to was beyond rude and could not even speak English. My boyfriend and I travel a lot, and we will never step foot on AA. A nice graduation present turned into a nightmare because of AA.

June 02 2010 at 2:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to natalie's comment

I flew American in March to Orlando and it was all fine, except that once one of the flight attendants brought drinks, she then went to the back of the plane and slept for the rest of the flight! I have never seen this before. I would think if she is there to work, she would be working.

May 31 2010 at 10:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
herbert wiesinger

I have not been on an American Airlines flight in quite some time. But I have had the
'pleasure' of being on a hotel shuttle with an AA crew after a long fight ( for me, too)
I had missed the shuttle I was to be on - it was full - had been told the next one was on
it's way, waited patiently (first in line, I thought). well, it took a long time to come, in the meantime an AA crew joined me in the line. A 'gentleman' was on the phone to the hotel,
complaining about NO SHUTTLE. I could not help overhearing, told them a shuttle was on the way for me (too). When it came - AA was up front and loading - I stood in amazement-then it was my turn - but the nice African-American lady (who had already loaded her luggage)
blocked me so another AA crew could load. When I politely said: I am in line, too.
she answered:'crew luggage comes first!!'
I did not know that. I have not been on AA in some time, I will not be on AA for some time!
details: 5-26-2010 in Colorado Springs - I arrived on DELTA at:8:05pm - hotel: Crowne Plaza
and I do understand about the crew getting in, getting their minimum sleep, -all that..
- but there are still manners - even for a 'lady'

May 31 2010 at 9:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The idea that the airlines should charge fees for checked baggage, because some people never check bags and shouldn't pay for something they never use is lame.

My wife stays in plenty of hotels for business, but she never uses the pool or the fitness room. Shouldn't she get a break on the price of the room?

What if you stay in a hotel with a free breakfast, but have to meet a co-worker or client for a breakfast meeting? You don't get a break there.

Or even the hand lotion and coffee that most rooms have. What if you don't use lotion or drink coffee? You still pay for that in your room rate.

I also contend that by charging for checked bags, airlines are decreasing security and creating a safety hazard. Checked bags go through the CT scanners, while hand luggage is merely x-rayed. Contraband is more likely to be detected in checked bags. Decreasing the number of checked bags screened, in my opinion, decreases security.

By the same token, airlines can keep track of the weight of baggage much better, if it's checked. They can only guess as to the weight of carry-on bags. This isn't a problem with large aircraft, such as MD-80s, 757s, and A330s. It's a problem with smaller airplanes, such as Embrear 135s, which are prone to weight restrictions, even for shorter flights.

May 29 2010 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a pax seated in coach - without "special needs" - your journey into the first class cabin, distracting the flight attendant from duties, and request to use its lavatory, is a security concern, not a customer service issue.

I suggest if you want a beverage before all others, and use of the forward lavatory - then you should purchase a first class ticket. Otherwise, it is you, sir, who is causing the problem(s).

May 25 2010 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jaime leal

now not has serveci is angly me all years go to boston. not importa the passegeres mor importa is many.watter is matter with yous

May 23 2010 at 9:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Michelle Higgins, a travel reporter with the NY Times had a terrific article on what it's like to be a flight attendant. With the help of American Airlines, she actually went through training to become a flight attendant for two days.

You can see what she has to say about the experience.
(if the url doesn't work, just Google "flying the unfriendly skies NY Times" and you will see the article).

I applaud this young lady for actually doing the job. Too many reporters or the public for that matter think they know what the job entails but there is more than meets the eye.

I would love to see Mystery Flier work a few days as a flight attendant with a couple of legs from/to Miami to New York (LGA). Yep....that oughta do it!

May 16 2010 at 6:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Reading these comments is fascinating. There are two problems going on here.
1. Passengers like to complain about EVERYTHING.
2. Airline employees can defuse passenger's frustrations with friendless and empathy, but often times passenger's frustrations are met with hostility and contempt.

May 14 2010 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Claystation's comment

Phil, you absolutely and completely prove my point. Hostility and contempt.

May 14 2010 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Claystation, I think we usually do a pretty good job of diffusing most situations.

Try diffusing this: During boarding, a big burly guy is walking down the aisle clearly upset about something. I was briefing the exit row standing in the aisle when I became the "target of his revenge". He barreled me over and I fell across the seats. After I got up, I asked this burly guy if we were going to have a problem. He said "no ma'am" and fell asleep. I guess he felt in his mind he made his point and was satisfied he was able to take his anger out on "someone".

Another passenger was using a hypodermic needle at his seat and had the needle pointing out into the aisle. I was walking down the aisle and almost ran into it. I assumed he was cleared by TSA to bring a needle on board due to an illness. I told him that if he is to use the needle to please use it in the lavatory. After cussing me out for "being afraid of a diabetic" he calmed down until later in the flight when he was still apparently mad at me. He walked to the back of the plane where I was standing and shoved me up against the wall. After alerting the captain, someone of authority was to meet the one showed up. After making a report and speaking to American Airlines about the situation, nothing was done even after reporting that one of the addresses he used on his reservation record was "The Betty Ford Foundation" (drugs maybe???)

It's a jungle out there Claystation. People are getting hostile. Believe me, we try to diffuse when we can.

Oh yes one other thing comes to mind. After asking one guy to keep his legs out of the aisle, he continued to stretch his legs out in the aisle (yes I know some people have long legs and there isn't much room in the seat).. I was walking back to the galley to get some water for someone having a coughing spell and tripped and fell over his foot. I was flat on the floor. The guy looks down at me, tells his friend "she wasn't looking where she was going anyway." And no...there was no "gosh, I'm sorry" nor did he help me up. It was another passenger that helped me. My point is although we are polite, try to diffuse, use tactics we're taught in training to avoid situations, it doesn't stop people who are becoming more brazen, more "in your face" and have no consideration to other passengers and crew and the flight attendants are the targets.

We see these things happen more often than the public because we're on the planes a heck of a lot more than the average traveler.

My next uniform will include a helmet and a suit of armor.

May 16 2010 at 8:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

While some may have legitimate complaints about an airline, others are nothing more than hot air spewing complaints on anything they can complain about. The public complained about the "lousy" food we used to serve in coach, now it's the lack of the lousy food. Back in the 70's and 80's when ticket prices were much higher, people saved their money to take a nice vacation but now expect Greyhound prices with your personal walking "vending machine", as we were called in another post, to serve you your free beverage. What??? free snacks??? I don't recall Greyhound serving those either.

People, I'm here to tell you, you wanted got cheap. No more magazines, no more free food, no more pillows and blankies. You used to have more leg room, now we're cramming you all in like sardines. You used to have a seat empty beside you, now you have a seatmate you will soon get to know intimately whether you want to or not.

Feel like cattle? No doubt. More planes have been grounded, city pairs have been reduced so now we need all your butts on fewer aircraft. (I'm going to suggest the airline play the theme from "Rawhide" when boarding):
Move 'em out, head 'em up,
Head 'em up, move 'em on.
Move 'em out, head 'em up:

So yes, we do understand your frustration whether you want to believe it or not but unfortunately, these are the good old days because it won't get any better.

Rude flight attendants? Do you mean that you are mad because we have had to tell you 3 times to turn off your electronic device and by the third time you get scowl from the flight attendant? Then when we're not looking, you turn it back on again? ....or better yet (I like this one)...tell me that you turned it off but you didn't and hide it in your shirt pocket. I see it GLOWING!!

I think we're bossy and we make too many announcements....but ... the FAA says we MUST tell you (because you won't listen in the first place). Personally, I'm going to make a recording and just press the button: "the seatbelt sign is on", "please turn off your electronic device", "your tray table needs to be put away", "your seatback upright for landing please". Actually, I'm getting tired of hearing my own voice.

Luggage: The "well it fit in the overhead bin on the way over". It probably did. You packed it nice and neat for your trip and now that you're on the way home, you wadded everything in it so now your roller board looks like an over stuffed sausage. Keep pushing, I know you can do it...there ya's in the bin now.

Every day I fly it's always entertaining.

Oh, one more thing. For those of you who think we're waitresses.... I really would appreciate tips.

May 13 2010 at 10:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

To Jeff:
"especially when the flight crew (FA) take up to bins for their shit"

....and where do you suppose we're suppose to put our "shit"? This is where the airline tells us to put our things.

May 13 2010 at 8:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply