Cheap-O-Air: The Power of Customer Service

I very infrequently complain on Twitter about goods or services I receive from companies because as a professional social media manager, I understand how hard it is to please each customer while simultaneously wanting to want to fix every problem fielded through social.

However, the afternoon of March 4 was an exception.

I was sitting in my office at my desk trying to change a flight home for Easter. I had realized I could fly home Thursday morning instead of Friday, but had already booked my flight to Buffalo through US Airways. I logged onto the website, and attempted to change my flight.

Eek. $200 change fee. Not okay.

Usually, when this happens, I attempt to cancel the one part of my flight and rebook on another airline (or the same one). Most of the time, it ends up being cheaper than paying for the new flight PLUS the change fee. But US Airways has a policy against canceling one part of an itinerary online, so I grab my iPhone and dial the number provided for me in the pop-up on my monitor.

I called, was connected to the automated system, then hung up on. Four times.

This was during the height of the Midwest’s second or third winter storm (over 2,000 canceled flights that day), and apparently the recent US-American merger consolidated the phone system between the two airlines. I personally don’t believe that qualifies them to make excuses, but it’s not the fault of the people on the other end of the phone for that.

What astounded me were two things that happened when I tweeted my frustration.

  • I received several favorites, RTs, and replies from strangers across the country about their similar frustrations with American.
  • American tweeted me the most garbage response of all time.

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The constant apologies from American’s Twitter account that day were frustrating, to say the least. Their strategy did not help customers; it only frazzled them more.

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I was comforted to know that other people were going through exactly what I was enduring at my desk. Many people tweeted at the airline that day, and they responded almost identically to each situation, as if the customers behind the @handles did not matter in the least, when in fact it is those customers who should matter most.

Customers who are upset will now take to their social channels in the digital age to complain about poor business models and practices, but the power of word of mouth remains stronger than ever. I told more people that day about my horrible experience with US Air and American than I’ve ever done the same for positive reviews about a company. Negative PR grows much more quickly than positive, and American’s negative customer service through their social channels has definitely spread.

I called back a week later and, surprisingly, was connected immediately to an American representative. However, I was told (very rudely) it would cost me $225 to cancel my one-way flight from Boston to Buffalo that cost me $99, and that if I just happened to not show up for the first flight, they would cancel the second flight back to Boston. So now I’m still flying home Friday, and I will never book US Airways or American again.

I may love cheap flights, but I will always believe in the power of customer service over everything else.

10 comments

  1. Alyssa, I had the same exact experience with US Airways over Boston College’s Spring Break when I needed to change a flight due to a family funeral, but was on hold for over an hour before I every got to a customer service representative. Luckily I was not flying roundtrip, so I just never showed up to my US Airways and bought a ticket on a different airline with no change fee. But if I had been on a roundtrip flight that needed to be changed due to a family death, US Airways would have either gotten a tweetful or mouthful from me over the Internet or phone if they insisted on the $200 change fee. I am surprised that US AIrways has not changed their culture regarding social media, as one of their top competitors, Jet Blue, takes such a proactive and customer friendly approach to social media and complaints.

  2. Fantastic Post Alyssa! I just want to first to say for the record that I am a major supporter and loyal customer of the One World Alliance (Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s airline is part of the alliance). In comparison to its counter parts, US Airways and American Airlines are the worst member in the company (Yes, Worse that Malaysian Airline & AirBerlin, thats saying something!) Every time I fly back to Hong Kong for break, I’d had to go through JFK and then HK. The HK flight from JFK is at 2pm or at 1am midnight and normally I will take the 2pm one. There is only one flight down to JFK from Boston that same morning for connection and US Airways/American is unfortunate the carrier company. I remember one time they canceled the flight as I got to the airport without telling us what is going on and did not notify us via SM or any means. I had to figure out on the phone as to how I can get home. (It was christmas break and tickets are scarce, I was leaving the 18th and if I can’t find a route I will have to wait till christmas to get home). Fortunately the wonderful staff of Cathay helped me and I was able to fly out later to SF and then to HK. But it poor use of SM and its Customer Services of American almost cause me a few days home. I won’t also not be able to claim any liabilities from American. I share your frustration with this particular company and they seriously need to work on their SM and their customer services…. On top of that, guess who was the carrier that took me to SF? JetBlue ;)

  3. I definitely share your feelings of frustration for bad customer service and airlines. My flight back home to Hawaii takes usually around 12 hours, but because I try to fly as cheaply as I can, it usually takes me close to 18 hours with layovers. So I also have my share of travel horror stories as well. I love how active you are on Twitter and I’m always impressed that you back up your blog posts with your own online experiments. The interesting part about this post is that you would think that airlines would have learned by now (from Jet Blue) that good customer service really matters. This service also becomes even more essential in industries where problems come up all the time. The funny thing about American Airlines and their generic posts is that their inhuman responses probably do more damage than good since bad responses just increase frustration. The whole purpose of their use of social media is probably for customer service, which is something they definitely need to work on. Otherwise what is the point?

  4. Customer service is always the most important!! I have to work with travel agents to schedule travel for my job frequently so I understand your frustrations. It is comforting knowing the power of social media and the power of collective thought can hopefully little by little not only relieve customer’s frustrations but improve customer service.

  5. Given all that we’ve learned from KLM, JetBlue and other airlines in class that have succeeded in creating positive customer service relationships through social media, it amazes me that American/US Air haven’t taken the hint. It’s funny because I recently was having trouble with checking in for a flight on American and I called them and, like you, was hung up on. After three or four times, I gave up and for the first time ever, I made a customer service complaint on Twitter about a company. I complained to American on Twitter, asking them what I should do? No response. I was shocked. Talk about terrible customer service. Now, American has such a bad connotation for me (and given your post and everyone’s comments, I’m clearly not the only one). Why would I ever choose to fly it again? This is definitely going to end up hurting American and US Airways as they tries to compete with the rising power of JetBlue and Southwest, airlines that not only beat the larger airlines on price, but also on quality and customer service. I feel like I’m being taken care of when I fly JetBlue, whereas American makes me feel like I’m being scammed. Not a great feeling to have from a customer who will be flying for his career. Great post, Alyssa. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  6. Classic frustration with airlines these days! I, too, have had a horrendous experience with US Airways. Freshman year, my parents booked a one-way flight with Jet Blue that was less than $75 so I could come home a day early (Monday instead of Tuesday) for Thanksgiving break. However, since I didn’t show up for my first flight on my round-trip purchase with US Airways, they automatically cancelled my return flight from Pittsburgh to Boston on Sunday. The best part is that they NEVER notified me! I discovered the cancellation on Saturday night when I didn’t receive an email requesting that I check-in for my Sunday night flight. I didn’t tweet about the incident, but if it happened to me again today, Twitter would have been my first outlet. Personally, I think the evolution of the use of social media has really benefitted customers. From one US Airways hater to another new one, hopefully everything goes alright with your flights over Easter!

  7. It has gotten to the point that I will start choosing airlines with good Twitter customer service (JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, KLM), instead of those that do not (United, USAir, American). You could blame it on the size, but Delta is the largest and has a phenomenal Twitter customer service team. It’s the best way to get help when something goes not according to plan.

  8. I feel like airlines are always a surprise waiting to happen. I’ve traveled a lot myself when I was younger with my father who travels a lot for work and we ran into problems left and right with both international and domestic flights. Some of these problems include but are not limited to: frequent delays, unexpected cancellations, and poor customer service. I remember there was one time when I was very young (about 6/7) when I had to wait 2 days in London to get to India over a summer. My dad was absolutely furious as Emirates Customer Service, which is usually pretty good, was awful on that trip. But sometimes we get pleasant surprises and upgrades from customer service as well, so airlines are always a new surprise for me!

  9. Really loved this post, Alyssa! Looking at the comments above and seeing your examples, it’s clear that people like to vent about airline frustrations (myself included). I was flying home on March 4th with US Airways, in the midst of the snow storm like you mentioned, so I especially appreciated your post. My flight was delayed a half hour, then another hour, and then a few more. Close to 4 hours in total, and the company was horrendous at keeping people updated. Sitting near the gate’s counter also exposed me to the poor service of US Airways/American. After seeing the airline’s awful quality in person that day, I wasn’t surprised to read all the negative tweets that you included (and the company’s responses). If a company has such bad in-person customer service, it doesn’t seem like they would do any better online.

  10. Always love to read about airline customer service. I can’t say that I’ve had a bad experience, part from one time where I wasn’t allowed to board a return flight because I had abandoned the first leg of it to avoid cancellation fees (word to the wise, don’t do that).

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