'Something Special in the Air'? No More.

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2003-07-01 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Is American Airlines pushing customers to the web? Or to the competition?


This was going to be a complicated set of itineraries.

  • A round-trip N.Y. to Chicago for my son, Zachary, leaving in June and coming back at the end of July.
  • A round-trip to Chicago for myself, leaving in late July and returning on same flight as Zack.
  • A pair of round-trips from Chicago to St. Louis, also in late July, for both of us.

Such are the demands of college-shopping today. But this is not a tale of the travails of campus comparisons. It is about the travails of man vs. machine in making airline reservations.

Our family's preferred carrier is American Airlines. We lived in Dallas-Fort Worth for more than two decades. American was the home team and took care of us well. When family members died, a helping hand made emergency arrangements. When I was commuting to New York for a year, its planes were my taxis; its crews my friends.

My loyalty persists, even though my choice of airports and airlines has proliferated since moving to Connecticut. I still call American, in search of the human touch.

No more. But not because of the humans (See "Hitting Turbulence").

American's information systems are strangling the ability of its call center representatives to serve customers.

On this particular night, a woman I will name Charlene answered the call.

She was clearly exasperated even at the outset. She complained that her computer often copped an attitude; unfortunately, sometimes she would, too. So would you.

To make these itineraries happen, Charlene clearly had to write down on a piece of paper my AAdvantage program number, my name (no easy task), my credit card number (16 numerals and an expiration date), and my home address.

I could tell her exactly the flight numbers, dates and times for each leg of each itinerary. Yet, setting up each trip took scores of lookups and tapped instructions—a lot more than if I had handled this myself on the Web site.

The most frustrating part was the fact that Charlene had to enter all my personal information separately, each time for each itinerary. The systems in front of her couldn't draw the data from American's AA.com Web site, where it is already stored, or, even from her previous entries.

So Charlene would enter the name and credit card number each time. Naturally, she will misspell my name more than once, and find American's system won't accept my hyphen. She also will flub the credit card number at least once.

Nevertheless, she bends the system to her will. I should get confirmations by e-mail that night.

But something goes awry. Only two out of three confirmations arrive.

So when I call back 24 hours later, Susan informs me that the third itinerary was never paid for—despite what Charlene had said. Thankfully, Susan only has to wade through this one itinerary, taking my credit card number yet again.

Once again, however, no confirmation arrives.

At 5 a.m. the next day, Casey checks things out. She finds out a confirmation can't be sent out for days. Days.

Why? Charlene had put her requests for confirmation through an automated system. A machine responded within three hours. Susan, by contrast, put my request in a queue for human handling. The humans were only up to itineraries through June 9. The first day of this itinerary was July 25.

American clearly is trying to drive more and more customers to make their own flight arrangements on the Web. It even rewards them with 1,000 bonus award miles for each reservation executed online.

This is not the way to do it. You shouldn't be driving Charlene, Susan and Casey out of jobs by hamstringing them with antiquated and inept systems.

You shouldn't be driving customers away, either. Next time, I'll just use the Web, even for complicated reservations.

But if I'm just choosing between one Web page or another to make a reservation, I will be wholly impersonal about my choices.

And it won't matter what airline name is atop the screen.



 
 
 
 
Editor-in-Chief
tst@ziffdavisenterprise.com
Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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