Simple Request Turns Into Cautionary Tale of Airline Customer Service Woes

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Photo courtesy MD Magazine

It seemed like a simple request, but it turned out to be one with as many answers as there were American Airlines service people handling our calls.

We wanted to change our August flight from Washington, DC, to New York from an arrival at JFK at 4:05pm to an earlier flight in order to be certain (as certain as we can be) to make our British Air connection to London that departs the same day at 7:30pm.

Months ago when we booked the tickets, we felt lucky to be able to use our carefully hoarded American Airlines’ frequent flyer miles to fly business class. The three-plus hours to switch terminals and check in for our international flight seemed adequate.

But after a summer of heavy rains in DC, mostly in the afternoon, I got nervous about the “what ifs” of travel. What if thunderstorms or mechanical problems delayed or cancelled the American flight? Then, we’d miss our London connection as well as our overnight before boarding our cruise ship that sails from Southampton.

On my first call to American, the representative told me I could only change the tickets by cashing in 30,000 frequent flier miles for each person, a total of 60,000 miles for me and my husband to get to JFK in coach after we had already cashed in 167,000 miles and paid for additional miles. No way were we going to do that. She said that I could not purchase new tickets to JFK. That made no sense.

I called American back. This time the rep told me that I could pay a $150 change fee plus taxes for each ticket, only to stop herself and say “no you can’t do that because you have an international connection.”

The woman at the international desk told me that I had two options: take the only flight still available for miles—a 5:00 a.m. DC departure or purchase new tickets for a flight landing at 2 p.m. for $225 each, total $450. Spending 13 hours at JFK voluntarily (I’ve done this involuntarily) seemed a harsh way to start a vacation and $450 is, well, $450. But at least we knew American would take our money.

My husband and I conferred. He’s from the “it-will-be-alright school of airline travel.” (He also travels much less than I do.)

Considering that so far our “free ticket” cost us $2,400 ($1,200 each) in taxes to British Air and $113 times four, or $452, to book seats ahead so we could sit next to each other,  my husband voted to wait and watch the advance weather forecasts.

About a week before our trip, when my husband contacted American Airlines, the rep told him about the $150 change fee, but this time added the cost of the new flights, now about $260 each. Total for the change: $410 for each ticket, or $820. Hmm. We couldn’t just cancel the original DCA-to-JFK ticket, but had to pay a change fee and buy another ticket. That made no sense. We couldn’t fathom paying $410 for a $260 flight.

When I checked our British Air reservations a day or so later, I noticed that BA listed us as on the flight that landed at 2 pm, the one we wanted, but had not ticketed us. We decided to wait 24 hours to call American in case it took that long for our new reservations to clear.

The next day we checked again. Our status had not changed with BA, but American insisted we were on the plane landing at 4:05 pm. The rep could not explain why BA listed us on the flight we wanted, but she did say we could purchase a new ticket, now costing about $275 each. No mention, however, of the additional $150 change fee for each ticket. So our new flights would cost a total of $550 instead of $820.

By now we had caught on. Apparently, American employs a “flexible” approach to information: The rep tells you what they think is correct. That’s the conclusion we came to based on so many differing answers. We decided to keep calling until we received an answer we could live with.

Don’t laugh. We waited a few hours. My husband phoned American again. “Yes,” said the rep, “you can get on the flight landing at 2 p.m. as long as you pay the difference in taxes.” After a few moments to calculate the cost, she said “$3.20 for each ticket.”  We grabbed the deal, paying only $6.40 for the earlier flight—not 60,000 miles, not $300, not $450 or $820 or $550. Just $6.40.

Yes, we booked the change a few days closer to our departure. Maybe a frequent flyer seat had opened up. But then why hadn’t the previous rep told us about it? Could we have called back just at the moment when a seat became free? Maybe. That bit of luck, however, does not explain all the previous conflicting answers.
I don’t know what the moral of the tale is except to say, call the airline back if the answers to your questions seem odd. By the time you read this, hopefully, my husband and I will be in London.

I am forwarding this blog to American Airlines. I will post their response if I receive one. And to American Airlines’ Management: Here’s another complaint. As a long-time million mile flyer, I earned the reward of checking two bags for free. The past year or so, I’ve been downgraded to one checked bag for free? Why? Taking away benefits never feels good to a client.

What are some of your difficult transactions with airlines and what did you learn? Share your comments below or connect with us on Twitter, @familyitrips.

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