American Airlines Needs Some Empathy

I was stuck on the tarmac in Dallas yesterday with my daughter, as American Airlines tried to sort out an issue with the plane. The plane was hot and uncomfortable, yet the flight attendants did nothing to help — no information, no offer of water, nothing — they hung out together at the front of the plane. The only interaction that I saw with a flight attendant was a mean interchange with an understandably frustrated passenger. There were also long gaps of time without any information from the pilot about our situation.

What’s missing? Empathy. Employees didn’t care about the passengers’ experiences.

No airline can completely eliminate issues (like mechanical problems) that cause delays, but they have complete control over how they respond and deal with passengers. It was almost as if the American pilots and flight attendants had no idea how to deal with this situation. That’s unacceptable. If a company can anticipate situations, then they must prepare effective service recovery processes. Employees should be trained (as well as measured, incented, and celebrated) to mitigate these types of situations.

American Airlines should learn our C.A.R.E.S. model of service recovery:

  • Communication (clearly communicate the process and set expectations)
  • Accountability (take responsibility for fixing the problem or getting an answer)
  • Responsiveness (don’t make the customer wait for your communication or a solution)
  • Empathy (acknowledge the impact that the situation has on the customer)
  • Solution (at the end of the day, make sure to solve the issue or answer the question)

I went online to send American a comment about the experience, but the poor customer experience continued on their Website. Here’s the form that American provided…

Does this look like a genuine request for feedback? The screen is full of stuff that passengers need to fill in BEFORE American will accept any feedback. Why do they need my full address in order to hear that I had a terrible experience.

And, if you look at the upper right hand part of the screen (where you can see my name), American already knows that it’s me. So they already have most of the information that they want me to fill in. With such a terrible system for collecting feedback, it’s not likely that American learns much from its passengers.

Here’s the summary: American treated hundreds of passengers poorly by locking them in a hot plane with no information and no service, and puts significant hurdles in the way of hearing about it.

The bottom line: Service recovery needs to be an institutional skill for airlines

Written by 

I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about leading-edge XM topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

11 thoughts on “American Airlines Needs Some Empathy”

  1. Bruce,

    I read you blog post as an empathizing customer who’s been in that same situation!

    Failure to communicate is not only poor customer service; it’s also poor manners!

    It’s no coincidence that Jet Blue, and Southwest both deliver a better customer experience, AND are more profitable that American!

    Jim Watson

  2. Hi Bruce,
    Sad to hear of your experience with AA. Agree with your CARE process, but doesn’t the fix start way before this, the CARE process is just that, a process/tactic to get your customers back on track.
    The key element I would suggest AA review is their organisational culture, is the HR team hiring the right people with the right mind set, and soft skills? Based on your experience, at the moment, the answer is No.
    The good news is that tomorrow is another day, they can review their brand promise, and if it is at all associated with delivering wow service, they can start to put the building blocks in place.
    Enjoying your blogs Bruce.
    Keep on doing what you are doing…

  3. I fight the same battles. Working in a large bank, culture is a hard subject to train. My area of concern is the technical process side. Started a 6 Sigma program to get at the root of the problems that start these interactions. Your website feedback form is an excellent example. Hard to fix those problems on legacy systems. Highlighting the issues here might push companies to spend the money on more flexible systems so good ideas can be institutionalized. Keep up the good work.

  4. Bruce: You hit the nail on the head and that is that AA does not care or show any empathy toward their customers. I travel on AA only because all my points are with AA so if I didn’t then I would lose my status; however, I continue to ask “why”… why am I continuing with an airline that does not respect their customer.

    Ron Ditmer, PMP
    Sr. Project Mgr,
    McKesson Medical-Surgical

  5. Hi Oakleigh, Brian, and Ron: Thanks for chiming in! There is definitely a culture problem at American Airlines. And, it’s so bad that I would point to a leadership problem here as well.

    I’m a very frequent flier on American, but am on the verge of just writing them off — they treat me so poorly that it’s almost not worth the frequent flier perks. And if they can’t keep me happy, how can they attract casual fliers? I know a lot comes down to prices and routes, but who wouldn’t rather fly on Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America? So if those “better” carriers continue to grow, then American will end up with less full flights or it will need to aggressively compete on price. In either case, I think it’s worth the investment for them to improve their leadership and culture.

    If anyone from American is reading this, take a look at my report: The Four Customer Experience Core Competencies.

  6. A few years ago, I was on a JetBlue flight from JFK airport to Ft. Lauderdale. Although we left the gate on time, there was a lot of congestion on the runways and we sat there for 2 hours. The situation was completely out of JetBlue’s control, yet the pilot gave us regular updates (over a loudspeaker that could be clearly heard). He told us what was going on and what we could expect. When it became clear that there was no hope of taking off anytime soon, he told us that ALL drinks were available free of charge.

    Needless to say we were late in getting to Ft. Lauderdale, and passengers were tired and upset. But no one had a bad thing to say about the airline or the crew. If anything, I heard several passengers thanking the crew on their way out.

    I used to fly American years ago to California, and their service was first class, even in couch. And now with cramped seats, rude and indifferent service, and nickle and diming us for every service, I can’t think of a good reason why they deserve to be in business. To big to fail?

  7. It is true that there are cultural problems in American airlines, and it’s just sad to experince this kind of things. They should at least learn how to respect their customer if they are in that kind of business.

  8. Sorry to hear it was such a bad experience. I thought I ought to at least note that entirely separate from the email form you encountered (it is pretty long), AA does have the [+] Feedback link for OpinionLab on the main site.

    THAT feedback mechanism doesn’t require so much information from you to submit. Might have been a better option all things considered, and a great example of why it is recommended that it gets placed on ALL pages of a website. Just sorry you didn’t find it.

    Safe travels.

  9. American has good team members and bad like every airline.good seats and bad seats
    They are human those that work for AA

    As a long time frequent flier who has flown on the lions share of airlines in this country American typically does a satisfactory job.Yes I agree that their website is not guest friendly for filing complaints.Having said that they have always responded to every concern I have ever had and exceeded my expectations in recovery efforts and apologies when doing so.Even if they didn’t always agree with my feedback . Most the time they do.
    American runs what many frequent fliers think is the best loyalty program globally and they invented the genre.I too have been furious at American over the years.But travel is is always risky.Just this past week United shut down operations with a computer glitch.The week after that it could be ash clouds.These are many of the risks you take when you fly including death.When you get in on time and alive count your blessings 🙂

    If you want a world class alliance with British Airways,Qantas and others airline partners its one world or star alliance.One has the opportunity to get a 22,000 dollar first class ticket as just one example on Qantas for 145,000 miles when you can find seats. American is hands down my favorite program
    and on a good day the flying all goes well
    Fly Southwest,Virgin America, and jet blue u may get a few more smiles granted however at the end of the day I fly for the best options of getting me from point a to point b and get richly rewarded for my revenue
    The other airlines to me have lousy frequent flier programs even if I desire to fly them every now
    American is a keeper till a better value proposition comes along
    Many passengers have to learn to deal with frustration better.Transportation is what it is

    Its not group therapy being offered out there or one on one.Flight Attendants could be nicer at times but they are there primarily to assist you through the flight and their for your safety.Not council you in grief during a delay.They frequently don’t get any more information than we do.Its always sucked with communication typically as far back as I can remember
    I don’t disagree they need to be kinder and more generous to their passengers when issues and concerns arise.They cant make all passengers happy all the time no mater what they do…..I am a satisfied customer overall……..sure it could be a lot better however AA is stuck with many bitter Union folks that have job security
    sure it would be nice to see some go…………..for some fresher smiling faces who care brilliantly about their passengers and company they work for.I’m not holding my breath 🙂

  10. AA sent me an email that they change cancelled the second leg of my itinerary and rebooked my on another flight one hour forty five minutes later. However that will mean that I will miss the last leg of my itinerary internationally. There are other airlines that will allow me to make all my connections. So I contacted AA and asked to cancel my flights. They offered a voucher for the cost good for one year. Since I fly out of Phila., the voucher is almost worthless, unless I go back to the same destinationa and take the same risk again. But the worst part is the conversation I had with the supervisor, (NAME DELETED), She stated that since “I was going on a seven day vacation, it’s my fault for not booking a bigger gap in the time difference.” A little empathy would go a long way in soothing over the frustration.

  11. I completely agree with you about the poor feedback website they offer. I had a terrible experience, yet instead of just hitting reply, I had to go back and enter all info again. The system seems to be designed to discourage feedback, not to receive it.

    I even posted my experience at to prevent other people from going through my experience.

    I guess it is hard for employees to care for customers when they feel the bankrupt company they work for does not care for them, and it increases their workload by 15% while reducing their benefits. However, this is a vicious cycle that will only cause the company to lose more customers, and require more slashing.

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