If you want an adequate flying experience, stay away from #AmericanAirlines

I travel a lot… a lot. I’ve learned to expect very little service from US domestic airlines. Never did I expect the worst of the worst that American Airlines treated me to last night.

Let me preface this horror tale by coming clean – I know better than to arrive 60 minutes before my flight is scheduled to depart.  I do know that.  And I didn’t.  I arrived 55 minutes before takeoff. So I already knew I was in for a flurry of activity and running around. I never factored in American’s now legendary grotesque version of customer service.

Adequate Flying Experience? I think NOT.

7:55pm   When I arrived at Miami International Airport, there were curbside check-ins for First Class or Business Class only. I guess American Airlines thinks only their First and Business class passengers want to check their luggage curbside.  That, or they’re punishing their other flyers for not being First or Business Class. There were no less than 3 different check-in stations with 3 desks at each – a total of 9 stations – and no one within shouting distance.  You could hear crickets. Of course this means anyone who is not First or Business class is left with one option: head into the airport and contend with every other person flying American Airlines at their check-in counters.

Miami is a hub for American Airlines. If you’re not familiar with what that means, or even if you are, American Airlines has an entire terminal devoted to their airline alone. They are the 800 pound gorilla in the room: impossible to ignore and virtually impossible to deal with. They are HUGE – and they couldn’t care less about their customers: they don’t have to.

So I entered the terminal and headed for the ticketing and check-in desks displaying Priority Boarding signs. There were several people already in line, and two of the people in front of me graciously allowed me to go ahead of them so I was next to speak to the agent. Unfortunately for me, the agent was talking to a huge family from India. The family were talking amongst themselves, and the agent behind the counter was in deep discussions with no less than 3 additional airline personnel. The bottom line:  no one was moving an inch.

Customers - yes.  Service?  I think not.

After standing in line waiting for 10 minutes, I decided the fastest thing for me to do was to use the automated check-in machines, located about every third counter, print out my own bag tag, and just drop my luggage and run for the gate.  I approached the gentleman in a red coat (the red coats indicate service assistance personnel for American Airlines) and asked where the closest terminals were. It was so absurd it was comical. He looked at me and said, “Well you could use these here (pointing behind him) but they don’t have baggage tags and besides these terminals are out of service. You’ll have to go farther down the terminal.” He pointed about 50 yards away towards the international flight check-in desks, nodding all the while.

I thanked him and headed farther down the terminal. When I got there, this entire bank of terminals was out of service. There was another gentleman in a red coat there, deeply engaged in conversation with someone attempting to use the out-of-service terminals. He acknowledged me by nodding at me and pointed me further down the terminal.  Customer service by a mime.

By this time I was running, laptop bag and suitcase flying behind me. And when I got to the bank of terminals and they said “out of service”, I just headed farther down the terminal. I already got the pattern: if one wasn’t working, find one that was.

The next bank of terminals was in service… sort of. I scanned my electronic boarding pass and began answering the questions on the screen. When I got to the point where they wanted me to pay for my bags, I whipped out my credit card and slid it into the slot.  That’s when trouble reared its ugly head.

The terminal printed out yet another boarding pass which I didn’t need (I had that electronically – that was how I accessed the terminal in the first place) and a notice that the kiosk was unable to handle my request. Great… dead in the water again…

I’m now in the middle of the international flight check-in desks. I looked around frantically for another agent in a red coat. There was one standing next to me but he was busy looking the other way. I followed him, trying to keep up, while he strode away from the terminals towards the ticketing counter. When I lost him in the crowds, I spied another red coat, a woman this time. She looked everywhere except at me – it took everything I had to make eye contact with her. When I finally did, she reluctantly took the 2 pieces of paper I had received from the ticketing kiosk and showed the agent next to her. They looked from the papers to me, accusingly, and back again.

Well, your charge didn’t go through.”

I just looked at them. Clearly their machines were on the fritz. I think it would have been more honest if they had just put “out of service” on all the kiosks instead of allowing passengers to think they were achieving anything by attempting to self-check their bags.

Me:  “Do you think you can help me?”
Yes we need $25.

I whipped $25 cash out of my wallet, because by this time I was really beginning to worry – I needed to make this flight or I was spending the night in the airport!

Both agents looked at me as if I had an arm growing out of my forehead and grumbled something about cash. Clearly their credit card processing wasn’t working. Clearly they weren’t pleased about cash. Was there some other legal tender I should have used???

Me:  “You do take cash, right?”

Both agents looked at me dumbstruck. Then the red coat woman handed me back my boarding pass I didn't need and a receipt for the $25 cash, looked at me and said “You’ll have to take your bag with you to the gate.

Ummm, then why did I waste all this time trying to get a baggage tag and just paying $25?

Me:  “You’re kidding, right?”

I think the other agent finally realized what she had just said…

 She replied,”We’ll take care of it.

Me:  “Will the bag make my flight?”

Yes, we’ll take care of it

A Run For My Money

8:22pm… (27 minutes after I had entered the airport)… boarding had already started for the flight… was the bag going to make it? Hmmmm… probably not, but I didn’t have time to quiz her on that. My gate was one of the furthest gates from the check-in counters and I really wanted to make this flight, so I took off running, laptop bag bouncing behind me.

8:25pm… (30 minutes after I had entered the airport)…When I got to the TSA checkpoint, I pulled up short. There were no less than 20 people in 2 lines, and it seemed I had come across the entire crowd of “I’ve never flown and I can’t read a sign” people… People in these lines were having to be checked several times, having to go back and take off belts and shoes, carry-on baggage having to be rescanned because laptops weren’t taken out of bags, and honestly, no one was moving terribly fast.  I know I was in a hurry, but to anyone who has traveled once, these things are pretty standard. Even if someone isn’t familiar with TSA rules, they’re printed on large signs in the screen areas… Good lord…

Finally through the TSA checkpoint – they were actually pretty quick once I got into their screening process – I grabbed my laptop bag and ran through the airport… almost the entire airport.  I hadn’t realized it when I set out, but the TSA screening was at gate 22. I was headed for Gate 6 - across the entire terminal. Thank goodness it was later in the evening and there weren’t too many people milling about the terminal so I could really run… and run I did.

8:49pm… I arrived at the gate, breathless and somewhat sweaty,– 1 minute before the plane was scheduled to depart…. Just enough time to get on the plane, and thank goodness the plane wasn’t full. I grabbed an empty row (the plane really wasn’t full at all) and slept most of the way back to LAX.

Of course when I got to baggage claim, I waited until all the bags were offloaded… of course my bag hadn’t made the flight. No surprise on my end. The ticketing agent in Miami didn’t seem as though she was going to take any action, extraordinary or otherwise, to get my bags to the baggage handlers so it would have made the flight. She was more concerned with getting me away from the check-in counter. So not only did they fail to load my bag in MIA, but they pushed the exercise in sadism even further by not paging me on arrival at Los Angeles to let me know when the bag would arrive.  Since they presumably have to track luggage for security purposes they didn’t know my bag was not onboard?  Really?  How secure can we feel with this impervious disregard for basics? Do they even know what bags they load onto what flight?  Security!

The woman at the Baggage Claim area was amazing – pleasant, cheerful, quick and precise. She’s probably not an American Airlines employee – perhaps a subcontracted person since she actually delivers customer service.  She did indeed find my bag, still sitting on the ground in Miami, and did her magic to make sure the bag was directed to me. Of course it’s well after noon and I still don’t have the bag, but I did have a pleasant experience with an airlines representative to round out my most horrific experience. I won’t be flying them anytime soon – hopefully never – and I will recount this tale of ridiculousness to anyone who asks.

Still no bag…. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll just have to wait.

If you want an adequate flying experience, stay far far away from American Airlines

Gail Rosenthal is a blogger, speaker, author, trainer, coach and interpreneur. If you're curious about how she travels so much and still earns a great living, , you can click the link and check it out here.