Airlines aren’t renowned for their after-sales service — the Internet is replete with tales of woe — but a recent personal experience shows American Airlines needs to significantly lift its game.
An attempt to book an exit row seat that should have taken minutes took several weeks and the repercussions were spread out over a month, longer than it took Apollo 11 to fly to the moon and back.
It involved three Web attempts and half a dozen phone calls, triggered the suspension of my credit card and saw American at various times over more than a month deny me access to more than $A2000 in credit.
And that’s before we get to issues about changes in currency and attempts to gouge more money.
The Australasian region is blessed with three well-regarded international carriers so flying with a US carrier is never a decision taken lightly.
Yet with a new era of increased co-operation between Qantas and American dawning, an upcoming trip to the States seemed a good opportunity to test out the US carrier’s mettle.
There was also intelligence coming out of the US that traditional carriers there had improved from the aerial greyhound bus services into which they’d deteriorated.
American wasn’t the cheapest option but its extensive network was the one that best served my multi-stop itinerary.
The US carrier’s Boeing 787-9s have nine-across seating and its website says economy seat width drops as low as 16.2 inches, something a reasonable person would assume violates several human rights conventions.
The problem is that it’s not clear to which seats this applies, and American’s customer service people didn’t seem to know.
The rest of the seats are a still tight 17.2 inches, pretty much the standard with 787s, with a 31-inch seat pitch.
I’m a big guy, slightly taller than American boss Doug Parker, and even the standard economy seat looked uncomfortable for such a long flight.
Surprisingly, there is no charge to reserve some international economy seats on American (kudos there) so my travel agent and I locked in standard aisle seats in the initial booking.
My hope was I could use Qantas points to upgrade but when this turned out not to be the case, I decided to pay the “tall person tax” and buy extra legroom seats, called Main Cabin Extra on American, for the long trans-Pacific flight.
Problem number one was getting caught in a currency soft-shoe shuffle. Although the ticket prices were in Australian dollars and we were still on the Aussie website, the ancillaries came in US dollars.
That was not entirely clear; the website simply said $129 for the Sydney-LA leg and being an Australian website I’d assumed that was in AUD. However, this turned out to be $A182.
The fact I’d inadvertently booked more Main Cabin Seats than I could arguably afford became immaterial when the transaction failed.
‘We were unable to process your product selection below,’’ a pop-up said. “You have not been charged and your itinerary remains unchanged.’’
When I tried it again, it failed again and produced the same message.
By this time alarm bells were going off at my bank and they suspended my card after some apparently dodgy company in Phoenix, Arizona, placed two pre-authorizations — where they lock off funds pending a transaction — in quick succession.
This is obviously one of those cases where “you have not been charged” has a different meaning in American than it does in English and meant the airline prevented me from accessing almost $A1700 on my credit cards for more than two weeks. For a failed transaction.
It was at this point that I discovered while talking to the bank that the prices had been in US dollars and the cost much steeper than I’d assumed (take note Australian Competition and Consumer Commission).
After reassuring the bank that American’s Arizona operation was not some offshoot of the Cosa Nostra, I waited two weeks to get my credit access back before being silly enough to have another go.
A reduced attempt to book fewer seats only saw the carrier cheerfully block another $522 from my credit card with the same result.
A customer service rep told me the reason I couldn’t use the website was because I had booked through a third party.
While I pondered the strange logic of that proposition, she also told me I would have to pay a penalty to relinquish the free seat that had been reserved for me before, of course, adding: “Thank you for flying American”.
Off I went to the travel agent, who rang her special phone line twice before being told there was indeed an $80 penalty — it was not clear whether that was Australian or US dollars — for changing the seat over the phone. This was in addition to the $US129 cost of the exit row seat.
I get a tad annoyed with this kind of rip-off, despite admonishments from my wife, and my initial reaction was to drop the whole thing.
But after mulling it over, I took the view that I was not the party at fault here and insult should not be added to injury.
My travel agent agreed and went to bat for me again, thankfully finding a sympathetic soul (more kudos) who agreed with our argument and put through the transaction without the penalty.
A receipt would be with us in a couple of hours, he said. Not entirely unexpectedly, nothing happened.
My travel agent rang a fourth time and was assured the seats were confirmed and the transaction had gone through.
There were a couple more phone calls before a receipt finally turned up almost two weeks after the transaction.
Meanwhile, at the time of writing, American is still preventing me from accessing $A522 it blocked almost three weeks ago. The bank says it should have cleared after 10 working days so more phone calls are imminent.
Compare and contrast American’s approach with Royal Caribbean’s response relating to a US cruise
Not only do you book a cruise in Australian dollars but all additional options on the site are clearly marked as being in AUD and the receipt comes through in a matter of minutes. Happy customers go on their merry way.
Maybe American’s Doug Parker could a get a couple of his people to slip over to the cruise company and see how it should be done.