How to get the most from airline customer service
The bartender asked if I wanted another, and a quick glance at my iPad told me I would have time for several more. My flight from Toronto to Chicago showed additional delays every time I refreshed the flight status page, and its arrival in Chicago had now pushed past the departure of my connection. My O’Hare version of the Chicago marathon would have to wait until a future close call, as getting back to the west coast that night was “game over.”
Travel is full of disruptions. Some trips go smoothly and quickly, while others end up with cancelled flights and unplanned stops. In my case, I spent the night in Chicago because my American Airlines flight there from Toronto was delayed by several hours. How American handled this delay is a case study in effective customer service. It also helped that I knew what the airline would – and would not – do for me in this situation.
Broadly, mechanical delays are an airline’s responsibility, and airlines have certain obligations to you when a flight is delayed or cancelled because of a mechanical issue. In my case, a helpful gate agent did the following for me:
- Booked me on new flights the following day from Chicago
- Changed my final destination from Seattle to Portland at my request
- Noted my file for hotel and meal vouchers to be distributed on arrival in Chicago
While the agent was under no obligation to reroute me from Seattle to Portland, he kindly did so because of the scheduling issues the flight delays were causing me. This was an agent who listened to my needs, and then used his power to accommodate my reasonable request. That’s an important takeaway; as I tweeted in the middle of the delay:
Travel tip: Gate agents have a lot of power to help you when shit goes sideways. Be patient with and nice to them, and they’ll do their best.
In this case, the agent couldn’t have been any more responsive or helpful. Not only did that create a lasting, positive impression on me about American Airlines, the favorable tweets (and this post) are positive press for American.
Most impressive to me was that the agent went so far out of his way to help when I was only an AAdvantage Gold (the lowest elite tier) and was flying on an award ticket. While the usual procedure is to toss fare rules and restrictions out the window during irregular operations, not all agents are as well-trained or sympathetic as this one was. He made it easy, making me a satisfied customer in the process.
What should you do if you have a flight delay, cancellation or missed connection? Here’s some battled-tested advice that has served me well over the years:
- Know your travel rights. What airlines owe you during a mechanical delay and during a weather event are very different.
- Assert those rights – politely, but firmly if you need to. Some agents are just nicer or more experienced than others.
- Show a little sympathy to the agent. They are under a lot of stress and are often berated by frustrated fliers.
If you’re not getting what you need, escalate the issue to a supervisor. Again, keep it firm yet polite; agents can make notes in your record that can hinder what others will do for you down the road. If you know you’re right but are not being well served, say thank you and try a different agent.
What have your experiences been? How have you handled travel delays, and what are your best tips for doing so?