Not that I think American Airlines is perfect these days; far from it!  But I thought the chaotic aftermath of the US/AA merger was mostly over, at least until this week.

On a same day Raleigh-Washington-Raleigh AA itinerary (Tuesday of this week), I experienced multiple glitches that harken back to the bleakest of the bad old days flying: a cascading series of screw-ups that felt too much like flying on United at their worst—and that’s not a compliment.

I signed up for a one day transit “Leadership Visit & Field Trip” to Alexandria, Arlington, and Crystal City to hear from transit planners and elected officials there how Northern Virginia’s smorgasbord of transit modes (commuter rail, metro, bus rapid transit, and ordinary bus) has worked out to give folks choices in mobility and for economic development (Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD).  I wanted to take the train, but that would have required an overnight stay, and other commitments in Raleigh forced my hand, making me choose to fly.

American had the best options for nonstop RDU/DCA services, and the cheapest, so I selected flights leaving at 6:00 AM going up and departing Washington Reagan at 7:30 PM for home.  The fare was about $270 round trip, but AA offered me a YUP fare on the return flight to first class for $20 more, so I took it.  Both legs were on RJs with small first class cabins.

A week before my flights I checked the online itinerary because I needed to email a copy to colleagues to coordinate our trip.  I was surprised to find my seats had been changed, as had the flight numbers and times in both directions.  I also noticed that I was in coach on the return leg.  I selected the best seats I could get on both legs. Puzzled as to what had happened and why I had not received an email notification, I called my AA elite line.

After a few minutes rummaging through the record, the agent said that American had changed both flight numbers, changed the times of both the RDU/DCA and the DCA/RDU flights, and had replaced the two-class RJ on the return to a single class RJ, hence pushing me back to coach.

Okay, I said, then kindly refund the premium I had paid (about $20) for the YUP fare.  I was told the YUP fare doesn’t work that way.  Once purchased, it is not refundable even if American Airlines yanks the plane and replaces it with a coach-only aircraft, as they did with me.

“Oh, then it’s always a gamble when you choose a YUP fare?” I asked, trying hard to be polite.  I was told that yes, that’s correct.  Once AA has my money, they are not obligated to provide me with the service I paid for or to refund the difference between first class and coach if the airline changes its aircraft.

“That’s because YUP is a special type of fare,” she said.

“Yes, it certainly is,” I replied. “It’s a bait-and-switch fare that always favors the airline.”

The agent demurred in silence.

To the other issue, that is, why I wasn’t informed of the changes to flights numbers, times, seats, and class of service, the agent said that AA’s system “tried to send you an email, but it was rejected. Check your spam folder, and allow AA emails to get through.”

I told her that I had faithfully received hundreds of similar emails from American, including recent ones related to different itineraries, but that I would certainly check my server settings.

And I did.  I looked at my spam filters and junk mail folders at Network Solutions and found nothing related to American Airlines.  That left me wondering why I had not received the emails.

On the day before my flights, I tried to check in online, but AA.com would not let me complete the process, each time returning a message that said online check-in was not possible and to check in at the airport.  I wasn’t looking forward to getting up at 3:30 AM to be there at 4:00 AM so I could get my boarding passes printed at the airport, so once again called American’s elite line.

This time the agent who answered had an “Aha!” moment, telling me that the reason I had not received any email notifications and wasn’t able to check in online was because AA had not fully reissued my ticket when they changed the flight numbers, the times, the aircraft, and my seats.  She spent 10 minutes working to confirm that the ticket was, finally, reissued, and said that I would now be able to check in online, no problem.

When I asked her why I was told by the first agent that it was my email’s spam filter, she was baffled.  “No, definitely our fault,” she graciously admitted, “Not your email’s fault.”

I was driving when I learned all this, so could not immediately go to online check-in.  Later, when I did, AA.com returned the same error message and refused to let me check in.  So I called a third time.

The agent I then spoke to had no idea why I couldn’t check in online and said I’d just have to be there extra early and have an airport agent do it.

The following morning, therefore, I arose at the ungodly hour of 3:30 AM and was parked and standing at the AA ticket counter at 4:00 AM.  That agent had no trouble issuing my boarding pass and laughed when I told her I couldn’t do it online.  “I don’t see anything in the system that would prevent it,” she said.

I told her that I had paid for a YUP fare on the return leg that was now no good and asked to use it on the RDU/DCA leg instead.  That flight was still using a two-class airplane.  No, I couldn’t, she said, because I was number 12 on the upgrade list behind a slew of people who had paid more.

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The RJ first class compartment I couldn’t sit in

Oh, well, I thought, no big deal.  Guess I’ll sit in coach and wonder why I was so stupid as to pay for first class.  What else could go wrong?

I was going to find out that evening on the way home.

When the transit leadership tour ended, I was just one Metro stop away from DCA, so managed to get there by 4:15 PM and to stand by for a 5:12 PM AA departure to Raleigh.  My YUP fare basis bumped me up to number 4 on the standby list, but the flight was so overbooked that American had to accommodate a number of confirmed passengers on later flights, and not a single standby made the flight.

I was left with no choice except to slouch in the dungeon-like sub-level of DCA Gate 35X, a place with a grim, Third World feel to it, insufficient A/C, excruciatingly loud announcements too garbled to understand, and far too few seats for the waiting hordes.  The Gate 35X sub-level, with its five doors leading to buses that transport passengers out to the aircraft parked on remote ramps, reminded me of 1950s Greyhound and Trailways bus stations in eastern North Carolina.  The close proximity of so many bodies in such a small space, reeking with sweat in the unremitting heat and near-100% humidity, broadcast a palpable collective loss of dignity.  I didn’t know if I could make it another 90 minutes until my 7:35 PM flight boarded.

By seven o’clock I was pacing in anticipation of escaping this inhumane environment when I noticed the monitor suddenly show that my flight was delayed 20 minutes.  No explanation (of course).  Ten minutes later, the monitor showed my flight to RDU was delayed 35 minutes.

Having been through countless creeping delays, I called the AA elite line to get the facts.  Would the flight be canceled?  If not, what time was it really leaving, and why the delay?  I didn’t think I could hold off much longer in the sublevel of Gate 35X, the waiting room of hell.

The agent on the phone clicked and clicked away on her keyboard before sighing and telling me that she had no idea why the plane was late or when it would leave.  I asked where it was coming from, and she clicked some more, to no avail.  Her system would not tell her the inbound aircraft or flight number.

I then tried both the Flight Aware and Flightstats apps on my smartphone, but the sites reported conflicting information, and neither one seemed logical.  I surmised that the AA system was providing bad data: garbage in, garbage out.

In desperation to get accurate information, I asked for and got the American Airlines ground staff manager of the sublevel at Gate 35X.  She was visibly addled but at least able to tell me that the inbound aircraft was a flight from BDL (Hartford).  That enabled me to watch the monitor and again query Flightstats and Flight Aware.  Things looked to be getting worse.  Both apps indicated that I was in for at least a 90 minute delay.

No explanation was given for the creeping delays by the polite but utterly clueless sublevel Gate 35X staff, nor did they know when the flight would actually leave.  I felt sorry for them (and me).  The manager actually said, “I don’t know, but this happens all the time.  I never know why.”

I called the AA elite line again, armed with the BDL information, but received no better idea why the delay was occurring or when we might leave. The telephone agent said she did not have the information from her system.  By now it was almost 8:30 PM, an hour past scheduled departure time.

Suddenly, without explanation or apology, our flight was called on the garbled PA system.  We boarded a bus at 8:30 PM, and when it was chockablock full of humanity, we trundled off into the darkness.  The bus approached one RJ and stopped, but then we sat on the tarmac with no explanation until almost 9:00 PM.  Suddenly, the bus started moving again: Guess that wasn’t our plane, I remember thinking.  It was pitch dark.  Soon we slowed and stopped by a different RJ, the door opened, and we finally boarded at 9:05 PM.

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The bus that sat on the tarmac in the dark for 20 minutes with no explanation

Our plane then sat on the runway until 9:45 PM before taking off.  While sitting there, our captain announced that he didn’t know why we were being held since they would not tell him the reason for the delay.  He was perplexed, he said.

We arrived RDU at 10:26 PM, nearly two hours late.  My flight had been scheduled to depart DCA at 7:35 PM and to arrive RDU at 8:45 PM.

Waiting for the Jetway to arrive at RDU, I chatted up the cockpit crew and flight attendant to understand what really happened.  Turns out it was indeed the aircraft and crew that had come in to DCA from BDL  They told me that:

  1. The plane had a mechanical problem in Hartford and took a one hour delay there.
  1. By the time the airplane reached DCA airspace the field itself was closed because of lightning close by, and they circled for 40 minutes before being allowed to land.
  1. They were ready to have us board and were baffled as to why our bus sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes.
  1. The flight deck crew was also in the dark about the reason for the delay taking off at DCA.

It certainly appears that no timely and accurate information about AA flight delays is transmitted to anyone in the real world of flying: not to gate agents, not even to gate managers, not to elite line agents, not to passengers, and not even to flight crews!  I couldn’t piece together what was happening from the best apps available, either (Flightstats and Flight Aware).

These things happen, I know, but they are a lot easier to grit out when I know why things are happening and what to expect.  AA failed completely to provide even simple facts to anyone in service delivery.

The total absence of basic information related to the long delay was the crescendo of an experience already marred by the earlier errors, defects, and problems in the itinerary mentioned above, Overall, so many things went wrong that I wonder whether AA is improving or degrading. After this mess, I will try to book away from AA until they clean up their basic operation.

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