AMERICAN AIRLINES AGONY

Rarely do I use this forum to discuss personal issues. Earlier this year, I made an exception to inform readers that an unwelcome medical diagnosis of pancreatic cancer had interrupted my weekly posts. As it happened, my 48 days in the hospital provided a unique perspective on our dysfunctional medical system. So as I gained strength, I wrote about that experience. (A book is in the works.) In any event, I’m pleased to report that my progress and prognosis are good.

The outpouring of sympathy and support has been overwhelming. But it hasn’t been universal. Which takes us to the headline for this post.

American Airlines: “Doing What We Do Best”

Twenty-four hours before the first of what would become my five hospitalizations between February and June, my wife and I were scheduled to fly from Chicago to San Francisco on American Airlines. The University of San Francisco School of Law had invited me to its annual Law Review Symposium for a discussion of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis.

Blood test results prompted my doctor to send me to the ER — pronto. Instead of boarding a plane, I was boarding a hospital gurney. After several months of procedures and tests, doctors finally located the source of episodic and life-threatening internal bleeding. One long-term consequence of my condition is that I will remain grounded indefinitely — no air travel.

American Airlines: “The New American is Arriving”

Once it became clear that I would not be able to rebook a flight on American during the one-year period required for our non-refundable tickets, I contacted the airline to seek a refund. (As my principal caregiver, my wife can’t use her ticket either. For better or worse, and for penalties associated with non-refundable tickets…)

The ticket value is significant, but not overwhelming ($870.19 each — for a total of $1740.38). Still, it was worth pursuing.

I called American’s preferred customer number because I’ve been a loyal American flyer for decades. The person I reached was pleasant and cooperative. He found our original reservation, provided ticket numbers, and directed me to the American Airlines website. There, I would click on the customer service link and complete a refund request form.

Shortly after submitting the on-line request, I received a response seeking a physician’s letter confirming my medical plight. Within 24 hours, I scanned and emailed my doctor’s letter describing the cancer diagnosis:

“The complications of his illness include intermittent internal bleeding that renders him unable to travel by air for the foreseeable future… His wife is also my patient and his principal caregiver. As a consequence, she likewise will be unable to travel by air for the foreseeable future.”

Two days later, a customer relations person acknowledged receipt of the letter with this ominous note:

“I have forwarded it to personnel in our accounting office. They are the specialists who review such requests. They will do so and be in touch with you directly.”

American Airlines: “Going for Great”

I knew I was in trouble. The “accounting office” was going to make the final decision about the seriousness of my medical condition in deciding whether to permit a $1,740 refund: “They are the specialists.”

In what?

Five weeks later, I received this nameless form response from a “do not reply” email address:

“After reviewing the documentation submitted, it has been determined the request does not meet our exception requirements.”

“[I]t has been determined…” The passive voice covers a multitude of sinners. But it makes you wonder what the “exception requirements” are and who sets them. More precisely, if my situation doesn’t qualify, what does?

The response continued:

“The ticket purchased is non-refundable so we cannot offer a refund, issue a travel voucher, or transfer this ticket to another person. However, the ticket will remain valid in our system for one year from the original date of issue, at which time it will expire and all value will be lost.”

I know. I can never use the ticket. That’s why I sought an exception.

“The unused non-refundable ticket may be applied to future travel as long as all travel is completed prior to the expiration date.”

Anyone who had read the letter from my physician could never have included that sentence.

“The new ticket will be subject to a change fee based on the fare rules, in addition to any difference in fare or fees that may be in effect at the time of travel. We are forwarding your case to our Customer Relations department for consideration of a waiver for the above stated reissue fee that would be assessed to use your ticket for future travel.”

Lucky me! I might get a fee waiver for a ticket that I will never buy. No one who read my doctor’s letter could have written that, either.

“Please allow time for Customer Relations to review your situation and respond to your case before making additional contact.”

In other words, don’t bother us anymore. My wife received the identical message.

Wrong Without a Remedy

Readers may recognize the subheadings in this post. They are American Airlines’ advertising slogans over the years. The last one — “Going for Great” — is the most recent. Based on my experience, it will never get there.

There’s a lesson for anyone contemplating a flight on American Airlines. When you book a nonrefundable ticket, even the prospect of death from an intervening terminal illness that results in grounding you permanently will not qualify as an exception to the airlines’ “no refund” policy.

There’s a larger lesson, too. American Airlines’ handling of my request is emblematic of a larger societal phenomenon: myopic short-termism. When accountants’ incentive structures displace customer service, the culture of an organization follows that lead.

By the way, feel free to pass this along — retweet, post on Facebook, etc. — and to share your thoughts directly with American Airlines’ customer relations. (After clicking here, select TOPIC: Customer Relations; SUBJECT: Complaint; REASON: Other. After that, you’re on your own.)

I’m sure they would love to hear from you.