That Time American Airlines Gave Me a Heart Attack

It has not been a good few months for American-based airlines.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it – the frustrations of subpar and declining service which has been the norm since 9/11 was just looking for a reason to explode.

And it has. Rather than just going away, people are now more willing to listen to others’ complaints about customer service and strong-arm tactics.  Airlines have their defenders, yes, but even those defenses often just serve to fuel anger.  Is there a valid reason for enforcing a no-one standing while the plane is in line for take-off rule?  One hundred percent yes.  But what happens if you just can’t hold it?  And what happens if you have to go, but the line to the hopelessly overextended bathroom area which services 75 other passengers stretches down the aisle and turbulence happens? I noticed, to my horror, upon disembarking a flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg that one of the adult passengers had actually wet himself.  That should *never* happen.  But it does.  And many people are afraid it might end up being them.  Fear, dread, and total loss of control – combined with a multi-hour uncomfortable smoosh-fest with gross food – does not lend itself to happy and easygoing passengers.

If anything good comes of this, it will be that US-based carriers up their game and remember that customers are paying them for a service, they are not doing customers a favor by taking their money and abusing them.  And airlines are making the right noises about change; whether they follow through or not remains to be seen.

I think some of them are trying, though, and it was as a part of one of these attempts that American Airlines triggered my ulcer into acting up and gave me heart palpitations that nearly sent me to the emergency room for treatment.

Approximately half of our carry-on weight at any one time is adaptors.

It was just before three in the morning and I was sleeping.  We’re experiencing beautiful chilly and rainy weather in our part of South Africa at the moment – perfect snoozing weather.  I was quite heavily involved in a dream that incorporated the sound of my phone into a rhinoceros who was serenading me with my ringtone, so it took me quite a bit to figure out that there was a real-life phone ringing next to my bed.

When I managed to answer I was barely coherent  It was a robo-call, which instructed me to hang on for the next available representative, a degree of fanciness that made it seem I was being called from the highest echelons of the White House, or maybe it was The Queen on the line.  I’d really like to chat with The Queen sometime.

“Hello, this is Mary.  Thank you for calling American Airlines.  May I please have your confirmation number?”

“What?  Wait!  You called me!”

“Yes, we are calling you because you called our customer service line and we are returning that call.”

“No – it’s 3 a.m. and I am in bed in South Africa.  I didn’t call you, I don’t have an American Airlines flight, and you don’t even service my airport.”

“Oh, I am truly sorry, Ma’am.  You have a good evening.”

It was while I was putting my phone back on the bedside table when I realized – my husband was currently on an American Airlines flight between two travel destinations.  And that realization made my blood run cold – because why would any airline be calling me while my husband was mid-flight?  I was not the primary contact, I was the emergency contact.  So if I’m getting calls from American Airlines, there must be an emergency.

I started to panic.  I looked though all the messaging apps we use. I checked my email.  I checked my call log and my Skype call log. There was nothing from my husband, and since he has a global service plan on his iPhone and we have a policy of “let me know immediately if there is any issue so that no one is surprised,” my mind went to the absolute worst place it can go.  It started replaying those horrific scenes of Malaysian Airways families at the airports, waiting for news.

First I vomited.  Then I googled.  And I googled.  And I googled every possible phrase I could think of that might have some bit of information.  I checked news sites.  I checked flight trackers.  Flight trackers were recording a delay, but I was pretty sure that there weren’t going to be red, blinking letters that told everyone a flight had gone crashing into the sea before loved ones had been informed.  Informed, maybe, by a phone call…

I gathered the flight information and confirmation codes, looked up American Airlines’ customer service number, and mentally prepared myself to speak to someone who had very, very bad news to give me.

And just then, ten minutes after I had reached the crisis zone, I received an email from the airline.  My husband was going to  miss his connection and they had done a standard rebooking for him.

*THIS* is why their robo-call machine rang me up at three in the morning. His connection had been rebooked.

In the last eight years, our family has had a business (and a hobby) that require copious amounts of travel.  It comes out, total, to more than 200 flight days per year when it’s all added together.  Just last weekend my husband and two of my daughters were flying – all from different originating points, to different destinations, and on three entirely separate continents.  I’m the emergency contact for an awful lot of people who fly an awful lot.  And never, never one single time in all those flights – many of which have been canceled or rebooked for various reasons – has anyone called the emergency contact number to let people know that a rebooking had occurred.  The primary number – yes.  Most of the time.  Email – every time.  Sometimes we’ve gotten a text.  But I have never been awoken at three in the morning because someone missed their connection.

I think American Airlines is trying.  US based carriers need to get their act together before mutiny becomes the standard rather than the outlier.  And there are so many things that can be done – because I truly believe that it is possible to make flying, even in economy class, an enjoyable part of people’s holidays rather than a descent into hell that people have to endure with copious amounts of prayer and dehydration to avoid toilet lines.

It would be nice if passengers weren’t squashed so close together we could smell the dandruff of the jerk reclined into our face during meal service who keeps us from eating the slop tossed out in economy class.  For that matter – if food options weren’t so nasty, it would be great.  If you’re flying outside of business class on a US based carrier for an overseas flight, you’re better off bringing a bag of McDonalds on board. Less contemptuousness toward passengers would be an awful nice change, too.  I’m hard of hearing, so I’m not trying to be labeled “gate lice” when I stand near the boarding gate – I’m trying to watch the board to see what is going on.   Know where I don’t have to do this?  London-Heathrow terminal 5C, where there are no announcements and there are ample screens to show people what is happening.  It’s my favorite terminal in the entire world – I fly through there a few times a year and have never stressed about boarding there even once.

And if, American Airlines, you would like to talk to me to get ideas about non-elite level travelers (my husband has status, but I’m riding with everyone else when I go) and what would make everyone’s life easier and safer and the skies a little more friendly – I’m totally available.  I wouldn’t even charge – it would be worth it just to know that the toilet situation is on its way to being addressed.

But one bit of friendly advice – clueless customer service agents calling the  emergency phone contacts of passengers at three in the morning is probably not the direction you want to be going.  Thank you for trying, but hopefully we can move on from this with lessons learned.