Random PR Thoughts

You Can Beat the System. But It Takes a Lot of Work.

I have written in the past about how some companies give their customer-facing employees so little discretion to do the right thing, they end up creating a nightmare for themselves. My post about United Airlines and the disgraceful episode of the forcible and bloody ejection of a passenger from one of its planes is a case in point.

I was recently reminded of an incident that happed to me a few years ago. While not as dramatic as the plight of Dr. David Dao, the United passenger, it gives a window into the lengths one has to go to get any measure of fair treatment from some companies today.

Several years ago when I was still in the agency business, I had an experience with American Airlines that was so needlessly and stupidly frustrating that I vowed not to have anything to do with them again. The problem is that if you plan to fly on about 40% of the nation’s air routes, you’re going to have to fly American or stay home.

The good news is that I actually won my dispute with American, although lots of people might not have for lack of time and/or pure rage.

It started when I booked a first class ticket from New York to Los Angeles for a meeting. It was a decent fare, albeit a little more than $1000 round trip. Then, it became necessary to cancel that flight because I was going to have to fly to San Francisco first, then on to LA. All set. Except, then I was asked to stop in Vegas on the way home to see a client at a trade show. This was pretty typical for a senior agency guy. We always wrote in our calendars with a pencil, never a pen.

That seemed to go fine until I checked my Amex statement a couple of days later and saw that I had accrued $5000 in tickets for American Airlines flights. Wait, what?

I called American’s customer service department and they explained to me that I had been purchasing non-refundable tickets. But (as I was later to confirm) at no time did the American Airlines website indicate that these tickets were non-refundable. But that said, I would expect a $300 round trip to Pago Pago to be a likely non-refundable fare, but not a $1000+ first class ticket for domestic travel.

Over the course of several days, I spoke to several American representatives, all of whom failed see my point of view. (I took careful notes and got all of their names.)
One of them ended our conversation with, “Well it looks like we’ll just have to agree to disagree.“ To me, he had just pissed on my shoes.

Then I sent a note to the CEO of American Airlines explaining my predicament. When I called American HQ for the proper mailing address, they told me to fax it to a number in Utah. Since American was headquartered in Dallas, that seemed a little fishy. But I did it anyway and to no surprise, I heard nothing back.

It was becoming clear that the CEO or people who worked for him made sure that he never heard anything but glowing praise from the customers, so any further attempts to seek redress from his office would be futile. But I did have another trick up my sleeve.

A quick glance at the American annual report, which they thoughtfully put online, gave me the name of the General Counsel and a little Internet sleuthing turned up his mailing address.

I then wrote an impassioned letter about the unfair treatment I was receiving, especially from the snotty rep who said we’d agree to disagree, as well as the way American obscured the non-refundable status of certain tickets in what must have been an unlawful manner.

But I didn’t send the letter to the General counsel. Instead, I sent it to:

My two senators
My Congressional representative
The head of the Federal Trade Commission
The head of the Federal Aviation Administration
The New York State Attorney General
The Texas State Attorney General

And I cc’d the General Counsel on every one.

A few days later, I am betting the General Counsel had a bit of a cow when those letters arrived on his desk. In any event, at 6:30 AM the next morning, a representative from American called me to say that they had kicked it around and decided to give me a one-time exception to the rule and were issuing a refund to my Amex card.

I should note that in the ensuing days, I received copies of correspondence from my elected officials inquiring of the heads of the FTC and the FAA (as well as the General Counsel) just what exactly they planned to do about my complaint. So even after my issue was resolved, the General Counsel continued to suffer, and my guess is that he did not suffer in silence or alone.

It felt good. Damn good.

And I’d do it again.

Categories: Random PR Thoughts

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