Back in the mid-1990s, when computerized airline booking was pretty new, I once made a somewhat complicated reservation via CompuServe (there's a blast from the past, and gives you an idea of how many computer eons ago this took place). But I screwed up somehow. I meant to book a ticket from Newark; instead I booked one to Newark. Furthermore, I didn't even realize my error until I arrived at Newark Airport the day of travel, bags in hand, wondering why there was no line at the ticket counter.
Can you guess what happened? If you've traveled in the past ten years you might not believe this, but I swear it is true: They fixed it for me at no charge. The error was purely mine, and they just fixed it.
I can report another episode that happened a few years later. Again, flying out of Newark. This time, however, I was late for my flight because - and again this is difficult to fathom in today's world - my taxi broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike and the driver had no way to communicate with his dispatcher. So we ended up stuck on the Turnpike waiting for a police car, and then a tow truck, and then for the tow truck to take us to some service center, and then for another cab to arrive. By that point, of course, my flight was somewhere over Kentucky. When I got back home I called American to see what they could do: I needed to make the next possible flight out. They wanted to charge me a full last-minute fare at first - after all, I had missed the flight without warning them - but I managed to talk them into converting my ticket to a stand-by the next morning, at no charge.
Compare that to my recent return flight from a Thanksgiving trip. I booked the flight six weeks in advance. I selected seats: row 17, three together. The day before the flight I went online to check in and print my boarding passes. But my seats were now listed as "unassigned"! Imagining my wife, pre-schooler and I having to sit separately, I quickly tried to select new seat assignments, but naturally the only ones available were for an upcharge. I called AA customer service, and they patiently explained that, while there was nothing they could do, they would be able to seat us together when we checked in the next morning at the airport.
Well, that seemed a little crazy to me. I had had a seat assignment, which had been somehow erased without telling me. The customer service representative couldn't tell me why. Shouldn't I be able to get a new seat assignment, at least over the phone? No way, she said. Has to be in person, because they keep some seats in reserve for families with small children traveling together. (Are airlines beset with scammers pretending to have small children in their party in order to check in over the phone? Did they need visual proof that we had a small child with us? Maybe the truly savvy scammer could bring one to the ticket counter as camouflage.)
With no alternatives at hand, we showed up bright and early a bit before six in the morning to get our seat assignments. Sure enough, they did have three together! In the last row: row 33. Which, on an MD-80, turns out to be the loudest place on the plane, and the only row for which the window is entirely blocked by the engines.
I suppose I should be happy that we got to sit together at all. But consider the inversion in customer experience. In my first anecdote, I made an error and they took me at my word that it wasn't my fault and corrected it for me. In my second, the fault was not mine but also certainly wasn't theirs, and they still did their best to fix it. But in the third, I did everything by the book and properly, they screwed up, and then they wouldn't fix it.
I understand that at some point American Airlines eliminated one olive in each salad offered in the in-flight meal. This supposedly saved them several million dollars a year. The thought of having a salad during a flight - or a meal of any sort - is laughable today, but far more worrisome is that they have taken cost-cutting to its natural limit, and the customer experience is now seriously impacted. The economy has been bad for airlines for years, but surely this attitude to their customers contributed to the failure of American to remain profitable. Here's hoping they learn a valuable lesson.
UPDATE (12/9): An alternate view. Some good points...