American Airlines must die

Tales of airline industry incompetence, and other things.

Sunset on Lake Michigan

I have bad luck flying. I've mentioned before that I'm on a "special list" with the Department of Homeland Security (cursed common Irish names) which ensures that I can't use self-checkin kiosks at airports. Well, I've topped that. I arrived on Sunday at the American Airlines desk at O'Hare airport to check in for a flight back to Los Angeles, and discovered I didn't have a ticket.

Here's how it happened. I spent the past week with family in a cabin on the coast of Lake Michigan, something I haven't done in almost 15 years. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, so I also happen to have a lot of friends who live in the Chicago area (which is about 2 hours to the west of South Bend). Since two of my friends were about to sprout various variety of fruit from their loins (one a second time, the other for the first time, with TWINS), we figured now would be a good time to meet up before the deranged short people started to monopolize all their time.

American airlines offered to let me change my outbound flight to something earlier for the low, low price of $500.00. After thanking them for their generous offer with various finger gestures involving the longest fingers on both hands, I opted for a backup option...buying a one-way flight from another airline.

All well and good, but as it turns out, American Airlines policy is that if you don't show up for the outbound leg of a round-trip ticket, you cancel the ENTIRE flight. To make matters worse, American service personnel are of the opinion that the company gets to eat your fare without giving you any service, much like the proverbial troll eating the bones of unwary travellers who crossed his bridge, a comparison I voiced to the desk clerk and American's 800-number customer service personnel (in response to which they probably thought...what in the hell is a troll?).

Why on EARTH do airlines do this, as I can't imagine that I'm the first person to show up to a flight only to find it cancelled because they had the temerity to miss the outbound leg of a round-trip ticket. Granted, I'm sure if I hunted around the terms associated with my purchase, I'd notice the restriction. But then again, why in the hell are airline tickets sold with restrictions that would make a derivatives trader proud? I expect that I can't change ticket dates without paying a fee. I don't expect that failure to wear high heels and a top hat on any leg of the flight voids the entire ticket (just to make a somewhat facetious parallel example).

Actually, not all airline tickets are sold this way. Tickets from the old-school majors born when the airline industry operated under price controls and followed routes that for all intents and purposes were allocated by the government do. That legacy made the US airline industry look like state-owned companies, with all the unionization and waste that entails. The companies that DON'T price that way are the ones that aren't flirting with bankruptcy and have managed to remain profitable even as the rest of the industry drowns in a sea of red ink...companies like Southwest Airlines.

I've been preferential to Southwest ever since I discovered how easy it was to change flights even for the discount web fares. They treat every leg of a trip like a one way ticket, and if you miss one of the legs, you just apply the balance towards your next purchase from Southwest. All very logical, sensible, and more to the point, CONSUMER FRIENDLY.

 My recent experience with American Airlines just proves that preference to be valid...and makes me inclined to favor Southwest even when the flight is a bit more expensive. Frankly, I like flexibility, and methinks that the customers who have made Southwest profitable in even the worst of times would agree.

In my opinion, the sooner that companies like Southwest drive the American Airlines of the world into bankruptcy (thus freeing their routes to be cherry-picked by more efficient providers of service), the sooner our industry will escape its statist past and start acting like travel isn't just the domain of business travellers with fat expense accounts that won't bat an eye at extortionary change fees.

Owen on the beach

Besides instances of airline company incompetence, how was my vacation? Spectacular. Lake Michigan is unique in that it's a freshwater lake that is so large that it makes you feel like you are by the ocean...without all the brine that makes everything stick to you like glue or the creepy crawlies that infest the oceanic jungle. And...the natives are particularly adorable (since my nephew is my sister's child, I consider him a native, even if he was born in Texas and is, strictly speaking, not from Indiana).