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This Is What an Epic Customer Experience Fail Looks Like

Spring Break! Fun in the sun! Time away! And then that time you fly home with your family…only to be mistreated so incredibly that writing this blog seems like the only recourse I have.

Let me present the facts.

  • We booked a flight to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico in October. We flew from Chicago’s O’Hare airport at the end of March with a connecting flight in Dallas and made it Puerto Vallerta without a problem. We booked our flight through US Airways, but all our flights were operated by American Airlines.  It should be noted it was booked this way through the airline, meaning we weren’t cobbling together two flights. Thanks, AA! No complaints.
  • Our original flights home allowed for 90 minutes between landing in Dallas, getting through immigration and customs, rechecking bags and getting to our flight to Chicago. The AIRLINE changed both flight times in the months between booking and leaving. Since everything on our end was the same, including flight numbers, we assumed the airline had determined this was a comfortable amount of time to make the connection. And why wouldn’t we? The airline sent us this confirmation.
  • Upon our return, we had a good flight on an old plane from Puerto Vallerta to Dallas. Good crew, especially Ken, the flight attendant, who was friendly and helpful and proactive. Great job, Ken!

customer experience fail

  • We landed on time and got out quickly. Thanks to my husband and I having Global Entry access, we also got through immigration, customs and rechecking our bags as fast as we literally could, faster than most passengers through this process. The longest part was waiting for bags to arrive, which took (I’m guessing) about 25-30 minutes.
  • We rushed through security (again, thanks to TSA Pre-check status) and ran (literally ran) to the tram, ran down moving escalators and made it to the gate with minutes to spare! (This is the part when I stress again, we didn’t do anything except follow the rules. We didn’t change our flight times. The airline had done all of this.)
  • We were early, but the plane was, too. They had left without us, as well as several other passengers in the same situation.
  • There was not only no information about our flight on the gate information board, but there was no gate agent. Nobody. Door closed. Again, this is before the flight time by at least 7 minutes. The airport information monitors still listed our flight as “on time.”


  • I ran to a gate several gates down because I couldn’t find an airline rep anywhere.  He informed me it had departed and we should go to customer service.  (It should be noted he was friendly and courteous and directed us politely. Thank you, gate agent!)
  • We walked through the airport and found the customer service agent. She was confused. Why were we late? (We weren’t late.) Why did we book it this way? (We didn’t.) She finally seemed to understand this was a bad situation, especially when her monitor informed her we were some of many people who had this happen. She got us on stand-by to the next flight, which was 7:15 pm.
  • This flight was oversold and completely full, meaning we were left there to again fight our battles. That gate agent was also confused. We should go talk to US Airways, even though the flights were operated on American. He was very concerned about whose logo was on the plane and only seemed interested in helping when we explained every plane involved was American Airlines. Never mind we were in A terminal and US Airways was in E. Never mind that again, this was not our fault. Never mind that they are sending emails about merging loyalty programs and becoming one airline.
  • We were told to head over to C terminal to try to get on the 9:40 pm flight. We again, did as we were told.


  • I approached that gate agent with our story, and to confirm that we were on the standby list. That gate agent basically wanted SO BADLY to make this our fault. She kept asking if we had received emails about the schedule change. Then she said it wasn’t looking good to make the 9:40 pm so maybe we should go to the 24 hour restaurant and ask for roll away beds. Again, she looked at me, my husband and my 2 children and her best option was to offer sleeping in a restaurant in the airport. And she was representing the airline who had put us in this situation.

By this point, I’m practically speechless.

  • Right around this time, we are told to trek to A terminal again because of a gate change. We started running into the same people over and over, who were in the exact same situation as us, riding trams and looking for answers.
  • My husband tries another American Airlines customer service rep. That’s where we’re told that the “best they can do” is offer us a hotel “distressed passenger” discount for a hotel 40 minutes from the airport.


  • Then we go wait for standby and realize our fate. We aren’t getting home tonight. This 9:40 pm flight is so oversold they start asking for volunteers to give up their seats – at least six of them! We try to ask if we need to confirm our flight for the morning, but the gate agent dismisses us because she has to handle the volunteers first. (We are distressed passengers. They are volunteers who opted to stay.)
  • We book a room easily at the airport Hyatt Regency, who graciously offered our motley crew some toiletries since we didn’t have any luggage.
  • My husband tries to confirm online, but his name is the only one showing for the 7 am flight. After calling the customer service number, we receive notice we’re confirmed, but don’t have seat assignments yet.
  • Meanwhile, let’s just say I had to work some serious Easter magic to ensure the Bunny would make it home before we did on Easter morning.
  • Finally, at 7 am the next morning, we leave for home, thankfully seated in the last 2 rows of the airplane.

I totally get how complicated an industry like this is, but let me point out a few other things.

We didn’t change the agreement, the airline did. Not only did they change it, but they didn’t honor it.

Another family in the same situation (who ended up flying to Milwaukee to get home) included a former Delta flight attendant. She was totally baffled. She kept saying, “They knew we were on the ground. They knew we were in the airport. They should have waited for us.” Heck, I’ve been seated on planes when they announce we’re waiting a minute or two for connecting passengers.

Throughout this ordeal, not one person from either airline expressed much of anything except why the blame was on us. Not one person said, “I’m sorry this happened.” The closest I got, after tweeting some of our experience to the social team, was, “We’re truly sorry to hear you missed your connection,” which is not an apology from them. It’s saying we did something wrong. We missed the connection.

As a public service, here’s some advice to American Airlines and US Airways and pretty much every other carrier.

1. If the time isn’t the time, then tell the truth about the time.

Thanks to gaming the system to meet on-time departure stats, airlines are boarding earlier than ever and closing the door well before takeoff. They are proving, over and over by their actions, how little they care about the customer. If the real customer time to be there is 5:30 instead of 5:40, then list that on the web site for booking the darn ticket. Stop playing games.

2. If you change the rules, own it.

Schedules are also changing more than ever. If the airline schedule change means problems for customers, own it. Show some proactive service and follow up. Set a standard for connection time for international flights and then do something about it. Don’t put the onus on customers to “make the connection.” That’s like telling someone who bought insurance that they should’ve known the tornado was coming, so they should’ve built somewhere else.

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3. Tell your people it’s ok to empathize.

Stop following scripts and be human. Hire and train accordingly.

How long have we been talking about this with airlines? Seems like an awfully long time, and yet with the exception of a few standouts like Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Jet Blue, we are suffering as a group because they don’t seem to be changing.

There are always issues and specific negative occurrences in any customer experience, but I think we can agree this seems systemic. After posting my frustration on Facebook, I received several long comments about “it happened to me” in various forms. It’s time to completely revamp the system, and it starts with caring about your customers.

(And if you ever need a driver in Chicago, let me recommend Rashid, aka Chicago Cabbie, who stayed connected via text and empathized through the entire ordeal. Then, in an extraordinary act of kindness, showed up on Easter morning at O’Hare to collect us. He gets customer service and what it means to care about customers. Seeing a friendly face after all of that meant more than I can express!)

Image credits: Anne WornercacophonyxLars Plougmannvidalia_11 via Creative Commons license

About Jeannie Walters, CCXP, CSP

Jeannie Walters CCXP CSP small square photoJeannie is an award-winning customer experience expert, international keynote speaker, and sought-after business coach who is trailblazing the movement from “Reactive Customer Service” to “Proactive Customer and Employee Experience.” More than 500,000 people have learned from her CX courses on LinkedIn Learning, and her insights have been featured in Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and NPR

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