a bed in a plane

The classic detective trick in every good crime show is always to split the two bad guys into separate rooms. Compare the stories, see what adds up and then poke holes where possible. Occasionally though, you put people into two separate rooms and they sing virtually the exact same tale, and they didn’t even have a chance or occasion to rehearse their tune.

After reading the “must read” One Mile At A Time review of American Airlines First Class, that’s exactly how I felt. Two different bloggers, two different flights, nearly half a year apart – yet two people sharing almost identical experiences, or rather lack thereof…

a person sitting in a chairA Quick Recap

Earlier this year I flew American Airlines Flagship First Class from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. It was… well, lacking. Incomplete sentences, complete lack of interest in service and all that kinda stuff. You can read my review here to catch up. Then this week, Ben, at One Mile at A Time, mused on his “first class” experience, which may have been even worse, but shared so many common threads. It’s lead me to say..

Hey, Is This Thing On?

I have a personal belief that internal feedback loops are the mother of all f’ups in many corporate structures. People reporting back to the same people, who have worked in the same departments forever. They always take their own internal opinion over anything from the outside, they never draw from outside inspiration and they rise to the highest level of their own incompetence, as my dad likes to say.

Basically, crews report that they are working hard and delivering great service, the product team then tells top brass that the crews are delivering a brilliant first class service, the “big wigs” in the glass offices then echo chamber that feedback to shareholders and customers about how great everything is, and after a few rinse cycles, everyone believes the kool-aid. “We are world class at first class”.

It comes as no surprise to me that I can be seen as a mercurial figure with my reviews and opinions, but I always truly try to see things through an open lens and have a general propensity to “like” things. I forgive small grievances in favour of the “I’m on a plane, in the pointy end, this is all fortunate and amazing” and if anything, I can be too polite with reviews.

Yet when I flew American Airlines First Class, I couldn’t help but almost feel angry, thinking how I’d feel if I hadn’t blown an upgrade certificate, and instead had paid for this first class experience. As Ben at OMAAT alluded to, I’ve been treated with far more dignity and kindness in economy on a basic no carry on ticket. I’ve had more passion about the cocktail list in basic no frills economy too.

I also had a similar experience in Flagship business from London to New York this year, where I was not greeted by name once, was called “camera guy” and basically felt like one massive inconvenience the entire way, whilst listening to glorious, salacious scuttle which echoed out of the galley the entire flight.

a bed in a planeMaybe American Should Try Listening

When two bloggers who don’t always agree on everything, and draw from very different experiences come to the same conclusion, and that conclusion is then echoed in the comments sections at a 10x amplifying level, maybe it’s time to listen?

Throughout my years, a few airlines have been smart enough to extend invitations to frequent flyers, people like myself who cover these sort of things and people from different industries like hotels to help them understand hospitality. Etihad partnered with The Savoy Hotel in London to learn how to curate a proper “butler” experience in the sky. Virgin Atlantic has hired from outside industries like hotels to learn from industries more associated with hospitality than transport.

American… doesn’t seem to learn from anyone, including their customers.

I can’t think of a single customer who ever said “yes, please wake me up an hour before landing and take the headphones off my head. No other airline does this, but it would be great if you did”. I simply haven’t ever been on another airline where crew can seem so predisposed to hate everyone on board, either. As Ben noted, he asked “what wines are you offering” and was told “you have a list”… in First Class!

Even in economy, that’s a great opportunity for a crew member to champion what they’ve built, offering a “I know they’ve worked hard to get better wines, I believe we have a Malbec, let me know what you think”. I was on a British Airways flight once in business class and the crew member was part of the BA cabin crew wine club. They spend their own free time tasting the wines on board and feeding back to the airline (gratis) so that they can give a better personal opinion.

As a customer, I genuinely understand that sometimes, things go wrong. I don’t mind that they do, it happens everywhere, but I do care about how they’re addressed. I’m just constantly amazed that American Airlines can leave such a shockingly woeful first class package in place, and that quite often they can be the same in business. How can so many people have these borderline rude, combative experiences in the highest level of service offered by the airline.

aa 787And for anyone who says “ugh, they’re just bloggers on freebies” that’s not the case. Both Ben and I hold Oneworld Emerald, which means we pay for an awful lot of travel on American and its Oneworld partners, and I’ve never accepted anything from American Airlines other than the toiletries in the amenity kits.

At the same time as all this shambles, someone at American is doing an excellent job with their lounges in both Flagship Business and Flagship First, so it makes me think there’s at least one really intelligent lone wolf in the bunch. Perhaps they’re just isolated to airports, and not allowed near the planes or crew and service elements.

Why Bother?

My feeling after reading Ben’s review was the same after writing my own: why bother? If you put this little effort into every element, from the wines to the seats to the service – why even bother offering a first class? American Airlines continues to be one of my greatest enigmas, and every time I really try to go into a flight hoping to love it and be spiked by the kool-aid, I find myself drifting even further into the “is this the twilight zone” feeling…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. AA sucks!

    Thanks so much for the article Gil and I enjoyed the OMAAT article too. They could care less about their customers, unfortunately United (and even Delta) are not too far behind in their international premium service. Very sad indeed.

  2. There is no way to deliver a First Class experience without first class service people, and no American airline, and certainly not American Airlines, has them. All I ever hear American FAs talking about is how to game their seniority system, always with a massive sense of entitlement (and often disgruntlement), and how to do the least work with the most relaxation and as many cool destinations in between as possible. The fact that we have all heard those conversations hundreds of times demonstrates that they have no shame or self-awareness about this. At service oriented airlines — and all other sorts of companies — workplace discussion is focussed on . . . work! You are just an inconvenience to them whilst they suck as many benefits out of their collective bargaining agreements as they can. That’s why it’s not worth a single marginal dollar (or mile) to me to upgrade from Business class and its already acceptable seat.

  3. The “echo chamber” is why every airline constantly surveys their customers. AA is well aware that their product lags far behind other carriers but they are relatively powerless to do anything about it because their employee unions are bullet proof. Even if they could strong arm their employees into doing what they are supposed to do, the cabins are selling, no need to spend money improving the product. The dollars are better spent lobbying Congress to fend off foreign airlines encroaching on their turf. The next recession will be very telling for the airlines – they have massively increased their fixed costs so even a relatively modest downturn in traffic will be very very painful.

  4. On point.
    How will they ever understand? Im so frustrated with AA. I spent $30k this year and every flight is horrible. Just so many small things that they can improve, small things! Yet, they dont bother.
    I want to make a change.org or something, we should blast their customer relations, or what can we do? They keep drinking their koolaid. If you message customer relations you get the “I’m sorry… hope to see you back on board” and here is 5,000 miles. No, I dont want your miles for a $5k business class seat in which i felt I was annoying the flight attendant for doing her job.

  5. @rjb You bring up an excellent point. We should all be letting our Senators and Congressperson know that we want an end to foreign ownership restrictions and to grant 5th Freedom rights to foreign carriers as well. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to fly JFK-LAX on SQ, CX or EK? How much better would AA be run if managed from Singapore rather than Dallas? We’ve given these US carriers every chance to deliver a decent product, and now long past time to subject them to some market discipline.

  6. Omaat has a review? I thought that site had become full time credit card shilling and personal problems therapy site.


  7. For the first time ever I agree with debit… OMAAT just published an article about how he no longer likes a credit card burnout 4 referral links on the bottom. I actually respect American Airlines more than bloggers these days. Why can’t bloggers just provide a review without all the arrogance. We all know the major airlines in the USA suck. What has this review provided us that we did not already know ? I’d rather have the bigger seat there and the option than have everyone complain and have them remove it. And no sir…. They aren’t going to pull your blog and change their service concepts because of you

  8. Please write more about how bad you think American Airlines is in your blogs. More opportunity for me to clear my SWUs. Thank you.

  9. Mak… do you have any idea what allowing foreign ownership would do to our airlines ? It wound usher in a new lost decade in aviation. None of the things you people talk about on here would equal profitability. Very few airlines can provide a luxury product and profitability. Maybe the Japanese airlines and that’s it. The product we have today is the product we as consumers created. We chose a long time ago we weren’t going to pick airlines for their service levels but for price and schedules and that’s what they are providing. There are no experts on this thread. Just a bunch of people with some credit card points who expect the world to bow down to their needs. If you want caviar and a massage on your flight from Dallas to Chicago… get on a private jet. The option is there, it just costs …. money. The US airlines can be nicer and fix some of their service rituals but they have come a long way. I’m very happy with how I’m treated and I see most employees working very hard (I’m a pilot For the big 3 and a customer ) I know I take very good care of anyone I come in contact with and have gotten many thousands of people around the country safely and on time The last thing any of us should want is foreign competition within the US. The end product would be destroyed and it would cause a financial disaster within. I fly well over 100K miles per year as a paying passenger and even more as a deadhead and witness mostly great service by hard working crew members. These blogs create a false dimension of some sort of fake dream world of what flying should be like for the $$$ we pay. Passengers should be treated nicely, honestly and with respect and dignity.. that’s for sure… but the expectations you all have are well beyond a reality.

    1. @Ryan If the level of customer service of Asían, ME3 and some European airlines is a luxury, then something is really wrong within US3. There is not question about caviar or massage, it is to feel being welcomed on board, to be treated like a dear guests visiting, without putting that “we are here for your security” to first place. Hoping for better treatment is “a fake dream world”? Sounds like a union PR speech. “Expectations beyond reality” is hoping that something will change in a near future with US3. Blame the unions, a worldwide 4th stade cancer. Meanwhile, enjoy flying as work and with staff tickets as passenger.

    2. Financial disaster is exactly what need to happen. They won’t pay attention any other way. Just have them bankrupt. No government bailout or anything. Enough is enough.

    3. Your point is understood, but my complaint is the service has grown so atrocious it is in my opinion a security and safety concern, not just one of expecting to be pampered. I’ve flown 3 RT trips to Eurooe this year on AA and on each and everyone all but maybe the lone male FA has had major meltdowns in-flight. When a senior FA stomps up and down the aisle vocalizing how much she hates her job and everyone on board, I get a little nervous.

  10. American’s first class internationally is pretty much AAwful. My wife and I flew DFW-ICN and back a few years ago and she made me promise to never subject her to that experience again. The list of problems was too long to go into here, so that should say a lot. I’d blame the unions except Southwest has proven for decades that unions and good service can get along fine.

  11. I took AA first class a few back to Asia. The crew made me feel felt like they were doing me a favor servicing me. The crew was much older then the Asian airlines I usually take and acted like they didn’t want to be there. Number of incidents during the flight. The first was when an older over weight gentleman served me a drink and his tie went into my drink and knocked it over. He apologized and I felt after that I didn’t really want him serving me again (seemed he was having to much trouble bending).

  12. If we focus on the real issue…service.

    You mentioned the steps Etihad & Virgin took to improve their Service Experience for a product that is offered. Kudos to them and other companies that are focused on providing such highly specific and purposeful training. Unfortunately we here in the United States do not subscribe to such ideations of service. Service = servitude (negative connotation). The doorman and butler have left the building, are irrelevant, and not a part of our culture. Service industries here are looked down upon, not aspired to, so it’s no surprise that these are lackluster at best for the namesake airline company American.

    The Unions that represent, do nothing to encourage productivity or pride in your workplace i.e. no meritocracy. Yes, very much like Homer Simpson, “If you don’t like your job you don’t quit! You just go in everyday and do it half ass’d. That’s the American way!”


  13. I haven’t flown American in years. I refuse to because the experience is just so bad. My wife still would fly with them occasionally. We always fly First or Business Class. In August a young woman who was like a daughter to my wife died suddenly in her sleep. She tried to book a flight to Charlotte. She called me and told me two different American employees yelled at her and hung up on her. She was upset and called and asked me to book her flight. Delta volunteered a bereavement fair and asked if there were anything else they could do for her. She’ll never fly American again.

  14. Believe it or not, there are some of us left that care about providing as superior of a service as we can .
    I’ve been with AA for 32 years and still love my job and all that goes with it. I purposely fly with my “buddy bidders” so that I know most of the customers will deplane our flight happy and satisfied. I long for the days when we served caviar and lobster , had fresh flowers on the credenza and management that desired satisfied customers , NOT management that only cares about making money and management that ignores human factor. Rest assured , there are some of us that truly care .

    1. Melanie,

      It’s such a pleasure when I encounter someone aiming for the best. I do get it, and when I do, I’m incredibly happy and grateful. I’ve had some of my best flights on AA, but it upsets me that stars such as yourself are the exception to the rule these days.

      I think people in First are looking for that consistency and excellence you strive for, and sadly too few seem to be aiming where you are.

      All the best.


  15. Of course they SUK! Its the “American” way whereby a union ensures that FAs can literally do NOTHING and get paid hefty salaries for being lazy, aloof, disinterested and certainly NOT focused on customer service that shows appreciation to how we all are spending our $$.

    Isn’t the closing announcement ironic as hell “we know you have a choice in air travel & appreciate you choosing us at American”? WTF…..then freakin earn it every minute, every second of your work life. But alas this is why foreign carriers succeed. Its that hunger in the belly to be their very best! Sadly American carriers albeit a window into American USA culture means they do not possess any longer that hunger, entreprenurial spirit, and it shows!

    Part of the problem = the union! Part of the problem is AA management. In my own case, when in F Class and the FA says I can’t get my meal choice only to see with my own eyes a pilots meal WITH my meal choice and upon confronting the FA she confirms the UNION guarantees certain benefits like this OVER a paying customer thats beyond ridiculous of any business owner and totally a big FU in the face of the customer. So why go back?

    Spot on write up Gilbert!

  16. I believe a combination of the unions then the rash of mergers that obliterated American carriers. But the callous attitude of most AA and United personnel takes bad service to the next level. That’s one of reasons I bought a TESLA and swore off US carriers. My goal is to only fly a foreign carrier across the world in Business or First and to do no more than once a year!
    AA can’t be fixed and my lifetime Gold card is definitely going to stay in my drawer!

  17. Had an enjoyable Biz class experience nearly 3 years ago on AA where ivwasxable to upgrade with miles. Cannot find that sweet spot since. This year I flew Qantas to AU and discovered their economy was much better than any US airline I’ve flown. Just recently had my worst experience ever on AA home from Tokyo. Paid extra for Bulkhead seats and not only were we sussounded by people who AA put in last minute with no upcharge, I was squished in beside a very large man & had to twist sideways to eat.
    Not paying for AA anymore

  18. More fifth-freedom flights! And then the legacy carriers have the audacity to complain about the Middle Eastern carriers and “unfair” competition! Asian and Middle Eastern carriers should be allowed to flood the US markets and bankrupt these loser airlines. Just close them down and start from scratch. Thank you for posting this.

  19. Recently flew business DFW-HKG, very similar story with older flight attendants speaking with incomplete sentences. I asked for a smaller pour of wine and was told that order was complicated. Cabin crew did not seem like they wanted to be there and the self service flight snack area seemed to be where the FAs congregated to talk shop. I’ve definitely had better service in Cathay and JAL economy flying across the ocean. What am I going to do with the SWUs…

  20. “I can’t think of a single customer who ever said “yes, please wake me up an hour before landing and take the headphones off my head.”

    Me! That’s me, that is!!

    On every single long haul flight I’ve ever taken, I’ve asked to be woken up for every meal that’s served 😁

  21. I understand your position that American is failing to offer the best personalized service in First and Business class and I cannot disagree that they could be doing better; however I have had some truly wonderful experiences flying American both domestically and internationally.

    I find that if I reach out to the flight attendants to make a personal connection, 95% of the time I am rewarded with a truly high level of attention and care. I approach each flight as an opportunity to be grateful for the service the flight attendants offer, and if I relay my appreciation, the crew invariably responds favorably and goes out of their way to make me feel at home and cater to my whims. I come from the place that serving a packed cabin of passengers, even in First or Business class, can be a daunting and unpleasant experience for the flight attendants, who have to deal with often unrealistic demands, passengers who are enter the cabin already unhappy and uncomfortable, crying babies, pets roaming the cabin, food and drink to serve pretty much nonstop and all manner of technical issues on the aircraft that can and probably will go wrong.

    Let’s cut them some slack, treat the flight attendants with respect, honor their difficult and exhausting jobs, and stop being so demanding of them. Yes, some flight attendants may not be in the best mood given their circumstances when I arrive on a plane; but reaching out to him or her can make all the difference in the world and for me it seems to almost always pay off with warm and really satisfying service and attention.

    American sure has some lessons to learn, but on the flip side, the business and first class hard product, the new fleet of aircraft, lounges and experience have improved so dramatically in the last decade or so, that I am willing to cut them some slack. Yes, blogging and communicating to AA about bad experiences is a good idea, but let’s balance it out with acknowledging the improvements too, so hopefully AA continues to listen and improve.

    1. I’ve never been anything less than personable and polite to cabin crew, but I think it’s ridiculous to think that it’s my job to butter them up just to get a decent service.

  22. It’s TRUE that they can do better . But let me tell you I am a crew member on one of the above mentioned ME3 . Mostly crew with experience whether its AA or Big ME3 behaves very badly. They things that pax under their mercy. In my opinion company should identify those old crew with out no passion and high nasty attitude… give them a good offer and chuck them out . All ME3 and Asian carrier avoid crew related complaints like that . AA and United needs to do it immediately. Otherwise they will ruin the entire product.


    Then these so called bloggers we all hate them irrespective of which airline we work with . They all have a fake smile and camera and asking annoying questions in the middle of busy service.

  23. You don’t need to be blogger to dislike American Airlines service. As someone trapped in a market that AA owns 96% of flights, I don’t have a choice for all practical purposes. I earned over 190,000 Elite Miles last year. I fly AA domestically and to Europe and to Asia, I try to always redeem miles on their partner airlines when possible so my family can have a generally better experience.

    It is the people. The attitude. If we are paying for Business or First Class (or using earned upgrades), we should be treated with a reasonable amount respect. As someone spending over $40K a year with any individual services vendor I expect to be treated with a reasonable amount of respect. Unfortunately it does not happen often.

    The cabin maintenance is lacking sometimes too. I flew one 10 hour + flight in business class with a blue box on my lap instead of a tray table that would not extract. Yes, I got 5,000 miles for my troubles, but really ? The plastic box that hold glasses for a tray table in Business on a $5,000 + ticket ? The company can do better.

    Bad service always catches up with you.

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