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Winning Friends in High Places : American's Emphasis on Service Earns It Uncommon Praise

July 31, 1988|ROBERT E. DALLOS | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — It was after 11 p.m. when the phone rang at the home here of Robert L. Crandall. On the other end was a distraught woman whose baggage had not arrived in Salt Lake City when she got there aboard an American Airlines flight. Her daughter was getting married the next morning--and the suitcase contained the wedding dress.

Crandall, chairman and president of American Airlines, says two or three passengers manage to get through to him on the telephone every week, and he often handles their complaints personally. In the case of the lost suitcase containing the wedding dress, he worked into the early morning hours mustering American's forces to try to set things right.

The story had a happy ending. The suitcase was found in Dallas and was shipped to Utah on the first available flight--which happened to be by competing Delta Airlines.

The bride waited for the plane at the airport, and American Airlines provided her with an office in which she could change. She walked down the aisle just on time.

No airline, including American, is embarking on a honeymoon with its passengers. But with perhaps more determination than any other domestic airline, American is going to great lengths to keep its passengers content, or at least keep them from getting furious.

Amid almost universal angst these days over airline travel, American Airlines is getting some uncommon praise.

Passenger groups rank American's service tops among U.S. carriers and high on the list of airlines worldwide. In a survey of 30,000 frequent fliers conducted late last year in 100 cities around the world by the International Airline Passengers Assn., American ranked as the fourth-most preferred airline in the world behind Swissair, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa German Airlines. It was selected as the top airline in the world by the passengers from North America who responded to the survey.

When Financial World magazine recently polled people with incomes of more than $100,000 to find out which products or services they would choose if money was no object, American was the top choice for a U.S. airline. In another opinion sampling by Advertising Age magazine last year, American was the clear winner, with more than 30% of the votes cast choosing it as their favorite airline. Delta, which had been No. 1 in Advertising Age's poll two years earlier, came in second with 25%.

This is not to say that American works miracles. Hardly. American chief Crandall wouldn't have had to help that woman in Salt Lake City if his airline hadn't lost the bag in the first place. And even Crandall concedes that the bride's dress would not have arrived on time without his intercession.

Planes are still late. Flights are still cancelled. Employees can still be surly.

But American is beginning to demonstrate that an airline can be sort of like McDonald's--a place of few surprises.

"American has made a commitment to improving the level of service, while most of the other airlines have basically ignored it except in their advertising," said John F. Tschohl, president of Better Than Money Corp., a Minneapolis company that produces and designs systems to help organizations be more service-driven.

"The industry has spent no real effort or money trying to improve the level of service. They are all somewhat mediocre. Even Delta, which used to have a marvelous reputation, has slipped. Improvement is a real opportunity for most of the airlines, and it is not expensive to implement."

How does a company in what is perhaps one of this country's most berated businesses improve its service and bolster its image? Small steps, but steps that can be difficult and expensive.

Sometimes, American's special efforts to improve service are easy to notice. For example, starting last year it increased its personnel at gates and ticket counters during busy periods. When a departing wide-body airliner is expected to be at least 65% full (75% for a narrow-body plane) an extra agent is stationed at the gate. And a second gate agent is now routinely added 35 minutes before a flight; previously it was 20 minutes.

According to American, these moves alone have made necessary the hiring of about 50 new gate agents at the airline's Dallas/Ft. Worth hub. Throughout its system, the airline has added about 130 new gate agents.

In another change, American airport agents have been given more authority to settle customer complaints with payments on the spot, and the airline's lost-baggage claims policies have been relaxed. For example, cameras used to be excluded from coverage, but now there is an allowance when they are lost in baggage.

Some Efforts Subtle

More telephone reservationists have been hired, and some of them are kept in reserve during slow periods so that even when it gets busy, 80% of all calls are certain to be answered within 20 seconds.

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