Incompetence Day II: American Airlines

If a simple task like booking a one-way air ticket leaves you frothing with fury and biting chunks out of your coffee mug, you’re probably trying to arrange a USA domestic flight from outside the USA.

I need to send an engineer from Washington DC to Miami around Thanksgiving. The only direct flights are available from American Airlines, and the obvious thing to do is to book via their web site.

Funny thing is, for an airline that flies internationally, AA doesn’t seem to realise that the vast majority of the world exists. When you enter your details into their web site, there is a pull-down list of countries from which it is acceptable for you to originate. In summary: North America, Central America, South America and the UK. Nothing else. So you can book if you’re from Haiti, Equador, Toronto, Croydon or Honduras, but not if you’re from Paris, Sydney, or – critically – Hong Kong.

So use an American or British credit card, say the optimists. Can’t. The credit card needs to be presented at check-in. The engineer who will be there doesn’t have an US or UK credit card.

(This makes the AA web site officially more stupid than the Kowloon-Canton railway web site, which allows you to book a one-way ticket from Guangzhou to Hong Kong but doesn’t tell you until after you’ve concluded the transaction that you cannot collect the ticket from anywhere in Guangzhou, or indeed anywhere outside Hong Kong.)

We went to a local travel agency. They quoted us US$440 for a flight that was being sold on the web site for US$140. We told them where to put their flight.

Then we tried AA’s official HK booking office – they have no local web site that we could use. The AA booking office clerk was quite amazingly rude. Yes, we could get the flight at the same price as that shown on the web site. No, they can’t invoice us, we have to pay up front. Cash or credit card. No, they won’t take credit cards over the phone, the signer has to be present. No, they can only hold the reservation for 24 hours. No, you can’t get the tickets today. No you can’t ask us any more questions. Go away. We’re busy.

Expedia was doing a nice trick. On the index of flights, it was showing our desired flight for US$125 ex-taxes. When you clicked on it, the site proudly reported, “The price for this flight has *just* changed: it now costs US$185”. I ran the search again. US$125. I ran the search again this morning. Still US$125, until you try to buy it.

And the American legacy carriers wonder why they’re losing money.