“I’m Not Allowed To Help You” — Airline Customer Service At Its Finest

Filed Under: American, Travel

For me it’s the little things which make the experience with an airline or hotel. For example, a suite upgrade is of course nice, but something from my Starwood Ambassador which makes me smile is even better.

The problem is that the same is true in reverse as well — it’s the little things which leave a very bad taste in my mouth with airlines and hotels. It’s fine if my upgrade doesn’t clear or if a seat is angled flat or if a hotel is past its prime, but when I run into a situation where an employee puts in zero effort, it drives me mad.

Case in point, I was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on American yesterday. I was booked on the 8:55PM flight, but wanted to stand by for the 6:45PM flight. I got the airport at around 5:45PM, and got in the priority check-in line to add myself to the standby list (I wanted to do it before going to the gate in case the security line was super long, which could have caused me to miss the cutoff for being added to the list).

There were five people ahead of me in line with one agent working. However, I saw kiosks at the other end of the check-in area, which no one was using, so I went up to one of them to try and add myself to the standby list (which is usually possible). I got an error message.


There were three American agents at the counter by the kiosks, presumably intended to help if people have issues. Since I got an error message and there was no one waiting, I went up to one of the agents, where the following conversation happened:

Me: “Hi, could you please add me to the standby list for the earlier flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles?”
Agent: “Did you try to use the kiosk?”
Me: “Yes, it gave me an error message.”
Agent: “Did you get a printout?”
Me: “No, it didn’t print anything. But you can add me to the list, right?”
Agent: “I’m not allowed to help you.”
Me: “Seriously?”
Agent: “You need to use the kiosk and get a slip of paper before we’re allowed to help.”

What kind of business doesn’t “allow” their employees to help customers? That’s institutionalized incompetence if I’ve ever seen it.

I sort of just said “wow” and gave her a look, and then she reluctantly took my mobile boarding pass. She typed for a while and then printed out a boarding pass… for the same flight my mobile boarding pass was for.

Me: “I already had my boarding pass, I wanted to be added to the standby list for the earlier flight, please.”
Agent: “We’re not allowed to help with that, you’re supposed to see an agent over there.”
Me: “Maybe I’m confused, but are you contract workers and those are American agents over there, or why?”
Agent: “No, we all work for American.”

This situation annoyed me. What kind of a company has a policy where employees who aren’t busy aren’t allowed to assist with customers unless they first try something on a machine (and even when they do and there was an error, they insist they still need a printout saying so)?

As much as I’d like to be mad at the agent, it’s my understanding that this is in fact American’s policy. Based on my understanding, the agents at many stations are instructed not to manually help customers unless they try the kiosk first…


Am I the only one who finds this policy ridiculous?

  1. LOL. And you’re really surprised? Come on dude, this is AA. They are the king of excuses. Then to pile on that your in LV, land of lazy union members.

  2. Sounds like AA is requiring that pax exhaust their non-human alternatives prior to encumbering the high priced labor. No doubt an agent who is otherwise doing nothing is able to assist, but AA may be trying to “train” its customers to use the kiosks, making a kiosk effort necessary prior to resorting to humans.

    No doubt annoying, but I see a business rationale to doing this.

  3. So the agent took your mobile boarding pass, presumably saw that you are EXP, and still didn’t help?

    I think I have more issue with the fact that an agent didn’t help an EXP with a question.

  4. I’d blame this on management rather than the agent. That’s what they were trained to do and who knows? There may have been instances in the past when they helped someone without a printout and later got yelled at by their manager (hence why the agent said they’re not allowed to help you without the printout.) Perhaps at the end of the day, that agent’s work performance may depend on the number of printouts he/she worked on?
    I fly Delta a lot and the agents who patrol the DL kiosks will always go to you in person and help you navigate through the kiosk, if needed. I’m surprised the AA agent you talked to did not do that for you.

  5. So what was the ultimate resolution? Were she able to help you in the end?

    This reminds me of a near riot that our SkyPriority line had to cause in LGA to get moving as SP agents were busy doing who knows what while people in line were running dangerously close to missing luggage cut-off time (curbside checkin wasn’t better).

  6. Even more offensive is many Agents’ unwillingness to help ANYBODY get their bag onto the checkin scale (elderly, youthful…). I once saw a very elderly woman (mid 80’s?) almost fall over trying to hoist up her bag for a solid 10 seconds to no avail, only after which the agent came around to help (and moved so slowly that I beat her to the punch from many feet away). I asked the agent why she would ever allow such a woman to even attempt to lift her bag. She said that “we” don’t attempt to lift heavy looking bags for “our” own safety. Fine. Union rule? AA rule? I dunno. But not making an exception for senior citizens is vile.

  7. That is common, in every consumer services in the US. This is called “low-efficiency”, which I am extremely proud of…

  8. This is Doug Parker – this is exactly what it was like with US Airways at DCA, generally with surly employees as well. While I COMPLETELY agree that this is absurd, the leadership has determined that kiosks are money savers and that the traveling public must be trained to try to machine first. Instead of training the front lines to provide proactive assistance, they’re trained to really do as little as humanly possible unless they have a written reason otherwise. It’s shameful.

  9. When an airline thinks that people only value price in a service, this is what you get. You should have flown Virgin America or Southwest: they typically cost a few $ more on average, which are well spent!

  10. Same exact thing happened to me when I wanted to get my bag checked through on two separate Tix, an AA and AB one. Literally refused to help me unless I had a printout which wasn’t possible

  11. So why didn’t you just use another Kiosk? You said there were “kiosks” (plural). I learned my lesson, never use LAS for any connection or reason to fly from there—-the staff want people to be delayed so that people use the slot machines all over the place.

  12. In my experiences, AAgent never pay attention to your status shown on BP.
    This did not top my experience in EWR waiting in the over-entitiled premier customer service line and got yelled at by the agent behind counter ” I do not service permier member”

  13. This is really annoying. But I was also … surprised when I wanted to check-in at JFK last month and saw that there were only two (2) check-in counters open for business class, having a queue for 12 passengers. Come on, we’re not talking about some small airline at some province airport, this is ALL available AA business counters for JFK!

  14. @James People should only pack what they can manage, or fly with an assistant. I work in an industry with similar rules in place for my own safety. Is the senior going to pay for my medical bills, time off, and loss of future abilities when I get injured lifting their overweight item? My work would penalize me and I’d be left with nothing but trouble.

  15. Sounds like an AA experience I had recently at IAH priorty check in counter flying to DFW then on to SYD. The agent refused to check in my wife an American citizen and permenant resident of Australia of 10 years because she didnt have a visa. After trying to explain to over and over that her residencey is linked to her passport she flat out refused and demanded to see evidence of her residencey. Bear in mind we have done this same route from IAH to SYD 6 times never having an issue.
    After 10 minutes of exhaustive pleeding and reciting of Australian immigration law , She then swiped the passport again and typed on her keyboard for what seemed like for an eternity ,finally admitting to “not seeing the other screen” and ” never experienced an Australian passport like this ” to find her residencey expires in 2019…enjoy your trip!
    Oh Qantas why must you partner with AA! Grrrr

  16. @Heather: totally agree, there are liability issues here. I volunteer at a museum and we are NOT allowed to physically assist people in and out of exhibits, as we, not the museum, would be liable for any injuries.

  17. I am AA Concierge Key and their customer service has absolutely gone down the toilet. And it is across the board from flight attendants to gate agents. I live in Dallas and wish had options I could switch to.

  18. This is due to union work rules, there are two types of agents and two different pay scales.

    The agents on the lower pay scale are only allowed to assist passengers with disabilities, manage lines, assist customers with kiosks, tag luggage, and print a boarding pass. They are not allowed to do anything to modify a PNR. In fact their Sabre sine (computer login profile) won’t let them do anything more even if they wanted.

  19. Hahahaha, American service at its best. Also, luckyboy, this is nothing out of the ordinary. I think you were treated as a ‘regular’ customer for a few minutes this time, instead of your accustomed ‘elite’ status. Good reality check for you, but nothing extraordinary for th average traveler. Take that silver spoon out of your mouth, son.

  20. As usual at the airport…. a whole lot of airline employees doing a whole lot of nothing!

  21. Lucky, were they subcontract workers? Did they wore the red coat? Because if they did they were subcontractor. They aren’t allowed to do certain stuff. Only american airline union agent have full power. I have a feeling they were redcoat agents when they said they were not allowed to help. They non union workers. They are not allowed to do union worker jobs.

  22. Disappointing.

    Unfortunately Las Vegas is one of those airports where agents have to put up with a lot more infrequent flyers and hungover tourists. The attitude was totally unjustified but at leisure-heavy airports, I think customer services tends to be held to lower standards.

  23. I had this exact experience with Delta. I wanted to add my Known Traveller # to my booking – not possible with the kiosk. (I wasn’t able to do it online due to technical reasons with Delta’s website – it just errored out for that flight). Only 3 types of staff available: kiosk assistance staff, bag drop staff, and SkyPriority staff.

    Kiosk Assistance couldn’t help and just flatly said it wasn’t possible; Bag drop said they weren’t able to help with anything other than bag drop. Thanks to status with Alitalia I was able to get assistance from the SkyPriority desk, but it left me wondering who I would have asked failing that!

  24. Julia Dugger got this one right.Congratulations Julia Spot on!
    This is the US Air affect.
    This is exactly the Doug Parker poison that has been little by little starting to destroy this once underrated airline and program.
    After 20 year and 6 million miles with American I will be seeking another travel partner .The revenue based program combined with a stealth devaluation and awful lack of award seats has me finally throw in the towel
    Its slowly becoming Delta from policies to award seats 🙁
    My goal Alaska/Virgin with some occasional Southwest and Middle Eastern carriers and other International in complete retaliation to what Doug Parker has done to this airline.He is the next Jeff Smisek
    They can keep their upcoming revenue based program and the crappy award availability like never before in the history of American Airlines. I’ll be tearing up my Citibank American cards too and signing up for a 3% cash back card

  25. From my experience the employees that are around the kiosk are not fully trained AA agents. They are “contract” workers. I avoid them at all costs and will stay put in the First Class Line at all costs.

  26. “What kind of business doesn’t “allow” their employees to help customers?”

    The airline business! It’s all been about cost cutting, which primarily means reducing the number of employees, including customer-facing employees. It starts with booking a ticket: you are required to do that online if you want to avoid a charge for talking to a human being to get this task done. And it continues in the same way all the way through check-in, boarding, the flight, and picking up your bags.

  27. I tried to read this post Ben…but it keeps on erroring out….asking me if I read the kiosk first. Sorry mate.

  28. These problems are endemic with American, especially outside their hubs. They seem completely unable to think for themselves and default with a “no”. It leads to a variety of operation issues and customer discontent. I think it is a major corporate cultural issue that lays squarely with management. Countless times I have to explain to these people how to think and make proper judgements. As a Plat, hardly ever do they put me on standby lists for flights without some sort of extended plea. On my last flight out of LAS, the agent, after calling out 20 peoples names to come to the gate 15 minutes before departure time said that I don’t have a chance of clearing if she put me on a standby list. I had to patiently explain to her that she was calling these names because people havent boarded and it is likely that not everyone would make it on to the plane. She then made me gate check my rollerboard because she said my other item, a small duffel bag with clothes and a couple magazines, wouldnt fit under the seat, clearly it would and I demonstrated it in the sizer. She said, “well i already printed out a bag tag so you need to check it”. Major inconvenience and nobody at the gate would have better judgement. When i got to the plane the overheads had tons of space. Pathetic.

  29. @Chris D i’m pretty sure known passegner info cannot be added 24-hours, or maybe even longer before a flight. TSA requirement.

  30. ‘Is the senior going to pay for my medical bills, time off, and loss of future abilities when I get injured lifting their overweight item’

    Union mentality at its finest, shame shit mentality in my third world communist country. were all the service is gone down the drain.

    Omitting the fact that the senior citizen in this scenario is already paying your salary !!

    Hope mom or grandma never have to travel with ‘more that they can handle’.

    Sadly if I am close of a senior citizen i’ll do me best to help, even if they are not paying my salary.

  31. Gotta agree with ‘BBK’ above. If you’re that worried about work injuries (literally every job has the risk), them maybe the whole working thing isn’t for you, pal. Time to warm that couch at home.
    Basic courtesy and customer service is lacking these days. And no American airline is better than the other in that aspect, and those who think so are fooling themselves, or have been randomly lucky people. And to those people I say enjoy it while it lasts.

  32. @James
    I’m glad you were able to help the elderly lady with her enormous luggage but I can see the other side of the equation as well. I’m a 115 pound woman who can’t easily lift a giant suitcase without risking an injury and that’s precisely the reason I never travel with luggage that exceeds 35 pounds. Again, I’m glad there are guys like you who will step up and help in such situations.
    And as for the kiosk agent, I’m confused as to whether she could actually add you to a standby list or if she just refused to. Perhaps there was a computer issue? I agree that it is bad if she just refused to help with an issue she could easily resolve. But like you said in the beginning of your post – you have to take the bad with the good. Hopefully at the end of the day, you rack more good events than bad ones from the airline and hotel employees.

  33. As others have pointed out, this has all the characteristics of Doug Parker (mis)management. Is the airline profitable? Yes, of course it is when you turn it into US Airways. Just replace all the customer facing staff with kiosks, lay off all customer service staff at AA and move it to Phoenix (good luck getting a refund issued in this lifetime), US Airways catering in F and J, start boarding 50 minutes before departure and close the flight 15 minutes before departure…can go on and on.

  34. @Gary & @BBK – You guys must’ve missed the part where Heather said “My work would penalize me and I’d be left with nothing but trouble.”

  35. Ben, do you think you received this special treatment because you’re a famous blogger with millions of readers and tons of influence?

    Oh, wait…

  36. @David known passenger info can be added immediately. When I’ve had it missing from a record (as indicated by boarding pass), I’ve gone to the counter, had them add it, and BP printed again with Pre.

  37. When we all start wearing body cameras, we’ll get to publish the videos and share the incompetence with the world. Public shaming, anyone?

  38. I was traveling from AUS to CLT in F (and am executive plat). I went up to two agents in the main cabin line as the priority line was full. The agents directed me to the kiosk (one gentleman came with), the first three didn’t work. When one finally did work, he forced me to tag my own bag after walking back to get a priority tag and sat their instructing me on how to do so in a condescending way. I don’t mind tagging my bag but the absolute refusal to help in any way was annoying. I’m younger, but thought about older customers, such as my parents, receiving that kind of attitude (they aren’t good with any kind of technology). I’m completely pissed off.

    What should have been two minutes turned in to a fifteen minute process; a complete waste of my time (they could have easily did this at the desk). I have low tier elite status on United and have never received such disrespectful service.

  39. Ben, how do you add yourself to the standby list on the kiosk? I have never seen that option for any of my flights 🙁

  40. I’ve been seeing some disagreement over whether or not a gate agent is unhelpful for not lifting luggage for older pax.

    Were I AA, I would instruct my gate agents never to do so. First, no pax should have luggage they cannot lift. Second, while a gate agent can lift one bag, there may be a risk of repetitive strains over a shift.

    THIRD, AA should remove lifting bags from the scope of a gate agent’s duties because if they assign that duty, one day a gate agent’s gonna feign an injury and file a worker’s comp claim. The best way to avoid this altogether is to remove such strain from the scope of duty.

    As some have noted, all of this unhelpfulness may not be the fault of teh gate agent – it may be entirely driven by AA policy.

  41. On a separate note, I was traveling yesterday on an American Eagle flight and was in the bulkhead seat (the seat next to me was empty) and was told by the flight attendant to “sit properly” (I had my foot on the bulkhead wall; not bear – I had shoes on and wasn’t impeding on her movement). LOL!!

  42. To @James comment above – I’m sorry that the agent was unwilling to assist the elderly passenger, but I hope that passenger learned a valuable lesson from the experience: don’t pack more than you can lift.

    That’s part of the reason why I check luggage; I have no problems lifting my luggage onto the device to weigh it, or off a carousel, but I am not comfortable hoisting luggage above my head to put it in the overhead bin, and would never expect a fellow passenger to assist (I’m not elderly, but I’m in the middle of “middle-aged”, and am not as flexible as I used to be.)

  43. This is how US AIR agents were. And you can tell who they are by the trashy uniforms they still wear (zip up sweaters). Everything about US airways was complete trash. Absolute trash. Last year I had two separate AA and US AIR tickets and I wanted to check my bag all he way through. Took the piece of trash agent 10 minutes before she finally relented and realized I couldn’t do that at a kiosk. Then it took her anther 20 minutes to accomplish what I want. I’m shocked my bags made it.
    Btw, a week prior, I had an AA agent accomplish the same thing with an AA and QF itinerary in about 1 minute.
    These US Airways people are such useless trash. It’s time to start letting them know that.

  44. More shitty service from US airlines. if you were actually on a plane, you would have been arrested for interfering with a flight operation.

    The US airline industry caters to the lowest bottom line, with price ruling above all.

    Raise ALL tickets by $ 100, eliminate the sheer volume of travelers, and bring back some service.

    Also eliminate free seats with infants, children in business and first class, and price tickets accordingly.

  45. This only happened because the ME3 are stealing all of the US3 customers. (tongue in cheek, folks)

  46. Each and every time I’ve traveled with Copa, the counter agents (most of the time petite females) have tried proactively to help me handle my quite large checked bag in the scale.

    Of course I stop them in the act, never let them make any effort, but they made the physical gesture to help in a way that you know they were not just making the show expecting me to decline.

    Maybe the fact that they see pres. plat. status, but i’m almost sure is for customer service philosophy and the way they are all trained.

    In the unlikely event I really need some help placing the luggage in the scale, after I stop the counter agent declining the help (well, maybe if it’s a male I have accepted a couple of times), I call the baggage handlers who wear the work back brace and they move the luggage.

  47. Aaahhh… at least the agent explained the reason behind AA’s lack of helpfulness to anyone under any circumstance. I thought that they didn’t just care originally. I had no idea that being unhelpful was part of the job requirement. Had I known, I would have thanked them for doing such a wonderful job in the past.

  48. This has nothing to do with aa or airlines. Businesses across this great country have, for their own stup I d and paranoid, short-sighted reasons, started to severely limit what front line employees can do. And, since I guess many of these employees are idiots, the one thing they are never to let them think for themselves. My two examples just this week:

    1. My asst. called the bank to tell them we did not receive a statement this month and asked if they could mail or email one to the address they have on file (which she could identify if asked). She was told that they were not authorized to do that unless I called personally.
    Why, because there’s a real rash of fraudsters having statements sent to the owners of the account?!

    2. TIAA CREF needed a copy of the court order I had. They just wanted a copy, no need for it to be certified, etc. So, I asked if I could fax it or send it to my contact’s email add.
    Response: “No, it must be sent by U.S. mail.” No amount of calm logic would sway her.
    That’s just in the last week.

  49. That just goes to show that US Air is what AA has become.
    US Air is the second worst company ever at doing anything; they will never attain the title of absolutely worst until United folds of course, but Parker and his fellow millionaires-from-merger types won’t stop before they have driven the old AA standards completely into the toilet.

  50. @mbh your first example is flawed. In no circumstances should a bank allow anyone – not your assistant, not even your spouse – to do any banking activity on your behalf (unless explicitly authorized to do so).

  51. To all the people claiming that passengers should only pack what they can carry, that nobody is expected to do something for you, take care of your own heavy lifting etc, I want to say:this is the beginning of society’s fabric fraying. How about we help each other and spread positivity? Might sound frou-frou, but won’t we all be the better for it? Instead of saying an old person should only pack the 10lbs they can manage (while making no concession on ticket fares), if there’s someone around who’s younger and stronger nearby, please help! What goes around comes around! Bravo to the person above who was helpful, we need more people like him.
    In other parts of the world, airlines employ young, strong men to do some of the lifting at checkin counters. No idea why that’s not the case in the US. Won’t pay much, but won’t pay any less than burger flipping. Or maybe a conveyor belt kind of arrangement starting at floor level which eliminates lifting entirely. But no, we’re ok crossing our arms and saying ‘that’s not my job’, or ‘I’m not covered for the risk’.

  52. Air New Zealand have been doing this for years. I’m sure it has driven a few business class passengers to other airlines…

  53. Your first problem was getting out of the priority line.

    2nd. The agent that you talked to that worked the kiosk was indeed a contract employee. Different context, different boss, lower pay, no flight benefits, very easily replaceable.

    Whoever runs Vegas must be kind of hard on them. I couldn’t even get the contracted agent to change my seat at the ticket counter.

    Long story short, realize that the person you’re directly talking to isn’t the problem; they’re just following orders.

  54. I work in the airline industry , and a lot of people like yourself give us a headache.
    Firstly you have to wait so a staff call you , maybe the other people who “wasn’t busy” wasn’t train on whatever you ask .
    2nd that’s why they put the machine there so people can use it not to be shine and look nice there , people have to do the self check in first and if they have any problem to wait in the qu for a pax to help them

  55. Angelo,

    I’m sorry that you get a headache while doing your job, but as a front line employee you’re suppose to or on a pretty face and represent the brand in a glowing light. I don’t care whether someone gives you a headache, in fact employee’s with the attitude that you’ve displayed here give me a headache. So stop comparing and do your dam* job.

  56. As an AA employee I am appalled by this. Yes we are trained to get as many people to use the kiosks as possible, but as I see it the longer I can keep the stupid things from stealing my job the better. Anytime the kiosk gives you an error it should print something off…it might take a minute because the darn things are as slow as molassis. But as an EP no one should tell you they can’t help you. As EP you are not required to even attempt the kiosks. I worked the kiosks for a year and a half before becoming a ticket/gate agent so I know them all too well. Some of the policies AA had in place might seem funny to non employees I’m sure, but I can guarantee this is not the way we are trained. I’m sorry you experienced this.

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