Always Overhead

Here’s a fascinating video of air traffic across the globe during a 24 hour span condensed down to about 2 minutes. It was taken by an orbiting satellite and includes the day/night footprint gliding across earth. The yellow represents large jet flights from the major carriers. You can see aircraft landing in Europe having left America, and then returning to America from Europe. When you see all the planes in the air you realize what an challenging task it is to keep it all organized. We all like to complain about flying, but the pilots, airlines and air traffic control really do a pretty solid job it keeping us safe.

On September 11, 2001 all air traffic was ordered to land once the government got a grasp of what was happening. This grounding was unprecedented. I remember that I had to get away from the heartbreaking television reports for a while and so went to lunch with a friend. We at an outside table of a small bistro and gazed up at the perfectly clear, blue sky. I live in Chicago, a major airline hub, and are used to seeing planes all the time. But on this afternoon we could not spot one jet or contrail due to the grounding. It added to the eeriness of the day.

The following is an animation of all planes landing on September 11, 2001. Click the image to open it in another browser window to see animation.

Click image to see animation

This photo below shows a midwestern shot of an empty sky, save three jet contrails. They are Air Force One and two fighter jet escorts.


Images, Videos and Gifs: U.S. Government, NASA

American Airlines Charges $15 to Send an E-mail!

I booked a flight for myself and family to visit my mother and sister during the holidays. The tickets were pretty expensive so we elected to use miles. The day before the flight, while I was making a car service reservation, I discovered that my outbound flight was no longer listed. I logged onto to check my reservation and sure enough, they had changed the flight number and departure time for later that day.

I didn’t recall getting any communication from American on this change, so I called. They indicted they had sent my wife an e-mail with the change information a couple of weeks back. She didn’t remember getting that e-mail, and a search through her Outlook revealed a number of communications from American for vacation packages and fare sales, but nothing about our flight change. When I asked the agent to resend the confirmation she indicated that it was American’s policy to charge $15 for sending a second confirmation e-mail, once they ascertained the correct e-mail address was on file and the message had been successfully sent. Of course it’s entirely possible that my wife missed the message, or there was some other glitch, but I wasn’t asking them to do a lot of heavy lifting.

I was aghast! As someone who has been in the digital space since 1994, has been responsible for service and marketing e-mail programs, and works in a service heavy industry, I know that it costs less than one penny to send an e-mail. E-mail is a great service tool that firms can employ that is significantly less costly than a phone call, and provides the consumer with a record and peace of mind. I can’t imagine how American or anyone else for that matter could justify this policy based on actual cost to the company. The e-mail may deflect a call later down the life-cycle of the purchase. As a customer, it felt like yet another way for desperate carriers to seize any opportunity to collect revenue.

I very clearly expressed my displeasure to the agent and informed her of my professional experience in this area—sending an e-mail doesn’t cost $15. She then offered to send it without the fee. That supports my belief that they are preying on consumers who would not know better. American should be ashamed. Do they really know why we fly?

American Airlines Finds A Way

Several posts ago I commented on a recent experience traveling United Airlines. It was a mixed bag, as anyone who travels by air these days knows is a generous statement. But I recently had an experience with American Airlines that proves a great customer experience can be delivered regardless of the state of an industry, or the attitudes of C level executives.

My oldest son is an Aspie (Asperger’s Syndrome). See my earlier post here for a more detailed explanation. He is an experienced air traveler, but if there is a gate change or things don’t go as expected, he gets rattled and confused. To avoid this I obtain a gate pass and accompany him through the concourse and then wait until he boards the plane.


He was recently booked on a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia but we couldn’t get a seat assignment. We went to the airport, checked his bag and instead of the self-service check in machine giving him a boarding pass we got a slip of paper instructing us to go to the gate for the seat. Here is where American personnel really delivered. The coach check in line was extremely long, so an American employee directed us to the First Class check in area where there was no line. Have you ever noticed that the First Class check in countertops are made of granite vs. the formica you get in coach? And instead of the cattle maze being flat, black straps, they’re velvet ropes. Sorry, back to the story. I was immediately issued the gate pass, and was told that there were blocked seats on the flight and to explain the situation to the gate agent. He notated my son’s status in the system so they would know when we got to the gate.

Once at the gate, we learned the flight was oversold and they were asking for volunteers to take a later flight that connected through Dallas. When I explained to the agent about Julian’s situation, that he couldn’t really handle connecting flights, and his bag was already checked on this flight, she said she would do all she could to get him a seat.

During the wait she used the public address system to update us on the status, even calling Julian’s name to remind us she hadn’t forgotten about him. She did this several times. As small as this sounds, it meant a lot to Julian. He was able to stay calm and hopeful. As the flight was boarding, she happily called his name and handed him a boarding pass. To top it off, it was a First Class seat, 6A!


A great customer experience goes a long way to keep customers loyal. In many cases it is just as important as price. Hats off the the thoughtful American Airlines employees, who on this day, took the extra time to put the customer first. If you are someone that interacts with consumers on behalf of your company it is critical to remember the following. What a customer experiences defines the brand. Maybe American really does know why we fly.

It’s Time to Fly


In the mid to late ’90’s I was a United boy all the way. Living in Chicago it was really easy. Home of United, great Boeing aircraft, attentive service. Why would you fly anyone else? Then things began to go downhill. The United Rising campaign had to be pulled because the service wasn’t. That’s when I started booking my flights with American.

I have been giving United a second chance lately, but I’m sorry to say it’s not much better. On a recent flight booked by my corporate travel agency from ORD to SJC, there were several challenges. It’s a long flight and I had miles in my bank, so I called to see if I could cash some in for a first class seat. The call clearly was being outsourced offshore and the young man, although nice enough, couldn’t understand what I wanted to do until I explained it at least four times. In the end he did upgrade me on the return leg, so I came away from that one feeling better.

I received my EasyUpdate email the day before my flight, standard customer experience for a big airline these days, and noticed something new, BagCheck. I clicked through and it promised me a faster, more convenient way to check my bag and get on my way. Simply show up at the designated BagCheck area at the airport, scan my home printed boarding pass, and hand over my bag. They even had a helpful map on the site.


I didn’t really see the benefit but thought, what the heck. So I followed the map and entered the BagCheck area. There were at least two employees there, obviously assigned to help travelers through the new process. But no one paid any attention to me, even though I was diligently following the instructions by placing my boarding pass, face down on the scanner, etc. Finally I had to walk over to someone and ask for help. They quickly informed me that the scanners don’t work. They directed me to use the kiosk display and then processed my bag the normal way. Some bugs to work out there. I would like to say it was a noble try, but all their effort was wasted as I didn’t see the advantage over their normal kiosk check in.

Customer experience Cardinal rule # 1 – Never go to market with a feature unless the benefit is obvious to the customer.

Several times during the booking and check-in process they tried to upsell me to Economy Plus for more legroom. It was a $44 charge and I didn’t take it. What a mistake! Once on board the seats were so close I couldn’t use my laptop to work, nor comfortably read the paper. The public address system nearly shattered my ear drums and the movie system gave out half way through the flight.

The return flight was much better. First class remember, and the service was great. Both flights were right on time, even a little early. By the way, the return flight had a woman pilot and a woman co-pilot, very cool!

Overall a mixed bag on the customer experience, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for United from years ago, so I will try it again.