Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Here's one thing I know about airlines.

When there's a customer service issue that makes the airline look bad, the airline wants it to go away as soon as possible.

Which makes the story told by Mark Westpfahl so curious. 

The St. Paul history teacher took to Twitter earlier this month to declare that American Airlines had bumped him from a Washington D.C. to Minneapolis flight, thereby separating him from the 16 schoolkids he was chaperoning back home:

Well, @AmericanAir overbooked our flight.... and guess who can't fly. Yup. Me. My name was pulled. So, my trusted best friend chaperone will be on the flight with our #CHCougars alone.

Westpfahl says he was given a $525 voucher, sent to a motel and, after more flights were overbooked, had to fly back the next day.

He then posted a note from the airline which said, in part, that the bumping was due to a change of aircraft. Moreover, the American Airlines customer service representative explained: 

I am sorry that as a result of your not having seat assignments at the time you arrived at the gate and you were ultimately denied boarding since the flight was oversold and the gate agents had not received any volunteers.

Yes, it involved a lengthier explanation of how American ranks those in danger of bumping. It still suggested the bumping may not have b voluntary.

The curious part came, then, when I contacted American Airlines. 

I asked whether the airline had a rule about chaperones. An airline spokesperson told me: 

We by policy don't involuntary deny boarding to unaccompanied minors and/or chaperones with minors.

So what could have happened here? The note from American to Westpfahl does suggest he was denied boarding. 

This is where American Airlines offered a curious twist: 

According to our records, and after we consulted with our team in Washington D.C. as well, he volunteered. As part of that process, he received compensation as a volunteer in addition to American paying for his hotel accommodation for the night and meals. We always seek volunteers before we deny boarding to a passenger.

Ah. Oh.

But what about the alleged involuntary bumping? American told me: 

Our report also says that the two chaperones discussed the voluntary compensation offer before accepting. 

For his part Westpfahl insists

American apologized and acknowledged that it was an 'involuntary denied boarding.'

So what, then, about the note that seemed to agree with Westpfahl's version?

American told me: 

That is a standard message that explains voluntary vs involuntarily denied boarding. Regardless, we have spoken to Mr. Westpfahl, and we will provide him the involuntarily denied boarding compensation instead. However, we do stand by our agents who state that he discussed this matter with the other chaperone, before volunteering to take the compensation.

Airlines have learned, since United's David Dao debacle, that bumping is rarely a good idea. They've increased compensation to those who volunteer.

In one case, United offered $10,000. (Stunningly, the passenger took it.)

Airlines have concluded the expense is worth it, relative to the cost of public opprobrium.

Yet here we're left with American choosing to fight its corner, while a nominee for Minnesota's teacher of the year declares he was actively separated from his 8 to 11-year-olds.

Somewhere, I fear, there may have been a miscommunication.

The only question is what kind and between who and whom.

Published on: Apr 13, 2019