As my colleagues' many columns on the topic make clear, from the perspective of passengers (and even flight attendants), American Airlines is doing a pretty terrible job at customer service

"When I flew on the airline last year, in First Class, I encountered a harassed and disinterested Flight Attendant," writes  Chris Matyszczyk, recalling "her strained and abject attempts to provide the minimum customer service she could."

Does American Airlines agree it has work to do? Not if recent internal communications to its employees are anything to go by, reports Gary Leff on industry blog View From the Wing. In fact, American seems to think it's doing a great job taking care of customers. 

The only trouble? Their standards are shockingly low. 

Dad dying? Have a complimentary bottle of water. 

My fellow columnists do a great job of covering the ups and downs (more downs) of the various airlines, but this latest story was too revealing to resist sharing. It revolves around a distraught passenger trying to make it out of Dallas-Fort Worth on June 16th to "see his sick father who was being removed from life support that night," Leff explains. 

Unfortunately for this grief-stricken traveler, American was having a bad day. The airline experienced 330 cancellations and 447 delays just at that airport, which meant the man ended up seeking out the customer service desk not once but twice for re-booking. 

This sounds like a situation that would elicit a groveling apology from an airline, but instead American cited the incident as an example of its great customer service in an internal communication with employees. 

What about this counts as good customer service, you might ask? Good question.

According to American, the agent who dealt with this unfortunate passenger deserves a gold star for "going the extra mile for our customers this peak travel season" during a period of "irregular operations." This extraordinary effort involved helping the man, who was "almost on the verge of tears," by... get ready for it... offering him a bottle of water and putting him on the phone with reservations.  

As Leff points out that's a pretty low bar for great customer service. 

"At American Airlines, an employee putting a customer on the phone with reservations is considered 'going the extra mile' and indeed significant enough to warrant a company-wide feature story. I'd say this was the ultimate example of George W. Bush's 'soft bigotry of low expectations' but she did also offer a bottle of water," he rightfully snipes. 

Time to raise the bar

This story is particularly horrifying in its details, but it's just the latest reminder that American really doesn't prioritize customer service. The CEO has even admitted as much. 

When pressed by his own employees about the airlines' lack of interest in customer service, CEO Doug Parker responded: "The most important thing to customers is that we deliver on our commitment to leave on time and get them to the destination as they have scheduled."

As Matyszczyk noted at the time, it's true enough that customers want to get to their destinations on time (and it's also good for airlines' profitability if things run on schedule), but that's really the minimum. Ideally, airlines wouldn't just transport passengers as promised, they should also aim to make the experience not miserable. 

Apparently, American's idea of keeping customers happy amounts to offering them a complimentary bottle of water and a hold queue for even the most tragic delays.

Yay, they've crossed that bar. Now maybe they should think about raising it.