Church Group of 40 Shows Up 2 Hours Early, Refused Boarding on American Airlines Thanks to D0

At American Airlines nothing is more important than ‘D0’ it often seems as if American would be happy if they could eliminate customers from the equation and just run their operation they’d be happy.

D0 means flights departing exactly on-time. And they’re willing to sacrifice most everything else for that goal. Gate agents can skip processing upgrades. Flight attendants get called in if they delay a flight for catering to bring servingware for international first class.

Departing on-time matters. If you depart on-time you’re more likely to arrive on-time. However,

  • It means having systems down to accomplish everything that’s necessary in time, whether it’s all of the work needed at the gate or having everything on board for the flight — not skipping over things.
  • The airline needs to staff appropriately to get this done, not tell staff to skip over necessary items if they feel they don’t have time.

There’s a new story that provides an illustration of what the way American has implemented their focus on D0 means for customers.

On August 7 a pastor brought 40 people on a mission trip they had all raised money to take. They arrived at the airport two hours before their flight. Only one person was ahead of them at the check-in desk in Cincinnati.

  • One agent was assigned to handle check-in for all 40 of them
  • They decided to check in everyone, and then try to put all 40 bags on the chaperone’s reservation. Then they went back to assign bags separately to each passenger. This ordeal took about an hour and a half.
  • With only 30 minutes to departure they went to security and they ran to the gate. They arrived 7 minutes prior to scheduled push back.
  • The door was closed. The gate agent wouldn’t let the group of 40 people on board.

The group was forced to pay for hotel rooms and fly out the next day. Check-in again took an hour and a half but they came to the airport even earlier, and ironically the plane had to be held several minutes for late arriving crew. (Obviously the plane cannot take off with crew, but to a passenger it’s hard to understand holding the plane for people in that case but not the day before when airline staff delayed their group.)

The pastor says he had to argue to even get everyone rebooked, that airline staff told them it was all their fault for showing up late. The group lost part their trip, and were out $1350 in additional costs.

According to American Airlines,

We are aware of the issue, and our customer relations team has reached out to Mr. Davis to obtain additional details of what transpired at the airport. Our [Cincinnati airport] team is also reviewing these allegations. We never want to disrupt our customers’ travel plans, and we are sorry for the trouble this caused. The group was rebooked on a flight the next day.

At Cincinnati airport I believe check-in counter staff also work flights, but apparently no one called down to the gate about these forty passengers. No one wants to get called in for delaying a flight. And if what you measure is D0, all you get is D0 even without passengers on the plane.

(HT: Four different readers who sent me this story all with a subject line mentioning ‘D0’)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Given the fact that I’ve been stranded by AA twice when my connecting flight (also AA) left me 15 mins to run to the gate only to find it shut, I blame both poor communication & a faulty system that has left me and others to fly with the “anything BUT AA” moto.

  2. I find it amusing that AA went out of their way to slander this poor group (communicating with the gate agent) but couldn’t be bothered with the common sense to let them on the plane instead of unloading luggage. This isn’t just bad; somebody at AA actively sabotaged this group, as they were clearly aware of the “bathroom” comment from the earlier agent.

  3. I think American will do what they want even if not in the best interest of customer. They canceled my 5AM from AMA said weather in DFW but as not true. Cost me over $500 to fly WN to Chicago, rent a car to get to ORD and only refunded by AMA-ORD trip…not even a return message from customer care on my email….and still waiting after one month.

  4. If airline mgmt would allow front line employees to make good business decisions, that probably wouldn’t have happen. I worked for an airline who USED to allow that. They taught the front line what a good business decision was. The D0 is about government issues for the airline.

  5. This case shows how lack of good customer service, lack of communication and common sense are prevailing at AA. This group deserved better. They should get refunded by the airline.

  6. My sister runs a travel agency for the disabled and she travels the world….certainly they have had hiccups but for the most part they have had good experiences with flying (I think they use Delta and Southwest a lot). If Southwest and Delta (and sounds like United too) can do it for larger groups, certainly American can follow their lead….

  7. If I was incharge of this group –
    1st – get EVERY name working AA at that time
    2nd – ask for the station manager
    3rd – In a very LOUD voice, call the local TV station, ask for Consumer affairs, tell them they need to get a film crew to the airport ASAP because AA is refusing to help load a Mission Trip OF children..

    Watch how fast things get done !!!

  8. People keep confusing American with a transportation company. They are NOT a transportation company they are a sales and marketing company. If you happen to get to your destination, sooner or later, that’s great but it is not the goal. The goal is to get as much money as possible as fast as possible and as often as possible. Do you think the CEO knows about a flight delayed an hour? Do you think the CEO knows the website was down for an hour? QED.

  9. This group doesn’t sound like a bunch of experienced travelers. Two hours seems reasonable for a small group of 40 but, lacking experience, they needed assistance from AA. Without that the situation obviously became a mess. There were probably baggage issues, ID issues, people asking stupid questions….
    It seems that airlines are still trying to prove that “they are not happy until we are not happy”.

  10. Hilarious! AA could give lessons to government bureaucrats on how to behave even more stupidly than they already do. Isn’t anyone HOME on the management level of AA?

  11. I think the best way to handle this is through the power of the consumer, put the word out, stop flying with American Airlines.

  12. Who “Checks In” at a ticket counter these days? I haven’t done that in at least 10 years, maybe 15. Get boarding passes and go.

  13. The gate agent is an A-hole and these people should get compensated for this and a public apology from American. Also the captain could have told the gate agent to put the bridge back up and board the group. With all the bad press the airlines have gotten in the last year where are these employees heads?

  14. Only surprise here is that this is deemed an unusual/surprising incident or even newsworthy. I have over 600K BIS miles with AA and have been treated like a leper on more than one occasion even when I was exec plat and plat pro. Only mainline carrier worse than AA, in my experience, is UA but not but a large margin. With domestic market dominance, near monopoly on some routes and lobbyists keeping senators in your pockets, customers often can’t even vote with their wallets. AA can pretty much get away with whatever it wants. Good luck to those who have limited options on carriers.

  15. A couple of questions:
    Why couldn’t they check-in before they went to the airport?
    Why did AA try to put all the bags on the chaperone’s ticket?
    Doesn’t AA have any flexibility to bring in more agents to speed up the process?

  16. It all comes down to one thing: you yourself are responsible for making sure you get to the airport with plenty, and even extra time to spare. You never know what might happen that is out of your control. Two hours ahead of the departure time is not allowing enough time to process 40 passengers and their luggage, then changing the luggage allocation, get through security, wait for bathroom breaks, plus all the snafus and various things that can cause a delay. By the way, it is written in the Carriage Agreement with most airlines that if you are not at the gate (AT THE GATE, not in the terminal on your way), at least ten minutes before departure, (more for international flights) your seat may be given away or you will be denied boarding. After reading the article, I viewed this unfortunate situation as 1.) a lack of good direction and planning on the part of the group leader, 2.) naturally occurring delays that can happen at airports, and 3.) the AA lobby agent’s inability to call ahead to the gate agent to possibly hold the door open for 40 passengers guests (about a third of the plane). If the 40 passengers had arrived maybe just 15 minutes sooner than they did, this article would never have been written.

  17. I have all but stopped flying American. I used to live in the Los Angeles area and flew them religiously back to the East Coast and Midwest. Now that I live in Miami, they are THE MOST expensive airline in MIA, because it a huge hub for them, and their service has taken a HUGE hit. I have let my Admirals Club membership go, let Gold Status go, and all but stopped flying AA. When I did fly them often, it was always in First Class, usually via DFW, with meals. Nowadays, you don’t get squat flying First, so why bother with them anymore. Welcome Spirit with their Big Seats up front. American Airlines has become heartless, and to do handle this church group the way that they did, well all I can say is “God’s watching!”.

  18. I fly American about once every 3 or 4 years. Each time I do I remember why I always try to avoid American Airlines. The check in process is horrible, the one or two people they have to help with check in are erasable, sour, pathetic excuses for customer service associates. They don’t care to help you and let you know it. Flight attendants make sure you know that they are there for safety reasons and not to make your flight enjoyable. They always say “we know you have a choice when you fly and we thank you for choosing American Airlines…” Well, I will move heaven and earth not to choose AA

  19. Unless I am going to a place where AA is the only carrier, I tend to not use AA. I can’t stand using their hubs.

  20. Two hours is enough time as a plane load of 180 or so passengers are routinely checked in on Southwest in that time. Uh maybe that’s why I refuse to fly AA anymore unless absolutely necessary. I sue to fly them regularly attaining there 100k status one year. Not anymore.

    BTW they did the same thing to half a plane load in Charlotte when I was on a connecting flight. Gate attendant was surly and refused to help in anyway.

  21. If they were flying within the USA, the could have checked in online which would have helped. If flying internationally, that would not be so. They would have to check in at the counter.
    Also, if checking bags, they would still need to have bags weighed by counter staff. Maybe they could have used a travel agent, who would have advised them to all check in online and would most certainly have said ‘Arrive early considering the size of your group’.
    I would have booked them as a ‘group’ on AA which does let AA know that there is a group aboard that flight.

  22. I work for another big airline and we’ve had a group show up 1.5 hours before departure and if its busy we pull them from the line so 1 or 2 people can do all the checkin for them. If it’s not busy we keep them in line and they go to the next person available. We can usually clear a group, with just 1 or 2 people taking care of them, in less then a half hour. And if for some reason we’re getting close to departure we always let the gate know and our rampers of all the bags coming to make sure they get on the plane. This was unacceptable when they came 2 hours in advance. They could have cancelled the bagtags later when they decided to put them individually.

  23. I have been flying AA frequently for the past year and a half. There are guide lines that the airlines must follow. At times without baggage check I always arrive at least 2 hrs. in advance. For a group of 40 that doesn’t fly regularly, they most diffidently should have allowed more time to get through the airport. if nothing else, they should have called in advance to see what the estimated time would be for 40 persons traveling in a group should do. When I have bags to check I make sure that I am at the airport baggage check at least 3 hrs. in advance. People just don’t know what it takes these days for the airlines to do their job due to regulations and the TSA BS we all have to go through to keep us all safe. We need to quit blaming others for our ignorance and lack of common scene. Note: one hour earlier would have saved a 24 hr delay and the bucks they were out because of not knowing. Thanks AA for being my airlines!

  24. I feel really bad for the kids that spent so much time raising the money to have this happen to them. Sure, the leader of the youth group could have done a few things better but it still comes back to several A’A employees making poor choices from the counter agent trying to process in a different manner than norm all the way through to the gate agent’s refusal to board 40 paying passengers. No one wants to have a late departure put on them but a little communication from all would have alleviated all the bad press A’A will now get. The gate agent could have communicated with the Captain and I bet the pilot would have gladly waited for 40 of his passengers to have loaded and taken the late departure on him.

  25. As Forrest says, stupid is as stupid does. REALLY??? 40 people with individual tickets and bags walk up to the counter together at one time? It’s been 17 years since airport security changes went into effect with LOTS of visibility of check in procedures and security times. So unless you’ve head your head in the sand, you should have some understanding of what to expect at the airport. Or google it if not. Agree that AA should have told them to split them up, but it’s not like they were a family traveling together. When I’ve traveled with friends on different record locators, we all check in separately to speed up the process. And that’s only six of us.

    I travel a lot and am still shocked at what I see at airport security.

  26. I show up 3 hours at the airport (ORD) every time i fly. 3 to 5 times a year last 7 years aggressively. if i were a group of 40 would it hurt to show up 5 hors before, geeessshhh. let me guess i bet they went on social media( with the expectation of free stuff and or money’s) to resolve their issue.
    no free lunch here. sorryeeee

  27. I think it interesting that people actually think there is any major differences in the airlines. If you travel a lot you tend to build up a grudge against the one who you happened to have had more problems with. That is what makes airline loyalty these days. Since Delta gutted their frequent flyer program, and all others followed suit, it hardly pays to be loyal anymore. Of the big three AA has been the least offensive over the past 20 years but it is the luck of the draw. I always seem to have a great flight with JetBlue don’t they don’t fly the places I need to go frequently. Annndd this group is as much to blame. They had an international flight for 40 people, only showed up 2 hours before (the airline says 3) and then played havoc with how they checked their bags. And no being a church group doesn’t give them automatic pass. This pastor seems to think that their “mission” makes them flying more important. It doesn’t. And those poor people that have to endure being harassed into converting are probably happy they got a 24 hour reprieve!

  28. I worked for their reservation department when I lived in North Carolina. My shift started at 5 am and on 1 particular day I suffered a flat tire on the way to work one day. I was about 5 min late and even worked 10 extra min to make up for it. Only to show up the next morning to be told I am fired because I was late the day before.

  29. I LOVE American! Sure issues arise but extremely infrequently. It has to be really difficult to for airline staff to deal with such an array of personalities day in and day out. It has been said that 20 percent of the population has some sort of mental illness. And I think they all end up airport …

  30. I am not sure why the travel blogs don’t cover this simple factoid: Airlines have no incentive for getting you on the flight you have booked. You are a captive customer, with a non-refundable ticket. You will wait in line forever to check your bag, and if the luggage line or the TSA line doesn’t move, or whatever, they will get you on another flight when it is good for them. If everyone misses their flights, then everyone will be put in someone elses seat, just according to what suits the airline instead of what suits the customer.
    So two hours early sounds good, but for forty people, or 20 people, or even 10 people, three hours early, and plan to kill 30 minutes watching the CNN loop.

  31. AA continues to fail at customer service. The US Air takeover of the old AA only brought over the “I really could care less” attitude of US Air.

    This church group incident is both a lack of training, supervision and common sense on behalf of the gate agents. Agents and supervisors need to be reprimanded and the church group must claim (legal action if necessary) for damages and full reimbursement of all out of pocket expenses.

    The AA comment by spokesperson is the usual nonsense.

    After flying multiple airlines in Asia and the Middle East you realize that the US flying public is relegated to third rate carriers.

    Oh well…

  32. I have not flown any other airline, using Southwest Airlines exclusively. With 2 bags free, easy and fast boarding & a great loyalty program, who would use any other airline. They are always friendly. Have their credit card and have earned enough points for several free trips. They are also almost always early in departing and landing at the destination.

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