AA's Tim Wagner Will Now Answer Your Questions and Concerns. Be Nice.

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As many Friends know, Tim Wagner is the spokesman for American Airlines. He's also a frequent contributor to Unfair Park's comments -- especially, oh, when it comes to items concerning American Airlines, which are more and more frequent during these troubled times in the airline industry. To that end, Tim's been awfully user-friendly today, posting several responses to Friends of Unfair Park's complaints concerning the airline's service and yesterday's news concerning fees for checked luggage and forthcoming domestic-service cutbacks. Fact is, a while back Tim and I discussed his contributing to Unfair Park a semi-regular column dealing with frequent fliers' gripes and grouses. He was up for it. Dunno why.

To that end, I told Tim I'd like to take all of his comments from today's posting and put them into a single place -- for those who might have missed them, and for those who'd like to get the "official" story from the airline in a single setting. And he's agreed to respond to further issues here -- consider this, if you will, his debut as AA's Answer Man. (If only we had a name ...) Only, keep the comments civil. Most of you have, recognizing that Tim doesn't need to do this. As Friend David noted in a comment intended for Tim, "You've got a damn tough job (especially on days like today), and it says a lot that you're willing to reach out in such a way." He will get back to you tomorrow, as he knocks off in a bit and really shouldn't have to work from the house. Because, man, he's had a long day. --Robert Wilonsky

You should just go ahead and make this category "Probably Insignificant Aviation News" into "You Really Don't Want Tim Wagner's Job Today."

But, having said that, here are some numbers to chew on: Fuel cost per passenger in 2000: $24 per flight. Fuel cost per passenger in 1Q 2008: $64 per flight Fuel cost per passenger at today’s fuel price: $82 per flight So, $58 increase per passenger.

Passenger revenue per flight per passenger in 2000: $163 Passenger revenue per flight per passenger 1Q 2008: $149 So, $14 decrease per passenger.

A lot of people say they'd rather pay a higher fare, but, when you get to choose a la carte-style, you don't subsidize someone else's two checked bags, when you're just carrying one bag onboard. Or, when you didn't want a cold sandwich, etc.

And, while gasoline costs are still less than 10% of most household's yearly expenses - jet fuel has gone from 10% to now close to 50% of an airline's yearly expense in just the past 4-5 years. So, something has to give. ...

I can't argue with your point that we need to improve our customer service. At least I think that was your point. Because otherwise, we have a product that is amongst the best in the world - that is, we can get you on an AA plane or a codeshare partner to basically anywhere in the world in the same day (weather & ATC withstanding). We have the best frequent flyer program in the world, hands down, and we have a lot of other great attributes to our product.

We're working on the customer service issues, though. We have some labor issues right now that are not helping. To. Say. The. Least. And, maybe it's our fault for not having explained well the new reality of our industry following the economic downturn post-9/11. It's up to us to explain the new reality created by $120+ oil. There is no going back. There is only going forward or not going at all.

So, we're working to improve our customer service. A recent independent survey had us tied for second, with Continental, in the U.S. industry. But, we were significantly behind Southwest. Herb Kelleher explained what has made their customer service scores so high for all these years (it's in a Terry Maxon interview on the DMN aviation blog) - to summarize, he said "we under promise and over deliver."

That lesson is not lost on us. Unfortunately, AA and other 'legacy' airlines have 80+ years of promises that set expectation too high for the new reality of this world. That reality changed with deregulation and frankly, with Southwest. Price is king - there is no other consideration that comes close to price when a consumer makes a ticket purchasing decision. Network and frequent flyer program are the next most important factors - and you can't beat ours. So, we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Take this for instance, though: for years Southwest scored higher on 'food' in airline surveys than did AA or other airlines - despite the fact that they really had no food onboard. But, when you expect peanuts and you get peanuts, your expectations have been met. When you expect food, and you got a cold "Bistro" sandwich - the result was open to perception, putting it mildly.

And now, we have a whole new task at hand - changing our airline, our product, customer expectations, and the perception of what we offer and what we deliver. A rather large task to say the least. ...

I should address the carry on issue, too.

If a customer carry's on an appropriate carry-on bag and then must gate-check the bag because our overhead bins are full, that customer will not be charged a fee. If you've ever flown American Eagle, you've probably gate-checked or seen people gate-check a bag.

It will be interesting to see if more people cary on bags. Right now, in the US, about half of our passengers check at least one bag. And, a significant portion of those people can continue to check a bag with no charge by dint of their frequent flyer status or because they paid full-fare or for a first class ticket. (Rest assured, you may think they are getting something for 'free,' but they paid for it one way or the other.) So, all of that to say - this fee affects less than a majority of our passengers.

My job isn't so tough, relatively. You know who has a tough job? Parents, evidently.

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