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America Trans Air Performance and Customer Service Stinks

Digest: Ain't Travelin' ATA. ATA sucks.

ATA is a discount airline with a long history of customers service problems. Using Google Groups it's possible to find horror stories dating to the mid-1990s and earlier.

To clarify possible name confusion: ATA is not Air Trans Air (of whom I hear good things). It is affiliated with Ambassadair (travel club) and Amtran. Presently it's known as "ATA Airlines".

The airline can't make its schedules. They don't care about the passengers. They screw up, repeatedly, on the same mistakes. These cost me two days of a weeklong trip -- fortunately my time was somewhat flexible, but in other circumstances this would have cost far more than any value saved on airfare.

The airline's customer service frankly stinks. Customers are not informed, are lied to, are rebuffed, and are not given the courtesies mandated as a minimum gesture when things go wrong. Mistakes are made...repeatedly. And the experience appears to be fairly common.

Asking around with friends and other groups (an alumni list I'm subscribed to) reveals that this is very typical behavior.

This Usenet posting (a PlanetFeedback article reposted) is very typical of issues I've heard.

This is the story of my winter trip to the folks' place, San Francisco (SFO) to Chicago (MDW).

Scheduled dates were 16:55 Dec 17, 2002, arriving ~23:00, return Dec 30, 2002, flights 155 & 193, respectively.

Outbound trip: the flight from Chicago was cancelled for mechanical reasons. As departure was scheduled for ~14:00 CST, San Francisco operations had approximately four hours' advanced notice of problems on the flight. To the airline's credit, I was called at home regarding the cancellation, but due to distance to the airport and anti-terrorism security measures, I'd long since left.

I arrived at the airport ~15:30. After standing in line for approximately 30 minutes, word leaked back from the front that the 16:55 flight had been cancelled (there was no general announcement, nor was there ground staff informing waiting passengers). Ground staff were, at 16:00, just starting to place passengers on alternate flights. At that point, roughly 30 of 180 passengers had been placed.

ATA like many airlines has a "customer care package", consisting of airport concession coupons ($10), a prepaid calling card (10 minutes), and a complaint form. These were not provided until I specifically asked for same, and weren't distributed until after I'd been placed on another flight -- I did return for same.

As I advanced in line, I was told that there were four seats available on a United flight, connecting to Chicago through LAX, arriving at 04:40 (five hours later than my scheduled flight, not to mention the dead of night). There were also possible seats on a flight leaving from Oakland. I requested additional information on the Oakland flight. The ground staffer (Asian male, 20s), flatly refused. I asked why. He said the information wasn't certain.

Side commentary on tactics: I'd observed several people in line, one a fairly burly guy, looked like he was in sales, who'd just run up about 45 minutes of cell phone airtime bellowing at ATA's customer service. Several other people had berated the ground crew. A way to blow off steam, but not particularly effective at changing the situation.

Those of you you've met me know that I can present a certain...presence... I chose this point to raise my voice, directing it so that the other passengers could hear.

"This is a scheduled commercial flight?"


"Then what's the schedule?"

"We're not certain about it yet."

"So you're telling us that you may have ten seats on this flight, which is the part you're not sure about, but you won't tell us what the flight schedule or itenerary are, which is the only information that is certain about the flight?"

"Er... Yes."

"Goddamnit: the only thing you know for certain if this is a scheduled flight is the flight times and any stops its making. Get that information. Now!"

At this point there are several voices of assent from other passengers. We're winning. He goes to the phone.

Turns out the Oakland flight is leaving later than the LAX flight, stops in Vegas, and gets into Chicago later than the other.

The same twerp then tried to pass up both myself and another passenger standing near me. Apparently he thought we were travelling together. As he moved down the line to seat other passengers, I pointed out that he was taking people out of order. Score a seat on the LAX flight. At this point I also make my demand for discount coupons, etc.

Several treks across SFO terminals, including an opportunity to use the answer "42" to the proselytizers in the free speech booths (third time through, the guy looked at me, smiled, and said "Wait a minute...42" -- I smiled).

United's service was impeccable. LAX after 22:00 has no foodservice but McDonalds. I'd broken a 13 year string of not eating at the chain, but then I owed them a burger for standing down a vendor who'd insisted on UCITA conditions a couple years back.

Return flight: delayed about an hour coming out of Chicago, very full flight. I also have to say that my experience with ATA flight crews tends to be positive -- it's the airline's operations and organization which stink.

Arriving in SFO, I'm literally the first person off the plane (made up for sitting mashed against the emergency slide covering for 2200 miles). First sign of trouble is that we're moved to another baggage carousel. My first bag shows up on the carousel in a few minutes. My seatmates' luggage appears and they depart. Then new bags stop showing up. For fifteen-twenty minutes. Turns out the baggage transport's got jammed. Bags show up. Then stop. Again. For another fifteen-twenty minutes. After a couple of people walk in to complian, ATA baggage crew lock the office door.

I don't secure my luggage until well over an hour after the flight's landed. This means that my scheduled airporter back to Napa's come and gone, and at 23:00, there are no further trips until 6am. This leaves me stuck at the airport.

I contact ATA's customer service number and request assistance in getting a hotel room for the evening. I explain what I feel is the airline's fundamental problem (see below). No dice. I find a bench and catch up on some reading and a few bits of sleep. Come morning, eggs and bacon at the cafe in the international terminal, then catch my bus back to Napa.

What's the consistent theme of this story: ATA doesn't give a wit about its passengers. From landing replacement arrangements for its cancelled flight to providing information in a timely fashion, to providing passengers with the information necessary to make useful decisions (what are the alternate flight schedules and iteneraries), to providing compensation (you're stuck with an overnight stay or alternate transportation arrangements: here's a hotel room / car rental), the company just doesn't care.

I can understand things going wrong. Hell, I work with technology, I see things screw up all the time, often on my watch or due to me. And I scramble my ass to fix them. What I can't understand is the absolute customer apathy.

I also had the opportunity to talk with others about my experience. A neighbor of my parents' going to college in Minnesota had flown ATA a couple of times and found it was very nearly faster to drive (my Napa - LAX leg would have taken less time by ground, delays included). When a member of an alumni list asked for recommendations on whether or not she should book a flight on ATA. With over 50 responses, some positive, but a large number strongly negative, she decided against the airline.

Among the comments I made to ATA's customer service rep was that I run a moderately influential website and post to a number of online boards. I can't promise to break the airline, but I'd like to think I'll cost them more with these posts than putting me up for the night at a recession and dot-bomb desperate SF Airport area hotel would have cost the carrier.

Take your business elsewhere.


It's now (June, 2004) a year and a half since I told the CSR (customer disservice rep) that all I wanted was a hotel room for the night, having been stranded at SFO, but really, I've got a website which I won't say is overwhelmingly influential, but gets search-engine placement which impresses even me. Checking now, I turn up as the third Google result for "America trans-air". Not bad ;-)

I occasionally hear from other travellers. A Stanford alum got overwhelmingly negative recommendations when asking about ATA. I've heard from a few people who've enjoyed their flights (and still admit: the flight crew service has generally been good. It's operations, ground crew, and organizational attitude which suck.

The real message though is that you can't just piss off your customers any more and not bear the consequences. So this page will stay up. The following email received tonight pretty much sums up my goals.

I was considering an ATA flight to Chicago, but had qualms. I read your post and decided to book a flight with American instead. Saving $130 is not worth the pain and hassle.


October, 2005 update

This story's morphed into one of those fascinating little studies of how the Web changes customer/business interactions.

On the business side, ATA filed for bankrupcy protection in 2004, is now looking to emerge (with bridge loans if I'm reading headlines correctly), and is in a "code share" with Southwest (among the airlines which haven't pissed me off to date).

I continue to get a trickle of mail from people, some plugging ATA, some panning it. The Indianapolis doctor (an investor?) who ranted somewhat incoherently was a bit of a puzzler. September of 2005 brought a small burst of mail apparently from employees, some more coherent than others, ranging from NW's "your a freak" (no argument) and "bdabadboy"'s conflating letting a CSR know you'll share an unhappy experience with terrorist threats (so ... does that mean that DHS gets to run all call centers from here on out? I'm still scratching my head). The floodlet smells of a campaign of sorts, not entirely sure.

Answering bdabadboy's "why didn't you just write the CEO": I don't believe in sending quiet little missives into the corporate black hole. I watched a passenger uselessly vent spleen into his cell phone to ATA customer service after the flight cancellation in SFO. My actions at the check-in desk: securing detailed alternative flight information for all passengers present, securing food and phone vouchers for all passengers present, and ensuring that the desk crew realized they had to provide service to all passengers present were in large part a direct answer to that man's actions. This page has been the other half of my response to him. I wanted to make an effective statement which would attract the attention of both ATA and its customers. I believe I have.

More articulate was this plea from JP:

You obviously have considerable clout with your internet talents, but I ask you to please re-think what you have posted. Not only for myself, but for the 4,000 others who are still working for ATA, and the other 2,000 or so who hope to return in 2006.

Clout? I posted an item on my personal webpage. It does well in Google. That's about it. Have to admit I'm happy to see it noticed. My advice to JP was that she do what she could to help ATA correct its wrongs, but realize too that there is such a thing as a doomed ship, and when management is rotten, there's not much the line can do. Been there, done that. Along with the ATA thousands, I've got in mind the flying millions. How should I divide my concerns?

Splitting the difference was PM who manages to say in two consecutive paragraphs:

How you could take one bad experience and try to ruin an airline and the thousands of people whose livelihood depends on that airline succeeding in business is deplorable!

But then you are a journalist for a magazine whose views are more to the left of center than anything, and I guess you will have more compassion for these people when they lose their jobs and become part of the welfare society that you liberals care so much about. You don't seem to care that these are hard working people, who may have been overworked and frustrated themselves on that one day that you decided to travel.

So, let me get this right: businesses ... deserve my business regardless of service, because, um, well, just because. But people forced into un- or under-employment for reasons beyond their control (a situation I've known too well in recent years) are, it is strongly implied, unworthy of that L-word liberal welfare stuff? Sorry, in my book, that's backwards. You discourage bad behavior, and you help those with sheer bad fortune, at the very least to get back on their feet if possible.

Oh, and I'm not quite sure how I got to be a journalist. I'm this guy (got that, PM?) who posts on his website. Very infrequently. Meal ticket's punched elsewhere.

To the point, and I hope I'm absolutely crystal on this, I've answered these and similar emails with the following:

That last spanks to me not of unhappy accident or, in an all too familiar phrase, "a few rotten apples", but a tree sick to the core. That's the difference between poor execution and policy. Intentional incompetence is most decidedly not tolerated.

Worse, on asking around, it seems like this was pretty common experience. That iced the cake.

To my friends at ATA: let's just go on the record saying I'd much rather bend your company than break it, but if you (or your bosses) aren't used to being a bit flexible, you're going to feel it in some seldom-used muscles for a while. What you really want to do is to ensure that there aren't more of me: unhappy passengers who decide to write about their experience. Make sure those customer vouchers get distributed, first thing when there's a flight delay. That the baggage keeps moving on the conveyer belts, and that passengers stranded overnight have somewhere to sleep other than the airport carpeting. You really want to be talking to management to make sure they've got the message.

If ATA wants to turn their reputation around, they're welcome to try. It'll be on someone else's dime: I don't do business with companies who don't appear to want it. And my story is part of the corporate history. It'll stay posted so long as I can ensure it will be.

And as I've told a couple of you: I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you'd like to meet and talk at or near SFO, I'm willing. You know where to find me.

Another mail came through from Gary, who lost his luggage, and couldn't reach anyone about it:

I'm also having problems with ATA. I have a lost bag which I reported to the baggage claim office in Indianapolis after my flight from Las Vegas. This was on Saturday, Sept. 10 and now it is Tuesday the 13th. of Sept.. I have not heard from them and when I call the number they gave me to check on the bag, I just get a recording. I leave a message and don't get called back.

I have tried to get a customer service phone number and have had no luck so far. If you have a customer service number I would appreciate getting it.

Gary (last name omitted)

I don't have any magic channel into ATA Central, but any y'all who do, can you make sure Gary and his bag, and all the other Garys and bags out there, get reunited eventually?


Soft landings, folks.

April, 2008 update

Here's the word at http://www.ata.com/ as of April 2, 2008. ATA has filed Chapter 11 bankrupcy and cancelled all operations.


After filing for Chapter 11 on April 2, 2008 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Indianapolis, IN, ATA Airlines has discontinued all operations and cancelled all current and future flights. Following the loss of a key contract for our military charter business, it became impossible for ATA to continue operations. Unfortunately, we were not in a position to provide our customers or others with advance notice.

We apologize for the disruption caused by the sudden shutdown of ATA and regret the impact on passengers, employees, suppliers, and other parties. ATA customers should seek alternative arrangements for current and future travel. A list of other airlines serving ATA’s destinations is available here.

ATA customers who purchased tickets using a credit card should contact their credit card company or travel agency directly for information about how to obtain a refund for unused tickets.

ATA currently is unable to provide refunds to customers who purchased tickets directly from ATA with cash or a check. These customers may be able to obtain a full or partial refund for their unused tickets by submitting a claim in ATA’s Chapter 11 proceedings. Information about submitting a claim will be available at the following website: http://www.bmcgroup.com/ataairlines.

Customers who purchased tickets from Southwest Airlines for flights operated by ATA under the codeshare agreement should contact Southwest Airlines directly at (800) 308-5037. Southwest has implemented a plan to take care of all customers who purchased a ticket on Southwest and are scheduled to travel on ATA service by rebooking them on a new itinerary, or offering a full refund for any unused portion of a ticket. For further information, click here.

Additional information is available at the following links:

Customer Information

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mail: kmself@ix.netcom.com
Last updated: 2005/10/28 10:48:35