Happy New Year! I hope 2009 brings you much peace, joy, good health, and love.
Since my last post, I have had the opportunity to sit down and draft a letter of complaint to the CEO of American Airlines. I will keep you up to date on any response I get from Mr. Arpey or American. Thank you so much for the outpouring of comments and emails of encouragement and support! And now, without further ado, here's the letter:
Gerard J. Arpey, Chairman & CEO
5908 Avion Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90045-5622
January 1, 2009
Dear Mr. Arpey:
I am writing to convey my profound sense of sadness at the treatment I received at the hands of American Airlines last week. I am not unhappy merely because of the fact that I was treated rudely by your employees or inconvenienced by your airline during my journey, although I could write you an entire letter dealing with a litany of complaints that stem from the utter lack of professionalism that I experienced over and over again. However, this is not that letter. This letter is intended to bring to your attention a single instance of indignity that dwarfed the others, spoke to a deep lack of training and understanding on the part of your employees, and positively shocked me with the level of ignorance and unkindness that it betrayed.
Let me begin by explaining that I am one of the 60 million people in the world who stutter. Over the course of my life, I have experienced many instances of being teased, mocked, cut-off, interrupted, or laughed-at because of the way I speak. Nonetheless, I was absolutely taken aback by the breathtaking insensitivity of an American Airlines representative who I encountered on December 22, 2008 at LaGuardia Airport as I attempted to check in for my flight to Dallas Fort Worth (Flight Number 745 departing at 1:10pm).
The check-in area was understandably busy, filled as it was with hoards of passengers bound for holiday destinations. Unfortunately, your company seemed to be entirely ill-equipped to efficiently manage the crowds, and things were borderline chaotic. I was certainly not the only customer there who was completely mystified as to which incredibly-long line to stand in or where to check our bags after finishing our self-check-in. Not wanting to have my wife or toddler stand unnecessarily in the wrong line and potentially miss our flight in the confusion, I sought out the counsel of a roving American Airlines employee.
As I approached the representative, I asked if it was alright for me to ask her a question. She turned to me, stopped walking and said, "Okay." At that point I said, "I just printed our boarding passes and I was wondering w-w-w-w” (that's right, I had a stuttering block on the word “which” as I attempted to inquire which line we should be standing in).
As I was trying to get the word out, the American employee abruptly barked, "TALK, TALK, TALK! I DON'T HAVE TIME!” At the same time that she was interrupting me she was backing away from me. When she was finished with her remark she turned her back on me and walked away.
I cannot overstate to you how disturbing this incident was. Not only was it insulting, degrading, and humiliating to me personally (to say nothing of the inconvenience, as I had yet to find an answer to my simple and politely stated question), it also tells me that other people are at risk of being victimized in this way if even one of your employees has failed to comprehend the basic rules of civility and compassion.
The anger that this incident has aroused in the stuttering community in the week and a half since it occurred is palpable. After posting about my experience on my organization's blog, I have received comments and emails from people who stutter and non-stutterers alike who are angered, sickened, saddened, and vowing to avoid your airline from now on. One reader pointed out that what happened to me is “as appalling as saying 'walk walk walk' to someone who is wheelchair-bound.”
It is on behalf of everyone who suffers from speech disorders or any kind of disability that I write this letter of complaint and beseech you to make up for the inexcusably rude and ignorant behavior of your employee. As the Founder and Director of a renowned non-profit organization, Our Time Theatre Company, my life’s work centers around making the world a more compassionate and understanding place. Our Time Theatre Company is a 501 (C) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids who stutter turn fear and shame into confidence. As you will read in the enclosed information packet, Our Time has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, as well as on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and the Today Show.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer to meet with you personally so that we can discuss the ways in which American can integrate disability awareness and the concept of sensitivity and patience to its training of employees. In addition, I would like to offer to conduct a presentation to your employees about what stuttering is and what are some more appropriate ways to respond to people who stutter.
Meanwhile, I can assure you that my company will steer clear of booking flights on American Airlines (we tour with our large group of young performers and staff frequently, to domestic as well as international destinations).
Once I was on board my flight bound for Dallas, I was struck by a column entitled Being There: Our Employees Go the Extra Mile, printed in the December 15, 2008 issue of American Way Magazine. In the article, an American Airlines employee is profiled for her dedication and excellence, and is quoted as saying “being kind to people makes customers happy and keeps them coming back.” I couldn’t agree more, but I also cannot imagine a larger disconnect between what a company professes to believe and how that vision is carried out in reality. As the Director of an organization that works with people every day, I understand that unforeseen things happen, chaos happens, weather happens, but there is never an excuse for unkindness, incompetence, insensitivity, or discrimination.
I look forward to your prompt response.