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Their Big Challenge

The airline industry has been in a state of flux since the early 2000s. From increased airport regulations to gigantic mergers to an upsurge in low-cost carriers, the industry has undergone massive change. American Airlines is not exempt.

After merging with US Airways in 2013 to form the world’s largest airline, American Airlines has been working diligently to fuse the organizations—from behind-the-scenes changes with its IT systems to customer-facing changes – the airline has been working to create consistency everywhere.

One of the biggest hurdles for any airline, let alone one managing a massive merger, is providing a consistent and differentiated customer experience. American Airlines decided to tackle customer experience head on in a transformational change initiative that they call Elevate the Everyday Experience (Elevate).

Highlighted Results

  • Passenger satisfaction increased by 15%
  • Customer survey results are trending positively
  • 35,000+ team members went through the program in 2017
  • See the full list of results

Engaging Every Touchpoint

Initially, Elevate focused on challenging all airport team members to be “experience makers.” During development, the program expanded to include the Reservations group, too. Leaders at American Airlines realized that every team member interacting with customers should have the tools they need to become experience makers. That’s not all. Team members from other work groups volunteered to accelerate their participation, including the Technical Operations and Flight Service departments – to date over 2,700 flight attendants have elected to participate in the program. Elevate quickly flourished from a program targeting one work group to an organizational movement.

Becoming an experience maker meant 1) focusing on key behaviors customers have said create exceptional experiences, and 2) engaging managers to foster and support their teams’ development. Making sure the change took place, stuck, and delivered results required a program that motivated people. This started by addressing the “why change” and “what’s changing” and then moved to the all-important “what do I need to do differently.”

Getting There

“We partnered with Root because we knew we needed a partner that could really engage everyone in our business with the why we need to change, what needs to change and how I, as an individual, need to change,” said Jason Maxwell, Director of Compliance, Customer Service, and Service Recovery Training, American Airlines.

Leaders at American Airlines realized that for change to happen, people needed to be truly immersed and engaged in the change itself.

The first step was to dive into the data. Root Insights conducted ethnographic research, including interviews and significant observation, to discover what really mattered to customers. From this work, five key behaviors were identified that would allow American Airlines to deliver exceptional experiences.

Root and American Airlines then worked together to develop:

A series of cross-functional, in-person experiences to create a spark with team members about "why" change was vital and what needed to change.

A robust, ongoing communication approach to share stories demonstrating that a movement of change had begun.

A new peer recognition program to celebrate team members who have elevated their own behaviors to elevate the customer experience.

Before starting the rollout process to the frontline teams, managers went through the Elevate the Everyday Experience training and a subsequent leadership program titled Lead the Experience. Lead the Experience was a customized version of the Root Compass® Manager Development Program designed to arm them with the capabilities needed to support and coach their teams and implement reward and recognition programs.

A true “ah-ha” moment occurred during the management training. Leaders from various groups were brought together. While each came with individual objectives and needs, silos were quickly broken down and it was discovered that the five behaviors were universal. American Airlines leadership realized the benefits that resulted from the collaboration of team members from different groups. Face-to-face interactions led to honest discussions, and team members walked away with new relationships, a better understanding of the various workgroups, and a renewed commitment to working together.

Building Momentum

Across American Airlines, it is clear that “Elevate” has taken hold and begun to build an organizational movement.

A home-based Reservations representative in Miami has covered the walls of his office with Elevate materials.

Customer service agents who facilitated the program got Elevate tattoos to remember the experience.

The team in Detroit created a special task force to keep the lessons learned at Elevate training on everyone’s minds each time they signed in for a shift.

It is clear that team members are using the additional tools they learned in training to further elevate customers’ experiences. Customer compliments are increasing as team members have focused on elevating customer experiences. Some examples of those elevated experiences include:

Getting to an overseas destination in time for a customer to attend her father’s 70th birthday and the opening of a musical he's been working on for over thirty years after technical issues resulted in missing a connection flight — even though a leg of the initial flight was booked on a different airline carrier.

Proactively rearranging travel on a customer’s Sabbath when flights were delayed.

Going over and above so a father could be on time to his daughter’s college graduation dinner.

Rebooking a customer after he accidentally scheduled travel on the wrong day.

To support the current momentum and create lasting change, leaders are focusing on the ongoing rollout of the launch programs to the other groups across the airline. In addition, they are actively tracking the results of the recognition program, launching a marketing campaign that continues to engage team members in Elevate, and doing research and assessments of the current programs to ensure the change is taking hold.

“The beautiful thing about the program is that it was so real and authentic. From the videos to the gamification to role-playing, there was something to appeal to everyone. People walked away believing in the training and the brand.” Marianne Cline, Sr. Manager, Customer Experience Training


“Experiences are what differentiate businesses, and we know customer experiences can never exceed the employee experience. For American Airlines to really stand out, we knew we first needed to invest more in our people. This program has validated that investment. It’s changing the culture within our organization and has even begun to manifest itself externally.” Kerry Philipovitch, SVP of Customer Experience at American Airlines

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