Writing about all of my bad customer service experiences would be a full-time job, so I let most of them roll by with a shrug or a sad shake of the head. Yet every now and then, someone sets the bar so low, it’s remarkable. Take, for example, my experience with American Airlines yesterday. An opportunity dropped into their lap to turn a routine business problem into a positive customer experience, but it just wasn’t in their DNA. Instead, they turned the full force of the people, infrastructure and systems within their customer service group toward making the problem so much worse, I had to write about it.

The airlines handle a lot of baggage, carousel after carousel of it, all different shapes and sizes and constructions. When you carry that many of anything, especially under time pressure, you’re bound to drop a few. According to the most recent SITA statistics, 25 million pieces of luggage are “mishandled” every year. That’s about 3,000 bags per hour every day. It’s just like the lottery; the more often you play, the more likely you are to win. I understand that.

When I landed in SFO at 8:00 PM from Miami, my number was up. Of the five bags check by my party, one was a no-show. I waited until the carousel with the last few orphan bags slowly ground to a halt, then I walked over to the American Airlines baggage service counter and stood in line. When my turn came, I showed them my tags, answered a few questions, and waited while they wrestled an answer from their primitive terminal. Sorry, so answer. Perhaps it was placed on a later flight. Here’s an 800 number you can call after midnight. Nothing more to do here, I went home and hoped for the best. After all, almost 97% of bags are ultimately reunited with their owners. Plus, my flight had been a single leg (52% of all mishandles occur at connections.)

I don’t know what I expected to happen next. I paid American Airlines $30 to have a bag moved from MIA to SFO and they failed. I know if FedEx screwed up, they would contact me. In the afternoon, still not having heard from AA, I called the 800 number and was advised that yes, my bag had been put on a later flight and had arrived in San Francisco at 11:00 AM this morning. I could pick it up at any time.

Pick it up? No, I don’t think so. I live over 30 miles from that airport; city miles. They lost it, they should deliver it. “I’m sorry,” the customer service voice said insincerely, “but you have only four hours from the time of arrival to file a lost baggage tracer. Since you did not do that, we can’t deliver it to you. If you like, I can have it shipped, but you’ll have to pay the fees.”

In a moment I went from “understanding — lost luggage is a fact of air travel” to “relieved — they found my bag (800,000 bags a year are never recovered)” to “furious – you guys screwed up and now you’re trying to make it be my problem.”

“Lost baggage tracer? What is that? What was all of that waiting in line at the AA Baggage Service Center, answering questions and showing them documents?”

“They should have told you that you have four hours to file a tracer,” continued my tormentor. “And, since there is no tracer on this bag, that’s all I can do for you. Your bag is here when you want to pick it up.”

Obviously, this wouldn’t do. I asked to speak to a supervisor.

I tell the story again to a new person, and again am told that I violated the four-hour rule. “This is the first I’ve heard about any of this. I thought they were filing a claim when I reported the bad missing at the airport.” I told him. “Does it make sense to you that I would wait in line at the Baggage Service Counter to report my missing bag, be told that I have only four hours in which to report it, otherwise they are relieved of their responsibilities and then… what? Refused? Changed my mind?”

“I can’t believe we are even having this conversation. This isn’t the old days, when you carried my bag for free. You charged money to carry that bag. It was supposed to be here at 8:00 PM last night and it didn’t get here until 11:00 this morning. You screwed up. You need to just man-up, admit it, and get it to me as quickly as you can.”

In reality, the people at the Baggage Service Center in San Francisco are geniuses. By not filling out a tracer, and not informing me of the process, they have not only saved their company a ton of money on baggage delivery fees, they have also made American’s lost baggage statistics look better. By law, these claims have to be tallied and reported to the Department of Transportation where they become a matter of public record.

How is American doing? They lose 4.3 bags per thousand passenger miles, the most of any national carrier. Their regional service, American Eagle, loses a whopping 9.19, the highest number reported by any airline. (To give credit where credit is due, AirTran loses only 1.97.)

I don’t know if the dim bulb of justice finally flickered on in this guy’s brain, or if I just wore him out, but he finally agreed to waive the “four-hour” rule and deliver my bag.

We call ourselves a “service economy.” I suppose that’s because everyone is so economical about dispensing customer service. But that’s really looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The mission of the customer service organization should be to build customer loyalty, not control costs.

When things are going well, it’s easy to be nice. It’s only when the going gets rough that you find out what a person, or a company, is made of. Customers who experience service problems that are dealt with appropriately by the company score far higher on loyalty measurements than customers who have never had a problem at all.

In the case of American Airlines, they wound up delivering my bag for free anyway, but first they invested a bunch of resources into pissing me off. It’s hard to see how they came out ahead.