Didn’t United Learn Customer Service #UnitedBreakGuitars ?

This post is about the customer service United Airlines failed with during my loooong flight to Mexico. A long and a bit angry rant since I was treated very poorly by United Airlines. After their incident and PR disaster with #UnitedBreakGuitars  I believed the airline would care much more about their customers than I experienced.

bad customer service united airlines

CC-BY-NC-SA, Wayan Vota

The PR disaster I mentioned is named UnitedBreakGuitars. It started when a musician traveled with United and got his guitar broken. From his airplane window he witnessed when the baggage handlers threw his guitar around and even managed to drop it. When he picked his guitar up from the baggage it was obviously broken. He tried to get compensation since he knew what had happened and why his guitar was broken, unfortunately he was only met with a bad attitude from United Airlines. He then decided to write a song about United’s poor customer service and the video very soon went viral with United losing a lot of money on the negative attention that followed it. After this PR disaster one might think that United Airlines worked hard with improvements of their customer service…

 My Trip

I had booked what seemed like an easy and quick trip between Sacramento and Mexico City with a small stop-over in San Francisco. This turned out to be false when my first leg of the trip was cancelled due to fog in San Francisco.

The two options I was given and the negative parts about them.

  • Option #1 – Rush to SFO with a car in [[time]] hours to connect with my next flight. 
    -Fog at SFO cancelled first flight, why not second?
    -2.5hrs drive (and 2.5hrs back) if someone wanted to drive me (Paying for gas down to SF and at the same time my lost flight)
  • Option #2 – Wait for the next flight that would depart tomorrow. 
    -19hr delay
    -Flight leaves 5.50AM and saying I should be there at 4AM which is very early to fly.

Fog is nothing United can do anything about or control. The two options where pretty much all they were able to provide as well but the least they can do is maintain good customer service and keep everyone that missed a flight as content as possible. I was treated with a very poor attitude from the United staff where they clearly didn’t care about what happened with me as long as they did what was required of them. Three ways United Airlines could have improved their customer service:

1) Apologized even if it wasn’t their fault and kept a good attitude whilst talking with me
2) Given me a food voucher (19hr delay definitely means I’ll get hungry)
3) Waived the fee for my extra bag I needed to check in

Since my treatment from the United Airlines agent at the airport had been very bad and dismissive I decided to call their customer service to see if they were more helpful there. The first problem I encountered with this was trying to find the right number to their customer service. After spending a while on their website I found one number leading to “reservations” that I thought might work. Calling that number just lead to one of those automatic “sorting services” where you make a lot of choices to get into the right line. This meant that my search for the right number was a waste since any number would suffice to reach customer service. After waiting a while and talking briefly with an agent I was redirected to another line where I waited another 20mins. This wait is normal in phone support and would have been fine if they hadn’t chose to blast their ads every few minutes (not very appreciated by someone trying to reach customer service). Once I got through the line and made a few questions I found out about a third option:

  • Option #3 – Fly out at 12.30 AM with a 3hr layover in Las Vegas
    -3hrs at an airport in the middle of the night is not very comfortable and one reason I booked the flight I did.

I politely declined this offer since I had made new plans when I thought my flight would leave first in the morning. What suprised me was that this option #3 had not even been mentioned by the United agent at the airport. It only confirmed my belief that the agent didn’t care about me and did the least amount required regarding the cancelled flight.

Previously, whilst looking for the phone number to customer service, I had found a section titled “12 customer commitment points” on United Airlines homepage which seemed to be an attempt at treating their customers in a good way. When enquiring and asking about some of these points I found out that the phone agent didn’t know about them. A customer commitment is only empty promises if not anchored with the staff interacting with your customers.

The following day I woke up in the middle of the night and went to the airport for my checkin at 4AM. With a small delay at takeoff we finally lifted towards LA. During this flight towards Los Angeles we had to land in a small airport in Santa Barbara because of fog in LA this time. At the runway in the Santa Barbara airport we waited about 2hrs seated in the plane. The staff on this delayed plane were friendly and the passengers were calm despite the delay. We were given something to drink and small pack of pretzels but were left to figure out how to deal with the delay and connecting flights on our own. People started calling customer service from their phones and arranging new flights but this was not an option for me with an international phone card. I would have to wait until I arrived in LA.

After a 3.5hr delay we arrived in LA. Here I was forced to stand in line for my customer service for 1.5hrs. A flight would leave for Mexico City later that night which I was hoping to get on. Turns out the flight was full. If I had done as the rest of the people on my delayed plane by calling customer service myself to complain a bit and fix the problem myself I had probably been able to get on. Customer service was yet again lacking to those customers that didn’t immediately complain but waited for a fix. Once I talked a bit more with the customer service desk the agent managed to find another flight that left almost at the same time the same night. I was told (again) that there was no way of waiving my baggage fee for this flight if there was another one imposed despite my delays of more than 24hrs at this stage. The delays were due to causes outside United Airlines control but refusing to take any sort of good-will approach only breeds annoyed customers.

With the promise of my flight leaving the same night I went to pick up my bags and traveled to another terminal half-way across the airport. When attempting to check-in I found out that the United agent had booked me on the wrong flight! The one he had booked me on was not scheduled to leave until the same time tomorrow night. Thus I had to grab my bags again and travel half-way across the airport to get back to the United customer service desk. After waiting in the line again I arrived at the customer service desk but didn’t manage to see the agent that booked me on the wrong day. I got help from another agent that put me on the stand-by list for the first flight that night (the one I wanted to be on the first time at this desk). Yet again without an apology or compensation for the mistreatment received by the other agent.

Before I got on the plane there was another delay (this time United’s fault) but I was still relieved since I managed to get on the plane with my stand-by ticket. The flight went smoothly after the delay and I arrived in Mexico City 29hrs later than I was supposed to according to my original itenerary. On this last stretch of the flight the staff on the plane were apologetic about the delay and handed out a voucher. We still had to pay for the meal on the flight though. Giving me a voucher to fly again won’t make me very happy, better off giving me something I get immediate happiness from such as a free meal on the plane.

For a flight interary that was supposed to take eight hours and ended up taking 37 hours I was never given a single apology by staff working at the airports. Not by the first agent when flight was cancelled, not at the customer service when I already suffered a +24hr delay due to fog at two instances and not even by the agent that talked to me after I had been forced to run back and forth across the airport because of an agent booking me on the wrong day. At this stage of my flight I was happy about just getting off the plane and being able to leave United and their service behind. I would have been much happier with just some smiles and understanding from the airport staff when talking with me even if most of the delays were not United’s fault.

Fog wasn’t the fault of United Airlines but mistreating their travelers by poor customer service definitely was. It’s sad to see their empty promises in the “12 customer commitment points” and that they clearly haven’t learned much customer service even after #UnitedBreakGuitars. The only case I saw good customer service was at the last flight delay where the staff had been trained to do a routine if delayed a certain number of hours. What United Airlines has failed to learn is that good customer service is not a trained routine, it is something that runs through all levels of the company and an attitude of the employeers. Only a smile and a sorry is enough in most cases.

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Josef Ohlsson Collentine

A transparent and kind American/Swede who likes cultural patterns and Social Media. A creative early-adopter who sports, discusses and explores. More about me
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