Congratulations to United Airlines!

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United Airlines has done it!

They have surgically extricated customer service, as we used to know it anyway, from their part of the airline industry. The operation was successful, and the patient is doing well.

I recently took a UAL flight from Bradley (Hartford, CT/Springfield, MA area) to Chicago and then from Chicago to Seattle. Along the way, I realized that I expect some things out of flying the skies, friendly or not.

  1. I expect to pay my money and get, in return, transported from point A to point B.
  2. I expect to do that predictably.
  3. I expect to be able to choose my accommodations. That is, if I wish to fly first class, then I should be able to choose to do so. Same goes for economy. As I am 6’6” tall, I would also like to be able to reliably choose which seat I sit in as some seating options are just not physically comfortable.
  4. I expect my luggage to get from point A to point B right along with me.

Now, having reviewed my list of requirements, you might notice that I have not indicated anywhere that air travel requires such extra amenities as “nice, smiling faces” or “on-board food” or “live customer service agents” or anything of the sort. No, instead, I have merely listed the absolute bare essentials for air travel. Anything above and beyond is, well, above and beyond.

So how has United failed me? I mean, if these are the bare essentials, then why am I unhappy with United Airlines?

Because they have forgotten that customer service used to be included with each and every ticket. They sell nothing but the bare essentials, and the attitude I see from them is “Get used to it.”

[13 December 2006, Update: After reading this intro several times, I’m not so sure that my logic makes a whole lotta’ sense. Nevertheless, my conclusion remains the same: their customer service is marginal, and we, the consumer, had better get used to it. /WNE]

Seat Assignment

My experience begins 24 hours before departure and I still don’t have a seat assignment. As I mentioned before, seat assignment is a nice-to-have, but relatively important to me. So, not having a seat assignment, I decided to check with my travel agency. Nope, they can’t do anything. United assigns seats exclusively. I decided to check online.

Curses! Foiled again. I can’t select my seat because I’m not within 24 hours of departure yet. In fact, United won’t even tell me what seat I have on the flight. And why not? Because I’m not within 24 hours of departure yet.

What’s so special about 24 hours before departure?

Well, 24 hours before departure begins the period before a flight when I can do what’s known as “EasyCheck-in.” (My, but that is a contorted set of CamelCase and punctuation! What marketing guru came up with that? “It has to have a hyphen; I don’t care that it looks like crap! And forget about capitalizing ‘in.’ That would just be wrong!”) You see, in the 24 hours prior to the flight, you, too, if you have Internet access, can log in and select your seat online! Cool!


Your seat, and everybody else’s seat on the flight, has already been assigned based on the phase of the moon and something akin to a Magic Eight-Ball. It seems to be pretty random. So you are left to choose to change seats with seats that are still available. On a sold-out flight, there are none. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment.

If you don’t have internet access, you’re screwed. They don’t—and won’t—do anything on the phone. I tried. But you can try the gate or ticket agent on the date of departure. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment.

If, for some reason, you are denied the online ability to choose your seat, as a friend of mine has been denied repeatedly, then you are stuck with your seat assignment until you hit the airport and schmooze the gate agent. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment, whatever it might be.

(Interestingly, both she and her husband have been denied the ability to use the online checkin process for United every stinkin’ time. And they’re not allowed to use the United kiosks at the airport, either. She thinks they’ve been identified as potential terrorists, but only on United flights.)

And what if you want some extra leg room? Oh, United, you have outdone yourselves this time! You have added a class-within-a-class called “Economy Plus.” Now, I must admit, you really do have an excellent idea. Figuring that you aren’t going to sell out most of your airplanes, you remove a row or two of seats and spread out an area of seats so that they have something like 5” of extra legroom! Excellent! (And I am not being facetious about that, either. More seats with more legroom? I’m all in favor of that!)

Best of all, you choose not to call this “extra” anything more than an “extra.” It’s not a different class, so business travelers are still in economy and their expense reports get paid. It’s relatively inexpensive to buy your way into this area of seating—$70 for my return from Seattle to Bradley, for example—and I’m pretty sure that most corporations won’t think twice about that small cost. And it’s paid for as a separate extra, not included in your ticket price, so, again, the beancounters won’t be alarmed by a plane fare that’s higher than the usual economy price. Excellent.

But you screw up your seat assignments something awful and turn what could have been a very pleasant customer experience into a crapshoot akin to buying a laptop computer on eBay.

First, you assign your best customers to those seats—your BillionMilerPlatinumClubMembers. Yeah, I’m OK with that, too, I guess, even though it disturbs me to see a 5’2” person in a seat that I could have used. My point, though, is that you then fill up a lot of those extra-legroom seats before any of us regular, cash-in-hand customers have a shot at those seats.

(I’m therefore unsure who is the better customer: those of us who give you more cash or those of us who use your airline more frequently. You’d still get the repeat customers because nobody else is competing with you in this arena. You coulda’ gotten money from them, too!)

Second, you make it impossible to assess whether or not there are Economy Plus seats available on a flight before purchasing a ticket. There’s no way in hell I’d book a five hour flight (as the flight from Seattle to Dulles is) without a guarantee of a seat with more legroom. And since neither my travel agent nor your representatives can do that (remember, online or at the airport only!), you essentially take what could have been a pleasant trip for me and turn it into a cattle car experience.

(Interesting side note: my company will happily pay $7,000 for a non-stop flight in business class for its travelers who are crossing an ocean. But they won’t pony up an additional $1,000 for first class for a traveler who has an equally-long flight which never leaves the continental US. Go figure.)

Third, you have made the minute following the 24-hours-prior-to-departure time a mad rush by us peons to get ourselves into the Economy Plus seats. It’s like bid sniping on eBay. And don’t get me started on the fact that you reserve the best legroom seats (for example, exit row seats and aisle seats) for your BillionMilerPlatinumClubMembers who didn’t automatically get assigned those primo seats. If I miss that window of opportunity—and it is about two minutes long—I am hosed. Hope I like cattle car.

Traveling in a party of four? Then God help you. Because United won’t.

On the phone…

The guy on the phone sounded Indian. That’s OK. Heck, I don’t have anything against outsourcing your call center to anywhere in the world as long as we can communicate. We did, so we’re good.

He was polite, too. That’s good.

But the guy on the phone was powerless to help me. That’s not OK.

The mantra seems to be “online or at the airport.” God help those agents.

About those agents

Remember from above that you’ll have to deal with a gate agent or ticket agent if you haven’t managed to get a seating assignment or your husband and you are identified as potential United-only terrorists? Whereas those agents used to deal with both normal, happy customers and the unhappy, I’ve-got-a-problem customers, those people now have to deal only with the unhappy, I’ve-got-a-problem customers.

The kiosks and the internet have taken all the happy people who, begrudgingly or willingly alike, use the kiosk or website and have provided them a means to completely bypass the ticket agent. Which leaves the folks behind the podium or counter with handling all the unhappy, I’m-your-problem-today customers.

That has to suck.

First, it’s not what you signed up for. Most likely, after all of the layoffs of recent times, you’re someone who is somewhat senior, or probably have worked at United for a few years, anyway. And when you signed up for this job, you got to deal with the shiny, happy people as well as the not-so-happy people. And those were the days.

Then they took the shiny, happy people away, leaving you with the crappy job of helping the disgruntled, the tired, the hungry, the poor slobs yearning to fly free. So your job satisfaction? Maybe it’s tanked, maybe it hasn’t. But if I had to deal with them for eight hours a day…? I feel for you. I really do.

Second, you have been set up to fail. After all, if the computer/kiosk/internet couldn’t handle it, then it’s already outside the normal process, so you have to know everything there is to know in order to be able to fix it all. Hope you got all the latest updates, changes, etc., and have a good idea of what the normal process is like (but you don’t get to do those anymore) for reference.

I imagine that only the lost-luggage desk is worse.

Now, on my trip, I met two United agents, one a ticket agent and the other a gate agent. The former was quite nice and managed to get my luggage checked to Seattle in spite of the computer’s protestations. The latter was… well, OK. Doing his job. But clearly being the only gate agent for a full 757 flight to Seattle with at least a dozen standby passengers while having to run over, check the printer, run down the jetway and steer it into place or check things or whatever was clearly more than he was happy doing. Tired? Perhaps. Unkind? No. Rude? No. Curt? Overworked? Understaffed? Yes.

Go, United!


Look, folks, if you’re going to sell me a meal (or a box full of food, anyway), then you damned well had better start taking credit cards and stop demanding correct change. If you’re going to do business, then do business. How many restaurants do you know of that don’t take credit cards? (The last one in my area that I’m aware of caved and prefer cards to checks, incidentally.) How many restaurants demand, or at any rate “greatly appreciate,” correct change, or “accidentally” forget to return your change until you ask for it? Think that would fly with the NYT food critic?

Bottom line

At least they gave me the whole can.

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