Once again into the breach...of trust: United Airlines manages to do it again

Once again into the breach...of trust: United Airlines manages to do it again

Summary: Cost efficiencies are fine, but not at the expense of the customers -- especially if it involves a serious service issue that can be at least mitigated by something that already had a proven benefit.

TOPICS: Travel Tech

I have been striving mightily the last few months to try and like United Airlines more.  I have been hoping, no, praying (and I'm not a praying man) that with the merger of Continental and United (which really was a United acquisition) that the habits of Continental would rub off on United to some extent - or rather the good habits would.  I have been taking a kinder eye where I can, acknowledging the things about United that I like:

  1. Economy Plus seats 5" of extra legroom, which I consider a HUGE plus.
  2. The reasonable number of upgrades I get for being a Platinum Frequent Flyer member with a company that has countless 1K members
  3. The personnel for the most part are nice, hardworking people, though like anywhere else you get the exceptions.
  4. The...uhhh....the Economy Plus seats - oh, um, I already said that.

I've even been willing to overlook things that I normally would let disturb me - partially due to attempt to like United more and partially due to my newly refined outlook on life that stems a bit from me taking up meditation a few months ago.  I won't go into what those are, in the spirit of Namaste.  Instead, I'll spend the time to go through my actual customer experience - not just to gripe (though admittedly a little venting is good for my soul right now) but from the standpoint of what seems to be a poor strategic decision and what is definitely terrible level setting when it comes to customer expectations.

The Story

As some of you know, I am the chairman of the Advisory Committee of the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management CRM Centre of Excellence - the only institution that is devoted to Social CRM or as Gen Y practitioners refer to it - CRM.

Part of my obligation to the University is to guest lecture as part of a three-day course on Social CRM that the University provides in its Executive Education series. That means a trip to Toronto, as least twice a year, to teach.

Of course, due to the cost of switching being so high, as much as I am disappointed by United, I fly United more often than not.  Last year of the 160,000 miles in the air I did, about 92,000, I think, were United.  So, I planned on a Monday trip up (that would be this week) so that I could teach on Tuesday morning.

Little did I realize...

Let's just abbreviate and say that the Monday flight was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties.

As I was being walked over to the counter that I was to be rebooked at, I was told by the United employee - "yeah, we had a lot of mechanical failures today." That of course was a great confidence builder.  But you know what, I can live with that happening. United is servicing thousands of planes. The fleet is going to have mechanical problems. I'm sure that on occasion they are going to cluster, due to the sheer volume of maintained airplanes and the coincidences in life that lead to things like noticeably more failures on one day than the next.  Reasonable, no?

Then they broke the news to me that the only time that I could fly out was 12:47pm the next day.  I said okay, since I really wasn't being given any choice but to take it or a later one or not fly. But I was not terribly happily, since that meant a major reorganization of all the instructors' schedules.  I was then told that I should leave my bag at the airport (this is on Monday) because, even though it was overnight, it would be transferred to the next day's flight (go out on Tuesday with me).  I asked for reassurances about this because, truthfully, it made me a little uncomfortable. They are going to be moving hundreds of thousands of bags between Monday evening and my flight on Tuesday afternoon.  My thinking was the longer that time passes, the more chance of the bag being lost. Maybe I was paranoid.

Maybe not.

The next day, I came back, refreshed, ready to take another crack at getting to Toronto. That lasted all of 15 minutes at the gate, when all of a sudden...delayed flight.

I sat for two more hours. We now could tally, one cancellation, one significant delay - all registering in my neurons and synapses in a distinctly unpleasant way. To add to that, I began wondering about my luggage since I had no knowledge of how successful United was of meeting the expectation they set with paranoid me the night before.  So,  I asked the gate agent about my bag being transferred and she said a strange thing, "oh yes it will be transferred. We wouldn't fly without your bag on the flight."  Maybe I misunderstood her? I distinctly remember thinking "huh?" So I said, trying to ignore the strangeness of that statement, "are you sure it will be transferred?" She said, "yes" again and I let it go.

Of course, even though I was assured twice and thus tried to let that be my anchor, bags can get lost and do. But the United personnel were setting my expectations of success with a process that I didn't totally trust so I decided to trust them.

After we boarded, we took off, got to Toronto without difficulty though two hours late. I sailed through immigration and went to get my bag, thinking "cool, this is easy. No problems from here on."

No bag.

No friggin' bag.  We were already two hours late and there was no bag on the luggage belt, which meant going through United baggage recovery. Even trying to be positive, reality was that I missed an important call because I was late getting there and then had to spend time trying to find out about my bag.  Another negative to fuel those firing neurons and synapses.

And It Gets Considerably Worse...

When I came to Toronto last November, my bag went AWOL then also. But, when I went to the United Baggage Desk,  they took my claim check and tracked the bag on their system, which allowed real time tracking, found out it was actually at the airport and would be out shortly so I waited and it was.

I figured that I would go to the baggage desk and do that again. I spoke to the United agent and he dutifully took my information down.  I asked him about tracking the bag and finding out where it was - expecting it would be the same real time effort as last November. How naïve am I?

Apparently, very.

"Oh, when we merged with Continental's system, we eliminated that capability. We were told that it would save us money." Meaning that the customer's peace of mind wasn't as important as the cost savings that United gained.  Some may say that's true.  Not only don't I say that but from my standpoint it goes to the heart of what Bruce Temkin, the leading customer experience analyst in the world, came up with in his State of Customer Experience Management study in 2011.   Only 17% of the respondents felt that executives would be willing to trade off short term financial results for long term customer loyalty.  Incidentally, this was looked at as a negative, not a positive, result.

I made it clear to the agent that I needed to have the bag before 6:00am the next morning, if they found it because I had to teach at the University and all I had was the clothes on my back which was jeans and a tee shirt, sneakers, etc.  I didn't really want to be wearing that same tee shirt the next day to present, know what I mean?

"We work on this 24X7 and deliver all the times of day and night.  We put luggage on a special delivery truck and will deliver it to the hotel."

Keep that comforting statement in mind because it set my expectations for delivery, should they find the bag. If they didn't. Okay, damage but understandable.

I went to the hotel after clearing customs and ran to Sears and bought a denim shirt and few other things just in case it didn't show up. So I would look okay at best even with the jeans on.

I began tracking the bag online with the URL they gave me and came to an ugly site with information that was partially understandable and partially cryptic.  (I still am unclear what FOF means when it comes to the delivery location).  Not terribly customer friendly given that it's the site they give to customers to go to track their bag.  After dinner with friends, I went to the room at about 11:30pm and saw that the bag had been "delivered to the airport." I had to presume it was Toronto Pearson though it didn't say that.  But they found it and it had been delivered and that meant I could get the back given my very explicit instructions and the promises that were given to me and the explanation of the 24X7 process and trucks etc.  All was not lost.

I checked throughout the night. Nothing. No update. Nothing. Just said the bag was "delivered to the airport."

At 7:00am the next morning I called the number and found out the following:

  1. The bag had been at the airport since 10:30pm the prior night.
  2. It was scheduled to be picked up by a courier service at 8:00am and brought to the hotel - after I had already left for the university.
  3. The agent told me that she wished she could do something but that baggage counter didn't open until 9:00am (this is 24X7?)

So, no clothes but what I was wearing and what I bought to teach in.  So much for the promise of 24X7 special delivery when it arrives - even with explicit instructions which I was led to believe would be honored.  Not ignored and made irrelevant.

The Delay Is Not Only the Flight

To make this somewhat more ridiculous.  Obviously the bag wasn't going to arrive until after I got to the university but it was in and scheduled to be delivered.

I had been tweeting heavily and kept directing the tweets toward @United. I had done this other times in the past and never gotten a response.  However, for the first time ever, they actually followed me (I'm one of 776 they are now following) responded to me asking me about the problem, getting the ticket # and asking how to contact me.  I sent them several Direct Messages explaining what was going on, why I was disturbed and told them that the pickup was scheduled. Ultimately, a few hours later, the contacted me again and said, "We've sent your information to our Baggage Resolution team. They'll reach out directly with an update."  The update was (to paraphrase) "glad to see  your baggage problem was taken care of" and a phone call voice message from the "elite baggage desk" that was asking me if it was resolved or seemed to be - it was kind of unclear really.

All of this would have been and even refreshing except it was so out of lockstep with what had already gone on.  By the time they "mobilized" on Twitter, the bag was already in my room. And I tried to find out if it had been delivered going to the tracking site in the afternoon but it hadn't been updated since the 8am pick up was posted.  Since I couldn't get the answer from United even after the bag got delivered despite my entreaties, late, I called the hotel and they told me it was in my room.


What's Wrong with This Picture?

What isn't wrong with it? There are two major issues.  The failure to set expectations and flawed customer strategy that broke a beneficial and well established process.

Flawed Strategy

When Jeff Smisek, the CEO of United and/or his minions, made the decision to put cost "effectiveness" ahead of customer peace of mind that was a fundamentally wrong decision (see Ray Wang for more on this kind of decision making by United).  Especially since it was a featured part of United's value to customers to begin with. I know that there was an internal discussion during the earlier phases of the merger to possibly eliminate Economy Plus, which, to United's credit, didn't happen because they understood the value of that 5" of customer legroom to their fliers, especially their elite program members.

In this case, they screwed up. Cost efficiencies are fine, but not at the expense of the customers especially if it involves a serious service issue that can be at least mitigated by something that already had as a proven benefit.

In the interests of fairness, I have no confirmation of the elimination of this beyond a couple of United employees who told me that they couldn't do that anymore and why, so there is some hearsay there. But it is dangerous when a competitor like Delta is allowing real time baggage tracking on mobile devices directly by customers.

United, be careful what you wish for here. Cost doesn't ever win v customers if its truly head to head.

Failed Expectations

This is unfortunately the worst of the problems. My expectations for how the luggage would be handled were set by two comments.  "We'll keep your luggage overnight and transfer it to your new flight. Don't worry" and "we work 24X7. When it comes in, we'll put it out on a special delivery vehicle and get it to you at the hotel"

If I was told, "well, of course there can be a reasonable chance because of high volumes that it won't make it" I might have made decided to get my bag and bring it with me home and recheck it the next day.  Even though I wouldn't have liked hearing that, I would have had honest information about what to expect and could have made a more intelligent decision.

The promises of delivery were even worse because it seemed so plausible. I'm sure that United does do things 24X7 though how baggage counters opening at 9:00am supports that when people are flying at 6:00am, I'm not sure. But even despite that, when a customer who flies a lot on the airline makes a not terribly complicated special request - like please get it to me if it arrives in time so I can get what I need before the time I need it, and there is a promise to do so, honor the promise. It was doable if it got there at 10:30am and the couriers were moving throughout the night. But it was ignored and basically a HUGE failure in my mind, not United's not other customers. But here I am writing about it.  If United had said, "well, I can't really guarantee that" or "we'll try but we have a lot of bags to move and we aren't allowed to prioritize" or something that set an honest expectation - I wouldn't have liked it but I would have accepted it because I had no choice.

So with a background of a cancelled flight, a delayed flight, a bad customer v cost decision, and two poorly done jobs at level setting of expectations, what could I or another customer in this situation or a similar one possibly think?

While Jeff Smisek travels sunnily along, refusing to acknowledge that United has a lot of problems, yet, people like me continue to fly due to not a whole lot great options and costs of switching being high, he needs to think about the following advice:

  1. When you have a service issue that can be mitigated by something you already are providing, don't eliminate it.
  2. Transparency needs to be the mantra for you. Be honest, instruct employees to be transparent about some of the uncertainties that are there - which means don't make promises you can't keep or allow your staff to do so either. I know they can do it out of not wanting to scare customers, but honesty is actually the best policy. Customers may not like what they hear but at least they can make a decision intelligently. By hiding the uncertainties, you take that ability away from your customers.   Don't.

Then maybe, maybe, we'll start to like you again.

Topic: Travel Tech

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  • What part of...

    "lock-in" do you not understand?

    Please understand I agree with everything you say. However, it sounds very much like you're practicing false economy. Or you're complaining for the sake of complaining and have no plans to actually *fix* your issues.

    However, United is (like all airlines) hurting, and has been hurting for a long time. They need to conserve every penny because airlines by their nature are horribly inefficient beasts and scrimping and gouging are the only ways they can make ends meet.

    That means the cost of cutting seldom used features (like real-time luggage tracking) is well-nigh irresistable. Even if those features are "must have" when you need them. :)

    It's understandble. Teeth-grittingly enraging, but understandable.

    The only thing you can do is switch airlines. And hope the new airline has fewer issues....
    • Horribly Inefficient...

      Every major organization appears to be in this situation. It's not just airlines, it's telecom, it's healthcare, public and private schools, government, it's everywhere. Why, because individual employees are no longer concerned about the health of the company (and I mean at every level). Instead they are "in it for me". We have a grotesquely "me" centric generation running things today. That mindset creates short-term thinking, empire-building, budget-growth, etc. It does NOT breed efficiency, long-term objectives, nor sincere interest in the customer (who is, after all, paying the bill). Greed has taken over ouor society at nearly every level.
      • "In it for me"

        And that attitude begins with the people at the top, doesn't it?
        sissy sue
      • You're blaming this on the employees?

        The C-Level and boardroom member driven, stock-holder-centric model of outsourcing, downsizing and off-shoring at-will employees sent a clear message during the 80s, 90s and early 2000s: You cannot expect a long term relationship with our company - our long-term relationship is with our share-holders, not our employees. Corporations cannot have their cake and eat it, too. This is a two way street. Mercenary Corporate tactics lead to mercenary corporate employee attitudes.

        I know you mention that this happens at every level - but the tone is set at the top. You cannot ask employees to be loyal and have long term vision at a company when your leadership is making bottom-line, short-term decisions.
      • RE: "In it for me"

        @sissy sue,

        [b]You have that right!!![/b]

        With publicly owned corporations, [i]all C level executives[/i] are essentially [b][u]over paid[/u] hired help[/b].
      • Most American airlines are like that

        Whether it is Delta, American or United, their service is next to useless. European airlines are slightly better, the notable ones being Lufthansa and Air France and the horrible one being British Airways. If you really want to see service, try the Asian airlines such as Singapore, Malaysian, JAL, Korean or Cathay Pacific. Most American planes look like junk next to planes from these airlines, and this is not anything new, their planes have been newer and betters since mid 1990s. For example, most Asian airlines have touch screen TVs whereas most American planes do not even have a TV and you have to pay to listen to music
      • Hi all

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    • I fully understand that

      Of course, I realize that airlines are hurting. I also realize that what actually occurred all in all - or at least evidence suggests as raleighthings indicates below - the change was systemwide, not just the feature. But the problem is several fold - which I didn't get into in the post. First, United has a STRONG history of at almost all times keeping the customers second and that's the hallmark of a company that will ultimately go the way of the dodo. Second, Jeff Smisek seems to refuse to acknowledge that there are issues to address. Third, United baggage handling has been a problem that is endemic, not episodic. Consequently, there should be some attention paid to it strategically. It can only help them to do so. I don't wish them ill. They are a teeth gritting company but most airlines aren't a lot better. We all complain about the airlines - they are a convenient target. But there are basic customer-centric principles that need to apply and the big one which I certainly mentioned enough I hope is setting the appropriate expectations with your customers. That is basic CRM program and strategy and philosophy 101. It doesn't mean be sunny with your customers. It means give them the information they need to make an intelligent decision on what they want to do - not information that the company perceives the customer wants to hear. Transparency in its actual sense. Effectively, that's all I'm saying here besides the story that frames it. Do you see that?
      • Only way they'll change is by going broke...

        I was also "locked in" for years - a 1K flyer. The upgrades and economy plus kept me in. But I started flying Southwest, and quit United cold-turkey, except for using up my frequent flyer miles, which took several years... I especially got tired of the difficulty and expense of changing a flight - even as a 100,000+ mile per year customer. Except, whenever they had to make a change, it was "tough luck buddy, we had to cancel / delay the flight". On Southwest, anyone can change their flight without penalty. In the several years since I switched, I've gotten used to a much more efficient and customer-oriented service culture, so much so, that flying the legacy airlines is a rude shock.

        I think guys like Smisek are stuck in the old Detroit Big-3 mindset and the plight of their airlines is hopeless. They seem to be focused on making as much as they can for themselves before the company goes bust. Its sad. But I have no regrets being a former customer.
    • 6 days delayed baggage


      i had a connection flight between Brussels airlines and United.
      Brussels saw the bag going off the plane, united did not.

      4 years of R&D were invested in the equipment in that poor baggage.

      6 days with no one in this organization to talk too.
      6 bad days to my business.

      i need some aid from an expert in finding delayed bags

      please help me with this issue.

  • What's the incentive for United to change if you don't?

    Paul, I sympathise, this sounds like a dreadful experience. But throughout the several hundred words of this post you've not once said that you'll leave United. On the contrary, you've said it's pretty difficult for you to leave given how much of a lock-in they have. So what incentive does the airline have to improve? You've just written a 1000-word essay that demonstrates they can cut out all kinds of expensive customer service capabilities and their frequent flyers will still keep flying with them.
    • True Dat

      Hey Phil,
      The reason for that is not just lock in but I don't see other airlines doing a whole lot better. We are dealing with a heavily damaged but absolutely necessary industry that has never been customer centric with a few exceptions - for periods of time - e.g. Jet Blue, Southwest and the former Continental. Lock in is inertia too. There is little to go to that flies consistently to where I go. United covers it - and don't forget what I found as a HUGE factor is Economy Plus. That 5" of legroom buys them a lot - though it costs me a lot too - in angst. BTW, it's almost 3000 words. :-) If I felt there was something that had close to the scope and was a better airline, I would make the jump. I did it to United in 1999 when I moved off US Airways which United bought.
      • I did it to United in 1999 when I moved off US Airways which United bought.

        Understand your lock in and the airlines work hard at developing a profitable route structure as well as keeping would-be competitors at bay on those routes. Believe, as well as being an Academic, you have flown enough to proffer an essay that should be credible to most. However, United never bought US Airways, although there was a payout to them due to a failed acquisition. So, I would give you a lower grade in History.
      • Have To Agree With Phil

        I understand the airline industry being a special case, but when a company is doing something wrong, you stop using that company. Enough people do that and the company realizes their bad decisions are losing them money. They either don't change and go out of business or they change for the better and see more customers choosing them again.

        This is a highly simplified model of how consumers influence the decision making of companies, and it doesn't work when people like you simply put up with being treated like that. Rather you are giving them incentive to cut even more because their mindset becomes "They're locked in now, I can do whatever I want and cut whatever I want and still take their money"

        The goal of capitalism is to lower cost and increase value to the consumer through competition. If each person is married to their airline and refuses to change even in the face of poor quality service/high prices/other motivating factors, you have essentially removed the competition element, and therefore the incentive for the company to change.

        If I were you, I would reread your own article again and think about the best way to get United Airlines to change their policies. You can tweet them all you want, but money and competition is the only true motivator for companies.
      • You have encouraged them to not change by your comments

        As one who spent 100+ days a year on the road years ago, I can empathize with you; however from an MBA perspective I see that Continental made the right choice in prioritizing the use of funds. You won't leave over this incident and feel the 5 in of leg room and a few perks are worth all the hassle.

        They won't change because you aren't willing to leave them for someone else. When I was forced due to military rules to fly Eastern out of Atlanta, I paid extra out of my pocket to fly Delta as did many of my contemporaries. Eastern lost the contract because of customer dissatisfaction and we all went back to Delta.

        Voting with your dollars is the only way they will change.

        PS I think you comment "the merger of Continental and United (which really was a United acquisition)" is backward. Every pilot I know that flies for United has said Continental is running the airline now and only the United name is the same.

        Ernie Ganas
      • Send your luggage UPS Overnight.

        Put your suitcase in a plain brown cardboard box and ship it overnight to your hotel. It will be there waiting for you. Carry a small overnight bag with your essentials, (toiletries, a clean shirt, socks, and underwear.)
    • Nah....

      "You've just written a 1000-word essay that demonstrates they can cut out all kinds of expensive customer service capabilities and their frequent flyers will still keep flying with them."

      You would have a point if fliers actually had a choice.

      Airline "customer service" is virtually non-existent regardless what carrier you take, and flying is just a nightmare anymore.
      sissy sue
    • Phil is exactly right

      In a real-world analogy, if you had a daughter who was dating a person (substitute United in here) who over-and-over-and over again did the same inconsiderate types of things, i.e. making her pay for the date, showing up late, canceling or re-scheduling the date, losing the concert tickets, you'd tell her to dump the guy, right? And even if she had been dating him for a year and was reluctant to "start over" with someone else, you'd still tell her to dump the guy, right? So why are you sticking with United? You had to change your plans, buy extra clothes, change the plans of fellow instructors, and make zillions of calls... it's time to dump the guy.
    • I couldn't agree more

      Phil, you hit the nail on the head. A service business that is being run by cost effectiveness is a losing proposition, but until customers find other suppliers nothing will change. Plus as consumers we give away our greatest power, the right to choose. We can choose to continue to receive unacceptable service or we can choose a new vendor. It's really not that hard.
    • a rant and a disservice to... well... everyone yourself included

      I couldn't agree with philwainewright more... you wrote an overly long detailed explanation of events ranting about the whole process that only accomplished to validate the fact that United services could even be worse and you will still remain a customer. Took me much less to leave Netflix... they tried to screw with customer and I sent a strong signal by canceling my account. After 9 months they lost at least my revenue... the point being that no matter how little it may be the action of YOU saying ENOUGH and not using a company you just had issues with, if more of those who had the same problem would speak with their dollar (only language 99% of companies understand), you would probably have a chance of these issues being addressed... writing long rants that people may relate to and at best feel sympathetic for, will serve no purpose other than having you vent-out your frustration and share it with the readers. Not an efficient course of action. I'd propose a more radical and 1st person responsible decision. Leave those service and go to other companies and will put a personal ban on using United for the coming yeat. Write to the company why you are doing that and and that you've decided they won't get your business for at least the next year and if services do not get substantially better and you will keep reading and hearing about negative customer experiences like yours, you will definitely consider staying United-free for much longer than 1 year.
      Speaking with your wallet will be far louder than your words.