Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

Summary: The stress of natural disaster can push IT systems to the breaking point, which directly affects customer responsiveness. United's story demonstrates the importance of flexible systems.


As the powerful Hurricane Irene strikes the east coast, it's worthwhile observing the systems impact on airlines, trains, and other organizations affected by the storm. From a customer service perspective, large-scale events, such as a hurricane or natural disaster, are particularly difficult for these organizations to manage. Successfully handling the flood of calls, cancellations, and other changes requires advance planning and good luck.

Of course, some organizations weather these storms better than others do. There is a relationship between the flexibility and agility of a company's systems and its ability to adapt to changing requirements in situations like a hurricane.

Unfortunately, as I discovered trying to change a single flight on United Airlines, not all organizations handle these situations well. During the storm, United's customer service capabilities broke down in several important ways. It is probably no coincidence that United has a poor reputation for customer satisfaction.

Also read: United Airlines - Chance for Redemption or More of the Usual

Here is a summary of the systems-related issues I personally encountered trying to rebook one cancelled flight on United.

Voice response routing errors. Calling for customer service only bears fruit when your problem is resolved, which requires speaking with an agent. Unfortunately, United's system made it difficult to connect. After going through the usual voice prompts, many of my calls to United were routed to the baggage department. After a lengthy hold period during one call, the baggage folks told me to call back.

Telephone infrastructure issues. After navigating United's annoying voice response system, many of my calls were simply dropped. That's bad, but the story gets worse.

During one call, the voice prompt announced it encountered a "fatal error" and then hung up. Yuck. Anyway, I tweeted it, which you can see below:

Of course, all this forced me to call United repeatedly and poor quality phone lines often made the recorded announcements unintelligible. To ensure the problems were not on my end, I called from several different phones, including a landline and voice over IP (VOIP) phone.

In one case, after waiting on hold for almost 1.5 hours and then spending 20 minutes talking with an agent, the line went flaky and we couldn't hear each other, which interrupted the transaction. At 1:00am in the morning, that really sucks.

Data consistency problems. When calling United, the company refers you to its website for faster service. However, United's various communication channels (phone, web, email) show inconsistent data.

I received voice and email notifications from United warning that my first flight to San Francisco was cancelled due to the storm. However, United's website and emails continued to indicate the flight was active, even asking me to check in online. Short of calling United and waiting on hold for an hour, customers had no way to determine either flight status or scheduling.

As you can see from the screen capture below, United's website listed me on multiple departures simultaneously. You can even see the check-in request for a cancelled flight:

One of my changed itineraries includes a segment on US Airways. Apparently, United's data confusion pushed through to US Airways; it's worth a laugh to see how the US Airways system interpreted data coming from United -- apparently, I am flying from Boston to Boston:

Poor customer service. United Airlines' call center in the Philippines suffers from poor phone lines, difficult to understand accents, and agents who do not know United's rules. Agents explained I could change the flight repeatedly, although I later found out United has a single-change policy when flights are cancelled. The wrong information put me at risk for additional charges. Not good.

Eventually, I got through to United's US-based call center in Chicago; the agent was helpful, courteous, clear, and efficient. However, she explained my flight had not actually been re-ticketed, despite all the previous calls.

Now you know why I call United the #DevilAirline.

Advice to CIO's. Use stories such as this to help your organization understand that IT investments impact the bottom line in tangible and direct ways. Backend systems affect positive or negative customer experience and drive end-user satisfaction. As CIO, it's your job to draw that link in simple and direct terms -- make sure your executive colleagues and the Board really get it.

Topics: Software Development, Browser

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  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    At least you got a flight. I had nowhere near your persistence and pluck; after the Indian call center (also poor sound quality, extremely difficult to understand) refused to reroute me to a call center where I could understand, refused to help me book what I wanted, and could not agree on what was available, I gave up and booked a flight on American. The really remarkable thing about this was how really mean they were on the phone. They seemed to enjoy giving me a hard time.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    They canceled my 6am flight from ny to la on Saturday, 18 hours before the rain and winds started to pick up. Why would they do that when other airlines were still departing until noon? Not only are their customer service and website information lacking, their corporate decisions make them lose more money than necessary and have no logic nor sense.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    You know, the issue with UA, along with the bizarre ordering snafus with the HP Touchpad firesale, doesn't speak well at all about the robustness of current, supposedly large scale online business systems.
    • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

      Use of the word "current" is interesting in speaking of UA Res. The system currently being used is from the 1970s and is very fast and very stable. It processes large transaction volumes and never falls over. But .... it is not flexible and is not customer centered. State of the art in the 70s --- but apply Moore's law for 40 years and you can imagine how out of date this system is. Think about it -- the guys who did a lot of the early coding work would go home after a hard day at the office and play PONG! Kind of gives you some perspective.
      US carriers are generally behind the rest of the world in updating this critical system.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    Continental airlines has flawed web app and absolutely no phone support. United connected me with telephone web support, which is utterly useless, keeping me on hold for 195 minutes and counting. And they have the nerve to play a promo loop extolling how great they are while I wait....
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    Our CIO just left United with his huge $M bonus for outstanding work! Just like Congress - no matter how bad the job, they get rewarded.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    The large airlines are all the same. Just had a flight cancelled for Monday at 10am by US Airways because of Irene and it had been gone for 16 hours. Was told there were not going to be any planes in PHL due to cancellations the day before. Really? PHL is a US Airways hub. Where did they put the planes? I guess they are magicians....
    • So many different answers

      Flying into PHL today (inflight atm).
      Between web, calls, airport info I was getting different info.
      At least they all agreed there would be a flight...
    • Where do planes go in hurricanes?

      @panomedia "Where did they put the planes?" According to Sunday's Arizona Republic newspaper, some of them were moved to Phoenix, US Airways' home. Seems to be standard practice in a hurricane---get the planes (and whatever passengers possible) to safety. After I was stuck in Orlando during Hurricane Charlie, I couldn't fly home until Southwest could get planes back into Orlando; they'd flown them all to other airports.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    Airlines routinely have trouble when disasters strike. I remember a similar story from JetBlue in Feb 2007 when an ice storm hit NYC. It almost destroyed them. You'd think Airlines would have figured out that their IT systems and their customer service systems should be prepared for these situations by now. It's not like these weather-related disasters are a surprise.

    We know the weather will cause more issues with airlines. It's just amazing that none of them have figured out how to properly manage customers during these crises. It's not just when hurricanes happen...any intense rain storm causes these delays and customer service is a nightmare for passengers. Certainly they have figured out how to charge us for every little thing they can find (like checking bags and seats with legroom). The question to me is why haven't their systems been upgraded to handle these crises?
    • regarding: why haven't the airlines [insert desired action here]

      @kpearlson ... why should they invest in upgrading anything? Upgrading the planes makes sense in that they can only keep a particular plane flying for so many years before it becomes untrustworthy; they need new planes to replace old ones, and new planes can have long term economic benefits such as more efficient fuel consumption (cost less to fly the same miles) and the ability to squeeze more cattle-class chairs into the airframe. These kinds of things either reduces their expenses or increases their income. However, a new shiny and expensive IT system or customer service desk simply costs them money. Regardless of how crappy their phone systems, computer systems, and customer service systems are, are you still flying? Even though customer service has been going downhill for at least a decade, millions of people still fly each and every day. There's simply no economic incentive for the airlines to invest in customer service when sheople are willing to be crammed into flying sardine cans like they are.
      Gravyboat McGee
      • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

        @Tivolier I don't agree with you when you say "There's simply no economic incentive..." The business case for fixing the IT systems is the same as upgrading planes. At some point, the systems are broken and the failures cost money. Michael Krigsman's blog documents many such examples. For the airlines, there are real dollars spent rerouting passengers, giving free tickets to those passengers on oversold planes, paying extra employees to work to handle the overloads/backlogs, recouping lost revenue due to cancelled flights, putting paid passengers on other airlines, and many more. There are soft costs to the bad publicity (and sometimes real hard dollars spent trying to fix it..witness the "United Hates Guitars" story from a couple of years ago), the organizational impacts such as stress, employee turnover, business process overload, lost business, and more.

        Yes we keep flying...but as the choices increase, those airlines with exceptional customer service (and there are a few, actually) increasingly become the airline of choice. The power 'shifts' from supplier (the airlines) to the customer (you and me). Even frequent flyers who get perks from the big guys prefer comfort and excellent customer service. They know that when disaster strikes, you better be on an airline that will take care of you instead of one that won't. There's a real cost to that, too.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    1) If you have status (Mileage Plus Premiere, 50K, 100K) use that line,
    2) Keep calling back over and over 'til you get someone who's native language is English. In the long run, saves time over speaking to someone in India or the PI.
    3) If you're in an airport, head for the customer service counter and get in line while STAYING on the phone on your cell line.
    4) Concurrent with the above, get on-line and work the web site.
    5) If you're not in an airport, head for the closest one and the ticket counter.

    Unfortunate, but true, you need to do all of the above. Biggest thing that will save your bacon is having some amount of status with UAL. If you're a prole (no status), you're dead.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    Great story of system failure during a crisis. I have been searching for some great stories of disaster recovery and business continuity from Irene....haven't found any yet!
  • The best airline customer service

    So which airline has the "best" customer service (at least, the least amount of horror stories)?
    • My opinion, yours mileage may vary

      Flying a lot across the US, Canada and the Carribean, I find that I have had the best luck with Continental - then again I am a platinum mem.
      The worst has been Delta and United.
      With the Continental merger, I am hoping the service does not change... :|
      • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

        But first ....... all the systems need to be merged and that includes RES.
  • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

    I suggested to a UAL CS rep that people can have an option of paying $4.99 to talk to someone in a US call center instead of Mumbai or elsewhere. I'd pay the money and it's another fee they could collect. UA and DL are the worst! One time I had VX cancel a flight on me and booked me on a flight 6.5 hours later (they discontinued the flight for 6 weeks) and wanted to compensate me with a free bag check. Um, I don't think so! After three letters and four phone calls, and checking at both SFO and SEA gates, I got a $250 credit for my husband and me. This was after I sent Sir Richard a letter as well. They ignored me and their contract of carriage terms and conditions. I had to send it to them highlighted! This was an act of God and the airlines ride with that!
  • Understanding the transport system

    There are several issues at play here.

    Unfortunately, the new United is a combination of one of the better "Old Line" (Continental) airlines and almost without argument one of the worst (United).

    However, no support system is built for worst case like this one - the economics don't support it. In addition, you should be happy that your reservation showed multiple departures. That means the agent put in backup trips in case you didn't make an earlier one or it was cancelled. I almost want to kiss their hand when they do that for me. No backup trip - you go to the bottom of the line unless you have FF status. As far s US Airways goes - do you really care if it is labelled going or returning or listed twice? You want to go, and that is what you are set to do.

    This was a major disruptive event, worse than almost any other previous event, full of people not following instructions, wanting to fly when the airport was shut down, and generally being stupid. Get over it.
    • RE: Hurricane Irene exposes United Airlines' system issues

      re: your first point -- The "new" United is only a combination at the business level at this point. UA and CO still operate as totally separate airlines (they have to -- they do not yet have an operating certificate for the joint carrier from the FAA) with totally separate systems.