Customer service done right: How a United Airlines crew rose above an imperfect storm

This was the imperfect storm of events when it comes to United Airlines. You won't believe it when you read it, but I swear it was true. But great customer service can beat any problem.
Written by Paul Greenberg on
(Image: United Airlines)

I just experienced the weirdest problem chain I ever encountered flying, and I thought it would be important to document it for all history because it was so bizarre and indicative of... something that I can't even put my head around.

It all begins when we have already boarded the plane. My wife and I had a really nice surprise in that we ran into Bill Patterson, the SVP and GM for Salesforce's Service Cloud and, more importantly, a dear friend. We sat near him.

We were blabbing away when suddenly Bill laughed and said he had a gate change notice for the plane, even though everyone had completely boarded the plane. He was told we were being moved from Gate 65 to Gate 63 at SFO. Ah, a glitch in the app. Something to note. Nothing to actually do, though. Then, one of the other passengers mentioned the same thing.

Obviously, this was a mistake, right? I mean, we all had boarded already, and they were preparing the plane for takeoff. Doors shut. Engines idling.

Or was it?

It wasn't.


There was a problem that had triggered the notification. We had an issue. An issue of...

Toilet Security

Yes, toilet security. The first-class toilet handle had broken, and this created a possible security breach and that was why we had to change planes. How, I thought, does a broken toilet handle create a security breach? Poison gas escaping through the open door? Evil creatures coming from the bowl and becoming uncontainable? No way of keeping the Mile-High Club private? I could also go into dozens of scatological jokes, but in the interests of what remains a vestige of good taste for this post, I won't.

Turns out that the toilet handle being broken meant that the pilots couldn't use that one and thus would have to walk to another restroom more than a few feet away and that would expose them to danger. Understandable. Thus, the only apparent solution was that we all might have to deplane and then move to another plane at an adjacent gate due to the toilet security issue.

A few tense minutes passed. Would we have to move? Would we be able to stay? What is the nature of the universe? All this needed to be answered in the next minute or two or we would start to be very late in taking off. Except the last one, of course.

Ahh, we could stay, we were told. Even though the handle remained broken and the toilet unusable, it was no longer a security issue and we could get ready to go home. I had to presume that the heroic pilots bravely agreed to hold it the entire 5.5-hour trip home.

We were on our way... or were we?

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Alt_Out of Control_Delete

We were not. After getting ready to go (no toilet security pun intended), we were told that, in fact, due to the now mythical gate change, the passenger manifest was deleted after it was transferred over to the other gate. So, we now had to deplane and re-board once they reloaded the now-deleted passenger list. They did, and we did. Off the plane and back on.

Passengers seated. Seatbelts on. Seats upright. Getting ready for the video...


Fuel vampires

Apparently, while we were waiting, 1,000 pounds of fuel was ingested by what I can only imagine were fuel vampires. I mean, how else, would 1,000 pounds of fuel, which, one must presume, was there when they had originally intended to take off, disappear? It couldn't be that they were unaware that they were a half ton short of fuel. Not possible, right? I mean, who makes that mistake? So, clearly, there was an attack by fuel vampires on the fuel tanks and they drank 1,000 pounds of the fuel and then departed to turn human beings into gas pumps.

But, eventually, that got solved and we were set. Toilet door handle secured, passengers no longer deleted, fuel full up, seat belts on, safety video watched, seats upright, tray tables stowed, ready to push back to go to the runway and...

When Push Comes to... Oh, Wait, There's No Push!

There was no one to push the plane away from the gate. They had to call "the company" -- I presume Plane Pushers Intl. -- to send some folks to get us pushed from the gate. I was amazed that this saga was still going and was as ridiculous as it was when it started. How could it be? But then I got to thinking: How strong are these plane pushers? Are they like the truck pullers that you see in state fairs pulling trucks with their teeth? Do they push the plane with their bare hands or wear glove? Are truck pullers in a different union than plane pushers? Let's face it. I had a lot of time on my hands.

Finally, the plane pushers came and, I imagine, pushed the plane from the gate and we were on our way. I was worried that something would happen in flight -- maybe an Amazon drone would buzz the plane around its wings and force it to land early and somewhere else. Why not?

Oddly, though, this story stands on its own, there is actually a customer service lesson to be had in this unique confluence of either incompetence or just plain bad luck with United.

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Hooray, Huzzah, Hoo-ah, Hallelujah for the Flight Crew!

Throughout this insanely weird confluence of events, the flight crew -- the captain, the purser, and the flight attendants all were helpful, funny, cheerful, friendly, sympathetic, and attentive and made what could have been a classic "United sucks" event into a "this is so ridiculous that its actually funny so let's keep our good nature and wits about us" event.

They made sure that all passengers were taken care of throughout this imperfect storm and the captain never wavered for a second in making sure that we had all the information we needed and were always apprised of what was going on. Due to this approach, which was both professionally perfect and personally friendly, I can't recall a single customer that got out of hand or grumbled. Most of the time, we all just cheerfully accepted our fate, appreciated the absurdity (along with the crew) and continued on as if there had been no problem whatever, even though we were ultimately delayed a couple of hours. The one scary feature of this entire "thing" was that a half ton of fuel was missing. That one -- because of the way the flight crew handled it and that it was one of four weird things -- was lost in the ether a bit. But, I have to wonder: How do you miss a thousand pounds of fuel?

That said, the lesson here is that no matter the weirdness and the inconvenience, a well-trained, intelligent, and friendly group of people in service trumps the problem every time (of course, I mean in the old sense of the word "trump"). They can't eliminate the problem, but they can reduce the stress around it and that's all you can ask once the problem arises.

When was the last time a company surprised you with an excellent customer service response? Tell us in the comments section below.

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