Friday, 29 April 2011

21. United Airlines and their biggest enemy. The customer.

United Airlines Departure Board

United Airlines desk at Lansing

I have been less than impressed, to put it mildly, with the quality of service I have experienced during ‘Around the World in 60 Days’ at the hands of the staff of United Airlines. Having travelled in Business/First on six Star Alliance carriers since the first day of March, United is unique in their ability to screw up almost everything they touch.
Forgive me if I don’t go back into the details. To be frank, just thinking about their attitude to customers makes my blood boil.
In my forty years of globetrotting, I have never before experienced such a collective group of people who seem to thrive on being rude, uncaring and unhelpful. They seem to have such a hostile attitude; it astounds me that many of them are actually in a job at all.
But should we blame the unions, bad management or poor training?
No, the finger must point at the individuals who seem, universally, to have the attitude that the world owes them a living. We, the customer who pays their wages, are seen largely as an inconvenience to their cosy way of life.
The trouble is that the world is changing and they – and their airline – have been very slow to embrace the new way of life.
I find it difficult to believe that a company which relies almost totally upon the delivery of a quality travel experience can be so completely unable to provide it. The attitude I have experienced seems to be endemic, part of the culture. Indeed, it seems the ‘United scowl’, is almost a badge of honour to be worn with pride by the vast majority of their staff. A natural smile is rarely, if ever, seen in the world that is United Airlines.
What seems to me to be a huge issue is not just their total lack of concern when they get something wrong, it’s their absolute inability to communicate in any meaningful fashion. The printed word appears alien to them - they appear unable –or probably can’t be bothered – even to read notes in bookings.
Certainly any sense of contrition is totally absent. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.
It’s sad to report that, when you recount your experiences with United to business and professional contacts in the USA, they just give you a knowing look and act totally unsurprised. Which perhaps indicates that their customers have either not complained enough or that United Customer Service are so good at stonewalling complaints that most folk just give up in frustration.
The quality and consistency of information given out by their staff is truly dreadful. Ask three people to confirm your baggage allowances and you get four different answers. That’s just in the US. When you are connected to their call centre in the Philippines, they often seem unable correctly to answer even one.
At Lansing Airport, Michigan, I waited for over forty minutes in a long queue of just me, for a member of their staff to appear from the back office to report my lost bags. This being in response to their PA announcement when the carousel stopped turning that ‘they would be there momentarily’.
I was there to report that neither of my bags had arrived on my 30-minute flight across Lake Michigan from Chicago. One of the bags on the route got lost last year but, as always, I pack to cope with such eventualities. When two go missing, the plans go awry.
I accept that bags do, occasionally, go astray. But I find it unforgiveable that nobody can be bothered to tell you that they have been found and the onus is on you to do the chasing.
Shockingly, United only contacted me after I had gone to their PR people in frustration. In the end, I collected my bags from the airport myself, having been told that they might not be delivered until 5.30pm, some 18 hours after they had actually arrived at their original destination.
As for compensation, don’t ask Kevin at United in Lansing, who says the airline won’t pay you anything ‘until 24 hours has elapsed’.
That is of course totally incorrect. United, like other US airlines, has had to toe the Department of Transportation line that ‘all reasonable expenses’ should be reimbursed.
At Lansing, the bell that used to summons United staff has been disconnected, their phone rings without being forwarded to anyone who can render any form of aid. They seem to be strong supporters of a United philosophy of making themselves almost impossible to contact.
On United Airlines flights, their President and CEO, Jeff Smizec, smilingly greets you, promising ‘great customer service’. What I have experienced is quite the reverse. Far from smiling, the top man should be grim-faced as he clears out an awful lot of folk who should have no future in his airline.
Mr. Smizec, who has economics and law degrees from Princeton and Harvard, is clearly bright and has been credited with achieving great results during his 15 years at Continental.
But will his mountainous task trying to change the frosty-faced culture at United be his ultimate undoing?