A REAL LIFE UNITE-MARE

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**Update: I got two calls from United Airlines today. Very curious to see how the conversation goes. Here’s the voicemail for your listening pleasure:
Listen on Posterous

We’re going to document everything… I mean EVERYTHING in this process. I got a call from Lynn Johnson. From the looks of it on other disgruntled blog posts, in terms of customer service, she’s like Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction. So here’s my voicemail to Lynn Johnson of United Airlines:
Listen on Posterous

This letter signed, sealed and sent to Jeffery Smisek, the President of United Airlines (@united). If you want the abridged version, check out my tweets at Twitter – @CaptainCaplan. Essentially, if you’re traveling, pay a few extra dollars or take an extra stop-over to avoid United Airlines. This is how a brand falls apart:

Mr. Jeffery Smisek
President
United Airlines
77 West Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL, 60601
June 3, 2011

Dear Mr. Smisek:

I have to start by saying I never do this. Just like you, my time is valuable, as I balance both a new home life and a small, steadily growing business, but I feel the need to convey my atrocious experience with United Airlines. I’m sure you’ve read Homer’s “The Odyssey” but I’ve lived it due in great part to your airline. Allow me to explain from the beginning:

I arrive at LAX on Monday, May 31st, to return home from a business trip in Southern California. The first thing I notice is the surliness of your public-facing staff. When asked if my bag would make your size requirements for carry-on, I received an empty stare and stiff upper lip. Not only does this bag contain over $300 in gifts for my friends and family at home, but it also contains several pieces of electronics equipment and a vintage collectible hat given to me by a late family member. Needless to say, this bag is both valuable and invaluable. I proceed, taking your employee’s monk-like silence as a sign that my bag will meet regulations.

I go through security. Now, everyone hates going through security, especially with TSA’s new hands-on requirements and x-ray technology. I have to say the guard that felt me up in the security line had a much sunnier disposition than any of the United Airlines employees I had encountered. That’s truly sad.

I proceed to my gate. Flight 840: leaving from LAX to Chicago at 11:55 AM with an expected arrival time of 4:25 PM. After listening to the gate attendants’ diatribe about the new United Airlines boarding policies (and even hearing him apologize for the anticipated confusion they will cause) I prepare to board with my fellow passengers in Zone 4.

Zone 4 is called, I arrive at the check stand and hand over my ticket. As I’m walking into the jet bridge, a second gate attendant stops my bag (yes, physically stops my bag) from rolling and tells me I’ll have to check the bag. Did I miss something here? The Dalai Lama at the entrance to LAX seemed to bless my carry on. How, after asking one of your employees and proceeding through security, does my bag not classify as a carry on? I calmly object to your employee, stating that I was able to carry my bag onto the last flight in the same size plane (a United Airlines plane with United Airlines staff, mind you) and I did not see any issue with this bag fitting into the overhead compartments. The response: “You need to check the bag or it’s not going with you.”

Now, I’ve read Blue Ocean Strategy, and I know they have a spotlight on Southwest Airlines finding new niches in the airline industry. Are you trying to explore the blue ocean of rude employees and a negative customer experience for higher prices? I’m serious when I ask this question. If so, your strategy may deserve a second glance.

The bag is taken by an attendant and brought down the stairs. No time to remove any of the valuable items, nor do I want to risk not being able to get on the plane because I was holding up other passengers from boarding the flight.

We’re seated, we pull back from the gate, and we stop 20 feet from the gate for no apparent reason. After ten minutes, the captain comes on: “Uh folks, we seem to have a mechanical malfunction. It will just take a few minutes for them to get the equipment we need to back up the plane, and we’ll be on our way.” By few minutes, your captain actually meant two hours. Two whole hours, 25 feet from the gate, and we probably received 2 explanations as to why we were trapped on a plane. I’ll give credit to your flight staff, they joked that we could get on our laptops or play another level of Angry Birds (so tech savvy) but levity didn’t change the fact that we were prisoners on a United Airlines flight with no real justification.

It turns out your staff was conducting an investigation because they had run over someone’s foot with the equipment. Malfunction, I think not. Negligence, without a doubt. If your flight crew and captain anticipated more than two hours of investigation, then wouldn’t it make sense to have us deboard the plane instead of me breathing in the same circulated air as 400+ passengers? Not to mention, the woman behind me was coughing up a lung and sounded as if she needed medical attention. When a passenger alerted your flight crew about this woman (for both medical and hygienic reasoning) the crewmember just said, “What do you want me to do about it?” Now, you have a woman exposing everyone to whatever it is she’s carrying, plus you have an apathetic crewmember that neglects to find this woman the care she needs. A corpse on the plane would have been the proverbial topping on this cake.

We finally deboard and are sent over to the customer service station across the terminal. United Airlines has just delayed our flight to Chicago and has cancelled an additional flight to Chicago, so I’m already staring at a sea of 75+ upset travelers (most of them tying up the lines to your call centers.) How many customer service agents do you think you had working to handle these travelers? Four? Five? No, there were two!

Two women at a row of nearly ten computer terminals! Those 75 upset travelers soon morphed into a line of over 200. Your customer service supervisor had the foresight to add on one additional service rep. Three reps to handle nearly 300 passengers, most of whom are trying to make connecting flights to get home. This is a joke. I don’t mean a Rodney Dangerfield “No Respect” one-liner, I mean a joke of a business.

The line in front of me has dwindled down to ten when passengers start boarding the plane at my gate. No announcement in the customer service area; they simply start boarding. People start running back to the gate as their spots in line are swallowed up. Someone holds my spot while I run over to the gate to speak to your “Service Director.”

Me: “Excuse me, sir. I have a question about my luggage.”

United Airlines Service Director: “Yeah, in a minute. (Yelling) Is there anyone else that’s supposed to be on flight 840?”

Me: “I’m on Flight 840. That’s why I asked for your assistance.”

United Airlines Service Director: “What is it?”

Me: “My bag was checked at the gate for some reason. I need to know how I’m going to get my bag to Boston.”

United Airlines Service Director: “You’re not going to make any flight out of Chicago. Get back in the customer service line.”

Jeff (and I feel you know me well enough that I can call you Jeff now) does that sound like service to you? Forget service, does that sound like an answer to my question? So now, I have no bag, no way of knowing where it’s going to end up, and a service director who doesn’t know the first thing about service. Throw me a bone!

I get back in line. You’ll be happy to know that we’ve now graduated to four service reps with a line of about 100 people still waiting. There are now only eight people in front of me (that’s efficient turnover.) I finally get up to the service rep, show my boarding pass and license and ask (1) how I’ll get to Boston and (2) how I’ll get my bag. I’m immediately told that I’m already on the flight to Chicago…? What’s scary is that your service rep believed I was actually on the flight to Chicago for a minute. She defied all logic and her sense of sight and decided that I must be a doppleganger or optical illusion. It’s one thing to experience a service director with no concept of service but to be told that I’m, in essence, lying about my identity and location is ridiculous. After the gentleman next to me vouches for my corporeal existence, your service rep finds me a flight on US Airways out of terminal 3, across the LAX airport. She puts me on a flight to Las Vegas with a connecting RED EYE to Boston. I won’t be arriving in Boston until nearly 7 am, meaning United Airlines has made me miss an entire day of work and really just life in general. Still no answer to my persistent luggage question.

I ask the service rep for a meal voucher, as United Airlines is causing me to literally stay overnight and keeping me in an airport for over 24 hours (think Tom Hanks in “The Terminal”) She says only the supervisor can provide meal vouchers, but she’s not available. Jeff – your customer service supervisor wasn’t even out there to deal with nearly 300 passengers? Not to mention, I have to run across LAX to catch my flight to Las Vegas, and I’m being told I have to wait for an absentee supervisor who has never shown her face to the public. This is where I begin to get upset.

After waiting for 10 minutes, the supervisor doesn’t show up, and I run across the airport to check in with US Airways. Now, I’m exhausted, flabbergasted and utterly confused as to how I’ll eventually get my luggage.

US Airways performs its job without a hitch: great customer service, friendly staff, on-time departure and arrival in Boston. It almost felt like this was just one giant nightmare. That is until I arrived at Logan International Airport and visited your well-trained, friendly staff at the United Airlines Baggage Services in Terminal C.

I met a man named Mr. Sparrow. After standing in front of the desk for a good five minutes, Mr. Sparrow finally addressed me and asked what I needed. Not “How may I help you?” or “Is there something I can assist with;” a literal “What do you need?” The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Sparrow: What do you need?

Me: Here is my baggage confirmation number (9016 UA 907622). I was originally on a United Airlines flight out of Los Angeles through Chicago, and my bag was checked at the gate, but I was eventually re-routed through Las Vegas on a US Airways flight. I’m wondering how to get my bag?

Mr. Sparrow: You need to go to US Airways.

Me: I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Your company checked my bag. This is a United Airlines baggage confirmation number. Why would I go to US Airways?

Mr. Sparrow: You need to forget everything you just said. You need to go file a claim with US Airways for your bag.

Me: I’m sorry, but I’m not following you. How can I file a claim with US Airways when I have a bag on your flight? And why would I, if United Airlines has my bag?

Mr. Sparrow: You don’t get it. Do you travel often?

Me: Sir, now you’re patronizing me, and I really don’t appreciate you being rude. I’m not understanding this process, and I really just want to get my bag.

Mr. Sparrow: (Finally explains process)

Me: You could have saved us both some time and attitude if you had explained that in the first place.

Mr. Sparrow: (raising his voice) I did! You didn’t listen!

Me: You didn’t. You just shooed me away. I don’t appreciate your attitude or your patronizing tone.

Mr. Sparrow: You wanna talk to someone big man? What are you trying to say?

Me: (censored for professionalism)

Jeff, your baggage guy was going to start a fight with me. Remember the name Sparrow because he should be fired! Your last line of defense was probably the most pompous, rude United Airlines employee with which I dealt. Not only was he little to no help, he spoke to me as though I were a mentally handicapped foreigner. I’m surprised he didn’t start signing.

So, here I sit, still no bag, awaiting a call from US Airways (for whatever reason) and I can assure you wholeheartedly that I will never travel on your airline again. Moreover, all of my friends and family will know about the horrible experience I’ve had with United Airlines, and we all know how word travels fast nowadays.

In an age where every customer counts and reputation is king, there’s a reason why people are opting to pay a little more for JetBlue or Southwest. I know I will.

Best Regards,

Bryan J Caplan
bjc@bjcbranding.com
@captaincaplan
(910) 227-9227

 
Jake Burns