Friday, July 10, 2009

United Airlines, Designed To Fail?

The story of singer Dave Carrol's guitar being mutilated by United Airlines has been making it's rounds all over the web. I am not much for country music, so I went to his website to read what happened.

The story is all too familiar. Few people, if anyone, at that company has any interest in helping you. They sometimes pretend to be helpful, but you later realize that they were just trying to make you go away. I am not talking about a handful of rogue employees, I am talking about the vast majority of their staff.

Read this quote from Dave's site immediately following the incident:

I immediately tried to communicate this to the flight attendant who cut me off saying: “Don’t talk to me. Talk to the lead agent outside”. I found the person she pointed to and that lady was an “acting” lead agent but refused to talk to me and disappeared into the crowd saying “I’m not the lead agent”. I spoke to a third employee at the gate and when I told her the baggage handlers were throwing expensive instruments outside she dismissed me saying “but hun, that’s why we make you sign the waiver”. I explained that I didn’t sign a waiver and that no waiver would excuse what was happening outside. She said to take it up with the ground crew in Omaha. When I got to Omaha it was around 12:30 am. The plane was late arriving and there were no employees visible.
And then again, when he tries to file a claim:

When I got home to Halifax I was told that United doesn’t really have a presence there and that Air Canada is their partner.....When I called the number United said I had to return to the Halifax airport with the guitar to show the damage to someone and open a claim. When I returned to the Halifax airport I met with an Air Canada employee, because United has no presence there, and that person acknowledged the damage, opened a claim number but “denied” the claim because Air Canada would not be responsible for damage caused by United employees in Chicago (which still makes sense to me).

I took the claim number and called United back. They never seemed to be able find the claim number on several subsequent phone calls but at the last minute it would always surface. I spoke several times to what I believe were agents in India who, ironically were the most pleasant, and seemed genuinely sorry for what had happened. Three or four months later I got directed to the Chicago baggage offices of United and after several attempts to speak with someone was told to simply bring in the guitar for inspection…to Chicago…from Halifax, Canada.

When I explained that Halifax is far from Chicago someone then said my claim needed to go through Central Baggage in New York and they gave me a toll free phone number. I phoned that number and spoke to someone. She couldn’t understand why someone in Chicago thought she would be able to help me but she seemed to feel for me and asked me to fax her all the information. I did and a few weeks passed with no reply. I called back and the lady said she’d never received the fax. Then I asked her to look for it and surprisingly, there it was. When she found it she asked me to give her a couple of days and to call back. I did, and by the time I phoned again two days later, the number had been discontinued.

I had to start all over again with the same 1-800 # to India,...

Compare this to my experience trying to get to sit next to my wife and infant child in their business class:

The agent was unable to give us seats together, but assured us the staff at the gate would be able to resolve this matter. The staff at the gate, asked us to speak with the staff on board. The staff at the entrance to the aircraft asked me to speak to the staff in the cabin. The staff in the cabin actually told us to ask around ourselves to see if anyone would switch seats with us! It was only the generosity of a fellow passenger that allowed me to sit with my wife and assist with the care of our infant child.
I can understand that humans are not perfect, and that their are unhelpful and indifferent people in any large organization.

The situation is different than that at United Airlines. Incompetence is the norm, and helpful people are a rarity.

Usually, when you encounter incompetence in front line staff, a supervisor is there to resolve the issue. Not at United.

When booking the previously mentioned flight, we had a similar experience to Dave. We ticketed the trip three months before our daughter was even born, and we were told at that time that we couldn't book the ticket until she was born and had a name, and that then we would just have to pay taxes for her. The agent said repeatedly that it would be "less than $100." When she was born and we called to have her ticketed, we were told that we would actually have to pay over $800 dollars to ticket her as a “lap child” with no seat!. United’s actual policy, contrary to what we were first told, is to charge parents of a lap child an additional %10 of the highest possible price for the seat in the class that the parents are ticket in. Needless to say, I was not happy at the fee, and for being completed misquoted.

The supervisor refused to honor their original quote, so I told him that my wife and I would make it our mission in life to ensure that the whole world knows that United screws young families traveling with infants on their lap. We promised to write every travel, parenting, and consumer affairs newspaper columnist, web site, magazine, and TV Show. The supervisor still refused to do anything.

Sound familiar? Again from Dave's web site:
In my final reply to Ms. Irlweg [supervisor] I told her that I would be writing three songs about United Airlines and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download online, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite United song. My goal: to get one million hits in one year.
In fact, I didn't go to the press, what I did was write the same threat in an email to United's entire executive staff. Within 24 hours, we received a call from a senior customer service manager who wanted to resolve the matter by charging us what they originally quoted. From the Chicago Tribune:
Rob Bradford, managing director of customer solutions at United, called Carroll Wednesday to apologize for the foul-up and to ask if the carrier could use the video internally to help change its culture.

In both my case and Dave Carroll's, problems with them can only be fixed after:

1. Going through an endless runaround

2. Generating extremely generate bad publicity, or merely threatening their management with bad publicity.

I can't say if their organization was purposely designed that way, or if it just got their through terrible management. I can say that I have concluded that I no longer have neither the time nor the patience to subject myself to United Airlines ever again.

I imagine that Dave has probably reached the same conclusion by now.

1 comment:

PeterB said...


Have you seen Irvin Leroux's video?