My Transatlantic Steed at SFO
Image by xrrr via Flickr

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I read one of the most shocking emails I’ve come across in the recent past concerning airline staffs’ adherence to rules. This was a story published on The Consumerist a couple of hours back. In this case, Mike was trying to rush his girlfriend to Portland, Oregon, from San Francisco, on United Airlines, so that she could be at her dying mother’s bedside. But they missed the flight because “it was time for [the ticketing agent] to go on her break.”

Is company policy more important than life?

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I know employees at United Airlines are unionized, and they have strict guidelines as to when they can work and when they need to take a break. But I wonder why this agent couldn’t issue the tickets, which took two minutes, as opposed to arguing with Mike for ten minutes justifying her break.

It’s the brand execution that matters

I’ve written about United Airlines eliminating their only call center, I’ve written about their hidden fees for frequent fliers, but nothing hurts the brand than an off-balance brand execution. They can preach all they want about “flying the friendly skies”, but if they can’t live up to their promises, then they’re going to turn off their most loyal customers.

Once again, I can’t help but bring up the fact that an airline brand is what it does, not what it says it does. Here, I re-produce the letter that Mike sent to Glen Tilton (United’s CEO), which he CCed to The consumerist. You be the judge.

Dear Mr. Tilton:

When the employees of large companies discard compassion, respect, and common human decency and instead place their own interests in front of those they are chartered to serve, then they are no longer deserving of the public’s trust.

On February 19th, I received a phone call from my girlfriend’s father indicating that her mother was close to death, and that-if at all possible-I should try and get his daughter to Portland, Oregon as quickly as I could.

I immediately left my office and began making arrangements to leave San Francisco for Portland, including calling the United Premier Reservation line on my way home to book a flight. The gentleman on the line provided me with a reservation number, informed me that I could pick up my tickets at the counter, and wished me the best of luck as the timing would be tight. On our way to the airport, I commented to my girlfriend that our ability to catch the 7:50 flight “would depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Little did I know that the only unkind strangers I would encounter would all be wearing United blue.

We arrived at the airport at 7:20, but with very short ticket and security lines I felt that we had a decent chance of making the gate before the doors were closed. I explained to those customers waiting in line that we had a family emergency, and each agreed to let us move to the front.

The first agent to help me indicated that he could not ticket any passengers, and referred me to a different agent at the end of the counter. I approached this new agent, provided her with my record locator number and explained my emergency. I also asked her if there was any way she could contact the gate agent to let them know we were on our way, and perhaps keep the door open a few minutes longer if we were delayed at security.

To my utter amazement, your agent handed me back my record locator number, looked me straight in the eye, and informed me that she couldn’t ticket me because “it was time for her to go on her break.” I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly, so I repeated the nature of our emergency. Again, your agent informed me that it was time for her break, “she had no choice,” and that if I had a problem with it, I could talk to her supervisor.

I was absolutely horrified. The only person at the United counter who had the ability to ticket passengers felt that it was more important to go grab a soda than to give me a decent chance at making a flight to be with a dying relative.

I argued with this woman for a good 10 minutes, growing increasingly agitated. Even those passengers who had let me move to the front of the line voiced their objections. She did nothing to assist me, choosing instead to continue to quote company policy. Why she didn’t just leave to go on her break is beyond me. Before she finally left, she placed a call to her supervisor and said, in a very sarcastic tone, that there was a customer at the counter “whose mother is sick and dying and who wants to hold a flight and speak with a supervisor.” She refused to provide me with her name or employee number.

By the time I was able to find somebody new to help me, it was clear that I would no longer be able to make the 7:50 PM flight. I asked the new ticketing agent if there was any way that he could contact the gate to let them know we were on our way, but he said it was impossible. He booked us on the 10:30 flight.

Upon receiving our tickets, we ran to the security line and quickly made our way to the gate to see if there was still hope of making the 7:50 flight. The plane was still there, but the door was closed and your gate agent was turning other passengers away (including those who had arrived late on a connecting flight). I explained our ordeal to the gate agent, who simply provided me with some “United-style” sympathy: not only could he not re-open the gate, but he told me that he could understand the behavior of the ticketing agent because “management really makes us work some unreasonable schedules.”

A perfect keystone ending to the most imperfect, flawed, and horrifying customer experience I have ever had in my life.

I realize that we can’t legislate good customer service, and I suspect that no regulations were violated in this noble attempt by your staff to have us “fly the friendly skies.” However, given the animosity that your employees seem to have for their management as well as their passengers, I hardly have faith in their ability to serve the public interest in other matters, including those involving passenger safety.

My girlfriend’s mother passed away at 2:50 AM, shortly after we arrived in Portland. We will, of course, never know what we might have been able to share with her in the two and a half hours we burned sitting at a gate at SFO.

I certainly hope your agent’s break was worth that price.

So, what do you think? Is there anything this agent could have done differently to improve the situation for Mike? Don’t you agree that brand delivery is most crucial in building loyalty?

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

CEO at SimpliFlying
Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco.

Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others.

Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
Shashank Nigam
  • http://www.thingsinthesky.com Dan Webb

    That’s just completely obnoxious. Situations like these are why I love the Consumerist so much, as it gives customers a new method to engage the company when it doesn’t want to listen to customers.

    United has a problem with providing effective service, and I think management can shoulder much of the blame for it. The unions have latched on to Tilton as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with United, and I think the sooner he goes the better.

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @Dan: Couldn’t agree with you more. I think the sooner executives (and staff) realize that it’s the customers that pay their salary, the better it is for the airlines. If they don’t deliver on the brand promise, consumers will switch at the earliest opportunity!

  • KD Larsen

    Something is not right with this story.

    SFO is a United hub – are you telling me that at 7.20 pm, they only have one single ticketing agent available?

    I’d love to hear the other side of the story, but I think the lawyers will want to settle this incident and not further inflame it by commenting on it.

  • Frank

    While this is a terrible circumstance, if I am reading this correctly this womens mother had been sick for sometime. It would of been wise to travel sooner rather then later and enjoy the time left with her mother. Although that is my personal opinion, the problem with air travel today is the passengers themselves have also lost all human respect. I have been a Flight Attendant for 10 years working for a major airline. I never in my life thought I would see, hear, and experience the things that I have while working in the skies.

    Often someone dying is used as an excuse to push ahead, to make the flight they should of been waiting for at the gate already. While I am not saying this couple was doing just that, you become a different person after sometime. I have heard this said over and over, get a new job, move on, but the problem is where ever you go, these types of people will follow. I guess what I am trying to say is you sometimes become a robot and don’t believe what people say. You go through the motions of your job, all while being heckled, lied to, spit at (has happened to me), stolen from, tripped, treated like trash.

    Eventually when the one or two people who board a plane or enter the airport, that still act human and have a real problem. It becomes impossible to either believe them or you do believe them but you are on the brink of losing your job because you broke a big no,no, rule. It seems this was what actually happened, if infact this did happen. I find it hard to believe that UAL who has a base at SFO, would have 2 agent’s running the show at 7:30pm…..

  • http://www.brightsideofnews.com Theo Valich

    To all the a.netters and other readers, if I hear a single claim that “SFO is UA’s hub, impossible”, “7:20PM – can’t happen”…. go and get a life. Seriously. Or better… go to SFO, to UA’s domestic ticket counters at 7:00PM and wait. Yes, wait.

    As UA’s Premier and LH’s Senator member, I avoid flying between 7 and 8PM because UA’s local counter (not int’l) turns into ghost town, usually with several dozen people waiting in the line. And no, you cannot use international ticketing, I was told to “go away” – absolutely wonderful attitude to a PE member. I did not require a free upgrade or anything like that, I was barely trying to make a flight. You’ll find me to be a no-nonsense customer, just a soul that travels 200K+ miles a year and really did “see it all”. This comment is also not about good things UA does, but about crap things UA can avoid and fails to do so.

    I had that unfortunate situation of flying at the same time as this couple at different days and months (flights to LAX, PDX, ORD) and by accident, I had to wait on average 50min. Two times, I missed the flight [8:20PM] to LAX, for a perfectly avoidable situation. Yes, it is my fault that I showed up at the airport with e-mailed reservation 90min before flight’s departure, but still – I made those flights in 9/10 cases on average.

    UA, if you have a large number of people arriving from international flights between 5 and 7PM, it would be pretty good if you could have your ticket counters ready to assist people, not to have TWO people, with one going on a break. Again, to people who say it’s impossible, on one ocassion, there were NOBODY at the ticket stand and the line was…well, long. No separate line for premier member is also “a darling”.

    But what do you get with a disgrace that is – domestic ticket counter at SFO? You have those connecting travelers arriving at their destinations past midnight – stayin’ in for the night. If you miss a transcon [the latter never happened to me, but did to some people I had the “privilege” of waiting for – one 1K member traveled HKG-SFO-JFK, family flew NRT-SFO-IAD – heavily delayed flights, btw.]. If UA agent or a fan wants to contact me and claim that my claims are ridiculous, I can provide the flight dates/numbers.

    Bottom line to my comment is – NHF to anyone, but there are serious mistakes made in UA’s SOP. The company constantly cut service to the point where the company is bleeding revenue because a) it has to compensate to people who missed the flights b) customers that can’t buy tickets.

  • Eddie

    By arriving at the airport 30 minutes before departure and without a boarding pass, this guy had a very slim chance of even being granted access to the 7:50 flight. Airlines here in the U.S. state that one should be at the gate no later than 30 minutes before departure with a boarding pass so they don’t lose their seats. It should also be noted that once a gate closes, that flight is ready to leave regardless of who is left behind and the urgency for them to be on board. As urgent as it may for the stranded passengers to get on, it is equally important that everyone else ALREADY on board be given fair treatment for having gotten on to leave as close to the listed departure time as possible. It is not as easy as simply opening the door and letting in a few people. You inconvenience the captain who must recalculate weight, balance and fuel, the flight attendants need to double-check their count in the midst of securing the cabin for takeoff, and air traffic control needs to slot you in to ground movement for the other aircraft (especially at a major airport like SFO). Weigh the options: 150 on-time passengers vs. 150 late passengers plus the three who made the flight late.

    Passengers are the source of an airline employee’s salary but the fare they purchase puts them under a series of policies and regulations which they should adhere to. Just because you fork over cash it does not entitle you or your ego to a seat without following the rules like everyone else. As sad as this story is, the gate agent should not be blamed for anything. As for the ticketing agent, attitude aside, she probably would have placed him on the later flight anyways just because he showed up at crunch time for the 7:50 flight. Show up early and follow the rules like everyone else and flying won’t be as bad as the hassle many make it out to be.

  • Stephen

    Although the ticketing agent appears to have a problem when reading this story, it would be good to hear from the other side. I’ve flown United for 25 years now as my first choice airline and, unfortunately I have seen many passengers in a hurry ‘because of an emergency’ and expecting special treatment only to board the plane and laugh/snicker amongst themselves that they pulled one over United. These immature antics destroy the process for those who truly have an emergency, helping to make the airlines and their other passengers become emotionally detached in these situations.

    With 30 minutes left to catch a flight, as mentioned in another post the chances of these passangers making the plane were slim to none to begin with. And to expect the plane to wait extra time at the gate for them was absurd. They are lucky that there was another flight out that evening to Portland which had seats available.

    Yes it’s sad that this person did not make it in time to see their mother before passing. A lesson for everyone out there who may soon face a similar situation. Visit NOW while you can still share a touching moment and don’t blame the airlines/taxis/traffic/weather for your missed opportunities

  • http://airnewzealand.flightoffers.org/ Flight Offers UK

    That is a horrifying story and I’ll certainly avoid flying United Airlines in future after seeing them treat you like that.

    Unfortunately this kind of customer ‘service’ is all too typical because there are too many people in cushy jobs in countries such as the USA and UK. They don’t give a damn about their jobs and just want to have an easy life for themselves.

  • Andy

    Precisely – 30 minutes is the cutoff time, no matter what. Why? Baggage takes a finite amount of time to be loaded, and, more importantly, the pilots need to make weight and balance calculations, paperwork finalised, etc etc in order to make an on-time departure. These people think they were the only people in the world that needed to get somewhere in a hurry? Enough so to delay hundreds of people and most likely cause thousands of dollars of cost in delays, etc etc? I sympathise with the unfortunate circumstances, but the whole world doesn’t stop for one person. This wasn’t an issue of “customer service” – this was an attempt at violation of contract, at the customer’s end. End of story.

  • Ken

    Completely absurd. Anyone here who defends this joke of an airline employee (or airline for that matter) has lost all sense of human decency. A half hour early is plenty of time if one wasn’t being searched for shampoo bottles by the 15 federal employees standing around looking at each other. If the check-in and boarding process had but a modicum of efficiency, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. I travel about 100K miles a year (2-3 times a month) all over the US and Canada. I hate it worse everyday.

    My favorite story while not as life threatening as this one–About six months ago, I was charged to check a bag. When it wasn’t delivered, I wanted my money back. I send letters, make them send me letters, talk to people, and complain about it everytime I check in. I just want to see how long it really will take me and how many people and excuses I encounter while doing it. So far, I am up to about six people at USAir who have dealt with this $15 “issue”. My last letter was 2.5 pages long from USAir. Now you wonder why they are losing money? Makes as much sense as charging more to fly direct than to fly multiple hops……

  • Ron Kuhlmann

    I’d like to thank Eddie for reminding us all that there is no situation that cannot by justified by quoting policy ad naseum The concept of service is not to make certain that the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed, though that is important, but rather to be of real assistance to customers. Perhaps the flight would have been missed anyway but I would suggest that if there had been a genuine effort at any point along the way, the letter might have been one of appreciation rather than scorn. The last sentence was especially interesting in that I wonder exactly how the rules are determined when your parent is dying? I don’t think I want Eddie at my gate–ever.

    The question I have is why they needed at ticket at all. Why was an eticket not issued? The phone agent could have sent a message to the airport alerting the staff that this passenger was coming and asking for some special attention. The underlying problem is that the airline–and not just United–no longer works as a service culture but rather has become a sequence of disconnected events with each service provider working only within the scope of their own duties. A culture of rudeness and and self-interest starts at the top and moves down. Unless and until the labor/management mess is corrected at many airlines, the dissatisfied employees will continue to make customers aware of just how angry they are.

  • Paul

    I just hate all the airlines in the U.S.A, coz of their unfriendlynes, being extremely rude, and they have taken the upper hand after 9/11. These U.S airline amployees are so uneducated, don’t understand the human value. Thats is why they are going bankcrupt or lay offs.

  • http://thesimulacrum.blogspot.com Preetham V V

    Something’s wrong with the world today… where’s the love we need to share… where’s the hope, we need to care…

    This is the immediate song that came to my mind reading the post and the comments…

    As a society It seems like we have gotten too busy drawing up so many boundaries and rules around us that it has become complicated to carry a sense of innate judgement or character strength that can help us care and share…

    We need help… Divine help :)

  • Katie

    Exactly how does one “follow the rules like everyone else” in this kind of situation? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but human beings live messy lives in which beloved mothers die without adequate consideration for airline schedule rules and regulations. It is in those situations that your humanity and the brand of your airline is cemented. If your employees can’t be flexible enough to spend 5 minutes issuing a ticket (and why on earth did these people need to get a ticket? Why couldn’t they print out a boarding pass from home? That looks like another of United’s problems) rather than 10 minutes arguing about the ticket. But as others have noticed, there’s a cascade effect. Once there’d been the problem getting the ticket issued, they were late and others relied on the plane taking off, and presumably the plane had its takeoff position and if they hadn’t then other flights would have been delayed and ATC would have hated them…but the central point is IF THE AGENT HAD TAKEN THE 2 MINUTES NONE OF THAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED and United now has 2 passengers and a family who will move heaven and earth in the future to make sure no one they know ever flies United again. And they could have had vociferous advocates. Oops.

  • http://tamerlin.blogspot.com Rakesh

    When my mother and my sister and I went to the airport to catch a flight to Florida from DC on Christmas 2004, we found United’s service to be the worst I’ve ever encountered. It was beyond deplorable; their systems had crashed, so all of their flights were canceled, and they were leaving people stranded without any sort of help (or place to stay) while awaiting their next flight. It took us two hours to find out when we were re-scheduled to fly out (the following day — fortunately, I lived close by, so we had a place to stay, but quite a few folks were there for connecting flights, and stranded). One person was trying to get her bag so that she could go catch her flight, but the staff refused to open the door and get it for her. One actually threatened to call the police on my mother (I told her that she should have forced the issue, since the agent was the one in error, and were paying customers trying to find out what was going on, just like everyone else in line… and the agent was giving her lip).

    Needless to say, this and a few other experiences with United convinced me to avoid flying United period. I invariably warn people away from United as well, and in fact whenever possible I choose Austrian, Lufthansa, British, JAL, and even Ukrainian (their planes aren’t as nice, but their service is friendly and they’re reliable).

    However bad the “major” American airlines are however, there are some good ones, like Virgin America and JetBlue.

  • Eddie

    Ron, I know if I were late to the gate, I wouldn’t fight for the door to be opened whether my mom was dying or it was going to be the end of the world like it was my RIGHT to be on board. The problem today is people forget that when they purchase a ticket, it’s their PRIVILEGE to be on board and not a RIGHT. It just is not fair to everyone else already on who are underway to leaving. Even if that jet is still attached to the gate but the doors are closed, it’s already considered departed. Yes, there’s a human aspect that customer service needs but as soon as you let one person slide, you’re going to get more people wanting the same. If they turned back all those people but let Mike on, that would cause ire with the people who got turned back. Even if they’re just travelling for leisure or for business, they would be pissed that the agent gave this couple the chance to board while everyone was turned back. That would only make the flight delayed as now they need to get everyone else demanding to be on to get on or that agent would have to take the flak for those two and that, in turn, could make him/her turn nasty towards the next group of people they have to deal with. I’m assuming that because some people purchase a ticket, everything else in the system is supposed to work for them and understand their needs. There has to be balance. You need to get to point B but you need to work with the airline because in the end, they’ll get you there somehow.

    Don’t get me wrong, though. If I were that agent and I HAD the authority to open that door, I probably would. Most agents aren’t permitted to open the door and by the time the doors close, the captain is pretty much in control. Plus, for most airlines, duty time begins the second the door closes so the crew is only then starting to earn their pay. The sooner the crew starts duty, the better they are so they don’t violate their duty hours. It’s even worse if the crew goes over versus the gate agent.

    Yes, airlines need to have some human aspect when dealing with customers but at the same time, customers need to understand the concept of flying as a privilege and not a right. Money or not, you’re not the only one on board who wants or needs to get to point B.

  • http://www.clientsong.com Christopher Frawley

    If an airline, or company in general, has been around long enough, you’ll find both heroic and horrific stories. This one indicates a serious breakdown in the culture / mindset of the place (and it might just be the microcosm of that airport / shift).

    Last fall, when I found out that my wife had died suddenly, the United counter agents were absolutely heroic in getting me to the last departing airplane of the day home to be with my kids. This was within an impossibly short time window – they helped to expedite me to the front of the security line. All this with no status as a United (loyalty) flyer.

    Sure, taking one boneheaded incident as an example company gone mad brand damage is easy pickens. Figuring out the consistency of process and culture over a large number of transactions (customer experiences/touchpoints) is much harder. But that’s where the truth of the brand lives.

    Can they improve delivery, of course. I’d start with figuring out where they are starting from.

  • http://airliners.net Bryan

    It seems the whole crux of the story has been lost here, as some people seem more interested in defending the airline than just saying, ya know, yes, many passengers abuse the rules, and many abuse airline employees, but even if 9 out of 10 passengers are pulling a fast one, their is the one that is not, and for all the other failures, wouldn’t if give one a special feeling inside to know by helping a family in a desperate race against time, you have helped ease the pain for them just a little by doing just a little extra?

  • Siddhartha Ambekar

    Hi , i dont say its impossible , however ,its hard to digest this , ..trust me , I have been closely associated with Airline and in my tenure , hardly had come across with issues like this where pax is denied of services due to breaks .

    Infact , at times , to get that attention & immediate service , where as other pax are in the Q , some pax do make such comments , however , no customer service agent would go beyond humanity at any cost and prefer going to break rather helping the much deserved passenger’s dying relative .

    In the event of such occurance , the staff should be reprimanded and should be given back office job where he/she is not facing customers directly , also need to makje them realise and understand if the job is important to THEM or not ? It is been observed , lot of people get into Airline just for the sake of geeting in , seldom they realise , for some it is bread & butter like any other job .

    cheers !! The staff needs training on humanity factor !!!

  • Sovonne Ukam

    I too have experienced 2 of the WORST flights in my years of travel with United.
    Most recently in October 2008 to Hawaii and in 1996 at O’Hare. And as an 18year veteran in the industry starting with Eastern Airlines in 1985 – ending my career in travel 2003 – I KNOW United has gone completely to the dogs. I can expect better service from a one legged man living in a valley where the norm is to have three legs!

    With Hawaii it was seat assignments … Departing ORD United treated travelers like they were herding cattle! So prevent problems on my return I monitored seating via their website; acquired perfect seating
    from HNL to SFO, only to find when I checked seating SFO to PHL that my seats had been changed!
    And after screaming with a Customer Service Lead at a call center in India for 2 hrs over – I still accomplished nothing! My seating was horrible and that made the trip horrible!

    In 1996 I worked in the Travel Industry for Rosenbluth, I used my CC to pay for an agent rate to fly SFO to PHL for a quick weekend trip, and was told by the agent in ORD that they needed security to
    search my carry on bag! For what? You tell me! The guard did not take me into a backroom, he literally
    went through my bag, pulling out everything – right in the gate waiting area as others watched!

    My Hawaii trip reconfirmed why I stopped flying United Airlines! And I vow never to fly them again!
    I will pay extra – arrive later – change my perspective cities of departure and arrival – refuse FREE travel … whatever it take to stay off that carrier! And I employ others to do the same!

  • Steven Frischling

    Shashank,

    The issue that these flyers was facing is not branding, it is a deeply entrenched corporate culture that needs to be changed from the top down. This corporate culture is more prevalent in Legacy Carriers than LCCs or those newer to the playing the field. Unions do have regulations, however Unions do not prevent their members from exersizing human compassion or judgement.

    These passengers in a time of crisis chose to fly with United Airlines, not Southwest (out of OAK) or Alaska Airlines…they chose to ‘Fly The Friendly Skies’ and this is how they were repaid for their patronage during their time of personal crisis.

    As legacy carriers continue to compete for their space among carriers in a declining market they need to not only focus on branding, but adopt the concept that “Passenger Experience Is Everything.” Branding gets passengers to choose an airline, but once ‘in the door’ it is the passenger experience that keeps passengers loyal.

    There is a reason a Alaska Airlines, who flies non-stop between SFO-PDX at similar times to United Airlines, has received JD Powers awards for customer satisfaction and 17 Freddie Awards since 2001 and United Airlines has not. Alaska’s front line agents are empowered to make their own choices, while they have their own management/labour issues, it does not spill over into the customer experience very often, while it occurs quite often with multiple legacy carriers. (Yes, I know Alaska is technically a legacy carrier, but it is not generally included with the 5 primary major legacy carriers in the United States).

    Many airline executives and airline marketing executives discuss getting first hand accounts of the passenger experience, however they do not seem to get a full-scope of what passengers face while flying their carriers. A better understanding between management and labour, and the airline as a whole and their customers, would go a long way for improving the overall potential of any airline (some do have this in place and do very well…Southwest comes to mind).

    Happy Flying!

    Steven Frischling
    Founder
    The Travel Strategist & Flying With Fish
    Web: http://www.thetravelstrategist.com
    Blog: http://www.flyingwithfish.com
    Twit: http://www.twitter.com/flyingwithfish

  • Siddhartha Ambekar

    , i dont say its impossible , however ,its hard to digest this , ..trust me , I have been closely associated with Airline and in my tenure , hardly had come across with issues like this where pax is denied of services due to breaks .

    Infact , at times , to get that attention & immediate service , where as other pax are in the Q , some pax do make such comments , however , no customer service agent would go beyond humanity at any cost and prefer going to break rather helping the much deserved passenger’s dying relative .

    In the event of such occurance , the staff should be reprimanded and should be given back office job where he/she is not facing customers directly , also need to makje them realise and understand if the job is important to THEM or not ? It is been observed , lot of people get into Airline just for the sake of geeting in , seldom they realise , for some it is bread & butter like any other job .

    cheers !! The staff needs training on humanity factor !!!

  • Angeline Dixon

    Obviously this employee has low morale, only cares about themself, and not representing the company they work for. They are most likely disgruntled, and the customer had to suffer the indirect hostility that the employee harbors for the company. Maybe the employee is just a selfish person in general, or maybe they have had to take many cuts, or face alot of letdowns or broken promises from United, in which overtime caused them to follow the employee handbook word for word, as a way to “show them who is boss”.

    The employee should have assisted the customer, or if it was a mandatory break, then there should have been an immediate replacement to assist the customer.

    In my opinion, United needs to raise morale, raise team spirit, by giving better incentives to the employees to where they want to do their best, and if it is a personailty glitch with such employee, get rid of them, and replace them with people who understand how to prioritize.

  • Angeline Dixon

    Also, some employees in any field that deals with the public has to understand that they are “customers” when they are off work too, and that they should treat the customer how they would like to be treated. Work can get busy, but it isn’t the customers fault if you are having a bad day, or you are too concerned with watching the clock instead of taking it 5 minutes at a time.

  • Veronica Leonard

    Sad.Unless there is bottom up buy in to branding, it’s meaningless.

  • Afshan M

    I think this is not just about branding anymore. Its about a basic sense of humanity that seems to be completely lacking in this case. It reminds me of the times that government hospital doctors go on a strike demanding better working conditions and do not budge even if they have dozens of people waiting outside who are on the verge of death!

    Agreed, maybe the staff is having some serious issues with the management and trying to put forward the point that bad treatment of employees by the management will result in bad treatment of passengers by the employees. But I am sure the agent could have made an exception to her quest for vengeance considering the nature of Mike’s emergency.

    What the agent did was simply cruel, almost sadistic.

    UA should really rethink its approach towards it employees if it is going to save face as a brand. Nothing can bring back the time these people lost but atleast a sincere apology and visible corrective measures would do good to abate hurt sentiments.

  • Roberta Balder

    If you miss the customer service piece, nothing else matters.

  • Christopher Frawley

    If an airline, or company in general, has been around long enough, you’ll find both heroic and horrific stories. This one indicates a serious breakdown in the culture / mindset of the place (and it might just be the microcosm of that airport / shift).

    Last fall, when I found out that my wife had died suddenly, the United counter agents were absolutely heroic in getting me to the last departing airplane of the day home to be with my kids. This was within an impossibly short time window – they helped to expedite me to the front of the security line. All this with no status as a United (loyalty) flyer.

    Sure, taking one boneheaded incident as an example company gone mad brand damage is easy pickens. Figuring out the consistency of process and culture over a large number of transactions (customer experiences/touchpoints) is much harder. But that’s where the truth of the brand lives.

    Can they improve delivery, of course. I’d start with figuring out where they are starting from.

  • Jackson Thompson

    I read the story and am somewhat skeptical. It does not add up, if the customer had a PNR number they should be able to get a ticket from the kiosk and any agent can help them through that. If they were just trying to get a ticket, why would they have to explain the whole bereavement story. All the airlines including United have bereavement fares still. I think there is a lot more to this story than the writer put down.

    Employees need their breaks or they get grumpy. You wrote tea-break, it may have been a bio-break that had been put off by xx number of customers and could not wait any longer.

    We should all recognize the airline industry has given up customer service. My wife was a United Flight Attendant for 15 years, until 2005. The airlines used the events of 9/11 and the slowdown afterward to completely reorient their focus. The point now is the cheapest possible fare. In order to do that. They have cut headcount and wages. They have changed work rules to push employees to past the point of burnout. They have intentionally cut service. This is not an accident.

    If you want a coast to coast (USA) flight for $100, you can not expect to get great service too. It is mass marketing. If you want first class service you can pay first class prices. If passenger expect to pay the same fare for an airline as they do for a bus, they should expect the same level of service.

    Service is all about expectations. The problem the legacy airlines have is, they bring a legacy of higher expectations with them. Airlines like Southwest are able to exceed expectations because they have been lower priced all along so the expectations have been low. The fact that you wrote “the friendly skies” shows that you are working with those old expectations. That tag line is from 1966. Their current tag line is “Time to Fly”.

    That said, our company is all about service, it’s in our name http://www.topazhotelservices.com . We mainly service the boutique hotel and resort market segments. We are huge on monitoring our call center agents for performance. Their pay is directly effected based on the service quality they deliver. We operate our call center in the SF bay area, one of the most expensive labor markets in the world. We compete with offshore call centers. Service is our differentiating factor. To meet that we have to be very concerned about our agents. They need support, including proper breaks. the scheduling of breaks every day is an important job for our managers. In return we can deliver more upsells and higher ADR than our competitors. The guests we talk to want to be pampered. But, our services don’t work for every market segment. Some properties are about heads in beds, not service (hence the term limited-service).

    Selling service and selling a service are two different things. If you are selling service you have to deliver service. But, airlines are now in the business of selling seats and moving people, the idea that they are in the service business is not current. (not true of all airlines, Virgin for example)

  • Milind Puri

    Tickets still have to be picked up at the counter? Clearly e-ticketing is not as widespread as had been made out!

  • Laureen Pugh

    You can’t always put all the blame on the agent, where was the supervisor and other agents that worked along side at the ticket counter. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens, we need to ask did the passenger state the urgency of the matter, was this the only flight out that day. I know many agents that would stay and miss their break to assist a passenger and many airlines have awards or recognition to agents when they go over and above to service an individual. Hopefully, this will never happen again, but no matter how the airlines try to educate their agents, there is always someone who put their wants and needs first.

  • Richard Geasey

    I must admit while the story is indeed sad and the service dreadful it comes as no surprise. Any shock at poor airline service surely has passed at least a decade ago. Poor service is a direct result of us, the traveling public. We select carriers based on price, not service. We watch the airline business contract year after year. Airlines employees watch their pay and benefits slashed time and time again and have to put up with surly passengers at every turn.

    Brand delivery! It’s a two way street. There must be a market for the brand promise to be delivered too. And guess what, the Portland airport will still be full with folks flying United. Unless consumers are willing to hold any company to their brand promise and there is a penalty when they don’t we can’t expect the promise to be delivered.

    For the outraged readers that are at the highest level of Premium status at United, use your clout and call someone. Otherwise they will simply go about their business. Frankly, I gave up on United 15 years ago. But the rest are really no better. They don’t have to be because we don’t care either.

    PS- I’ve got over 1.5 million miles traveled under my belt so I’ve seen my fair share of incidents.

  • Veronica Cooper

    That is just plain rotten. However, it remains difficult to determine if this is the actions of the individual or the organizations rules. I’ve come across extremely helpful airline employees in my travels some even stating that while it is against company policy they will see what they can do. On the otherhand, I’ve also witnessed some individuals pure rudeness. Whatever it is, this is unacceptable under the circumstances coming from a human being regardless of policy. I’d like to see the public apology that United responds with. Granted the actions damage the brand the response will determine the extent of it.. If it is truely policy it would be ethically incorrect to blame the employee, if it is policy they’ll have to get creative.

  • Ash ash@crm911.com Nallawalla

    Flyertalk.com is a great place to learn from other frequent travellers. It is full of horror stories as well as positive ones. The reality is that all businesses that service the general public have their share of bad customers and bad staff – banks, fast food outlets, airlines.

    We can try to sell branding expertise to marketers all we want but it won’t change human behaviour. (Great if you are a consultant) ;)

    I prefer United because it has a great rewards program compared to my limited alternatives for AU-US travel. Yes, I have seen many United staff whom I would not like to encounter again, like the check-in agent at LAX who tagged three of our four bags (travelling with my family) as Priority but not the fourth (because only I was a PremEx and we have a limit of 3 tagged bags). It was her little way of punishing me for daring to ask for a Priority tag. Yes, she won – we had to wait ages for the last bag to emerge at MEL.

    I am sure United tells its staff to do the right thing, but sometimes the customer loses.

  • Gary Stinnett

    Sad for the brand. Sadder for humanity — what kind of person would be so callous that they have no compassion for another person whose mother was dying?

  • Joe Corno

    Gary has focused attention at the wrong end of the issue. The agent is only performing per what United has institued in their brand and retention business plan. The agent is not callous but following how United trained the agent on how they operate.

    An inverse to this scenario is Qatar Airways. They have developed and implemented a atypical marketing business plan where they would have assured a replacement agent, so that the first could have a tea break. or, they would have had tea available for the agent.

    I have a three-volume article series that describes atypical marketing business plans and is rapidly replacing outdated practices that United has recently demonstrated. The sad part is while United is chastising and punishing the agent, Qatar would be rewarding their agent for remaining, or assuring customer engagement in exceeding customer expectations.

  • Samuel

    this is just the saddest thing ever

  • Mark Carolla

    Don’t beat up on United – this type of infammia is endemic in the industry. When employees are badly treated and poorly recruited, lapses in simple human decency like this could happen. United is my “family” airline in that my spouse spent 13 years with the carrier; and as a travel agent I learned a lot from United professionals; a cousin of mine flew for them; and we have lots of friends who work for them but this doesn’t surprise me. During the Steve Wolf years United lost its way. Mediocrity and stupidity were examples set at the highest levels; wages plummeted; and professionalism was not sought in the hiring process. Unlike some other carriers such as Continental, United jettisened professionalism in the customer service and employee development departments and it shows. I believe that mid-level United management earned infamy on 9/11 for docking the pay of the aircrew of the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania because “they failed to complete their assigned flight.” Those responsible for this truly stupid bureaucratic glitch were terminated; but the damage, as in this sorry case was done.
    Unfortunately this scenario is not limited to the United brand. ( I can recall atrocities from my travel agency days like TWA charging a widow hundreds of dollars additional fare when her husband died during their trip to Israel – you guessed it…she broke the rules of her excursion fare coming home early and in dying he only used a one-way which cost more than the round trip excursion. To TWA’s credit a few well-placed strong words from their regional sales rep on my and the widow’s behalf rectified things and terrified customer service into apologizing and backing off!) The TWA anecdote, however, wasn’t the norm back then as it seems to be so now with many carriers. The fundamental here is that airlines are forgetting that they are an expensive; necessary; and service-driven business. Any airline that prides itself more on cost-cutting; does away with employee benefits; outsources its call centers to a region or regions where the staff is totally clueless about the geography and realities of travel in the US; and treats its customers like they are riding a bus is setting itself up for this. I still maintain that the only way to save a brand like United has nothing to do with marketing slogans; “branding” or stock performance; it depends on hiring, training, nurturing, and keeping a staff of AVIATION PROFESSIONALS. Show me an airline in distress and I’ll show you a head office replete with managers such as Mr. Tilton who (I believe) have no aviation background and along with number crunchers; b.s. artists mouthing platitudes; and the like.
    United needs to be saved – it was a proud American institution – it needs to find its way and come home to being the Friendly Skies…there are people who would be proud and eager to help in that task…and some still work for United …but UAL management continues to seek labor at the level of fast food employees; outsources; and cuts amenities. Situations such as this tragedy don’t come in a vacum; and that supervisor should have chewed out that agent and demanded that she board those passengers. I’ve seen United rise to the occasion in instances like this in the past – but that was before Mr. Wolf and his successors tried to fly on the cheap. US airlines get what they pay for and what goes around comes around – or didn’t they teach that in business courses? Just think of this – 1) THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. 2) THE CUSTOMER PAYS YOUR SALARY. I was taught that as an 19 year old line boy working for an air taxi – but then again; I was taught by aviators; not marketing specialists.

  • Navneet Shukla

    I agree , There is certainly something wrong with United Airlines . During my visit to LA in Sept 08 , Apart from myself , 5 other pax were told to que up and use a self check machine , however that machine would not work , neither we were allowed to go to another que nor the person attending that counter would help us , the United supervisor behavoir was also very unfriendly and unhelpful , its only after many pax made a big noise that our check in was facilitated at another counter .

  • Oussama Salah

    I doubt if anything in UAL’s regulations or the union regulations would have prevented the agent from issuing the tickets. I think this is the act of a disgruntled and very cynical and callous person.
    However, if United can change ordinary people into such monsters then UAL has a big problem. Unfortunately, it takes a lot to tarnish the Brand of a large well established organisation.

    Definitely the CEO should not only take punitive action against the agents involved but also take a good look at how he is leading the organisation, because his leadership is not only ineffective but very toxic.

  • Ronald Kuhlmann

    Simple. They don’t have a brand. Two years ago UA, along with other US majors, wrote down their goodwill to zero and added that to the non-operational loss. In essence, they declared that the name United (brand) has no balance sheet value so there is no longer anything lost in the corporate value by poor service.

  • Ronald Kuhlmann

    The problem, like an onion, has many layers and very long cultural history. I spent 30 years as a Swissair manager in various locations and witnessed firsthand that the concept of service was a tangible item. Flight crews, especially, spoke of being aware that they has “provided a good service” and that the placement of the fork was important. Just recently I was on Swiss–and those folks have also taken quite a few hits with the transition–yet the FA gave me a new glass when changing from white to red wine, and this was in economy!

    Americans have always been more egalitarian and view “being of service” as putting one’s self in a subservient position. Even in the heydays of airline travel, the best foreign carriers were more seen as more formal while the US airlines were “folksy”. Unfortunately, as the glamor of air travel has faded, there is rampant resentment and little pride in simply doing a good job. (Gross overstatement but more true than not.)

    Interestingly, the one US carrier that has managed to instill that pride of work is Southwest whose personnel credo is to hire for attitude and train for skills. There is also the reality that as staff have been cut, there is often no longer a continuum of competence. This story is a perfect example. I have no idea why an eticket was not issued, allowing for kiosk check-in, but the res agent could have done more to ensure that those next in line would not be caught unawares by the passenger’s arrival. My first response would have been to send a message to the airport that some special attention might be needed but I suspect that those service chains no longer exist and each staff member does their individual job, isolated from the total passenger experience and operating within a very limited scope.

    On American, if the flight crew needs a potty break, the cabin crew hauls out catering carts and creates a physical barrier while a crew member stands guard. The clear message is that that the passengers are the threat and that there is an “us and them” mentality. This attitude–also evident in the labor/management areas–is evident across the board at every legacy carrier. American just makes it a clear visual.

    Until the culture changes and employees at every level (including folks like Tilton) realize that service is an attitude, not an act, we will have little improvement and I will choose Lufthansa over United every time.

  • Doug Blakely

    Agreed Ron. I’m not sure they even know what the term “brand” means anymore. It’s a travesty as commerical aviation used to mean something and has now simply become a low-end consumer commodity. Amazingly though, everyone still collects huge paychecks in the biz amonst the exec ranks and for what?

    There is no longer any value proposition whatsover. Well, maybe one might feel there is if they live in a non-stop hub city. That would be about the extent of it. The commercials could learn alot from private/corporate aviation operators and their standards, QC, processes and customer experience.

  • Doug Blakely

    Thanks Ron: Like many of us, I experienced Tilton’s airline on numerous occasions over the past few years; in particular going to HKG in Business Class. It was incrompehensable what I experienced in addition to the lack of caring both by crew and the poor worn out equiptment. (Food ok though)

    Like most I flew UA for convenience with the belief it will or would get better which it didn’t. Should have taken some friends advice and flown CX instead.

    P.S. Patricia…you’re spot-on with the “Brand Manage” gig. May not need the MBA but the 450 years of experience for sure.

    Al the best.

  • Patricia Rasore

    Is customer experience associated with brand? Yes.
    What would happen if the position “Brand Manager” disappeared? Nothing.
    The candidates applying to a Brand Manager position need to have an MBA , leadership skills, 450 years of previous experience , proven track record of……, stellar interpersonal skills, speak xxxxx.languages , consulting background a plus. Would all this avoid an attitude like the UA agent? No.

  • Michael Vennie

    Unfortunately, there is no shortage of bitter and/or incompetent people employed in customer service in the airline industry. It wasn’t always this way, and maybe the current level of unemployment deepens the hiring pool enough to rectify this situation. While I agree management decisions and the culture of the organization have a huge impact on moral and quality-it is also time for some remedial training on who customer service folks really are working for–the customer! Yes, customers can be frustrating to deal with. But a skilled customer service professional can often turn an unpleasant situation around–and create repeat customers through their actions. After all-it you don’t want to provide customer service, you shouldn’t have chosen that career path. As far as all the people who agree with the dehumanized “rules are rules” philosophy-you often find people with that stance-as long as they aren’t the ones involved. While rules are in place to run any efficient operation, we have all faced the frustration of dealing with someone, who even though the rule made so sense in the situation-followed it mindlessly.

  • Jean Michel Fernand

    It did my heart good to read the comments on the article that universally supported the employees of United and pointed out the clear problem. There are only two employees available and only one can issue a boarding pass. Not only is the ticketing function understaffed but most of the ticketing staff is not United employees! Look at their uniforms closely! Those jobs were outsourced. So in this case there was only one person trained to use a United computer. And that person wasn’t relieved by someone else so that they could take a break. They had to abandon the counter to take a break. Understaffed! Do you know how often passengers call in a bomb threat in the hopes of delaying the flight? Everyone believes that their problem justifies delaying the flight. Does Greyhound delay the departure! Does AMTRAK? I like the staff at SFO. I have always been treated kindly.

  • Roger Morrison

    This story is similar to the one a couple of weeks in Dallas, where a Police officer berated a man in the hospital parking lot for runnning a red light while his mother in law lay dying upstairs. The main difference is that the Dallas incident was videotaped and consequently the officer was suspended and the Police chief was forced to apologize (and the ticket was dropped). Maybe the answer is for consumers to arm themselves with videocameras (I carry a flip everywhere) and encourage customer service representatives to “say it for the camera”. If you wouldn’t want your behavior viewed by millions over the internet, then it is probably not good enough behavior for the one person standing in front of you.

    One other footnote, the videotape of the Dallas incident is now being used in training at the Academy, of what not to do. If our Police force can get it, surely it can’t be that hard for a company whose being paid to provide a service. Maybe United could strive to provide customer service at the level of law enforcement agencies and then evolve to treating their passengers like paying customers.

    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/032609dnmetcopstop.3e9c080.html

  • Pamela A. Pjura

    I’ve flown for over 25 years and have never run into a problem. I’ve always arrived the suggested times, checked my bags with colorful tags and have had a good flight.

    I too have noticed that the “problem” customers bring most of the problem themselves.

  • Max Paik, PMP

    Hmmm… I wonder though. I certainly share no love for United Airlines, or any other airlines for that matter. But, to be fair to all, I will take the side of the customer representative. They have been through a lot for the past decade. Bankrupsies, wage cuts, benefit loss, management betrayal to name few. With all the cost cutting, most of them have to take on additional job specialty so they can be “versatile” and cost efficient. Through it all, most come to work with a positive attitude. I can understand the frustration of the air travel: lost luggage, misassigned seats, missed flights. Sprinkle few high profile negative publicity [there never is a high profile POSITIVE publicity], you have an irate air traveler. But, is it the agent’s fault that the weather turned bad, or the planes break down? I once saw a man who threatened an agent with bodily harm if she didn’t upgrade his seat to first class on the next flight. It did not matter if he was the one who arrived to the airpost one hour after the plane took off. He was led out by 4 security guard and 3 policemen. Through it all, the agenda kept his cheerful attitude and smile. One should find out all the fact before deciding if the blow should be directed at the management or the individual.

  • John Sanders

    I never flew United, but airlines in general have those most unacceptable service. If there was another viable travel option, they would all be out of business. Except for Continental, Southwest, AirTran and maybe AA. All the others so far have really let me down. United charges way too much. They are always $200 more than Continental. AA has lowered their prices so I am flying with them more now… I have yet to judge how good they are service wise. In any case, it does not surprise me that United did what it did.

  • Jeff Sutherland-Kay

    I’ve never flown with United so can’t comment whether their behaviour in this instance is typical or not but there are plenty of airlines that know how to deliver all the basics of customer service, even if they don’t always do it. Unfortunately, instances of real customer delight are few and far between. Of my own experiences, yes there are plenty of pleasant flights for one reason or another but I can only cite one example where I was genuinely delighted and that was the only time I’ve flown Delta through their hub at Atlanta.

    This was a few years ago and I’ve no idea whether they still do this but they employed a baggage handler in the reclaim hall to stand the bags up as they came off the chute onto the carousel – made it very easy to identify your own bags and lift them off. Becasue it’s something I’ve never come across anywhere else, it continues to make Delta stand out in my memory.

  • Trent Fierro

    Not sure you can right the wrong at United, but if I was selling tea I’d try to find out what brand the flight attendant was drinking…

  • Karen Nangle

    I have not flown with United for well over 15 years because of a similar incident. I don’t know who is running the company but I think they need some new leadership. Perhaps someone who can teach the employees the right way to do business. Based on numerous other stories I’ve heard it is obvious that the employees themselves aren’t going to put putting the customer first.

  • Jennifer D’Alessandro

    I think the problem is that many people try to use the “emergency” excuse when they are late to the airport. This of course will ruin it for those with an actual emergency. It sounds to me like the ticket agent simply wasn’t buying the story. Sad really.

  • Michelle Johnson

    What disturbed me most about this story was that the gate agent said he understood the actions of the ticket agent. This tells me that this isn’t just an individual problem, but a corporate problem. United’s management needs to do some soul searching. They should begin by asking themselves when and how they started training basic human decency and compassion out of their people.

  • Randy Young

    My wife uses them for her business trips, they are always late, dysfunctional airlines. If they want to move up in the customers eyes, I start with a corp readjustment , we pay their bills after all. Somebody ought to be accountable. Would not have this , in my company, the customer ALWAYS comes first, ALWAYS.

  • Miles Abernathy

    With salary cuts and layoffs throughout the industry, I can understand why airline staff feel little loyalty to their employers (and by extension, their employer’s customers).

    To get loyalty from staff, you have to show loyalty to them.

    Miles Abernathy, 399Retouch.com

  • Patti Burge

    I understand your thoughts and agree in principle, gents. However, I respectfully disagree in practice.

    As I read this, I don’t think poorly of UA — I think of the agent who made this decision and then justified it for 10 minutes when she could have spent less time by just issuing the ticket. If she’d issued the ticket and UA reprimanded her for it, then I’d be right beside you to criticize UA.

    Had the agent apologized for an inability to issue the ticket, then called her supervisor, I’d feel less inclined to blame her.

    UA’s employee policies may have lessoned employee loyalty, but the agent is still on the job. If she perceived the company as loyal to her, would she have changed her response to this customer?

    In my humble opinion, shame on this agent for allowing her personal grievance to get in the way of human compassion. As a wise woman once told me, we all have reasons…but there’s no excuse.

  • Carla Burkhart

    Two sided thoughts….One… United is not the only carrier with terrible customer service, there is plenty of competition for this…Although I did not read the article, I would find it hard to believe that it made any difference in issuing a ticket before or after the break….maybe there is more to this than what people know…I wish I agreed with the Loyalty comment…people have their own conscience…This should not come at a price….

    Two… people in general ( staff) need to start considering that additional cuts and layoffs will come when the carrier is bombarded by poor customer service. Overall I wish people could see the big picture, instead of the here and now…It is what you do now that impacts what you do in the future…To United….a little kindness goes a LONG WAY!

  • Chris Stiehl

    I don’t understand why you feel sympathy for the airlines and for the employee. I don’t. All of the employees involved, not just one, have bad attitudes. This isn’t about loyalty to & from the company to the employee, it is about the customer. My wife and I almost always fly Southwest, not because they are almost always cheaper, but because they usually have great attitudes. They HIRE great attitudes. It is not that tough to do. Disney, Ritz Carlton, Southwest and other companies have published how they do this, for more than 20 years. United Airlines does not screen their hires as well as these other companies do. That is a management problem and an employee problem. It sounds as though these employees should NOT be in a customer service job. I blame management for that. I blame the employees for their attitudes and lack of empathy.

  • Chris Stiehl

    It is not “the industry,” it is certain airlines. Southwest and Virgin Atlantic, both “economy airlines” have employees who frequently have good attitudes. It is all about whom you hire.

  • Chris Stiehl

    It’s not about a job interview! Southwest, for example, gets a room full of prospective employees to take a test, seated together, maybe 100 prospects in the room. They put some problems on the screen that require thought, to the group, a few math problems, etc., that many people find difficult. They pick the people in the group who start helping others, because the problems are easy for them. They are hiring an attitude: the tendency to help others. This example is from 20 years ago. Disney, Ritz-Carlton and others do similar things. It’s not about how well you interview, that comes later. You don’t get to the interview unless you have the right attitude.

  • Walter Cordova

    I used to work for UA back in the days when Stephen Wolf was UA’s CEO. I left in 1994. That was an airline that made you proud. However, since he left, UA went on a decline. It is rare these days to see airline staff take pride in what they do. Whatever their reasons are, they should always keep in mind, as we did back then, that the customers are the ones that pay the salaries. This notion has been forgotten by most airline employees these days, it seems that their mood of the day dictates how we are going to be treated. Who is to blame? well, in my opinion both (customers and airline management) we as customers don’t demand the respect and service we deserve; for instance when the economy airlines came out and we had to fight for seats in the airplanes, customers were downgraded to a step above high priced cattle and we accepted that treatment. Airline management on the other hand also seems to see customers as revenue per mile figures only and therefore we are de-huminized as well by them. Of course employees will only follow their management’s lead. This employee was wrong in showing lack of care and humanity, she should be transfered to an area that has none or very little customer contact, but it is a clear picture of what the industry has become.

  • Human and Business Dev Coach Salim

    Hi
    Well some of the members have commented that To get loyalty from staff, you have to show loyalty to them I agree with that but at what cost ? Everthing said and done it can cost a life and you commit something that puts the firms brand also in jeopardy .If somebody is so unhappy then they should leave the firm at once.They are not only wasting the firms resources but also they are wasting their own time and getting more negative everyday.

    Salim Shaikh { Architect – Build Business , Careers , Consulting }
    Bridging the gap between Academia & Industry
    -Executive Director,Apple Inc. U.S Authorised Service & Sales Partners,Solution Experts
    – Training on Personality Dev.,Communication Skills etc..
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    Cell – 0091 9892612474
    Email-sallimsh@yahoo.com
    ” No one can predict to what heights you can soar, Even you will not know until you spread your wings ”

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  • Ehsan K

    This is outrageous for start!

    Unfortunately many employees these days lack competence and have no clue about appropriate communication. They may impress the recruiter in their interview but actually played it all as they had enough time to prepare themselves for their interview/assessment. I don’t think this is, in this particular case, even a management issue as the member of staff was unsupervised (because one thought she is an adult perhaps – this can be a management mistake in this occasion). This person should really get sacked and a case study made about the whole situation to be a good lesson to everyone and used in the airline customer service training sessions.

  • Melanie Goetz

    In any economy; particularly this year, we must do our jobs better and really reach out to our customers. Why is that so hard? I have clients that get that and are still profitable and I have clients that feel that this bad economy warrants only looking internally at the bottom line. Never has it been more obvious than now for businesses to work cooperatively and to give more than they take from their customers. If a UAL employee can give a little more than is expected; that is something they will carry into any job and what will make them more employable.

  • Andy Hamer

    beggers believe but god bless america

  • Andy Hamer

    I was in Germany on business when my father was taken ill I was traveling back to London with British Airways I had already checked in for the London flight when I got the “call” and I need to change my flight to Manchester. The BA staff where great given that I needed to be on the other flight quickly and it was about to depart and I was obviosuly upset, it was no problem and my luggage came the next day. You always remember how a problem was resolved! Its the best PR.

    Saying that I had some real problem with US airlines over the years where the staff seem to think that its there for their benefit rather than the passagners.

  • Steve Davis

    Sadly, this story could be reproduced in many situations, many organizations and many industries on a daily basis. More evidence that a “brand” is really what an organization is willing to deliver and actually capable of delivering.

  • Terry Howard

    Not unlike so many US based airlines. Another, formerly top consumer rated public corporation gone to Hell. This airline that loves to hate its customers. “Greed” set in back in the 80s and 90s. Then the “Humbling” of their bankruptcy. They say caused by 9-11. but, the truth be it. They were going down hill long before that.

    I flew 50k to 100k a year on United for over 20 years. The last time I flew them was in 2002. Just, one bad experience after another and another. They don’t seem to care at all. No response at all on complaints. I have not approved an expense report for any of my staff containing a United Airlines receipt since 2002. I tell them United is dangerious to their mental health.

    Viva Southwest, Spirit, and Allegiant. Very fair prices, they do what they say and they deliver a good product most of the time. Their employees still smile and they seem to treat you fairly even under adverse conditions.

  • Deepak Mavinkurve

    I would take stories like this with a pinch of salt…maybe even an ounce of salt.

    I have headed Customer Service for a premier OTA in India and have seen on many occasions where jealous competitor or over excited customer can “create” these false situations.

    One give-away in this mail – “She refused to provide me with her name or employee number” – Don’t US airlines employees not wear uniforms that have their name badges. In 10 minutes of argument this gentleman could have checked that out?

    Having defended UA, let me re-iterate that I am no fan of UA, nor its employee…nor its share-holder :-)

  • Lodewyk Schuermans

    Quite frankly – as a pilot, I try to avoid the airlines unless I have to travel abroad!

    They all suck! They all treat passengers with contempt, no exceptions. I have heard and experienced many horrifying encounters with just about any airline out there – but I prefer not to run down the industry, or any particular airline. I think it is time the airlines faced the reasons for their financial woes: by paying their extremely useless executives less and make them do an honest days work, invested in “customer service training” for ALL staff and start treating their customers well. Huh, what happened to “the customer is king”? What ever happened to going the extra mile for the customer? What happened to treating customers like you realy appreciate them?

    And if any airline PRO is reading this, take head this is meant for you too!!!

  • Lodewyk Schuermans

    This comment was deleted by the author

  • Lodewyk Schuermans

    Customer service has not “gone to hell” in America – it is more like nonexistent!

    Too many companies treated their employees like they do not matter, and as a result all employees treat customers like they do not matter anymore. If you consider that the most important jobs left in this country are the service industry jobs – then are you still surprised that “customer service” has gone to hell in a hand basket”?
    This is not surprising in the airline service industry: and it starts with the $5/hour TSA agents in airports. The individuals that serve you at every stage of your experience from check-in to collecting your baggage after the flight. They all do not give a “hoot” about your experience, and many like the TSA agents abuse their power, making airline travel even worse than it needs to be. How can you expect an “airline front line agent”, like the people who help you at check-in , during the flight, flying the airplane, or helping you when your luggage or daughter is lost to help you efficiently? How can you expect that – when the CEO and all the rest of the C-level execs that are running the company into the ground are making fortunes – all the while cutting benefits, pay and pensions of the staff that really run the airlines? And this does not apply only to the airlines in America – it reaches beyond every industry in the United States of America!!! Financial institutions are no exceptions… they are just the frontline of showing the current symptoms in the economic woes of this country.. duh!

    Are you still surprised? If you aren’t, then you are probably ONE of the C-level execs that does not care…

    If you care about service to customers, start by treating your employees like you want your customers to be treated!!! There is no secret… and the Holy Grail is still a myth…!

  • Tom Quinn

    They are the worst of the remaining large carriers. Several years ago, they ‘lost’ my then 8 year old daughter in transit when she was changing planes in Denver from CA to MD.

    The agent on the phone refused to see if she could have someone contact the airplane to see if she had made the connection and when I got to the airport an hour prior to her arrival, the desk agent also said they ‘could not arrange that’.

    After a ballistic outburst on my part, a UAL manager finally got in contact with the plane and confirmed my daughter was on board and ok.

    I have been a Premier and Premier executive with them for almost 20 years and decided 2 years ago to avoid them any way possible after they stranded me on a first class ticket in Denver due to ‘overbooking’….huh?

    Enough said.

  • Tana Kantor

    Not so important, but I have had the worst service of my life from Dell Financial Services. 1) I can’t see anywhere how much is left on any of my contracts; 2) I can’t condense all contracts into one bill 3) It is really HARD to find out how to pay the whole contract 4) they sometimes get confused and put all funds into one contract, so one is overpaid and others are underpaid, 5) when I need information that is not available of the really poor website,the people on the phone only have access to some information, so they can’t tell me what’s going on. I would THINK that a technology company would know how to implement a really good financial services, but that’s not the case. As a small business owner, i will NEVER use Dell again.

  • Bruce Johansson

    To me this appears to be a symptom of a far bigger problem. I have no doubt that the employee would have treated a friend or relative in a different manner. So we should consider the way that staff view clients. In my experience this is a management problem. Staff should take pride in their jobs and have respect for their company which in the midst of cutbacks and restraint is very difficult to achieve. This cannot be forced and no amount of training, imposed rules or threat can make it happen. Staff will share the pain and go the extra distance if they are treated with respect, empowered to make a decision, to act and feel motivated to do so. In these difficult times when all to often, the most important management task is to “shave 10% in the next month” (or we find someone who can) many managers can overlook their responsibility to lead and motivate their staff. Organisations that remember the importance of staff moral in these tough times are investing in a strategy that will yield a solid foundation on which to rebuild in the recovery ahead.

  • Bruce Johansson

    Lodewyk , I think you are pointing your finger very acurately. The problem starts at the top. People will “buy in” if they are shown respect and offered good leadership. Too many companys have taken an easy path to survival by sacrificing and then compromising their biggest asset – their staff

  • Brad Versteegh

    I could write a thousand pages on “Customer Service in America – Gone to Hell”. But I won’t. The lack of respectable service in this country is awful. I think we all agree.
    I USED to have an account at Compass. I actually had a manager at a Compass Bank Branch, tell me they had no way of handling an issue I had with my account because I opened it at a different Compass branch.
    The real problem is not the front lines we complain about, but those they report to. My rule of thumb is to contact the executive offices of the company that I have issue with. I report the issue, explain to them that I want NOTHING from them (they usually try to send me a gift card or some token to say sorry). I explain that as a business owner, I do not always see what the customer experience truly is for those using my product or service. And I would want any customer who did not have an exemplary experience let me know that, so I could attempt to fix it. I then explain to them that failure to correct the issue I had is an indication that this behavior is condoned if not taught by their office and leadership. I then tell them that the ownership of the issue is now on their shoulders. Usually this corrects the issue.
    Oh, in case you were curious, the manager from the Compass branch disappeared shortly before my account moved to a competitors bank.

  • Michelle

    While I can sympathize with the customer in this story, I must say that as an airline employee, I have heard many reasons why someone “must” be on the plane. After some time, you do become weary of people being late for their flights and hurling insults at you because YOU will not let them go. And as for the agent, you do not know how long she had been working without a break. I cannot count the number of times I have been late to break, or late going home, due to I decided to “help one more customer” and the transaction took much longer and was much more complicated than it was supposed to be. The passenger in this story was probably too late whether or not the agent helped them and if the agent had stayed she would have been very late for her break.

  • Michael Valdimarsson

    That is what some management dont think about. Who is the one the customer sees and has do deal with. This is typical when companies turn to big.

  • David L. Lamb, ITC

    Shashank – I have to agree, what happened here was horrible, but you are associating this incident with the UA brand. This is the second time you’ve posted something negative about United and have used it to question their branding. This could be construed as a pattern and one could ask the question about why you keep tying service incidents to their corporate brand.

    I need to investigate this and then I will post a more complete response.

  • http://www.simpliflying.com shashank Nigam

    @David: I think an airline brand is what it does, and not what it says it does. A brand is the culmination of many experiences, over time. And I believe that each incident adds (or takes away) from the brand.

    And it just so happens that the last two true 3rd party incidences I’ve shared about UA erred on the negative side – not because I positioned it that way, but because that’s what happened. I’ve only shared the true story, adding my thoughts on it.

    Ironically, the only time I’ve flown UA, I’ve had a positive brand experience myself, and that is well documented on SimpliFlying as well – as my first article at UA. Check it out here: http://simpliflying.com/2008/why-small-things-can-make-a-big-difference-to-the-brand/

  • Cynthia Clampitt

    I read the story, and it is suspiciously garbled and one-sided. Hold the tickets? No US airline in any US airport issues paper tickets anymore — it’s all electronic. A machine in the lobby spits out your boarding pass. So that part of the story simply doesn’t hold water.

    As for timing, FAA rules (not United) do not permit late boarding. A 7:50 flight doesn’t mean boarding until 7:50. It means doors closed and pushing away from the gate at 7:50. You have to be on board by 7:35, and if you’re not there by then, your seat is given away. FAA rules, not United. So they were already too late when they reached the airport.

    The story also said the guy had Premier Status, which means he flies a lot and should know all this. So it wasn’t some sad story about some person who just didn’t understand flying.

    The one thing the story did correctly point out is that it was union rules that mandated the break. Union rules do not equal corporate rules, so don’t blame the airline for something the union put in place. Corporations cannot break union rules.

    And why would the dad wait so late to call that the girl couldn’t just take a later flight?

    But the real kickers are “hold the tickets,” which just doesn’t happen, and their not getting to the airport until after the boarding process would have begun. I’m sure they were frustrated, but this does not sound like a situation where the airline was at fault. (And I don’t think airlines are perfect, but let’s be fair.)

  • Ronald Kozlowski

    Shashank,

    I wonder what the “true” story is here. I am sure it was far more than an agent who was required to go on her “tea break”. Having spent 20 years on the frontline, I can see this incident happening. Many times I had customers come running up to the ticket counter (or gates pre 9/11) with last minute emergencies. Fully demanding that I personally guarantee to hold flights, insantly produce travel documents from thin air, put them on the plane while their friend/spouse ect take care of everything after. or even psychic-ly understood everything about their situation. When unable to comply with the demands, I was personally held responsible by them for their unfortunate plight without fail in a most unflattering conversation.
    It is NOT the “height of atrocious” customer service you so sensationalize. As others here have stated it is nothing to do with the branding of UA. There are far more atrocious actions that airlines have taken to sabatoge their branding missions. Remember agents are forbidden to respond or speak directly with a media outlet unless specifically allowed by their carrier. The news story only presented the passenger side of the story. I would have to agree that in the situation the passengers biased the story.

    It seems to me, your irresponsable as is the media outlet reporting to attempt to further the UA incident when not knowing, or as you put it “sharing the true story”.

  • http://www.simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

    @Ronald, I published the story as is unchanged from The Consumerist, which I believe is a very trustworthy site. And there has indeed been ample debate about the authenticity of the story.

    But my point is that whatever happens at every brand touchpoint is the responsibility of United Airlines. I’m not trying to sensationalize anything, rather there’s been a healthy debate if you look at the original article. Again, I mention that a brand is not what it says it does, but what it actually does. And here’s an instance where United Airlines is claiming to “fly the friendly skies” while this incidence was not even close to that. Don’t you think?

  • David L. Lamb, ITC

    It is amazing to note how much a slogan has stuck with an airline. A good number of you are using the slogan “fly the friendly skies” as the slogan behind United’s brand. They have not used that slogan in over 15 years. In fact, United has gone through a number of iterations of slogans to attempt to link its customers to a brand which which they could identify and it’s latest one “It’s time to fly..” says what about its brand?

    If none of you (including Shashank) cannot correctly identify United’s brand, who can? This has been the principal problem with United Airlines, even during the time I was there: They were a great operational airline. They were absolutely awful at marketing…and they still are.

    What United has tried to do, unsuccessfully I might add, is transform itself from a carrier whose brand appeals to everyone (e.g. let’s fly the friendly skies), to one that is more narrowly focused on the business traveler. Of course, I have to infer a little bit here, because no where do they really state that that is who the target is..I mean, does anyone remember “Rising” or “It’s time to fly”? Who do those slogans say about the brand? Furthermore, the change in the livery that was initiated in 2004, in which the United logo was sliced in half and the font and colors changed, what did that communicate? I still to this day haven’t fully figured it out.

    What the Consumerist article speaks to a rather heinous event, one in which United really did significant harm to its image by reinforcing the notion that United is a big, monolithic airline that does not care for the individual traveler unless thay are a 1K (and there are so many 1Ks now that this level has now been seriously eroded in value), Shashank’s point in which he asks the question “How can this (incident) be good for their brand, or how can they improve their brand delivery?” are not the right questions. He does, however, correctly asks the question “How do they improve their service (delivery?)” That is the key issue here. Clearly there was a breakdown in the service commitment to the customer. Did the brand fail her? It’s hard to say, since in my opinion, their brand is not clearly identified nor articulated. Yes, I know they are fully focused on the business traveler, but that isn’t a result of the brand or their marketing efforts, it’s because I’ve been involved with the airline, in one form or another, for 31 years.

    United has serious problems with their employee relations. United has serious problems with its product. United has serious issues with the delivery of service. United is not in the greatest financial health, despite everything you will hear coming out of the mouths of Glen Tilton and Co. in Chicago…they have a fleet which is still not sufficiently rationalized. If I had a choice, would I fly United? Probably not…and I have used to work there and still have a large number of friends who work there.

    Sadly, this one incident just underscores one thing: UA has some unhappy employees who will do just the absolute minimum to get the job done. Operative word here: SOME. There are people at United that are killing themselves to make their airline something of which they can have some pride. It’s unfortunate that the people in the front office don’t seem to recognize those folks….and that is perhaps one of the biggest issues of all. One thing to remember though…they haven’t been “The Friendly Skies” now for a very long time….by design.

  • http://www.clientsong.com Christopher Frawley

    Agree mostly with David. The bigger point that seems to have gotten lost is that this entire post and comments revolve around one (1) incident (told from one side) as some sort of “tell all” bellwether. Terrible customer experiences with businesses aren’t rare at all – and neither are exceptionally good ones.

    It’s the consistency (or inconsistency) of experience good or bad with a single company that tells the real story.

    Clearly there’s a lot of pent up emotion around bad airline experiences (and UA in particular) that help explain the length of this piece. Rightly or wrongly it’s touched a nerve.

    I wonder what the reaction would have been if the post were about an amazingly good experience with United? (my guess – it would have been passed off as an anomaly or fluke). In the end I guess that tells us all something about the UA brand ‘state of health.” Ah, the disconnect between reality and perception… (there’s no science here…)

  • http://marietravis.blogspot.com/ Marie

    I just want to share an email I sent to United regarding an incident yesterday 4/27, involving a United agent yelling at an elderly woman who could not walk.

    Below is my email:

    Customer service offered by Shawn/Sean at IAD, gate A3/4 on 4/27 at approx 10pm was unacceptable. I have flown all over the world, and been on hundreds of airplanes, but this was by far the rudest encounter I have ever experienced. According to your web-site’s customer service promise, “In the air and on the ground, online and on the telephone, our customers have the right to expect — to demand — respect, courtesy, fairness and honesty from the airline they have selected for travel.” Shawn was disrespectful to a women his senior, a woman who PAID to fly with your company. He was NOT courteous nor was he fair. I was looking through the 12 points for customer commitment…are these just to save face or does your company really uphold these standards? If they are for real, then step number 7 needs to be shown to Shawn/Sean.

    http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6722,1512,00.html

    7. Readily, Capably and Respectfully Accommodate Travelers with Special Needs

    United’s commitment:

    We will provide our customers who have special needs, including individuals with disabilities and unaccompanied minors, with the level of attention, respect and care they deserve.

    Below is the encounter btwn Shawn and the elderly lady who couldn’t walk (he yelled at her).

    A flight to Allentown was overbooked/overweight so they bumped 8 people. Shawn announced they would bump all those who paid the cheapest fair price. One of those people was an elderly lady who couldn’t walk. She had two medical bracelets on her arm, one pink and the other yellow. One said “fall risk.” She was told a wheelchair was coming to get her and take her to customer service where she could get on another flight the following morning. When no one showed up she asked a United agent about it when he walked by. He blew her off. She began to get visibly flustered. She got out an inhaler and used it twice. A few minutes later, another passenger reminded Shawn the lady needed a wheelchair, he said one was on it’s way. At this point it had been almost 30 minutes, and still no wheelchair. The lady began to get more flustered and started to shake, muttering about how she needed to get home to her son. She took out a portable machine and wrapped it around her wrist. I believe it was a blood pressure machine, because she said she needed water to take her blood pressure medicine. Shawn then yelled across the room at her, saying he told her 30 minutes ago to go to customer service – there was still no wheelchair. She said again that she needed water to take her blood pressure medicine, and he yelled again to go to customer service – STILL no wheelchair. This lady could NOT WALK. How was she supposed to get to customer service? She was waiting for United to provide her the services she required, but instead she is humiliated in front of other passengers. So a few ladies, myself included, went to help her. I got her water. She was shaking so badly that she could barely get the pills and water in her mouth. She spilled it on herself, the chair and the floor because she was shaking so severely. She was slightly disoriented from her blood pressure getting so high and was also beginning to sweat. Shawn never once helped or treated this elderly woman like a human being.

    I am APPALLED that your airline would allow this to happen. She had someone escorting her during her other flights, and then because she was bumped, she is left high and dry? This is unacceptable. To treat a helpless, handicapped woman, who cannot walk and obviously has medical problems is an atrocity. I have emailed, twittered and facebooked about this and I plan to continue to. I want everyone to know how United treats it’s disabled passengers. It is unacceptable. Shawn needs to be punished or fired. If you claim you don’t know who I am talking about, I took a photo of him with my phone, so there is no confusion. Here is a link to the photo: http://s618.photobucket.com/albums/tt266/emtravis/?action=view&current=UnitedShawn.jpg.

    For Shawn to humiliate this woman the way he did is unacceptable. I have only flown United a few times, and every single time I have been delayed going out of IAD. But the way your personnel treated a PAYING DISABLED passenger has sealed the deal for me. I will never fly United again. And I will NEVER suggest it to anyone. I have already told a number of my friends this story and they have agreed that they cannot fly an airline who treats people this way.

    United needs to review the 12 points with their agents. I have never seen such disrespect by any other airline. A number of the passengers on my flight 8009 to Richmond said they plan to write and call as well. I plan to report this event on any other website I can. It is unacceptable. I would be glad to talk to someone.

  • http://www.vinithra.com Vinithra

    Sure puts me off United! Does United respond to such highly publicized bad PR incidents?

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @Vinithra: Well, I don’t think so. Or at least I haven’t heard of such an incident yet.

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  • JeanetteV

    Personally if I could I would avoid all the major airlines in the US of A. The smaller airlines still view the work they do as a service with the result it is a lot more pleasant to fly any of the smaller airlines.
    Ever since 9/11 the staff working for the major airlines started treating most everyone that flies like a criminal especially if you are one of those poor people that cannot afford to fly a 100k a year. Service on the flight is bad to non-existing and the 'box food' on United I would not feed to my dog. One would think with the economy as it is and the stress added due to the additional controls, they would do their best to treat the people well. So, what came first? The chicken or the egg – the rude airline staff or the rude passengers? Hmmm… I wonder! With that said, isn't it still the airline staff's job to 'serve' the customers to the best of their ability?

  • alex1113

    Great photos

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  • sri

    i was just pulled off a united airlines flight because they refused to discern and act between a consumer issue and a security threat. i asked for a manager and what i got instead was someone from homeland security, so much for managerial finesse.

    what is remarkable about the airline industry now is how closely aligned to the state power they are. airline workers have absolute immunity, they can treat you any way they want and if you speak up as a consumer you are tagged as a security threat.

    this is corpratism…i got a first hand dose and it's pretty scary what they are willing to do and how little recourse you have.

  • http://www.myairdeals.com/ expat

    Being from the eastern part of the old continent I have grown accustomed to the thought that the poor customer service one can oftentimes experience here is the legacy of the communist past as opposed to the customer service culture in the United States satysfying the customer demands is the key focus. So this story here comes as a shock to me.

    greetings

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