United Airlines shows how NOT to “fly the friendly skies”. A very sad incident.

My Transatlantic Steed at SFO
Image by xrrr via Flickr


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?


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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