Why I’m Done with United Airlines

Joe and JamesIt was a year ago last month that my nephew suffered the first of many headaches, which, after much persistence from my brother, landed James in St. Louis Children’s Hospital after the discovery of a large tumor in his cervical spine, later determined to be an aggressive anaplastic astrocytoma, which subsequently spread to his brain.

Over the past year I’ve made multiple trips back to the Midwest, always flying in and out of St. Louis, a short train ride to the hospital, so last month, when I made travel plans, there was no indication I shouldn’t do the same.

A few days after I arrived we were devastated to learn that, after leaving no stone unturned, there was nothing more the doctors could do for James. Despite every effort, the aggressive cancer would inevitably prevail. Knowing that there hadn’t been a single “positive outcome” using the cancer drug the oncologists recommended, James’ parents chose to bring their son home where he could be surrounded by love, familiar settings and, freed from the hospital’s impediments, a much more conducive environment for the sword fights that our little pirate loves.

Once the decision was made, the teams of doctors wasted little time in removing excess tubes, streamlining James’ care so that his family could better care for him at home. His parents were consulted on a Tuesday; by Friday the patient was home.

So what does this have to do with United Airlines? My return to Portland included two flights: St. Louis to Chicago followed by Chicago to Portland. It would be a lot easier for my brother to get me to Chicago, so I needed permission to ditch my first flight and just pick up the second one. I rationalized that United would be able to re-sell my first flight, so this seemed like a winning scenario for everyone involved.

I emailed United Airlines that Friday, hardly expecting a prompt response on account of the huge snow storm blanketing the northeast., but it was worth a shot. Saturday, desperate to expedite closure on the issue, I called.

After holding for thirty-eight minutes I was eventually informed that if I skipped the first flight, my reservation on the second flight would be cancelled. The only way to bail on the first flight was to pay $515.70, which included a “change fee” and the “difference in the costs of the flights. Here’s the irony: the flight that they were offering to re-book me on out of Chicago was the very same flight I was already booked on.

This “solution,” by the way, was all they could offer, even with the knowledge of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding my request. Unbelievable!

Incredulous, I turned to Twitter. And I receive this very “pat” response from @United:

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10:48 a.m. @United’s “FM” called to tell me that the Chicago to PDX flight is “more expensive” than the flights I’ve already purchased, but she’d be happy to “waive the additional cost” and I can just pay the $150 “transfer fee,” you know, because of the circumstances. When I pointed out that I was already booked on the flight she was attempting to re-sell me, she agreed that I was.

My Twitter community, growing by the minute, followed the status of my situation, asking questions and offering support. Scott Stratton, “kind of a big deal” on Twitter with 143,360 followers, jumped in with support.

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So what do we learn from this? What could have been an incredibly opportunity for United Airlines turned into a PR nightmare as more and more people heard of the story. They failed to provide exceptional customer service, to protect their brand reputation and to build their community. Most important, they had an opportunity to excel and both customer service reps failed miserably.

Here’s what they should have done: The first person I spoke with should have said, “I’m so sorry,” explained that he’d need to re-book my flight, and then taken care of it.

My guess is that since this didn’t happen, the customer service representatives weren’t totally to blame. They probably weren’t empowered by the airline to do that. And that’s a shame.

My brother had a whole lot of things on his mind; this was an opportunity for United to take one thing off his shoulders. Instead, they chose to add to his burden.

Do you think anyone in our family will ever forget this? Do you think any of us will ever fly United again if there are any other options? Do you think, whenever United Airlines is mentioned in conversation, we’ll ever not tell this story?

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