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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13 thoughts on “Why I’m Done with United Airlines

  1. Playing devil’s advocate here….

    Would you have blogged about your experience had they been swift and made the change? I doubt it. They might have gotten a curt thank you on twitter, but, I don’t think we praise as much as we should. 🙂

    Nick

    • What difference does that make? Now a company can’t be motivated to do “the right thing” unless there is something in it for them?? How about being a compassionate human being? Not enough pay-out in that, I guess. This is why corporations are reviled in this country. They are heartless, soul-less, money grubbing nightmares for real people.

  2. Sadly, this has been the way it is and probably won’t ever change. Because the airlines know that your choices are limited, so you either play by their rules, or you don’t fly. Abusive use of their position? Absolutely.

    The whole flying experience is enough to make one stop traveling altogether. A sad, but realistic, prospect for much of the traveling public.

    • In this case it felt like they just didn’t quite made the connection between taking care of the client and how it could be good for their bottom line. But then, like you say, we have limited options. They know that.

  3. The airlines have had this policy in place for decades, and it seems that as they’ve struggled to survive, they haven’t considered innovating the business model. Instead, they find new ways to squeeze more out of the loyal customers they have with fees and charges.

    Virgin and JetBlue have tried but didn’t push limits far enough. Southwest tried but now they’re resorting to additional fees. I’m confident that the industry will be disrupted just like the music, movie rental, online shopping and banking industries have been.

    • I probably should have noted that when I booked all of the other flights, using American Airlines, they informed me that I could change any aspect of my itinerary with no penalties or charges. So I mistakenly assumed that United would offer the same courtesy. Of course they confirmed my nephew’s status with the hospital. But United just couldn’t even be bothered to be inconvenienced by me. At least that’s what it felt like.

      Sadly, the recent merger of American Airlines and US Airways probably means even fewer choices for consumers.

      I think you’re right, Gina, that an innovative model could turn this industry on its head. So what are we going to call our new airline?

  4. *snakes head*
    This is sad indeed. What happened to “the customer is always right”? Why are the rules so skewed to the airline? It IS a shame their employees are not empowered.
    I’m with you girls – air travel is ripe for a disruption. How about “Air Deluxe”? 🙂

  5. As my wise father once told me, “An airline ticket is one of the only things, once purchased, you never really own.” So sad to have an experience like this on top of the reality you were all facing.

  6. My sister’s keen observation: “Your story about United brings up a subject I was just reading about–behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has written about the remembering self and the experiencing self. In experiments, even if a situation endured at time B was worse than at time A, if time B was accompanied by some relief/comfort, people after the fact would prefer to repeat time B. The remembering self takes the comfort into account and polishes the memory so that it is ‘not so bad.’ If only United understood this.”

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