Two former United States Senators have sounded off on Twitter today against United Airlines, including a six-tweet diatribe by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) regarding a lost first class seat on a flight to the Dominican Republic.
First up, Norm Coleman, a former Republican Senator from Minnesota who lost out to comedian Al Franken in 2008–
Well, why was your flight delayed? Was it due weather or some other reasons like the pilot computer integration issue that has delayed or cancelled hundreds of flights? No analysis without more facts.
Bill Frist’s tweets were more interesting and a bit humorous–
Another reason to avoid the last row–vibrating seats due to lavatory toilet…
But it sounds like Dr. Frist has a very legitimate gripe about being promised one thing and delivered another.
My friends, who don’t travel much, flew to Sydney and back last year on United on a business class ticket. They were delayed out of Sydney on the return and missed their connection to Washington Dulles. After clearing customs at SFO, they were rebooked onto a later flight and were promised a first class seat, although they were given a boarding pass for row seven on a 757. At the gate, the agent said something to the effect of, “Sorry. That’s coach. Nothing I can do. First is full. Too bad.”
When I heard this later I was simultaneously livid and yet not at all surprised, and consequently I can vividly imagine a situation in which Frist was promised a business class seat on his connecting flight to Puerto Plata at SFO and told something like “pick up your boarding pass in Newark”. Bad idea.
The big issue here is not that Frist lost his seat, but United’s tweet back to him–
“We’ll do all to accommodate your seating requests, but we do not guarantee specific assignments.”
“Every airline reserves the right to adjust seating for operational purposes. We regret the confusion. Thanks for flying United.”
Talk about tone deaf…
United’s Twitter Team totally misses the point. The issue is not whether United enjoys the right to move passengers to different seats under certain circumstances, but the specific fact that Frist was allegedly moved from a first class seat to the last row of economy class.
There is no empathy from United (until its third tweet hours later) and no apology for the inconvenience. Rather, only a defense of what happened by rebuking Frist in an arguably condescending way (in implying that he was confused).
That is not the way to win customers.
Here is how I would have tweeted back–
“Dr. Frist, sorry you lost your seat. We do our best at UA to honor assigned seats and want to understand what went wrong. Please DM us your confirmation code.”
Well, that’s a few characters too many, but you get my point.
Why must airlines immediately go on the defensive when something goes wrong? My tweet above demonstrates that a sympathetic response is possible without conceding guilt. Things are bound to go wrong once in awhile at an airline as large as United and when the carrier owns up to its shortcomings, it earns credibility and patience when dealing with future shortcomings.
No matter what the fine print of the COC states, most passengers are under the reasonable impression that when they are assigned a seat, they get to keep that seat. More importantly, when they are assigned a certain cabin class, they will not be booted to a lower cabin. To dispute that widely-held notion rather than to try to immediately solve problems as they arise is indicative of a greater problem of customer disconnect that helps to explain why United continues to have trouble in the customer service category.