Businesses should not be measured by how they operate when things go right but rather how they react when things go wrong. United Airlines absolutely fell apart on a recent trip that experienced irregular operations before a dedicated employee saved the day. Within this experience were nestled some basic things United could do during IRROPS to improve customer relations and make their own process simpler.
Flight 314 Was Delayed
United 314 from LAX to Denver was delayed initially from a late arriving aircraft. It was only 23 minutes behind and looked to only arrive 10 minutes later than initially scheduled. No big deal for me, my connection was an hour and 11 minutes. The plane, a 777-200 high-density configuration jet (28 business class seats in 2-4-2 layout is insanity). Once the aircraft was cleaned and the new crew prepared for departure (boarding lines were started) an announcement came that the aircraft had been damaged and would be out of service. A replacement was coming from the hanger.
Customer Service Failed
Passengers with connecting flights in Denver were advised to head to a customer service station (located at the end of the Terminal 7 hallway) and work with the team there. The oversold 777 had apparently many connecting passengers. While the line was over 100 people long, I was just third in line at the Premier customer service line. All the same, after waiting over half an hour for a single affected passenger in front of me (he was requesting replacement flights on American that would get him in that night) I decided to take my chances back at the gate on the phone.
I called the 1K line and was quickly connected with an agent. I was told that I had two options, the 6 PM flight to SFO and a connection to a midnight redeye to PIT arriving before 8 AM in the morning; plenty of time to make a separate itinerary to Fort Myers from Pittsburgh at 1:30 PM. The second option was to fly to Denver as planned and layover hoping that my arriving flight would utilize a heavy tailwind and my departing flight would be delayed. These were the only options I was presented.
Not a single option was offered (despite my request to explore the choices) to or from Newark, Houston, Cleveland, Washington Dulles, or Chicago. The 1K agent was prepared to offer me a redeye transcon in coach or completely fail to deliver me to my destination within 16 hours of my originally scheduled arrival and just overnight me in Denver getting me into Pittsburgh the next day 80 minutes after my other itinerary was scheduled to depart – those were the only two options. And while I booked coach on an afternoon flight, that is simply not the same as a five-hour redeye in coach which I would never have booked.
What’s most frustrating to me is that the agent was quite content to give me those two options or leave me to the wolves, all while being quite polite on the phone. She offered to fly me (no time benefit, however) to any city within 500 miles of my destination city alternatively. But with real deadlines, flying into an alternate city and renting a car at my own cost only to then drive 2.5 hours (closest option) wouldn’t have been a benefit at all. If I was going to overnight somewhere regardless, and the 1K agent knew that Denver’s earliest alternative flight of the day wouldn’t have worked why on earth weren’t any of the myriad other options approached?
Decided to Let it Ride/No Support
Ultimately, I decided to let it ride and fly to Denver landing a full three hours late (LAX is a two-hour flight) – arriving well after the Pittsburgh flight had crossed into Illinois. I have had two mechanical delays in my last four flights with United, each lasting at least two hours, so I figured I might as well roll the dice as my chances were literally 50/50. I also figured that once I landed I could find some support like I had become accustomed to as an Executive Platinum with American Airlines. I was also banking on it forcing United’s hand a little and making something happen once we were no longer speculating but dealing with real problems.
Once the wheels touched down at Denver International I had an email waiting with details of my changed flight to the next day as anticipated. The system must have done this automatically when I didn’t make my connection and the DEN-PIT flight had departed. But what wasn’t there were any further details. Where was my hotel? Did they provide meal vouchers? Was there any compensation for a delay that would cost me almost an entire day? There was nothing in the app or in the email.
We were told a gate agent would be there to assist when we got off the plane. That was an outright lie. There was an agent telling passengers about gate assignments for connections and that was it. I asked her if she or her colleague (at the computer) would be able to assist me with my issue, she said no and pointed me toward a customer service station. There was no one there when I arrived. I went in the opposite direction to find another customer service station with 50+ people in line and no visible priority lane.
Used Get Out of Jail Free Card
I received a handful of United club lounge passes from both the United credit card and Hyatt’s Globalist packet. I have been saving them for use in a special situation, this was just such the occasion. At the United Club West (Terminal B) I entered the doors with coupon in hand. I approached the checkin desk, manned by a pair of older gentlemen. I chose the right side and held out my entry coupon for collection. I waited there with my outstretched hand while he refused to collect it or even acknowledge my presence. I huffed aloud, “Fine” and went to the other side. He looked at me as though I had cursed him out in church.
At the top of the escalator, I was furious and short-fused. I had been delayed substantially (most of which was the delay in catering the aircraft – I guess this is a problem system-wide). I was given nearly no alternative options, rebooked on a flight that wouldn’t work for my plans without my consent and told there would be support when we landed. When there wasn’t any such support I was pointed to a customer service booth with no customer service reps, found another customer service station with an hour long line and no priority lane. When heading to the lounge, I was promptly ignored at the club checkin like I wasn’t even there. By the time I reached the counter, the slightest thing could have set me off.
Then, like an angel sent from United’s secret customer-friendly headquarters, Tracey in the club absolutely saved the day. I explained my situation, how I felt left out in the cold by United at every turn and she solved all of my problems. She found me a route that made sense, gave me food vouchers; she even instructed me on how to get reimbursed for the hotel of my choice as opposed to wherever their system would have booked me. She saved the day when the rest of United’s staff and system fell down time and time again.
Easy Solutions to IRROPs
One area that American beats United is in IRROPS for elite travelers. Mechanical delays, weather delays, crew delays all happen regardless of the carrier. I don’t expect an airline to always get it right, that’s unfair to them and sets me up for failure. However, when something did go wrong, an American representative in a hub city would greet the aircraft with a list of connecting flight gates for those who could still make their connection, and replacement tickets for those who could not. For elite travelers, they might be greeted with a ticket for tomorrow, some food vouchers for that evening and hotel arrangements made.
United had none of that. There were plenty of experienced flyers on the plane that knew what to do in such a situation, but there were plenty that flew just once a year and they were kind of aimlessly wandering once leaving the arriving gate area.
The simple solution is to have an empowered agent with clear plans for arriving passengers at the gate.
- Calls to connecting flight gates should be made when the aircraft lands and transport for those with tightest connections (identified before the agent gets to the gate).
- Replacement tickets printed for all pax who have missed their flight, waiting with the agent.
- In the case where rebooking may take some further consideration (no more flights to JFK for the night but options to LGA or Newark), have those items prepared and pull those pax to the side.
- If United is going to rebook passengers on a flight the next day and pick up their hotel anyway, why not have that planned and waiting for passengers when they land? It’s their obligation as it was a mechanical delay, so why make me stand in line and delay other passengers who stand behind me waiting for service?
- If alternative flights can be booked while a pax is inflight and changes sent by email, why not send the rest of it by email too? Why do I have to wait in line or bother a gate agent? Had my hotel been booked when I landed, I would have immediately left the airport and headed to the hotel to settle in for the night.
- Just have a plan and execute it, because like a kid putting off their homework, they are going to do it at some point anyway but delaying just makes it worse – get it out of the way and be a pro.
Have you had a good experience with Irregular Operations (IRROPS) on United or another carrier? How about your horror story, mine should be easy to top. What other options could be added to the easy fix list for IRROPS?