The Joys of Airline Travel to/in the U.S.

Monday, December 25, 2006 4:05
Posted in category The Big Picture

This last year has been one filled with airports as I have traveled a number of times within China (see China Air Travel: Everybody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen) and I have had 4 U.S. trips. Needless to say, I am used to the problems that may arise in the course of flying from point A to point B and have come to learn that certain things are simply out of the customer’s control:

  • Weather
  • Maintenance issues
  • Long lines at security
  • Head/ Tailwinds
  • Take-off/ landing delays
  • Food quality and choice (in airports and on planes)
  • Movie selection (747s do not have their own screens)
  • The size of the person next to you, and whether or not they snore
  • Whether or not the attendant is friendly or is in desperate need of a vacation themselves

During the trip, one of my flights on United was randomly canceled as “someone didn’t show up”, and as a result I was reassigned from my original flight plan that landed at 11pm in St Louis that day to a red eye flight from SFO to Chicago (landing 5am with a 3 hour layover as a bonus) with my connection to St Louis arriving at 9am.This new schedule was not my preference, but again, it is totally out of my control as industry consolidation has left few choices when flying domestically in the U.S, and my only other option was to spend another 125USD to stay in San Francisco and hope that the crew would make the flight the next day.

Where I was most bothered is not that the plane was canceled. I have come to expect that travel plans will go wrong, but when they do go wrong I expect that the people profiting from my travel to offer some measure of customer service when handling issues. As I told the ticket agent, I knew that the cancellation of the flight was as much his fault as global warming was mine, but now that I was being inconvenienced due to a United error and had to wait 6 more hours in SFO airport I was curious what United was willing to offer as compensation (hey.. I gotta try, and given SFO offers little in terms of services, I had 6 hours to kill).

  • Would United let me into their Red Carpet Lounges? No.
  • Was I given a coupon to get something to eat or drink? No.
  • Was I offered some extra miles or anything to compensate for this inconvenience? No

I was given an upgrade after pointing out that I have spent a significant amount of time flying around the world on United (8 trips in 2 years) and that their inability to get my plane in the air was an inconvenience to say the least. Well… they upgraded me half way at least…

With 6 hours in SFO, I realized that the one thing United could have done in this situation (as making their pilots show up is out of their control) is to set up an automated service that calls me when something like this happens. A simple “your flight has been canceled, please call United for further details” would have gone a long way. I could have made all the arrangements without leaving the city and thus spent more time in the city… rather than in an airport.

When designing customer satisfaction programs, I hope someone at United will take my automated phone/ short message system seriously. While a number of flyers will be in transit already, at least a portion of the flyers will be able to call from home to make the necessary arrangement. think about it, lines at the customer service line will be reduced, ticket agents will not have to scramble to find alternatives (thus reducing time others spend in line), and depending on how quick the service is, flyers may even have the chance to catch an earlier flight with another carrier (I had just missed a direct flight on American from SFO to St Louis). It is a win win for everyone.

For me, I am going to look at the costs (time and $$) of flying Singapore airlines from HK to the States. The service is ranked tops every year and I can use my miles to upgrade from any ticket (unlike United which requires either a special voucher or a minimum ticket price to be paid. doesn’t even matter if business class is half full. so much for “rewarding” frequent flyers).

Anyone care to comment on the rumors of Continental and United merging and what affect that will have on the service quality?

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