United Airlines Inconsistent Service: System Or People Problem?

May 28, 2010

I am sitting in the United Airlines Red Carpet Lounge waiting to board a flight to London. I got access to the lounge because I purchased the Premier Travel Plus option when I reserved my flight. This option got me Economy Plus seating and access to the lounge, which I wanted because my connecting flight in San Francisco was five hours early.This upgrade cost me well over $250.

I first checked into the lounge a few hours ago. When I checked in, the person looked me up in a computer, then verified that I could enter the lounge. I got some free junk food and coffee and went to log on to the WiFi hotspot. The T-mobile login page clearly says that Red Carpet One-Time pass holders (I think that is me) get access to free WiFi via a pin number. When I asked two different United Airlines lounge employees about this, both told me I needed to be a business class or higher customer to get the $8 worth of free WiFi. One told me she would look to see if she could find any old ones lying around that I could use. I was confused and disappointed, but because I was also hungry I uncharacteristically did not challenge them.

I left the lounge to get some dinner. When I returned, a different person was at the desk. He too checked me in, but this time he gave me without my prompting two drink coupons and a card with a pin number to access the T-mobile WiFi for free. So I am enjoying a free glass of pretty good wine as I type and post this from the United Airlines Red Carpet lounge.

How do you explain the very inconsistent service experience I had with United Airlines today? Is this a crappy people problem, or a crappy system problem? I know how I would answer that question, what about you? For an upgrade that costs so much money, why would United Airlines make an $8 benefit an issue? Or is the problem the interface between T-mobile (providing the WiFi service in the lounge and the wording for the login) and United Airlines that caused the confusion in my expectations?

I look forward to reading your responses from London and Spain! 🙂

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  1. Newsletter August 2010 « Clemens Rettich | September 1, 2010
  1. I’ve encountered these kinds of inconsistencies many times over the years during air travel. It’s especially unpredictable when traveling overseas. I’d have to say it has gotten steadily worse as air travel has gotten increasingly constrained by security issues.

    I once got to an airport 3 hours early. I’d been camping for a week and I had an Air Force survival knife (about a 10″ blade) buried at the very bottom of my backpack. The pack was all wrapped in plastic wrap ready to be checked, except the airline wouldn’t take my pack because … they only accept checked bags up to 90 minutes early. I went through security with it (somehow!) and tried to stuff it into a locker. It wouldn’t fit. So I went back out and tried valiantly to find somewhere to leave it (since you can’t just leave stuff sitting around at airports). I talked with some security guy and he said there was nothing he could do. I also talked with someone at their unclaimed baggage area, and he said since it wasn’t “unclaimed”, they couldn’t take it.

    I figured … well, I made it through security once, maybe I’ll get through again, and just let it keep me company while I ate something. No such luck! This time several burly guys surrounded me and the head of security was summoned. They wanted to search my pack. I’m like, “How LONG do you think it’ll take to get that knife out of my pack?”

    They were just very stoic and said I couldn’t get through security with that knife in my pack. Tempers were escalating. I finally said, “Look, you can keep my pack for all I care. I’m tired, cranky, and REALLY HUNGRY. The airline won’t take it as checked baggage; it won’t fit in a locker; you won’t let me take it to the food court because it’s on this side of security; and there’s nowhere to eat or store it out there. What can we do?”

    The head guy stared at me for a rather long time, picked up his radio and talked with someone for a minute, then said, “Ok, come with me please.”

    He put my pack on a cart and wheeled it down to their “unclaimed baggage” area. The guy who was there earlier and told me they couldn’t accept it was gone. This time the lady there took my pack and gave me a numbered ticket; the security guy told me to pick it up only when I can check it immediately. I said that was fine, thanked them, and went to get something to eat.

    That was in 1997. I can’t imagine what would happen in that scenario today. Since they advise people to get to the airport 2 hours ahead of time now, I’d hope they now let you check your bags more than 90 minutes before departure.

    When I travel, I’ve come to the conclusion that “there’s nothing routine about air travel” these days. Sometimes things actually go quite smoothly. But I any more, I just expect to run into things like what you did. Hopefully the rest of your trip will be less complicated.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    that is a crazy story, David. A good example of how employees will find ways to work around the crappy systems we force them to have to deal with. Seems everyone but leadership knows how crappy the system is. Thanks!

  2. You should have known better: Uniteds service is well known – even for breaking guitars!

    Watch and listen on Youtube:
    Song 1

    Song 2

    Song 3

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Very famous videos. They have not broken anything of mine yet! Thanks, Bret

  3. Paul Kiser says:

    Dr B:

    I think I saw a Tweet that you arrived in Spain and I hope you’re catching up on sleep.

    You probably know my opinion about United. I wrote a blog about how I thought the United/Continental merger would bring both airlines down.

    Being from Denver and knowing a former pilot/777 pilot trainer has led me to believe that poor service is a system problem. The airline operated under high standards of quality and the employees were proud to work there into the 1990’s, but then the management shifted focus off the customer and onto the investors. Employees have gotten mixed messages about what is important and long-term employees have become cynical (and they are probably justified to feel that way.)

    I’m convinced that many employees hate their jobs and yet feel they can’t afford to leave. (hmmm, does that environment sound familiar?) I don’t think United is inconsistent…they are consistently bad, but from time to time you run across the newer employee who’s attitude hasn’t been poisoned yet.

    I also don’t feel that United Airlines can recover. The merger was an effort to show investors that management was doing something, but it does nothing to solve the core issue of employees who hate their jobs. The merger may have stayed the execution, but when your employees are cynical it is almost impossible to create a positive customer experience.

    Have a great time and I’m looking forward to your blogs!


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I do remember your post. I share your low expectations of United. Problem is they are almost a necessary evil for us living in Reno. I can say the service between SF and London was better than I expected. True, I did not expect much and was prepared for lousy service, but the attendants on this flight did a good job. But I agree with you that they have serious systemic problems. Thanks! Bret

  4. Audra says:

    I have had this experience with all kinds of services, from banks to rental cars. I find that sometimes I just have to call back or see another teller to find the one that will answer the question the way I want. I think it is both a system and a people probelm. Some people really want to help and be helpful, and some systems make it really hard to ‘work around’.

    In my opinion, the ideal is a great system with helpful people working to take care of the customer.

  5. davidburkus says:

    Sorry I’m just getting to this post. I’m guessing its a system issue. The first person was following the system, the other had experience in where to break with he system in order to make a customer happy.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I don’t think either knew what the system really was. I think they were both just doing their best. Crappy system if you ask me 🙂 Thanks, David!

  6. In 2009, United Airlines lost a reported $651 million dollars. Not a surprise. I have a pocket full of not-so-good stories about United Airlines. I do my very best to avoid them unless I cannot get another flight with a different carrier. I think it is a leadership problem. The fish stinks from the head down. The result is crappy systems and crappy people.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Ouch, Jeff! I’d say you really don’t like UA 🙂 Tough for us to avoid living in Reno. Not that many choices. Thanks! Bret

    Jeffrey Benjamin Reply:

    My last experience with UA a couple of weeks ago was a nightmare! At the airport right now heading out on the best carrier in the USA: Southwest Airlines. Out of the hundreds of flights with them I have never had a bad experience. They have the right leadership, the right people, the right systems.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Concur that SWA is a winner. I too always enjoy flying with them. Hope you have a great trip. Thanks! Bret

  7. The system. Always. Businesses are not families or public school systems where there are no options for selecting the right people.

    Businesses have standards (intentional or passive), hire according to those standards, train according to those standards, and promote/retain/let go according to those standards.

    I tell my clients: from the customers’ perspective it’s never the employees fault. You didn’t set the standards, you didn’t hire the right person, you didn’t train appropriately, or you didn’t evaluate and adjust properly. Any which way you look at it: it’s your fault.

    Companies like Southwest, Westjet in Canada, and many other great employers (the Great Little Box Company is a well-known BC example) get this. Why others remain willfully ignorant and passive in this area mystifies me.

  8. Jim says:

    It is most likely the system the Agents have to use. In this day and age, airlines swap in staff to cover breaks, vacations and absences.
    These “newbie’s” to the lounge might be fine handling the day to day check-in tasks (that is their main job), but when placed in the lounge they have neither the time nor the inclination to read up on all the ever-changing business rules concerning access. (just ask anyone travelling on an Alliance carrier that is using another partners Lounge) A system has to be in place that can consistently apply the access business rules, be quick to master and as fast as a pencil tick on a piece of paper. Too often the passenger is more aware of the changes in policy than the Agent they are dealing with and that’s not necessarily the fault of the Agent.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jim. Shocking that the passenger might know more about policy than an agent. The lounge area seems to me to be an opportunity to impress customers. Oh, I forgot, most airlines don’t care about impressing customers! Thanks, Bret

  9. Jim says:

    Not so surprising, you have to remember the customer is sent the change in policy concerning their particular club and because it’s important to them they easily commit it to memory. The average agent is sent a ton of procedural changes concerning security, airport procedures,union stuff as well as all the marketing material. I am sure they have a binder somewhere, but who has time to go through it when you are running from gate to gate to work the next flight? The key is to have a system that is centrally managed, you make the policy change there, it is reflected everywhere in the system at the same time.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    But isn’t there a manager somewhere that can keep employees briefed on changes? It is complex, but it’s not difficult. Thanks! Bret

  10. Natmac says:

    According to W. Edwards Deming: Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them. “How’s that working for you at United Airlines?”… “What, you’ve never heard of it?”…..hmmm who knew?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Ha! concur, thanks for sharing. Bret