If you have ever flown United Airlines, you know that inconsistent and often indifferent service is one of their core competencies. They taught me that lesson about their company again when I flew them to/from New York City via Denver to attend The World Business Forum.
United is one of the many airlines that now charge for every checked bag. This creates a strong incentive for passengers to check fewer and carry on to the plane more bags. But more passengers carrying more bags onto planes to fit into the limited overhead bin space means an increased potential for late takeoffs. On-time takeoffs is one of the statistics tracked in the Airline Quality Rating report, where United Airlines’ overall quality ranked a dismal number 13 of 18 total airlines ranked in the report.
My first flight, UA 268 from Reno to Denver, was impressive. My third flight, UA 361 from La Guardia to Denver, was the exact opposite.
On UA 268, the ground crew made an announcement before the plane boarded that the flight was completely full, and they went on to explain this meant that overhead bin space would be a premium. They emphatically requested that only carry-on luggage be placed in the overhead bins, and that all other items (bags, coats, briefcases) be placed under the seat in front of you. The ground crew sold it, and the flight crew made it work. Every carry-on made it on the plane and the flight left on time.
On UA 361, the ground crew announced that the flight was completely full, but nothing was said to the passengers about what they should do to make sure all carry-on luggage was properly stowed so the plane could leave on time. I had an aisle seat in row 30, so I was among the last 20 or so passengers to board the plane. I was stopped in the jet bridge a few feet from the door of the plane and forced to check my carry-on bag (no charge). I was not happy about that because I knew it would cost me 20 additional minutes at the end of my trip to pick up the bag that was now in the belly of the plane instead of an overhead bin.
As I walked to my seat after surrendering my bag, I must have passed at least 7 wide open spaces in the overhead bins, including one right above my seat in row 30. I also passed at least 7 other bins that were stuffed with jackets and small bags that should have been under the seats in front of the passengers that brought them on the plane.
But the ground and flight crew of UA flight 361 used a different system than the ground and flight crew of UA 268. There was enough open overhead bin space on UA 361 for my bag and the bags of every passenger in line behind me, if they had used a more effect system.
At the end of UA flight 361, I approached two flight attendants to explain what happened to me and to make a suggestion for improvement. Knowing they have a tough job, I was purposefully calm and very polite. They blew me off completely. They made very little eye contact with me, never thanked me for my time and effort, and in the end told me in a very condescending way “you don’t understand.”
I understand very well, actually. The system they used to load the plane could have produced a different result. The crew of UA 268 taught me that, and I witnessed myself the open bin space that they told passengers did not exist. The system they used could have worked better, but they were not interested in improvement.
I understand very well that they work for a company where it is acceptable to not care about improvement and to be rude to customers that sincerely want to help. That’s simply unacceptable. I appreciate the fact that they focus on passenger safety and operational efficiency (on-time departure), but at United Airlines they seem to use that as an excuse to justify treating customers with indifference.
Because UA does not have better control over their systems, the customer experience is highly variable, subject to the idiosyncratic interactions between each ground and flight crew. This allows good will and positive social capital earned by crews on one flight to be wiped out by crews on other flights. It’s not the impressive service of UA 268 that will determine how I spend my money in the future; rather, it is the poor service of UA 361 that I will not soon forget.
Another big problem is the United Airlines systems are not designed to treat us as customers, only as passengers. Passengers are simply objects that have to conform to FAA regulations. Customers are human. Some customers are real jerks, but most of them know that employees have a tough job and really want to help. Customers also have voices and choices, and companies that treat customers with indifference and disrespect merit bad word-of-mouth marketing and lost business.
About the Author: Bret L. Simmons
Sites That Link to this Post
- Built to Deceive: When organizations intend to mislead us | October 14, 2010