Sunday, October 9, 2011

This is a great United Airlines Horror story

We have spent a lot of time thinking about the right words to use to describe our recent experience with United Airlines. One word continues to bubble to the top: Appalling.
On June 17, our attempted United flight (#0930) from San Francisco to London has been cancelled due to a global computer breakdown on United Airlines. This has left our family angry, incredulous and certain that the way in which they treated us and other passengers has significantly undermined their brand integrity.
We expect to be properly compensated for this experience, which I consider a breakdown of nearly every facet of United Airlines' business. But first, let me briefly recount our experience as this information in this letter should be read and shared across their company, particularly given that, in your own words, "United is committed to continuous improvement and achieving success."
Earlier this year, our family (which includes our 7-year-old son), booked a non-stop flight on United from San Francisco to London for our dream vacation. It would be our first trip to England. We spent more than $5,700 for the non-stop round-trip flight, which included a pricey upgrade to their Economy Plus seats.
While it would have been much cheaper to fly and make a one stop (Sun Country Airlines, for instance, was offering a $1,000 per person round-trip fare), we decided to pay extra to travel United for the convenience of NOT stopping along the way, thereby getting to London quickly (anyone travelling with a young child can understand that decision). The Economy Plus seating was a large, extra sum as well, $297, and we made this decision after some debate.
At 5:15 p.m., we arrived in San Francisco to make our 7:15 p.m. flight; however, we were informed that their computers were all down. We are told that they had no idea when they would be back up (a single employee was dispatched to inform us, via walking through the increasingly frustrated crowds, to verbally update people, without the assistance of a bullhorn or microphone). The information was mostly useless and it was mostly left to the passengers to trickle down the information.
For five hours in that line, we waited with our luggage. There were more than 1,000 others in line with us. It was only at the 3 hour-30-minute mark that they begrudgingly offered water and Oreos, the latter of which wasn't really a favor.
Finally, their system went back up at 10:15 p.m. and, finally, United crew and passengers scrambled to board our flight to beat the FAA restrictions around the flight crews daily working hours. Passengers beat this deadline with one minute to spare. We were all seated, finally, and ready for our trip.
Apparently, we waited because their crew did not load the luggage in time. Then, the captain announced that the crew was missing a key flight document. Nonetheless, finally, we were told that we'd be taking off shortly. So we waited more.
A little after midnight, they cancelled the flight. Imagine the anger and disappointment. Really, imagine it. Even worse, we were stuck on the plane for an additional hour layering insult to injury because of their incompetence. Because apparently, United could not find someone to open the plane door. Yes, you read that right.
The day continues and when we were finally allowed to disembark the plane at 1:30 a.m., there were two police officers waiting by the jets door to be on the lookout, I assume, unruly passengers - there were just as many police officers as there were United staff members to book new tickets for the several international flights that were cancelled that night. There was no need for the police. The passengers here, having gone through this horrific experience, were models of professionalism. But, again, they put their airline squarely and firmly ahead of any feelings they had for their inconvenienced travellers.
At 1:50 a.m., a United employee told everyone that we would need to wait until 3 a.m. to get our luggage back. No one was offered a hotel. They did not broach this topic with us. We were not offered transportation to a hotel. We were not offered any vouchers. We were only told that, because the flight was officially cancelled, we would have the benefit of not incurring a fee for changing our flight plans. Um, some benefit. "Are you ** kidding me?" was the shared reaction among passengers.
Then, amazingly, things got even worse. We waited until 3:45 a.m. for luggage that never came. Their barebones, helpless staff at that point meant that we'd get no answers for anything. Angry, tired and with our 7-year-old limp in our arms, we left WITHOUT our luggage, spending our own money on a cab to get home. We had taken public transportation to the airport, but it wasn't operating in those wee hours of the morning. We arrived home at 5 a.m. about the time our initial flight should have landed in London.
There was no sleep for us. We had to set about contacting our hotel in England, being informed we would still need to pay for that night, and the next one, even though we were still in the United States. We had to contact our rental car agency, being informed the special discount we had received for reserving our car for a week would no longer apply as we would now be there for less than 7 days. We had to find a new flight spending a total of three hours on hold with United only to NOT get a live, breathing human on the phone. We had to find our luggage, contacting baggage support and telling them our story.
This is when United customer service practices become especially appalling. My wife is a cancer survivor, and her anti-cancer medication was in her suitcase. When she explained that to a baggage support team member, she was informed that the luggage was being held and was earmarked for London and they couldn't return it. Yes, you read that correctly.
Now take a moment to put yourself in this position, from the moment we had arrived at San Francisco airport, to now being told that our luggage may be going to London but not us. So, not surprisingly, my wife cried. Pointing out the need to have her cancer medication, she was told by an unhelpful staff that, while they understood the situation, they couldn't guarantee they could return it to her that day, even though our luggage HAD NEVER LEFT San Francisco. And here's the kicker: She was told that if United were to deliver the luggage to us, they would charge us for that convenience. The manager, however, was the first and only United employee throughout this harrowing odyssey to offer us anything more than an Oreo cookie and vague communications commitments. He said he would give us one $50 voucher for our troubles. PLEASE. Getting our luggage returned to us would have cost more than that!
So take a moment to think about what we experienced with United to this point. Think about their history of getting planes off the ground and in the air and servicing passengers and accounting for travel disruptions and unanticipated issues. Think about their actions. Think about every step of this experience and what it means to their brand.
Like others, we ultimately were left with no choice but to carry out our own research as no one at United would help us, and we identified a flight on a competing carrier that would leave Sunday, meaning we would, at a minimum, lose two days of our trip.
In other words, we are holding THEM accountable for our family being unable to see Stonehenge, Salisbury, the Longleat House, Cheddar Gorge, and the cheese factory in Cheddar. Those are experiences we will never get back that we spent months planning for in advance. We explained the situation to British Airways and had them put the tickets on hold. We were told we would need to go through United Airlines to release our tickets (that hadn't been done yet) and to get confirmation that they all would protect us.
So we had to go back to the airport Saturday (a one-hour drive) to retrieve our luggage and navigate the buffoonery of United to book a new flight ultimately, on British Airways. This took more than 3 hours of our time, even though we already had a confirmation of seats on British Airways.
Over the course of this awful experience, a number of themes clearly emerged: United, a global carrier, had absolutely no backup logistical plans in place after the global computer breakdown. Given the number of delays and cancelations in past years due to blizzards and even volcanic eruptions, this is mind boggling. United communication practices were abhorrent, lacking specifics, transparency and respect. United customer service was indifferent to this unprecedented failure on behalf of its passengers.
In short, we expect far more from their brand given their long history of navigating the myriad issues and topics I have outlined and recounted in this letter. We expect far more from an airline that charged us more than $5,700 as well as the other expenses we personally had to incur due to their incompetence and indifference.
This includes: Economy Plus airfare (we paid $297 for this service, but did not get it on our British Airways ticket) and we expect them to reimburse us for this.
We expect to be reimbursed for our transportation to and from the airport for the June 17 flight that was cancelled - $20 for a taxi ride to the Bart train; $33 for the Bart train; $30 for the taxi to a relative's home early Saturday morning. They saved United money by driving us the rest of the way home.
We expect to be reimbursed for the expenses associated with going back to the airport on June 18 to retrieve our luggage and get booked on a new flight: a $5 bridge toll, and $20 for short-term parking.
We expect them to cover the first two nights of the hotel we had booked in England that we lost because they were unable to get us to London on our time plan.
In addition, we expect to be compensated, in the form of either a complete refund or significant United travel vouchers, for something critically important and forever lost to us: our time. We spent the better part of two full days at an airport with a young child because they failed us. We went 36 hours without sleep and 21 hours without food. This was our first two-week vacation in eight years, and they stole two days of it from us!
As passengers, we had zero options as part of this experience. Because their computer system was down, they couldn't release our flight. When the system was back up at 10:15, although a reasonable airline would recognize the flight needed to be cancelled and they needed to protect the passengers, they did not do so. This is especially frustrating that the Sun Country Airlines flight to Minnesota for a connection to London had not left yet. They also held our luggage hostage, taking it from us and saying that they would charge us to get it back. In this highly competitive environment for airlines, where margins are low and fuel costs are high, they simply cannot forget, or overlook, the importance of stellar customer service. And they have failed us and many others.
I look forward to their prompt, careful response to this letter and to learn how they will maintain the brand standards they purport to have. How are they going to take care of this family? We have lost a lot of respect for their brand and, as they assess and verify our experience and come up with some viable options for us, I expect them to share this letter with as many leaders at United as they can.
As their own customer commitment says: "Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers."
Clearly, they failed us.

1 comment:

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