United Airlines Demonstrates How to Lose Customers: Death by 1000 Cuts

An often overlooked aspect of sustainability concerns positive relations between a company and its myriad stakeholders – with the customer usually the first and most basic stakeholder to maintain good relations with. It’s not rocket science – treat people well and you’ll get treated well, customers will return and so on. Fail to do that and eventually your competitors will take your place – even stealing away your most loyal former customers. If you can’t even manage to build goodwill among the people you serve, then how can your company take on the greater challenges of sustainability – more abstract stakeholders, the environment, and so on?

The airline industry is in flux – driven by high fuel prices, insane security restrictions, environmental challenges, and a general economic malaise. It’s no surprise therefore that cuts have to be made and inconvenience tolerated by all. But there are lines that, even when under stress, a company shouldn’t cross. It’s time to pick on United Airlines. This isn’t to say other airlines haven’t declined in their general customer service outlook in recent years, just that United has made some of the most egregious boondoggles I’ve personally encountered.

Let’s start with a website trick:

The United Airlines Arrow Trick (Image From www.portugal.com)

When checking in online for a flight, United offers the customer the choice to upgrade their ticket as well as a number of other things. That’s fine. The problem is the button to accept their offer is a large yellow arrow and the button to decline and continue is merely a nondescript text link. If you’re paying attention you won’t accidentally click on the upgrade link, but the very fact that United designed it this way shows nothing short of contempt for their customers – it is literally designed to trick people into buying things they don’t intend to purchase.

What kind of company, except perhaps a casino, would engage deliberately in this kind of shenanigan?

Fees, fees, and more fees.

I wouldn’t say the fees at United are any more obnoxious than any other major carrier, and I don’t want to rant about them since so many other sites have mastered that art. But why must one airline decide it’s okay to nickel and dime just because competitors do? It’s very obvious that Southwest Airlines (though second-rate for other reasons) continues to win the hearts of customers by avoiding petty fees and being far more transparent when fees are needed. Win for Southwest!

A Dead Frequent Flyer Program

There are two reasons people fly “legacy carriers” such as United. One is for international travel and second is the frequent flyer program including the free first class upgrades that high-status customers can earn. This remains a huge difference between them and the so called discount airlines like Southwest, JetBlue or Virgin America. To be fair it’s clearly the main thing keeping them in business and very frequent fliers will continue to fly them as long as first class upgrades and reciprocity on other networked airlines continues. As long as that’s the case, these guys will stay alive, if ever so slowly more hated.

Despite that fact, United and others have made it more and more difficult to redeem miles, the subject of another post for another time, but chalk it up for another dozen cuts in the slow decline of a once proud company.

The Final Straw

Tonight I realized that a free flight I’d booked some time ago was no longer going to work with my schedule. Until now, United’s “Mileage Plus” frequent flyer program was one of the few places you might expect reasonable service from – given that if you’ve earned a free flight, you’re obviously a loyal customer. In fact, canceling my free ticket was a still a painless and free process. I was dismayed to find out, however, that canceling simply meant re-scheduling the same flight for a later date. If I wanted to change the flight’s destination, or simply send the miles back to my account, I’d have to pay a $150 fine.

And that is the end of my relationship with United Airlines. I’ve just tossed my United Visa card in the trash (doesn’t deserve recycling) and will switch to Southwest despite the loss of international benefits.

So, yes, this is a late night rant, but it has a real point. I really don’t think United Airlines deserves to be in business given what really feels like utter disdain for a loyal customer. But assuming they, or other airlines read this, let’s hope it sinks in a little. Be real people. Don’t forget your customers are real people. Why play games with them? There are emerging alternatives and customers like me are on the move.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.