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

| Tuesday January 12th, 2010 | 16 Comments

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.


▼▼▼      16 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • nicksowden21

    What took you so long? I'll pay up to double to avoid a United Airlines Flight.

    By the way, Southwest lets you change your flight FOR FREE, ANYTIME. Including the day of your flight. No joke! And you can do it online if that's your bag.

  • Nick Sowden

    What took you so long? I'll pay up to double to avoid a United Airlines Flight.

    By the way, Southwest lets you change your flight FOR FREE, ANYTIME. Including the day of your flight. No joke! And you can do it online if that's your bag.

    • jwiseman

      SWA also requires for low non refundable rates changing day of travel, change permitted subject you buy up to the ANYTIME fare, which for some origin/destination may be up to double the price of your original ticket. Thus, change FOR FREE, ANYTIME, evidently is not a direct quote from SWA! But if that's your bag.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

    Make sure you also cancel the credit card by phone, otherwise they'll continue to charge you that $60 annual fee. Of course, your credit score will suffer a momentary decline due to your decline in available credit, but that too is a post for another day.

    • Rob in San Francisco

      One additional comment I'd like to add to Jen's. I decided that I didn't want to pay the $79 credit card fee for a US Airways World Mastercard. It took me 40 minutes on hold with Barclays bank but instead of canceling the card entirely and having it ding my credit score (less credit means that your debit to credit ratio will be affected) I asked if I could simply convert the card to a normal Barclay's card without an annual fee. Everyone wins then and your credit rating won't take a hit. So make sure you ask if United (or any airline) has a card that is available with no annual fee. Don't cut off your nose in spit of your face! Good luck. Credit cards companies and most airlines suck for the most part. I do LOVE Virgin America and Jet Blue and Southwest are also much nicer to deal with

  • zvans

    That post about “difficulty redeeming miles” is almost 5 years old.

    Try finding something more current to complain about. United now allows mileage plus customers to redeem miles on airfare, hotels, or cars. I know the name of the website is “pundit” but if you're going to complain, at least complain about something relevant.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

      Dude, that's the writer's own rant from 5 years ago. As you can see he's been tracking this story for a while.

      • jwiseman

        The writer evidently was very upset for years! Unfortunately, despite “vowing” never to do business with United, throwing cards away and “dishing” others' faults, his experience will never go away. As he improves his life, I believe United will improve their services. Hopefully SWA will “never” fail him.

  • Kathy2

    As soon as Southwest starts flying into Charlotte I'll be switching also.

  • Erin in Aus

    Wow, have you been following me? After flying to the US from Australia (and back again) over the holidays, I too have vowed, once again, to never fly United. Given their price competitiveness in the Aussie market, I don't know how long this conviction will last, but I've been scarred enough by this last experience to remember it for a long, long time. Customer service is an after thought, and it only takes 1 trip with an airline like Air New Zealand or even Southwest to see the difference.

  • http://twitter.com/gfriend Gil Friend

    Yep, I hate those big yellow arrows – and any vendor that demands eternal vigilance.

    Re “I’ve just tossed my United Visa card in the trash.”: Hope you cut it up first.

    • jwiseman

      It is evident the writer hesitated to mention 80% of all online ads and processes that include such marketing techniques. He is upset. Frustration noted.

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  • http://twitter.com/elizlk Elizabeth Krueger

    I'm still a loyal United customer when I fly, for a few reasons:
    - I fly out of San Francisco, a United hub
    - United is one of the few airlines that will accommodate pets in the cabin, and I travel to visit family several times a year, with my dog
    - there is a legacy loyalty aspect (at one point, I was a 1K flier with them)
    - when I had to spend 30 minutes on the phone getting a schedule changed after they made a schedule change that left me with a longer-than-necessary connection, the customer service agent was so apologetic that it took that long, she issued me a $150 flight credit – without me ever complaining
    - on a recent flight from O'Hare to SFO, the flight crew did a great job keeping us informed of a delay when a mechanical issue was discovered during an aborted takeoff, and they did a nice job of keeping us comfortable during the 2-hour delay
    - I'd rather not wait in cattle holding pens to get my seat (a la Southwest)

    I also hate the add-on sales on the website, though.

  • isamarie

    My only complaint about United is that their staff are a little less pleasant than their European counterpart, whether it is BA, Air France, Lufthansa or even Brussels Airlines. It is like flying with a bunch of grumpy college teachers, tired of seeing your face after a long week of teaching. Not totally consumer friendly. Specially if you fly with kids.

  • lflaccav

    We flew United from the US and back. On the way to Rome, Dec.29- 30, which is a shorter flight, the crew waited to feed us our second meal about an hour before we landed. This made sense because it was breakfast time and it woke everyone up nicely and ready to land.

    However, on the return trip, the crew fed us our first meal very soon after we took off (about 11.30am Italy time) and for anyone who had breakfast it was really too soon. But the biggest problem was they waited to feed us our 2nd snack until about an hour before we landed in DC which was about 8 hours after we had the first meal and at about 2:15 eastern standard time. Let me tell you, we were hungry and everyone around us was restless particularly because the crew did not put any movies in for the last 2 hours. It was like a jungle with children whining, people walking the aisles, everyone looking at each other like: Why are we being treated this way?

    When I got up to ask why they were not feeding us I was told in a very curt way that they were taking their breaks, that this was the way “it was”. Now many of the crew were quite nice but the fellow, older than the others, and a woman with I think an Australian accent were not polite. They were yucking it up socializing when I asked about the snack. A woman after the flight told me that she heard how rudely I was treated and she was going to write a letter as well. The rhythms of this flight were way off. Again no food for too long and no video to keep people busy was a huge mistake after about 10 hours of being on the plane. When did they finally put on the next set of movies?….about 30 minutes before we landed! This made me never want to travel United Airlines again. After looking online for a mailing address for UAL, I now see that I am among the many who think this airline ain't the one to book!!

  • lflaccav

    We flew United from the US and back. On the way to Rome, Dec.29- 30, which is a shorter flight, the crew waited to feed us our second meal about an hour before we landed. This made sense because it was breakfast time and it woke everyone up nicely and ready to land.

    However, on the return trip, the crew fed us our first meal very soon after we took off (about 11.30am Italy time) and for anyone who had breakfast it was really too soon. But the biggest problem was they waited to feed us our 2nd snack until about an hour before we landed in DC which was about 8 hours after we had the first meal and at about 2:15 eastern standard time. Let me tell you, we were hungry and everyone around us was restless particularly because the crew did not put any movies in for the last 2 hours. It was like a jungle with children whining, people walking the aisles, everyone looking at each other like: Why are we being treated this way?

    When I got up to ask why they were not feeding us I was told in a very curt way that they were taking their breaks, that this was the way “it was”. Now many of the crew were quite nice but the fellow, older than the others, and a woman with I think an Australian accent were not polite. They were yucking it up socializing when I asked about the snack. A woman after the flight told me that she heard how rudely I was treated and she was going to write a letter as well. The rhythms of this flight were way off. Again no food for too long and no video to keep people busy was a huge mistake after about 10 hours of being on the plane. When did they finally put on the next set of movies?….about 30 minutes before we landed! This made me never want to travel United Airlines again. After looking online for a mailing address for UAL, I now see that I am among the many who think this airline ain't the one to book!!

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