United Airlines — The weakest link strikes again


Low-paid employees, the weakest link, can create very expensive problems.


weakest linkAs a travel agent and an elite-level frequent flier with United, I deal with a lot of their personnel on a regular basis. Although the CEO managed to make matters worse, the low-paid weakest link in their customer service operation failed.

To be fair, most United employees were probably as appalled by what happened on the Chicago-Louisville flight as most “civilians.”

On the other hand, with United, other airlines, hotels, tour operators, and so on, the situation did illustrate a sad truth most of us in the travel industry know — sometimes, the weakest link fails. To paraphrase the  TV show,  goodbye to all your hard work and your customer relations.

Details may emerge later. For now, I have no idea how experienced the United agents were who made the call to airport security, or even if they were United employees.  They could have worked for United Express, Republic Airlines (as in this case), or a contract staffing firm. However, all personnel involved, except the police, operated under the airline’s contract of carriage.

My conjecture is that they weren’t that experienced. Of course, there is the obvious question, “Why didn’t they up the ante until they found volunteers?” Plus, as a travel agent, I was somewhat surprised that not only did the United gate agents fail to offer a rental car along with the voucher to get volunteers to Louisville, but that they didn’t think of a number of other solutions.

Maybe other airline flights on Southwest and American Airlines were full as well. However, I have no idea if the United gate agents checked. A four-and-a-half hour drive may seem too long, but United also has flights to Lexington, only a 90-minute drive from Louisville. Plus, there were flights to Cincinnati, an EASY two-hour drive on the interstate. (I speak from experience, and I don’t love driving.)

Maybe a supervisor with experience could have been called in. Then again, this sort of incident, on a smaller scale, happens all the time in the travel industry. It’s amazing we aren’t all driven mad.

Here are just a few examples of the weakest link failures. The brand names are omitted because these are all hotels and tour companies who usually do a great job.

  • A family with young children books 10 months in advance at a top Hawaii hotel. The hotel makes an exception and guarantees a connecting room. I’ve talked to the manager and they’re also getting free breakfast and welcome gifts. When they arrive, not only are the connectors not available, but the person who assigned rooms that day somehow had no clue who they were, let alone confirmed. To add insult to injury, when my clients finally get their rooms, the welcome gifts never arrive. They were sent to the original rooms to which the first employee had assigned them.  (The hotel eventually made it up to them, but it was not a great start to their vacation.)
  • I’ve called hotels after booking rooms for a night-before arrival for clients willing to spend a lot of money after a red-eye to guarantee a bed to sleep in. When they arrived, their room had been given away.
  • I made a  phone call recently to advise a hotel that a client’s wife, with a different name, would be checking in first. To no avail, the five-star hotel refused to let her in the room because the check-in agent didn’t see the note in the room record. Worse, the agent treated her as if she was lying. (That one resulted in a free stay next time.)
  • One problem that I was able to fix recently involved a canceled flight. A gate agent who didn’t consider looking at San Jose, an hour from San Francisco, when all SFO (San Francisco Airport) flights were full, finally saw the light and allowed the substitute reservation.
  • My own experience, flying from Louisville to San Francisco, resulted in a five-hour-plus delay. And, my bags arrived 36 hours later. To make a very long story short, the original flight to Houston was late, but another United Express flight to Houston was also delayed. It was sitting at the gate with 20 open seats and an open door. One reservations agent told me it should be fine to board and make my connection. But, the United Express contract employee wouldn’t let me on the plane because he had already closed out the flight. He needed a supervisor, who wasn’t around, to approve adding anyone. There is nothing quite like watching a plane sit for almost an hour before closing the door and taking off, knowing that means you are stuck. Although, I suppose it beats being dragged off a flight.

In these and other cases, the front-line employee or employees who made the mistake(s) may or may not have been new and/or underpaid.  They might just have been having a bad day. However, just as one person can be a hero, another person can completely sour an experience.

Dealing with the traveling public isn’t easy. There’s no way to make things perfect. Humans aren’t perfect. It might be nice if United, and other airlines, and all travel suppliers, made an effort to really make customer service a priority. This means not just prioritizing on-time flights, maximum room revenue, and minimum labor costs. It means rewarding positive feedback. It means upping the ante on discretion — whether it’s in payment for volunteers or amenities for hotel guests who’ve had problems. And maybe, just maybe, it means getting good people on the front lines by paying a decent salary.