Tuesday, March 1, 2011

United - Why I Hate The Airline I Love

© United Continental Holdings
Every frequent flyer chooses an airline.  They pick their airline because of route network, average ticket price, and loyalty program.  In March of 2010, I picked United.  Truth was, I had been flying for years, but never had I been in a place where I could reach a real tier in any loyalty program.  But last year I knew it would happen.  So I worked tirelessly to arrange all of my travel on United Airlines, and while flying home from visiting the Future of Flight and Boeing Factory tour, I became Premiere on United.

As this year started I set out to become Premiere Executive.  A lofty goal, but one I would actively pursue.  I'm already 12 EQS (Elite Qualifying Segments) towards my goal.  But as United progresses with their merger, I've got a few things I'd like to get off my chest.

1. (lack of) Customer Service
I want to start by saying this: most of the United Employees who work at the airports and on the flights are mostly pleasant.  I have had a time or two where I would like to drag a United employee behind a 747, but for the most part, they are good people.  So why would I mention the lack of customer service?

Every flight starts with the booking process.  Booking on United isn't too hard.  Go to their website, pick your flights and you're ready to go.  But what happens if something goes wrong?  Up until a year ago when I would call the UAL Customer Service number I would talk to some nice person in Chicago.  Now I talk to someone in India.  I don't mind people from India at all.  The issue I have with these new (not)United employees is two fold.

First, they understand English, but not American.  When I talk, I say things that are related to my culture.  Things that someone on the other side of the world doesn't understand.  So it becomes hard to get my point across.  This has been an issue over and over.

Second, they work off of a script.  A few days ago I was in IND.  I was heading home and due to weather in Washington D.C. I was going to miss my flight home.  I contacted UAL Customer Service and explained my situation to the lady on the other side of the world.  Her solution was to book me on flights the next day.  I told her that I needed to get home that night and she just continued to say, "I will book you on tomorrow morning's flight".  She didn't understand my needs or how to handle them because it wasn't on her script.  I don't blame her, I blame United.

That also hasn't been the worst experience I've had.  I've been overcharged for upgrades and other anomalies because of the lack of good understanding.

2. The (outsourced) Main Line Service
The last main line service I flew on was UA576 on October 23rd.  So, if it weren't for GoJet Airlines, Shuttle America, Trans State Airlines, SkyWest, and Express Jet (these are the main ones I fly) I wouldn't get anywhere on United.  I enjoy the service I get, mostly on GoJet when I can fly Economy Plus, but I would rather fly in a larger jet with full United service (including on board purchases).

To step away from my gripes I would like to bring up this point: How is it cheaper to hire another company to do the same job?  I realize that outsourcing happens all the time, and companies do it because it creates a lower overhead, but what is the real cost?

The real cost happens when you spread your brand onto the paper of other companies.  Although SkyWest is a great airline, it's not United.  You can paint the plane, give the flight a UA flight number, have the Flight Attendants wear UA clothing, but it's still not United.  Every time I fly with a different regional carrier I get a slightly different service experience.  The consistency of the brand is lost.

There was a tweet I quoted in another post that said, "Southwest and JetBlue are brands, all others are just airline names."  It's right.  The United brand isn't a brand, it's just a name that is slapped on the side of United, Continental, ExpressJet, GoJet, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Colgan Air, Mesa Airlines, Shuttle America, Trans State Airlines, Chautauqua Airlines, Cape Air, CommutAir, and Gulfstream International airplanes.

I love this look at branding, "A brand is the essence or promise of what will be delivered or experienced." (persuasivebrands.com)  The only thing that the United brand can really promise is to get you from point A to point B, and sometimes they struggle with that.  United cannot promise what the experience will be like.  In fact, I would dare say that no Legacy Airline can because of their nature with outsourcing.

3. The (missing) Promotions
Ever since United unleashed their new Mileage Plus website, this is what I see:
"At this time we do not have any promotions available for you."  There are a number of things that I think about when I see this.  First, did the idea come, get created, and then fade away?  Why would someone think this was a good idea and then give up on it.  

Second, though, look at what Promotions can do for a company.  I'll start with Marriott.  Every year Marriott runs two or three versions of MegaBonus.  If you stay 20-25 nights in a given three month window you can earn anywhere from 25,000 - 50,000 MegaBonus points.  During the last run of MegaBonus I was one night shy of making my 50,000 point goal.  So, I stayed a night in my home town just to get the points.  

While at Flight Global's Loyalty 11 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, this last week, Maya Leibman (President of American Airlines' AAdvantage Program) said, "People will pay anything for a free trip."  I paid US$80 to spend a night in a hotel (which I didn't actually even sleep at, I just checked in) just to get 50,000 points.  United is missing opportunities left and right to get more money out of me.

Last, look at SAS.  Scandinavian Airlines created a program called Time to Forecast.  The idea was that a customer predicts how many flights they will take in a four month period.  If they are correct, they earn bonus points for the number of flights they predicted.  As a customer, I would love the opportunity to interact with an airline on this level.  It will allow me to help pick my reward amount.  And I promise that I would be the guy who buys one last flight to anywhere just to make sure I got to my award amount.

I want to be given options to win more points.  And I'm willing to pay anything for that free flight to Hawaii, so help me get there!  To United's credit, Optathalon was pretty sweet.  I enjoyed playing games to get free upgrades.  But it's gone now.  

4. (can't seem to) Stay in Touch
If you've flown United, you've seen their ad that says, "Be a Friend, Stay in Touch."  If you haven't seen it, the "F" of friend is the Facebook logo, and the "T" of Touch is the Twitter Logo.  If you've ever tried to interact with United online, you probably haven't gotten much of a response.  I use twitter a lot to seek customer service, and rarely do I get it when it comes to United.  I write many messages to them, and never hear from them.

What's interesting to me is that when United rebooks me on American flights and I tweet about it, I'm pretty sure I hear from every American employee saying that they are glad they can get me home.   I also wonder why Southwest talks to me on Twitter more than the airline who I dedicate all of my dollars to.  

It would seem to me that United needs to get out of their legacy thinking and dive into Social Media, so that I can communicate with them.  But that's just me.

In the same category, I still don't understand why GoGo inflight wireless is only on P.S. flights.  Business travels make up most of United's base, give us a way to keep working in the air!

5. Why I (don't) Hate United.
I can gripe and complain all day long.  I get frustrated every time I call customer service.  I hate that United won't help me get what I need.  But, I still love United.  Nothing beats Economy Plus.  And I mean nothing (except United First, of course).  I love the fact that I can get round trip to Hawaii for 40,000 miles.  I love the people who work for United.  

I don't hate United, but much a good friend, there are some things I would love to see changed.  What bothers you about United, or your airline of choice?  What would you like to see in an airline?  Let me know, I'm curious.  For me, if United just got Dr. Pepper on their flights I would be much happier.  

But, hey, I'm just a guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?

1 comment:

Nate said...

You'd be amazed by how disappointed most airline employees are by these failures. Remember we're "married" to our employers far more unbreakably than to our spouses because of the seniority system none of us enacted but must spend our careers working within. MBAs who can and do wander from company to company with impunity make policies and decisions with which we, the bonded front line employees must try to salvage some kind of not-negative experience for the customers who represent the ongoing viability of our careers.