Warning: Rant ahead. This is about the erosion of customer service and convenience at United Airlines and how an app dealt the deathblow to a decades-old relationship.
Because I am 6’6″ tall, they long ago squeezed me out of coach and forced me to buy first-class tickets. Now, their avarice is squeezing me out of the sky. If ever there were an argument for splitting up a behemoth to create more competition in an industry, United is it. Are you listening, Congress and FAA?
This story starts innocently enough. Last week, I had reservations to/from Chicago on United Airlines. While checking in at the airport kiosk, I was presented with an array of automated up-sell pitches.
- Do you want to check extra luggage (for a fee)? (No.)
- Do you want to purchase additional miles? (No.)
- Do you want to purchase additional legroom? (No.)
“Gee. Enough already!” I said to myself. Technology in the service of greed was slowing things down.
But why hurry? I had the pleasure of a 90-minute TSA line ahead. I got x-rayed, got groped, got my hair gel confiscated, got to the gate … and found no nearby seating. So I stood in a boarding line for another half hour.
Once on-board, I found that my first-class seat didn’t recline and that the padding was as thin as a pancake. Net: I’ve had more comfortable rides on live bulls.
United made up for it, though, by not serving a meal on a lunchtime flight. Nor did we get any of those little extras that you expect with a first-class ticket.
But those were just minor inconveniences. Because United charges so much to check bags, they have trained customers to carry on their luggage. So naturally, take off was delayed as people tried to squeeze it all into overhead compartments.
Better yet, when they ran out of overhead room in coach, the flight attendant tried to make more room by moving luggage around. My one, small carry-on wound up several rows back, behind some giant bags. This meant I couldn’t get to my reading glasses during a two-hour and forty-five minute flight. But what the hell! You have to play hurt, right?
My adventure was just starting, though. For the return flight, also in first class, I managed to get to the airport early. You guessed it. I could take an earlier, less full flight … for an up-charge. Again, I declined.
Now, for the exciting third and final act. After waiting two hours for my original flight, an attendant suggested downloading the United app. It was supposed to improve my “customer experience” by allowing me to watch in-flight video on my 4-inch smartphone. But as I was exploring the app’s features, I learned that United had wiped out all of my frequent flier miles – years’ worth … without warning. So when I returned to Houston, I contacted them. I was told that my miles had been taken away because I didn’t fly United enough. However … you guessed it … I could buy them back … for a fee!
At this point, I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve met nicer pickpockets.” United Airlines charges extra for service that they don’t deliver, then punishes me when I don’t fly United enough! That’s genius, folks! I’ll tell you this. Vladimir Putin could learn a thing or two from United Airlines.
So I wrote United and said, “Please reinstate my miles and I will continue flying United. Don’t and I won’t.” They refused to restore my miles.
It was the last straw. They won. They beat me. Squashed me like a bug. Eighty-six thousand employees, an army of bean counters and legions of lawyers working together utterly destroyed decades of goodwill.
I’m not the only upset passenger. Within the last week, my wife and son had equally delightful experiences on United – each at different airports. Incredibly, both had flights cancelled and were re-booked on flights that had already taken off!
United managed to screw up three people in one household in one week … all in separate incidents. What are the odds? Pretty good evidently … if you’re United Airlines.
Last year, United experienced a 4.4% year-over-year decline in revenue per available seat mile in 2015. And the trend is worsening. For the first-quarter of this year, United Airline’s revenue per available seat mile decreased even more – 7.4% compared to the first quarter of 2015.
Is it because of the way United treats customers? Surely not! In a company press release, Oscar Munoz, president and chief executive officer of United Airlines, insisted, “I am extremely proud of United’s … strong results – including the improvements in our … customer satisfaction.”
Earth to Oscar! What will United do next to improve my satisfaction? Install pay toilets? Charge extra for real toilet paper? Offer locks on loos … for an extra fee?
There was a time when airlines competed on the basis of service; now they compete by eliminating competition. Mergers have given the top four U.S. airlines a combined market share of more than 80%. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him? Will Congress please wake up? This is an election year. Candidates, take note. Focus on something people really care about. Reduction of customer choice has allowed United and others to tack surcharges on the pain they inflict. Where and when will it all stop?
For me, it stops here and it stops now. I’m not waiting for Congress. I plan on flying Chevrolet whenever I can from now on.
The seat in my Tahoe will recline. It has plenty of padding. I don’t have to pay extra for legroom. I can leave whenever I want. I can eat better food. TSA won’t grope me. My luggage will be safe. And I won’t have to pay extra to change lanes.
It may take a few more hours to get there, but I’ll save thousands of dollars and be far more comfortable. Best of all, I’ll bet I meet some really nice people along the way.
Note: I wrote this post in 2016 and did not post it until December 2022. I have never flown United in all that time.