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Bob Aho

Defending the indefensible, that's me... I have flown a lot, not so much over the past 5 years but a whole bunch prior to that. I agree that air travel has degraded, but why? Many reasons are likely but the one that sticks out in my opinion (emphasis on anecdote and opinion) is the American attitude for saving money, and willingness to accept poorer service to save money. We as a society are so focused on saving a buck, that we force service industries to race to the bottom. Entire industries are created with the sole purpose of saving a buck or two, and those industries punish those who attempt to offer quality over price. As a result we have a great divide - those who pay, and pay exorbitant prices for exemplary service, and those who pay the bare minimum for substandard service. Although this appears to blame the victim, there has to be some acknowledgement that this situation did not appear in a vacuum. How the airlines will reproduce the Apple model, where consumers pay a premium for functioning but not superior service, I don't know. But that is what needs to happen; Americans need to be taught how to recognize the difference between value and cheap. Not everything that is cheap is a good value, and not everything that costs more is a rip-off. BTW - when sending the minor on an unaccompanied trip, consider giving them a disposable cell phone to call home in cases such as this one. It can save a great deal of anxiety.

Mcqjunk

See if they can go to Change.org and start a petition. Anyone who's ever signed a petition there will get an email to read her story. I would petition to have the parents reimbursed, have them pay for her camp for next year, fire their outsourced company, and everyone involved. And then reevaluate their policies. This wasn't just luggage, this was a child!

Ellen Sandbeck

United Airlines lost Addie, her French teacher, and her entire HIgh School French Club group (twenty kids) on their way back from France quite a few years ago. When parents got to the airport to pick our kids up, we were told: "That flight doesn't exist," and then they shut the door in our faces. It took hours for us to finally find someone who told us that our kids were stuck in Chicago, and after waiting several more hours, running back and forth between various gates, expecting our kids to arrive on various flights that we were told they might arrive on, we were told we had to come back the next morning. The next morning and afternoon, no kids, finally they started coming in ones and twos on various flights, in the evening. It turned out that the kids had been told, after they were shut out of their originally scheduled flight, that they needed to get to one gate or another immediately, in order to catch a flight, so they'd been running back and forth across O'Hare for hours both days, trying to get home. I would NEVER fly United if I could possibly avoid it! Needless to say, we never used the ridiculous voucher we were given as compensation.

Sapintel

Dr Sutton, I would like you to comment - has the USA allowed United to grow to such an oligopolistic scale, that travelers are essentially unable to ‘vote with their wallet’ and choose another airline? If so, what do you suggest should be done differently in evaluating airline mergers? And if airline oligopolies lend themselves to horrible and unaccountable customer service, what about TBTF banks? Thank you.

Heuristocrat

We've all had bad experiences with airlines but in the past few months I've noticed *far* more horror stories from friends about United. That was before I saw this story and the many comments.

It's a dismal situation and I wonder what, if anything can fix it. United summarily canceled by 100K or so accumulated miles years ago because they "expired" so I haven't flown them in over a decade.

I think this is another example of where letting capitalists/stock price dictate everything the end result is some well fed lawyers and accountants walking away from a hollowed out remains of a real organization.

As the author points out SouthWest, Virgin, JetBlue and a daresay even Air France do a pretty good job of understanding that they are there to provide a service.

jik

Ridsel wrote: I don't wish to defend United at all, but I do wish to suggest that we (the flying public) are part of the reason that their employees are so disengaged. I regularly see passengers yelling and screaming at United employees when a flight is delayed...

I think you've got the cause and effect mixed up. I'm sure there are a few people out there who will scream and yell and carry on no matter how well they are treated. But in most cases, the yelling and screaming is the result of how people are treated, not the cause of it.

You're absolutely right that United employees have little control over what they can and cannot do to mitigate the way their airline abuses its customers. However, what they do have control over is the way they give bad news.

They can be sincerely apologetic and empathetic, or they can spend a half hour talking to their coworkers instead of helping the growing line of desperate passengers, rolling their eyes at people who are upset, telling them to go away, and making it clear in a myriad of ways that they have zero sympathy and what they'd really like is for everyone just to go away and leave them alone.

I'm sure it's a thankless job. I'm sure the people in it have a ton of abuse heaped upon them for things that are not under their control. But they are choosing to be part of that system, and "I'm just following orders" does not cancel out their culpability for treating people like garbage.

It is also worth mentioning Bob's story about strategic temper tantrums in The No Asshole Rule, which he retells in a blog entry at http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/06/strategic-use-of-swearing-in-the-workplace.html . As he establishes there, it's a well-known fact that sometimes the only way you can get an airline employee to pay attention to you is to tell, scream and swear.

Agerhardt

I think it is highly appropriate that this story is relayed by Bob Sutton. The negative culture at United described in the story is real. Too many people have witnessed it and felt it, and it is like a cancer in a once great airline. I cannot help but think that it has some effect on safety. No matter how good or how dedicated individual employees may be, the culture is so corrosive that I do not have faith that near misses will be corrected by internal mechanisms. Other airlines have also "lost" children, but the fact is that the same sloppiness and bureaucratic anonymity that is exemplified in this story spreads until the entire system is broken. As any pilot can tell you, many mistakes are made before an accident happens, and as an outsider, and as a passenger, I see mistakes being made in too many places to be able feel comfortable flying United. It's not about vindictiveness or pride when I say I won't fly United. It's about an organization losing its’ way in an extremely complex and high risk/high consequence industry. Moving millions of people millions of miles is not an easy thing to do, and everyone in the organization is responsible for not just their job, but the entire operation. Problems and dangers arise outside the boundaries of people's job descriptions and when no one intervenes (as with Phoebe) because that is not in the culture of the organization these problems and dangers will cascade through the system in unpredictable ways. Leadership is so important here, and I am sure heads will roll on the part of the worker bees, but I doubt there will be much of a change in leadership. They see themselves as eminently competent and will fail to recognize this scenario as a failure on their part. In an organization with 80k plus employees I suspect the leadership is very well insulated, and that is where the change needs to happen. The culture won't change until that happens, and as good as the pilots and other committed employees are, they cannot pick up after everyone else.

Tualha

Say Bob, could you save that letter as a PDF and link to that instead? Not everyone has MS Word. Thanks.

Bbosinger

I have been vocally boycotting UAL for years~ in 1990 they royally screwed up a flight I was on from Boston to Osaka~ I'm happy to see that people are finally taking it seriously that they are a seriously messed up company!

Nana A

They lost my ELDERLY BLIND mother and didn't care. I bought her a first class ticket and was told they would provide assistance while she traveled from SFO to GRU (Brazil, where she lives). They picked her up in the plane at JFK and dumped her in the "train" that circles around between terminals. She did not speak a word of English, couldn't see the signs and was desperate. She was "found" hours later by a good person who helped her to the right terminal. Her luggage arrived in Brazil about a week later, completely soaked. Needless to say, she refuses to come back to the U.S. to visit her grandchildren.

Greenpolymer

This story, and these comments, are appalling. I know, and I live this story every day, because I am a United Airlines Captain. I have been with UAL for over 25 years (which means that I was hired AFTER the bitter 1985 strike). As an employee, it is very hard for me to watch the boarding videos that many of our frequent flyers also wince at. Yes, Mr. Smisek certainly says all the right words; teamwork, satisfied employees, professional service, fair, rewarding, leadership. Then he talks about how we now have "professional management", and how that improves the lives of everyone that "professional management" touches. Yes, he says the words.

Then, there is the experience. The employees you are all discussing here have had the following experiences in the past twenty years.

1. Bought the company with six years and nine months of sacrificed pay.
1a. Watched the company run into a bankruptcy where all that stock was voided. United is still here, all the operations continue, just new owners and very well paid lawyers. Bankruptcy to nine BILLION dollars in cash in just a few years. We all watched while State Street Bank "protected" us, hanging on to the stock from over $120/sh to $.78/sh. Over two billion dollars was taken from the employees before "professional management" tanked the company. For a reference point, go see what Mr. Arpey had to say about his Board of Directors taking AA into bankruptcy with Bain Capital as their $14 million a MONTH advisors.
2. My pay is half what I made 14 years ago, about equal to my pay in 1994.
3. I had to fight to keep my children on my medical insurance after United lost the paperwork they started to "verify" that, after ten years, my children were still my children.
4. Could not access my Flexible Spending Account due to United vendors changing software on the cheap.
5. Pass privileges? Please, it's a painful memory.
6. Pension, oh yes, taken in bankruptcy.
7. Payroll accounting-Only United could screw up a peoplesoft product implementation, payroll functioned without one single error for decades, "professional management" can't fix problems they created six months ago.
8. Passenger Service-I had the gall to apologize to my 150 passengers for a shares delay of 45 minutes one day. I was asked to write a letter of apology TO MANAGEMENT for mentioning the problem. (I think the videos also say something about being truthful and taking responsibility).

An army of people who used to WORK at United are gone now, replaced by an army of people who carry clipboards and watches and take notes. They have no idea how to do the work at hand, but by God they are going to make it better, faster, and cheaper. Meanwhile, the folk who actually know the work the best, the ones who DO it, well; tell you what,
you just fly the airplane, and we'll run the company.

Great Job Guys.

When the employees owned this company, and it was a cooperative effort by a company-wide team of dedicated, committed, engaged, respected (for real, not the words), and supported employees who would tell you how they LOVED United, it was run like a swiss watch. As the article above describes so well, there are companies run this way, by a LEADERSHIP team. At United, we have "professional management" instead. I think you can make your own judgement about the effectiveness of the two.

Kind of makes you yearn for the days when Airlines (and other companies) were run by folk who loved the business, built it, owned it (I mean EARNED it), and were it it for the long haul. To build a successful business was an honorable thing, today; it's a quarterly earnings thing, and then off to the next "professional" temporary duty. There were guys like Robert Six, Pat Patterson, C.R. Smith, even Bob Crandall. You didn't have to love labor to build a service company, you had to love the company and respect the folk who toiled for you. That's all.

I used to be the Captain who ran downstairs to make sure the jetway air conditioning was cold and properly hooked up. Who helped the mechanic with the cowling and held the flashlight for him. I used to write notes to MY guests, and thank them for their business. I wrote reports, hundreds of reports, on everything from bad coffee to more efficient taxi techniques.

No more. I have been told to do my job, and I do my job. My love for aviation has been ground into dust. After 15 years of being lied to, deceived, ignored, blamed falsely; and watching the same mistakes being made over and over again by a "professional management" that never seems to learn from the copious reports of our new "watchers", I give.

It's not an easy thing to do. I am an Eagle Scout, an entrepreneur, and a retired Air Force Officer with over 22 years of service. Those twelve points of the Scout law still mean something to me, especially the first three. I have been in great units and not so great units, and the difference ALWAYS came down to LEADERSHIP. Most (and I will be the first to admit not all) of the employees that you all have been talking about here are desperate. They would give anything to find a LEADER, with a VISION, and a sense of HONOR to lead this company.

Though I never knew him, I know that Pat Patterson is somewhere crying, perhaps sobbing, as he watches the wonderful company he BUILT OVER DECADES dismantled by a crew of Harvard and Yale trained lawyers. I know I am.

Please forgive me, I did try to be brief........

Titi369

Is there a possibility to make this visible for United? I am shocked of the amount of terrible stories. I come from a third world country, and we see this constantly with a system that doesn't do anything about it (its frustrating), and as an American is impossible that we led this happen so easily. This can hurt a company, and we can help them become better. What are your suggestions? Blogs? Twitter? News?

WakeUp Narcolepsy

I flew exactly one year ago today with my 11yo at the time daughter from Portland Maine to Nashville Tennessee on United, at least half way as United had mechanical issues with their outsourced plane after leaving DC and NO ONE was available to help at Dulles. We looked for gate agents, called "customer service" and even tweeted @united as was advertised all over their gates at Dulles, there were elderly passengers on board that were deemed" Demented" even though they were just old and frustrated. The gate was empty of United employees and United never addressed this until 2AM (7 hours later) when they sent us to a hotel with instructions to be back by 6am. A supervisor never showed up, calls to customer service were on perpetual hold for hours. We were going to trust their "unaccompanied minor" but I had doubts about this, rightly so. Finally at 11AM, 18 hours later we got on a Delta flight, my daughter missed her first day of school but at least an 11year old wasn't lost in Dulles with an irresponsible party. Screw United, they are absolutely the worst, their employees, at least the ones I dealt with or could find, are the absolute worst and should be fired. Tomorrow I get on a bus to Boston and fly Southwest to Nashville, it may not be perfect but at least they care. FU United!

Jessica

I appreciate your insight into the fundamental problems resulting in such poor service from United. I used to fly United a lot but after an experience with them last month, I will be avoiding them if at all possible. I will happily pay more to avoid them. My experience pales in comparison to a parent not being able track down their child, but my experience was horrid enough. I was flying east on short notice to help a friend with a medical emergency get to the hospital each day for a week. my flight was through Chicago. when i landed in Chicago and got to the gate for my next flight, i discovered the flight out had been canceled due to 'weather on the east coast'. my destination was fine but United's schedules were apparently affected by weather in other cities. I got on standby for the 9pm flight, which wound up flying out around midnight. Unfortunately I was 8th in the standby list and only one standby passenger made it on. I got myself set up for standby for the next morning's flight. by the time I left the airport it was after 1am. I managed to get to a hotel and get 3 hrs of sleep before getting back to the airport to get in line for my standby. i was third in line for standby and only two were taken but whoever was second didn't come when called so I got lucky. I got on the flight. I arrived a day late which put a big burden on my friend's family but I got there and I helped out for a week. A week later, I went to the airport to head home. I arrived at the airport with 2 hrs to spare. I presented my confirmation code and was told "you're not on this flight". Huh? After a while they figured it out. "For some reason" when my flight out through Chicago got disrupted, the rest of my itinerary was canceled. I had NOT been notified. I double checked my emails. Nope. Nothing from United. I was told that all of United flights that day were oversold and that I shouldn't even bother going on standby, there was absolutely no way they could get me home that day. I was going to have to get myself to a hotel, stay a night and go home the next day (my friends live in a rural area quite far from the airport so I couldn't just go back to their home). I very nearly had a meltdown but didn't think the person giving me this news deserved to be yelled at. It did bother me that this person had absolutely NO SYMPATHY for my situation. She offered NOTHING. No help, no assistance finding lodging etc, she just said "You can get on a flight tomorrow afternoon, that's all I can offer you" and basically asked me to go away at that point. So I walked to the next counter, which was Jet Blue, and bought a flight home and came home that day with no additional issues. Once home, we then contacted United to attempt to arrange a refund. Since THEY CANCELED my flights, for no reason, without informing me, and put me in the position of having to purchase another flight to get home on time, I expected they would refund the cost of the flights THEY CANCELED. But their response? Those are "non-refundable tickets", so they have refused my refund request.

I will not be flying United again any time soon if I can at all help it. I do not expect that they will be able to undertake the cultural changes needed to actually become a "good" company. I can't imagine that people in leadership positions at the company "care" about their customers. This is likely a problem all the way to the core of the business, and it's a big company.

Duc Chess

United has never cared about customer service. This was pre-merger, and my husband and I were flying to Japan from NYC. On our flight, they served dinner, but it had pork in both the entree as well as appetizer, which we don't eat. When we explained the problem, we were told, "Sorry. We are out of fish." There was nothing else to eat beyond the bread and salad. They refused to give us extra bread or anything else. Breakfast - eggs with ham. Again, no other option. Lunch - ham and cheese sandwiches. We landed in Tokyo starving with nothing to eat beyond three pieces of bread and a small bag of peanuts the entire time. The stewardesses didn't try to help us out, and just told us, "Eat what we give you if you are hungry." To this day, ten years later, we don't fly United. We've paid extra for more expensive tickets on alternate airlines.

Elaine_marino

Unfortunately the Klebahn's story does not surprise me at all. In early July I had a horrific experience with United (canceled flight due to mechanical issues), that was only made worse by each and every employee I encountered. After a few days of trying to get where I was going, and countless unhelpful employees, I realized that the United Airlines culture is built on apathy. I applaud this blog post and the author for using United as an example of the exact opposite of "felt accountability." When you encounter 10 employees and ALL of them, at every level and job, are apathetic and powerless, it's a culture problem. Wake up United Corporate!

Amitac65

I'm sorry to hear of your horrific experience with United. I am a disabled person and had the misfortune to travel with them from SF to Sydney some time ago. Everything went wrong from the time I checked in at SF until to my arrival at Sydney. To add insult to injury, the flight attendant refused to carry my hand baggage to the wheel chair as it was an OH&S issue for her to carry my 5 kg hand baggage!!! I complained and got a $200 voucher to be used on my next trip with them. Do they seriously think that I will ever travel with them? I never will and I have made sure none of my friends or family will every use this airline.

Ce

I have two complaints about United. First they devalued their frequent flier miles by doubling the miles required for travel unless you were fortunate enough to catch flight with the "economy" miles. Second, on a trip to Aspen, Colorado it was too stormy to land in Aspen so the plane was diverted to Denver. They used to offer bus service in such a situation to get people to Aspen. The last time I went they just told us that we could wait a day or two standby and hope for a seat or instead we could rent a car and get ourselves to Aspen. Absolutely no help.
I would never fly United unless I absolutely had to.

Siorghra

When I was freshly 14, I flew from Rochester to Boston alone to visit my Dad. United was supposed to escort me through the airports, but no one ever showed up. Luckily, I'd been flying regularly with my family since I was an infant and was a rather independent child, so I caught my flights on my own with no trouble. My parents were both pretty alarmed, though.

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