Monday, November 4, 2013

United Airlines - Friendly Skies?

A (not so) Flyer Friendly Experience

By Candy Parks - Director, Integrated Insight

I love George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.  I bet he’s bluer than blue that this tune is the hallmark theme probably best recognized as the tag associated with United Airlines.  Way back when - they wanted us to fly the friendly skies, and now they are trying with great fervor to convince us they are flyer-friendly.  I think they need to keep trying.

What I experienced on my recent travel was definitely not a friendly experience.  I had to travel from Orlando to Washington to Munich to Bari, Italy in one fell swoop – two legs on United and one leg on Lufthansa –both members of the Star Alliance. My first clue that this would not be United’s finest moment came when I checked in at Orlando.  I was told by the United agent that he was unable to print my Lufthansa boarding pass and I would need to check in for that flight in Munich.  When I looked confused, he explained ‘that’s not United.’  Why tout the alliance to the public if it’s not easier or better for the customer?

Given that I knew I was facing a daunting travel day, I had happily paid the upgrade for extra legroom on my United flights.  Imagine my dismay when I found out I was in boarding group FIVE - the very last group called to board. Even after paying for premium seating, I had to watch four groups board ahead of me, loaded with carry-on luggage.  I’m betting the majority of those folks didn’t pay for early boarding – yet another ‘friendly’ service provided by United – for a fee.  Spoiled by JetBlue, I expected the hundred and thirty something dollar premium I paid would include priority boarding as well.

My flight to Bari was scheduled with Star Alliance partner Lufthansa and there was a reasonable two hour layover.  I first tried using the kiosk to print my remaining boarding pass, but was told it couldn’t find my travel arrangements and I would need to go to the counter.  Unfortunately, the ticket agent could not find my reservation either, commenting, ‘Oh, this was through United.  That explains it.’  He punched a bunch of numbers, and then some more and finally called a supervisor.  It was explained that because the tickets originated with United, they weren’t recognized in the Lufthansa system and they had to CALL United to sort it out.  Not check online, CALL.  Perhaps because it was 2:00 am in the U.S. and the call center was closed, or maybe the agents were simply busy with other calls, but Lufthansa was never able to reach United by phone or online.  By contrast, while working on a ship in Greece,  my boss got a call from her father in Pennsylvania.  In Greece.  On a ship.  In an elevator.  But United can’t be reached by phone by a Star Alliance partner to work out a paid ticket issue with a flight they booked and which was about to board? Why was there a need for a call?  Why was the itinerary number issued by United not recognized in the Lufthansa system if they are part of a Star Alliance?  And if they know their numbers differ, why don’t they have a fast and efficient way to handle this – especially in situations involving international travel on a connecting flight they scheduled?  

Lufthansa simply ‘fixed the situation’ and issued me a boarding pass so I could make it through security in time to make my flight, but I had to hussle.  My Lufthansa experience was ‘flyer friendly."  Lufthansa is a STAR in my book.  For all I know, Lufthansa was at fault, but by that point I was more than happy to blame United.  In my mind, I was United’s customer – they booked the flight.  The fact that United, in my experience, dropped the ball not once but twice was all the evidence I needed that they were falling far short of flyer-friendly.  I can only laugh when I see their commercials.  Flyer-friendly?  Heck, even when you pay a bunch of fees, it’s a crap shoot as to whether or not you will get good service.  So, I say ‘flyer-friendly my foot.’

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