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The Airlines Are An Incredible Mess

Posted by Bob Warfield on April 3, 2008

Even our kids were amazed at how poorly our recent vacation to Hawaii went when it came to air travel.  Aside from the usual airport conditions, United Airlines was a disaster. 

We were flying United from the mainland to Oahu, and then Aloha to Kona.  Despite being partners and having the whole thing booked as one, United and Aloha’s computers couldn’t talk to one another, so we had no boarding passes on Aloha.  We barely got our seats on United as they were way overbooked, so it was a mad scramble on the way over.

On the way back, we had two legs:  Kona to Honolulu and then Honolulu to San Francisco.  We got off in Honolulu an hour late and ran all the way to the connecting gate.  According to typical airport Murphy’s Law, when you’re late for a connection you’ll find you have to run the longest possible distance in the airport to make it.  So we ran.  But when we got to the gate, it was completely desserted.  This didn’t look right, and there was absolutely nobody there.  Our assumption was they’d changed the gate.  The reality was worse:  the United flight had been cancelled.  Why they couldn’t leave someone at the gate or at least provide a sign is a mystery. 

So we ran down to see some actual agents, and met our next disaster.  They had 3 agents dealing with it, there was more than one flight cancelled, there was a giant line, and it wasn’t moving.  As usual, those customers wanting to take advantage of the “screamer” policy to get themselves a better deal were monopolizing all available agents.  They argued for over an hour while everyone else waited.  There was one customer service person nominally in charge who was completely useless.  At one point she wanted everyone flying directly to SFO to come with here.  That turned out to be just us, but what the heck, we were being pulled from the back of the line to the front.  Trouble was, about the time we got out of the line and in the middle of nowhere, the screamers started screaming, literally.  So she forgot about us and went to calm them down.  Thirty minutes of limbo later where we asked another agent who became available to help and were told to wait on the customer service rep, and eventually I decided to become a screamer in order to get even a modicum of service.

The agent, of course, had been so long away from being an agent because of the new self-service kiosks, that they could barely remember how to run the UI on the computer to get our seat assignments.   The cryptic commands they were trading back and forth were truly scary.  Cutting edge of 1950’s COBOL would be my guess.

Eventually , we got vouchered into a hotel and booked on a flight late the next day, and left the scene in disgust.  We later heard some passengers were there upwards of three hours and that some were being told it would literally take them 3 days to get where they were going.  Note that this was spring break and people were trying to get their kids back to school.  Someone else said they worked for United and the flight was cancelled because United was short 30 or 40 planes as they were redoing maintenance procedures similar to what happened with Southwest recently.

I could go on about all the crazy ways United still screwed up the customer experience further (you’d think that wasn’t possible), but let me just end the story by saying the culmination was pulling the plane up to the gate, shutting off the engines, and waiting 15 minutes while the pilot plaintively called for someone to extend the jetway.  He finally got on the intercom, clearly disgusted himself, and said he’d called multiple times, assumed someone was on the way, but that there wasn’t much else he could do.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Aloha went bankrupt and cancelled all flights and ATA went bankrupt yesterday, cancelling all flights.  We have friends holding tickets on both airlines to go to Hawaii.  One will get their money back via credit card reversal, the other is out of luck.  At this rate, we’ll have to paddle a canoe to get to Hawaii the next time we go.

The airlines complain about fuel costs, but I see a different reality.  Despite every flight being overbooked, and no possibility for an upgrade on any flight I’ve been on recently, the airlines can’t seem to make a profit.  It’s the old, “We lose money on every transaction but we can make it up in volume.”  Meanwhile planes are full, families are scattered all over, flights are randomly cancelled due to maintenance issues, there is no communication, but most of all, nobody on the airline really seems in charge.  They’re all reacting, and reacting poorly.  Frankly, some of them need to go bankrupt and disappear for good because clearly these airlines need to raise their proces and get a grip on things. 

This all reminds me of Jeff Jarvis’s article in Business Week where he says:

Here’s some free advice: Go to Google, enter any of your company’s brands followed by the word “sucks,” and you will see the true consumers’ reports. Brace yourself, for it won’t be pretty. Wal-Mart’s unofficial Google Sucks Index turns up 165,000 results; Disney 530,000; Google 767,000. What’s yours?

United Airlines definitely sucks, but I’m not sure they are a standout in the lousy industry they’re a part of.

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4 Responses to “The Airlines Are An Incredible Mess”

  1. twgonzalez said

    In my experience, United is actually THE WORST of them… I refuse to fly united after they stranded me and my family (with sick infant) in Chicago for two days due to their completely avoidable schedule foul up.

  2. Zoli Erdos said

    At the rate these airlines collapse (Aloha, ATA – who’s next), we’ll soon have no choice but United to Hawaii.

    The other big issue with airlines is the sorry state of maintenance. Preventive maintenance being replaced by just grounding planes when failure occures – or the FAA catches up.

  3. smoothspan said

    I agree Zoli, the maintenance thing stinks.

    The local talk radio with Ron Owens is all about how bad the airlines have gotten this morning. Seems like people are getting fed up.

  4. [...] on April 5: Answer is Southwest Airlines. Customer service is their core business. Here’s a detailed story on adventures in customer service on United [...]

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