Sunday, June 15, 2008

United Sucks

Joe Brancatelli, one of the deans of business travel, just wrote a column calling United the “Worst. Airline. Ever.” ( ) I came to that conclusion a few years ago. (As an aside, when I subscribed to his newsletter, JoeSentMe, my wife thought a name like that had to be some porn I had subscribed to. “No, it’s a travel newsletter.”)

Anyhow, I used to be among the most loyal of United flyers. I would even fly through O’Hare to get to Dallas from New York instead of flying American nonstop. It’s not like United was a paragon of customer service but I could always count on finding an employee that cared enough to go above and beyond.

Things got even better when, around 1991, someone at United tested an interesting proposition: that the frequent flyer program didn’t reward profitable travelers. The year they did this was a year I flew to Australia twice, once on a $10,000 first class ticket and once on a $7,500 business class ticket. While I didn’t even make it to 100,000 miles, and hence was not noticed by the Mileage Plus gods, I was in fact United’s 7th most profitable flyer that year. As a result, I got the super secret phone numbers. They held planes for me, they made space…they valued my business. I looked forward to flying United. They treated me even better than I got treated at home.

A million miles later, United decided to institutionalize this level of service with its Global Services program. The first year, I qualified. The second year, however, despite flying as much as ever, I had the misfortune of flying on a competitive route where United slashed its airfares and as a result, I didn’t qualify for Global Services. Missing the safety net of the magic phone numbers, I had some "standard" experiences. As a result, I started flying nonstop on other airlines. Meanwhile, I corresponded with United brass, suggesting that terminating a user after one year of lowered revenue was perhaps a foolish attitude. They asked, obviously rhetorically, “how would you feel if you had qualified and we bent the standards for someone else?” I suggested to them that given the state of the US airline business, I would applaud their efforts to attract and retain profitable, high volume business flyers and that the health of the airline was an important consideration for a traveler like me. Of course, this didn’t sway them.

As I shifted my allegiance, perhaps not coincidentally United starting finding New York a difficult market. They downsized their transcon planes to remove capacity, they stopped flying to London and Tokyo and otherwise decreased their footprint in New York. Indignity of indignities, the "United" terminal at JFK became the British Airways terminal. Fewer flights. Labor problems. Gruesome customer “service” experiences. Net result: I think I’ve flown United once in the last three years. Has anyone from United ever called to see why not? I guess that would require that someone at United really care to understand why things have gone so horribly awry. Or care, period. They're just working on their golden parachutes. Or maybe they’re afraid that I’m going to ask “where are my lost bags?” United was slow in delivering my bags two years ago. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, they’re still lost. I spent several hours calling United's Indian lost baggage call center, getting conflicting answers and other answers I just knew to be wrong. Several hours later, I decided it was just easier to go back to the San Diego airport to see what was going on. I found them sitting unwatched in the baggage claim area and took them with me. No one from United was there to watch. If they have surveillance video, no one from United ever called to confirm that I’m the one who picked up the bags. As far as they know, my bags are still lost. And so is my business with United.

Good bye United. Going, going…and soon enough to be forgotten. (Note to self: use up the last of the frequent flyer miles before United goes under. On merchandise; I'm not going to bet that they'll still be flying.)

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