The Skies May Be Friendly, but United’s Reservation System is Not (Tales From the Field)

[Update 9/27 @ 1049a: After much research, it turns out the problem lies with US Airways not United. I posted an apology to United here.]

I decided to put up a special Wednesday post this week, because it dove-tailed so well with yesterday’s post about United resurrecting the Friendly Skies slogan. Yesterday brought another rough experience with United, though it wasn’t due to poor customer service. It appears that United’s (and US Airways’) res system has once again messed up United Tales from the Fieldtravel plans. This time it wasn’t for a client but rather for a trip for me and my family to Maui.

My wife and I booked our tickets using United miles, and we booked the kids and a babysitter using US Airways miles on those same United flights. Unfortunately, the babysitter was no longer able to join us, so I called up US Airways to make the change. Since all three were in the same reservation, the agent simply divided off the babysitter into a new record and canceled her out. While the agent was taking my payment info for the $150 mileage redeposit fee, I decided to make sure the reservation for the other two still looked fine online.

When I went to USAirways.com, the website showed our kids having their seats as before. But United.com? Of course it showed the entire reservation had been canceled. So who is at fault here? It’s hard to know, especially since both use the SHARES reservation system. My guess is that it’s a “feature” of SHARES that just messes things up. You’d think that it would have been easy to fix since I caught it right away, but that wasn’t the case.

I was still on the phone with the US Airways agent so I explained the problem to her. She went to investigate and said she had to go get a hold of someone at United to try to get it fixed. I waited.

After more than an hour, the US Airways agent managed to get a laugh out of me. We hadn’t spoken at all about the ad campaign, but she came back and said, “United was NOT friendly but we were able get them to finally give us the space back on those flights.” Nice. But then she continued. “Unfortunately, they wouldn’t help with seat assignments so you’ll have to contact them directly.” She was even kind enough to waive the redeposit fee for the one ticket that was supposed to be refunded.

That was mostly good news except for one real problem. The seat assignments we had were now gone on the way out, so we were looking at having scattered babies on the airplane. Delightful.

The United Twitter team was great in responding and trying to help, but there wasn’t much that could be done since it took so long to get the problem fixed. We had to have a window for the car seat (that’s required) and that meant there weren’t good options anywhere on the airplane. In the end, they were nice enough to put us in two pairs in Economy Plus, though we were still a few rows apart.

I understand seat assignments aren’t guaranteed, and things like aircraft changes can mess with pre-existing plans. But this was simply a technology issue that I caught so quickly it shouldn’t have been hard to fix. It sounds like the United agent with whom US Airways spoke wasn’t very friendly, but everyone I dealt with at United was. Still, it took hours to deal with something that should have been a minor 5 minute transaction. And that fits quite solidly with what I’ve been experiencing with United in our business lately. Problems still take at least twice as long to resolve as on other airlines.

I’m just glad I double checked to make sure everything looked fine on United’s side. My guess is that most people wouldn’t, and would simply show up at the airport to get a nasty surprise.

This is exactly what made me nervous when I saw United’s new ad campaign. Flat beds, power outlets, and legroom are all nice, but if you can’t get your systems to work right, then you shouldn’t be talking about how friendly you are. I continue to feel bad for those who work for United at the airport or in reservations, because their jobs are far harder than they should be.

33 Responses to The Skies May Be Friendly, but United’s Reservation System is Not (Tales From the Field)

  1. When reading the comments in the last post, I sometimes wonder how quickly we expect a big monster of an airline to change its image. Is it to much to ask that as airline rolls out new ads or programs to bring along with it blogs explaining there goals and how there attack some of the problems facing their customers? Cranky if you need a baby sister in Maui I will volunteer my services safe journeys.

    • CF says:

      Olamide – Ha, thanks for the offer. We already have a different person coming with us now, but she’s flying Delta.

  2. Neil S. says:

    I work in advertising. And what few clients understand is that you have to fix operations BEFORE you run the ads.

    This post is case and point.

    I’ve worked on restaurant brands a lot – I can get you to come to the store with a deal or a new limited time item, but if the food is cold or the bathrooms are dirty, you’re not going to come back.

    Plain and simple.

  3. Shane says:

    Not totally related, but I had an unfriendly conversation with a Delta rep yesterday. Not on the level of your issues, but unfriendliness in the consolidated industry nonetheless.

    Air France’s site had a glitch where it wouldn’t show flights available. When you call the Air France number, you get a Delta rep and the one I got she refused to quote me a price on an Air France Ticket. She told me there was no glitch and would only give Delta prices, which were $1000 more per person, and insisted on explaining what a code share was and that it didn’t matter who issued the ticket. When I called Air France web tech support, they were willing to give me the real Air France price and were actually very friendly. I guess that is part of the peril of outsourcing to close partners.

    Again, not up to the standard of bad in your issue, but plenty of unfriendliness to go around.

    • Eric says:

      Interesting….I had the SAME problem with a KLM/DL code share on Monday. DL said it was not their issue. I called KLM and worked with the most helpful, friendly and professional KLM employee I’ve encountered in decades! She said the glitch was me booking a 4 segment open jaw and booked me manually. As an amends for the inconvenience, she waived the phone booking fee! O*O

  4. Good thing you had Cranky Concierge helping you LOL

  5. Susan says:

    Feels a bit hyper-sensitive? Sounds like you had a fairly complex change where you booked with miles on a codeshare flight and only wanted to cancel one of three people on the reservation. United ultimately seated you together in Economy Plus at no charge. No company is going to be perfect… but they did fix the problem and do the right thing to help you. Isn’t that flyer friendly?

    • CF says:

      Susan – I’m guessing you may be looking at this from an internal airline perspective. To a customer, there is nothing complex about this. “I have a person traveling on a flight and I need to cancel it.” That’s it. Customers could care less what the internal process is, but they know it shouldn’t be this hard to do. And they certainly shouldn’t have to spend hours resolving an issue that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. I got lucky, because I knew to check the United reservation. Most people never would have and would have been screwed when they got to the airport.

      I really hope this isn’t what United is considering to be flyer friendly, because it’s not. The Twitter team was great at responding and trying to fix as best they could. But would consider the overall experience friendly from a company perspective? Absolutely not.

  6. JayB says:

    Not an apologist for UA, but I find improvements with the rez system (of course, from where they were, anything is an improvement.) What I, as an individual traveler, a party of one, see, and experience, isn’t all that bad. Of course, if I see a code-share, I run and hide from it without exception. And, please don’t extoll the virtues of your alliances. To, me they just seem to add one more level where things can get screwed up.

    Of course, an airline has so much to cover, what do we expect. Last week, on my $0.00 RT fare, non-stop, IAD-LAS trip, things started out badly. Taxi never showed up; I have to drive to the airport and park; of course, parking lot shuttles are nowhere to be found.

    So I, with boarding pass already in hand, get to the check-in with bag, but “ding, ding, ding,” it’s now 44 minutes prior to flight time, and you know, the 45-minute rule?

    And, now the wonderful UA clerk tries her best to make me feel better, which she did, finding a connection through ORD, for which I found that I was upgraded throughout. I call it very “friendly.”

    Now if I really want to complain, is there a longer hike anywhere than going from IAD check-in, on the train, walk a mile to C6; than off at the D gates LAS, train, then another mile walk to carousel 19! Yes, the new LAS terminal is nice, but it’s still a hike!

    Advertise your service, of course, then deliver, which I submit they are trying to do. As to flight service, I’ll be darned if there is any CO-metal “Y” plane seat as comfortable as a UA-metal seat. (Anyone else?) So, I take special effort to avoid CO-metal planes, but that’s becoming more difficult with flights as I see it. Now fares, there’s something that isn’t “friendly” and I doubt it ever will be, at UA, or probably anywhere else. But, that’s a rant for another day.

    • Max says:

      The Dude that complained about being at IAD coming from main terminal into the Gate D gates then having to walk to c6??? There is also a C crossing at Gate C18. Sounds like this person failed to CHECK which TRAM they were crossing on. The C Tram crosses at c 18! Now who’s fault was that? Could you NOT read??

  7. Kaneez M says:

    My family of five (three children, ages 16, 11 and 8) flew on our summer vacation this August on United (direct flight). I had booked (and selected) our seats 6 months beforehand. I am sensitive to the seat limitations, and am careful to book my seats in a configuration that my husband and I are seated in front of our kids. For both our sectors (this was a direct United flight from Newark), our seats were changed with no notifications to us. By the time we checked in online, the flight was full and not a single seat to be had. We ended up being scattered across the plane. I sent an email to United, and received an unsympathetic response back from them. The only reason I fly United is that EWR works best for me and they have the most direct flights. If I had a choice, I would not fly United.

  8. Geez. This and my experience from the past week or so leads me to believe that UA’s CIO should be looking for work….

  9. olamide says:

    When you pick your seat is it just a request to the airlines or is it your seat?

    • CF says:

      olamide – Seat assignments are never guaranteed, but the seats were showing as confirmed with the airline. But that’s not the issue here. The seat assignments weren’t canceled just for the sake of it. They were canceled because the reservation itself was canceled.

      • I think I did not explain myself well… If I buy a ticket and pick a seat why is that seat choice not finally except for extreme conditions

        • CF says:

          Olamide – That’s just the way that airlines have set this up. Seat assignments are never guaranteed, but you shouldn’t be removed from a seat assignment unless there’s a real reason, like aircraft change.

  10. Max says:

    Now part of the story about United/USAirways is just not true! Reservation agents for years have tried to sell ticket with guarantee seats. Never happens. The only way to ensure your chance for seats together is show up early. Less than 20 minutes just not going to happen. Look at the back of all purchased tickets. No guarantee of seat assigned together. Plus must check for Domestic at least 20 minutes before departure to even be guaranteed a seat and International? AN HOUR AND HALF. SO THAT IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE, JUST LUCKY THAT USAIRWAYS HAPPENED TO HAVE SOME SEAT LEFT TOGETHER. Just lucky flying off of miles to even get on the flight. One on miles comes after full fares and just before employees. NO AIRLINE GIVES A GUARANTEE of SEATS TOGETHER!

    • CF says:

      Max – Easy there, tiger. I’m pretty sure you’re misunderstanding the entire situation. Read the post again and you’ll see that the issue isn’t that seat assignments were given away. It was that the reservation was canceled entirely and that’s why the seat assignments went away. The seat assignments also have nothing to do with US Airways at all. That was entirely through United.

      And while we’re at it, THERE’S NO NEED TO YELL.

  11. PF says:

    Were the two original reservations booked with the same SHARES airline, or one PNR with United and one with USAir, as a United operated codeshare?

    • CF says:

      PF – There were two booked through United originally but nothing happened with those. The other three seats were booked via US Airways, not on a codeshare but using miles on the United flight. We had to cancel one of those three seats, and instead, all 3 were canceled in United’s system.

  12. ptahcha says:

    There are definitely gremlins in SHARES. For a recent trip JFK-SFO and back, the 2 of us were upgraded with miles in advance, and selected seats in the former F cabin of the 3-cabin p.s. plane. On the outboard, seats were fine, but miles wouldn’t post without manual intervention. On the return, our seat assignments were randomly scrambled from 1A/B to 1B/2D. We ended up putting ourselves back in row 5A/B in the business cabin so we can sit together.

  13. Joan Wells says:

    Today United rescheduled a December flight I booked months ago. The revised schedule was unsatisfactory, and I asked United to rebook me on another flight that still had available seating. The United agent tried to talk me into taking a flight I didn’t want and, when I told her that the schedule change entitled the affected passengers to select another flight that better serves their needs, he simply hung up on me. “Customer care” is a foreign language at United.

  14. KpW says:

    More and more this has been my experience with Untied Airlines. The people are generally friendly and try…. But the systems constantly get in the way. I’ve had MANY similar experiences with full-fare tickets, award travel, economy tickets, all of them. Not because of what I do, but I fly mostly commuter airlines (through United). They will cancel flights at a whim (weather, mechanical, planes not in the right place, too cloudy, too sunny, etc.)…. So then United automatically re-books me THREE DAYS LATER (happened more than once). And I have status (not that it means anything anymore).

    Last time United was gracious enough to relinquish my ticket to American. “Everything should be fine when you get to the airport.” HAH! I knew better! I had to go to United ticket counter twice and American ticket counter twice. Finally the helpful individual at American re-worked my ticket (apparently it wasn’t transferred by United properly) and I got home.

    But with United, I cringe if anything happens because I know I’m in for a LONG HAUL. It takes hours to rectify what should (or used to) take 1/2-hour.

    So now I have status on two airlines… It used to be primarily United (unless going to DFW!). I was loyal. Now I constantly look at alternatives. I fly for business and I can’t generally can’t wait three days, or even two, to reach my destination…

    United was good… But since the merger, the friendly skies are not-so-nice…. They tend to be friendlier other places!

    They’ll get a short-term uptick from casual travelers who don’t know better. Unless they can rectify the underlying problems, it will be just that… Short-term.

  15. Tim says:

    As a software guy, I’m afraid that UA has a fundamental flaw in their reservation system. It appears they are doing changes not as a single transaction but as a cancel followed by re-issue. While normally this works fine, it is bad design.
    The minute a plane is full, your experience with seat reservations happens.

    Even worse, is getting dropped from the flight. Last week I had a SFO-PVG trip scheduled on nonstops in business class. I changed the return leg to get a later flight. BUT, despite only changing the return leg, I found myself dropped from business class to a middle seat, non economy plus on the outbound leg. I also figured it out when I happened to double check my seat assignments.

    The technically correct explanation from UA was that because trips that haven’t begun are ‘re-ticketed’ when anything is changed thus even the legs not requested for change are subject to availability rules etc. (i.e. overbooked = bumped) As a 1K, million miler, I kinda knew that in the back of my head but their systems make no effort to inform the user. For example, when the rebooking is in Y instead of C, a big red flag on the screen? For the record, UA’s suggestion was that I should have just called :-) Not a cost effective option for non 1Ks

  16. 121 Pilot says:

    Brett,

    Does United recognize and acknowledge the breadth and depth of the problems tat you and others have recounted here not only in terms of technology but also in terms of how their employees are responding to the problems their system is creating?

    • CF says:

      121 Pilot – There are people over there who do understand the issues, and I’ve been talking to them a lot. But there are others who minimize them and don’t think it’s a big deal. That’s dangerous.

  17. kestie says:

    Thank you for your post and comments. I had booked award seats back in May for my husband, myself and daughter and due to this post, I checked to make sure we were still seated together and found our seats had been changed without any notice. I was able to change them back, but really this is unacceptable. If they are going to change seats, at least let the customer know about the change. Otherwise, I guess we have to periodically check our reservations to see if they are still valid. Like others, this is not the first time that this has happened to me. I’ve been UAL elite for a few years now because their schedules work best for me, but I’m ready to head back to AA even if they merge with USAir–because I didn’t have to check for random changes in my reservations with AA. If this is how they treat their elite customers, one has to wonder whether they really care at all what folks think about their services and reliability. I’ve encountered more than a few gracious UAL personnel, but the random changes without notice do not make up for their goodwill on other days. In the end, I need to be able to depend on them and they have not shown that this is possible.

  18. Due to circumstances change I started flying United as a revenue passenger on a regular (~3 trips per month) basis, and have been doing it for about 4 months. Things have been relatively smooth from the software/technology perspective. I did experience some issues though.

    Once (on a day with a weather delay of an hour or so) as I was standing in line to finally board, my mobile boarding pass (via app) simply went away. I panicked as clearly there were a lot of misconnects from prior flights ready to take seats, but the agent was able to print a boarding pass with the same seat. So my only loss was a place in line. I am kind of wondering what would have happened had I come to the agent at a later point…

    I also had a UA-US reservation (UA was first flight so it was their ticket) that I had to cancel (via travel agent). Interestingly, the United app removed the UA flight but kept showing the US portion of reservation up until after the day of scheduled departure. I never did check if it was actually canceled.

    The other issue is changing mileage reservations online. United is rather generous with the awards, but the changes are a pain (free stuff is always a pain). Basically, availability is random. Let’s say you fly from A to B where only United flies nonstop. You can opt to check “United flights only” and “Nonstop only” or not — and in each of 4 possible toggle states you may get different nonstop flights with award availability! And then you repeat the search 1 min later and get different results altogether. If you are trying to book a new award, the search is consistent, but if you are trying to change, it’s random. Gremlins at work clearly!

  19. Pingback: A Sincere Apology to United Airlines (It’s Your Fault, US Airways) - >> The Cranky Flier

  20. CF says:

    After much research, it turns out the problem lies with US Airways not United. I posted an apology to United here.

  21. Why do you make these posts when youn are uncertain where the blame lies??? The last one that I recall concerned the reservation of a client of yours that was most certainly affected by your agency, and the airline (at your direction), making PNR changes concurrently. That was asking for trouble. Why “boo” to US Airways, when you are still not clear with respect to the cause. I am connected with neither airline

    • CF says:

      Bob Simmons – Not sure what you’re talking about regarding concurrent changes. I can’t remember writing anything about that, but feel free to provide a link if I’m somehow forgetting something.

      In this particular case, it seemed clear what had happened and I didn’t expect to get any further clarity on it. But someone at United opted to research it further and then reach out to me. It turns out that what US Airways showed on its website wasn’t actually what was going on behind the scenes, so while it appeared clear to the traveler what happened, it wasn’t. This actually stumped several people until we got an answer. But I can now guarantee that it’s US Airways’ fault. I don’t know if it was the agent or a tech issue, but either way the blame lies with US Airways.

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