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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.

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