Why Calling an Airline Sucks

Customer Service, United

07_03_13 telephonestrangeI really haven’t gotten very cranky lately, but an experience this weekend put me back in the cranky mood. My girlfriend and I decided to use miles on United to go to Hawai’i. We had to book separately since we used our own mileage accounts. We walked through the process simultaneously online, but in the end mine went through and hers didn’t. The website said to contact United reservations due to technical issues, so I did. That’s where the problem began. Here is an approximate transcript of the three different conversations it took to get things fixed.

United Rep #1 (with heavy Indian accent): Hi this is Mark, can I have your name?
Me: Yes, it’s Brett
“Mark” (I hate that they use fake Americanized names – never good to start off with a lie): Ok Mr Brett, how can I help you?
Me: I got booked but my girlfriend didn’t. Help me.
“Mark”: I checked and there are no more seats available, sorry Mr Brett.
Me: That’s great, but I’m not going to Hawai’i alone. Are there other flights with two seats available?
“Mark”: Yes Mr Brett
Me: Can you change it?
“Mark”: No Mr Brett. You’ll have to go online and request a refund. That will take 7 to 10 days.
Me (After checking online and seeing that I’m not allowed to request Mileage Plus refunds online): It says I can’t do it online and I have to call you.
“Mark”: No Mr Brett, you have to do it online.
Me: Ok, this is ridiculous. Let me talk to your supervisor
“Mark”: Ok Mr Brett (puts me on terminal hold)
“Mark” (after 10 minutes of listening to Rhapsody in Blue): Mr Brett, my supervisor is still busy but I talked to the support desk and I’m happy to tell you that there are two options. One, you can use double the miles for a standard award or two, you can buy a ticket.
Me: You’re kidding, right? I’m not doing that. Give me a refund.
“Mark”: You have to go online for that Mr Brett
Me: Arrgggggggghhhhhh. Give me the number for Mileage Plus directly.
“Mark”: Ok Mr Brett


So now I’m mad, and I dial Mileage Plus. after 25 minutes of waiting Rhapsody in Blue has been firmly planted in my head. Finally, another Indian agent answers.

United Rep #2 (again with heavy Indian accent): This is Deanne, how can I help you?
Me: I hate everyone. Please help me.
Deanne: What seems to be the problem sir?
Me: I just want to fly to Hawai’i with my girlfriend
Deanne: I’m sorry sir but there are no seats available on those dates on any flights
Me: The last guy told me there were seats but he couldn’t change me. This sucks. Just give me my miles back.
Deanne: Ok, that’ll cost you $100 to have them redeposited
Me: You’ve got to be kidding me! I just booked these and there was a problem. You should be able to refund these for no charge.
Deanne: Hold please
(While I’m listening to Rhapsody yet again and whistling along, I pull up the United customer service plan saying that any tickets can be refunded within 24 hours of purchase. Armed with this, I’m just waiting to pounce.)
Deanne: Ok, I can refund it for free. Just hold.
Me: Ok (somewhat dejected that I don’t get to pounce)
Deanne keeps typing for literally 10 minutes asking me periodic questions about billing addresses, etc and then . . .


She friggin’ hangs up on me! So not cool. I call back and miraculously someone answers quickly. This time she doesn’t have an Indian accent.

United Rep #3: Hi this is Phoebe can I help you?
Me: I think I’m beyond help, but please try
Phoebe: Ok, I see your reservation was canceled but your miles weren’t redeposited. Did you want those redeposited?
Me: No, I was hoping you could just keep them in the canceled reservations. YES, I WANT THE MILES REDEPOSITED!
Phoebe: Ok, thanks for flying United.

At this point, my miles did actually go back to my account, I went back online and booked different flights on that same day with availability. That took 1 minute.

This is certainly not a problem that only United faces. As my girlfriend pointed out after this whole debacle, the advent of having to pay to make a reservation on the phone means that a large portion of the simple reservations have been pushed online. That means that people calling the reservations phone lines are generally facing a problem and need some real help. Of course, people tend to remember the customer service when things go wrong a lot more often than when things go right. With that in mind, you would think that the front line reservationists would be really important for the airline’s image, but sadly that’s not the way airlines perceive it.

Instead the airlines are cutting back on their reservations teams. Many airlines have outsourced at least some of their reservations functions to third parties either domestically or more likely abroad. There are three fundamental problems in reservations offices these days that need to be addressed.

First, adding new employees without adequate training is a recipe for disaster. “Mark” didn’t seem to have a full understanding of what the rules were and that really frustrated me. Then again, I don’t think training alone would have fixed the problem.

Second, there is the issue of empowerment. Front lines agents no longer have the ability to do anything beyond what the rulebooks say. If something doesn’t fall into a category in the rulebook, you’re not getting anywhere. If the airlines don’t want to empower their agents (probably because they haven’t trained them well), they need to make it easy to reach an empowered supervisor when problems arise. In my experience with many airlines, if there is a supervisor around, it’s tough to get them on the phone. When you do, you generally can’t get things resolved anyway, because even they aren’t empowered to help.

Third, there is the issue of empathy. Outsourcing has brought on a whole new level of problems that didn’t exist before. It is certainly hard to relate to people trying to help you with a reservation to Omaha when they have no idea where Omaha is even located. I’ve heard stories about agents suggesting San Francisco as an alternate airport to Los Angeles. I would be surprised if anyone in North America would make that mistake. It’s even harder to relate to someone who has never flown on the airline and possibly never flown at all. They just don’t have the ability to empathize with the problems that travelers face, and that makes getting problems resolved very difficult.

I think about airlines like Southwest which still have their call centers in house and their agents are empowered. I have never had a problem that couldn’t be resolved relatively quickly with a Southwest agent. I imagine that every agent has traveled on the airline and many travel frequently. They know what people are facing and they can empathize. It’s never as frustrating talking to them. I understand part of that is because Southwest’s rules tend to be simpler, but it’s also due to the empathy, empowerment, and training that enables them to do their jobs well. The other airlines need to realize how important those three things can be.

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4 comments on “Why Calling an Airline Sucks

  1. RE:three

    I’ve been told that Chicago-Phoenix is now an international route. This raises some interesting questions, such as what type of government does the new nation of Arizona have? Constitutional republic? Parliamentary? Kooky dictator in a funny hat and a military uniform? And what is customs like for passengers arriving from the United States? Does Arizona participate in the Visa Waiver Program? Have I put way too much thought into this already? Does Arizona have a consulate in Chicago? What will the U.S. flag look like with only 49 stars?

    Anyway, if you want to read more exciting stories about the Indian call center, just go to flyertalk.com and read the United forum. This topic comes up every few days (the Indian call center, not the newly independent nation of Arizona). You did however, come across the only real solution to dealing with someone who doesn’t understand the rules or otherwise makes a mess of things: hang up and try again.

    It always amazes me that Glenn thought sending the call center to India was a good idea. Can you even name 5 cities in India? More importantly, can you really expect someone in Bangalore to tell the subtle but important difference between Dallas and Dulles? (I once told someone in an ICC that I wanted to go from Chicago-O’Hare to Washington-Dulles, and I got an itin that took me from O’Hare to Washington-National to O’Hare(WTF) to DFW. At least they didn’t take the whole ‘It’s Like a Whole Other Country’ thing literally and tell me it’s an international flight.)

  2. I’ve been fighting with Iberia for the past week. Basically, I had a JFK-BCN-TLV-NYC ticket (with stops in Madrid on all legs, so it was really JFK-MAD-BCN, BCN-MAD-TLV, TLV-MAD-JFK). Then I found out I have to go to Germany for work immediately before leaving for vacation. So I called Iberia to tell them that I wouldn’t be on my first flight segment, since work is now paying for me to fly directly from Germany to BCN.

    The first two agents who I spoke with told me that this would incur a $125 change fee, which I asked them to put on my credit card. I figured I would get the confirmation email that I was promised and that would be the end of it. (Why you even need a change fee to just not take a flight segment is beyond me, but I let that issue go.) When I never got an email, I called Iberia back and was told that both representatives with whom I had spoken had made mistakes, and it’s actually a $125 change fee PLUS the difference in tickets between my old round-trip and my new open-jaw ticket. AND there are no economy class tickets available on my new open-jaw on the date that I’m travelling so I need to fly business class! So I’m looking at about a $5000 ticket instead of one that originally cost $900.

    The kicker is that the supervisor with whom I spoke most recently acknowledges that he heard two different representatives tell me it was only going to cost me $125. But he can’t authorize this on his own and needs to request permission from headquarters in order to permit that request to go through. And this is an in-house call center – everyone had thick Spanish accents. So – not only is the first-line not empowered, but in this case, the call center supervisor is not empowered either!

    Bottom line is that I leave for Germany in a few days and the call center supervisor has still not heard from headquarters. So I don’t know what’ll happen.

  3. Agreed! Last night I called Continental for a seat change on a Continental booked, KLM flight. They then transfered me to KLM where I heard, Welcome to KLM/Air France represented by Northwest Airlines. NWA would not work with me stating, “Well your a Continental customer, call them.” I then called KLM in the Netherlands where they told me to call Northwest. Frustrating.

  4. Customer Service is a vital part of any business and to be effective, it must be sincere and focused. Too many companies today confuse customer service with hard sell opportunities and that creates a negative perception of that business with the customer.

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