A Surprisingly Painless Interaction with United Reservations

Southwest, United

Anyone who has had the pleasure of dealing with United’s reservation agents since they shipped the majority of calls overseas knows that it’s generally one of the most unpleasant experiences imaginable. I’ve had countless problematic interactions with some Indian agent conveniently named “Mark” or “Mr Smith” or anything else generically American in the past, and I’ve rarely left the call feeling satisfied. In fact, I consider it a victory if I find an agent that I can actually understand, so when I had to call the reservations line this week, I braced for the worst. Shockingly, it turned out very well.

I only called into reservations because I had no other choice. When I decided to hit the road for a cross-country trip last November, that left me with a $242 United ticket that I wouldn’t need to use. Subtracting the hefty $150 change fee, I still had a meager $92 left. And thanks to a phone call I received this week, I was able to put that $92 to good use and even have some credit left over.

How is that possible? Well let me back up. I received a call from Southwest saying that I was actually one of the two winners in their contest to build the best schedule. (Seems unrelated to United, I know, but stick with me) They offered to fly me out for a celebration, and considering that I would have the chance to meet founders Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett, I certainly couldn’t say no. (“Giddy like a school girl” is probably a good way to describe it.)

But after Dallas, I still needed to come back to Phoenix for the aviation symposium. Southwest would get me to Dallas and back to Phoenix, but I had to get back home to LA at the end of the week. That would be the perfect way to use my United credit. I looked and they had a ticket for a mere $59 one way (thank you, slowing demand), so I was ready to go. Just one problem. You can’t use your old credit online. I had to call reservations and that always means trouble. Would they charge me the $25 phone reservations fee even though there was no other option? I braced for the worst.

The agent that answered the phone had a slight accent and tone that led me to believe he was Filipino. First victory: I could understand him. I told him my situation, and he surprisingly didn’t have to ask for clarification. He pulled up my reservation, said that the $25 phone reservations fee didn’t apply, and quickly took care of it for me. Then he took my address and said the remaining $32 of the credit would just be sent to me in the mail for future use.

Let’s forget about how ridiculous it is that United can’t handle this transaction online and just appreciate the fact that the airline actually, adequately served me via their phone reservations team. Good work. It’s amazing how well low expectations can frame something as a win even though it should be routine, no?

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20 comments on “A Surprisingly Painless Interaction with United Reservations

  1. I saw the title and I think the earth must have stopped spinning. Incredible. Of course, now that this is published, Tilton will read it and realize that you wern’t charged a fee at all. Tomorrow’s news: “United adds $15 fee to receive credit in the mail for future use – in order to combat rising fuel costs.”

  2. My new practice for changing a res with UAL is to book the new one I want on-line and put it on ‘Hold’ so when you call them (agree, no fun) you can just tell the agent to match your on-hold res.

    So it streamlines things so you can just sit back and wait to be spanked $150 for the change…gotta love Southwest !

  3. Don’t hate me, but I actually had a good experience with a United call center reservation agent about 6 months ago.

    United had cancelled a flight from Portland to Chicago and I was notified by e-mail that I was subsequently “automatically rerouted” on a transcontinental odyssey.

    The new routing would return me to Birmingham, Alabama, from Portland via Seattle, the North Pole, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Marilyn’s Massage Parlor & Fun Shack in Tempe, among other places.

    I called United reservations and got a very understandable, pleasant, and helpful call center in India (from the sound of the agent’s voice).

    While my preference would be for United to base these jobs in the US, it was a pretty positive experience overall.

    Perhaps training and agent selection is improving?

  4. So what routing did you put your three 737’s on for WN? I’m surprised I had never heard of the contest given how much I read online about the industry. I have never read their blog, but I would have thought it would have popped up elsewhere like your blog.

  5. Only three birds? Shucks, I figured they’d stretch the field a little bit with at least 10!

  6. Randy – you think that Crank having decided to enter the competition with a prize on offer that he probably really wants , would be naive enough to encourage lots of other people to enter as well, and thus wreck his chances of winning ? :-)

  7. Cranky afraid of a little competition from an old United scheduler? OK, it’s nerdy Southwest scheduling trivia, but they can’t push an aircraft on the west side of terminal one at LAX for twenty minutes after a scheduled Air New Zealand 747-400 departure from Terminal two. The alley is too narrow to slide a 737 which makes for interesting scheduling challenge for WN.

  8. Perhaps I am the only satisfied United passenger, but I have NEVER experienced the sh1te service that United is often ridiculed for on these pages and many others. I don’t doubt ‘UAL management’ is an oxymoron, but for me United are always courteous, professional and (98% of the time) on time. Perhaps it’s because I do predominantly fly internationally (mostly in economy plus), and I’m not exposed to a sub-par domestic service.

    Anyway, no doubt I’ve just completely jinxed my forthcoming flights. Cool.

  9. Good news is that I’ve heard they are relocated their phones to U.S.
    I live in Maui & use my miles to go inter island & cannot book online so must use call center in India or wherever & pay operator fee. That was very difficult due to geographic proximity, language, etc. So now I just go to airport for all my United bookings other than ones available on-line & I get a real knowledgeable person face to face—-works for me.
    Aloha, Dave

  10. JM – It’s entirely possible that training and agent selection is getting better, but it still requires United to loosen up and let agents have some authority to make decisions. I doubt they’ve done that yet, but maybe that will change when they get more comfortable.

    Randy – I did post their contest on Twitter (follow me, if you’d like), but I didn’t post about it on the blog. For the game, you had several restrictions. You had one 737-300 and two 737-700s. You also had some cities that they wouldn’t fly the 737-300 that you had to work in, and there were curfews. So here’s what I did:

    SLC 8a LAX 850a
    LAX 915a PHX 1030a
    PHX 11a LAS 1205p
    LAS 1230p SMF 155p
    SMF 225p SAN 345p
    SAN 410p LAS 515p
    LAS 545p SLC 8p

    737-700 #1
    BWI 755a MCI 945a
    MCI 1015a OAK 1210p
    OAK 1245p SAN 210p
    SAN 235p SMF 405p
    SMF 435p SNA 555p
    SNA 620p SMF 745p
    SMF 810p SNA 930p

    737-700 #2
    SNA 7a SMF 825a
    SMF 850a SNA 1015a
    SNA 1040a SMF 1205p
    SMF 1235p LAS 150p
    LAS 215p BWI 955p

    They kept this a lot more simple than the tarmac issue you mentioned at LAX. There’s no question this game was easy compared to real life.

    Bobber – I’m talking about problems on the phone with them and not on the planes in this particular post.

    David G – My understanding is that the ones that are moving are the customer relations lines and not reservations.

  11. I know, Cranky – but I even find their call centres bareable. They even called ME(!) to tell me my upgrade had cleared (months in advance) which considering I am the lowest tier of Elite status was impressive (well, it impressed me). Call centres suck anyway, regardless of the industry involved – the UA ones in India are no worse and no better than any others (in my experience).

  12. Yep, haven’t made the jump to Twitter quite yet. Will check that out eventually. After much non-revving on UA in many various classes, I have seen the best and worst on display and most of the time the crew had no clue who you are when you first got on. On average is is decent and business like, but not as friendly as I have seen on Air New Zealand or Virgin Atlantic, regardless of class.

  13. Bobber – That’s impressive. I need to get some of your call center kharma for sure.

    Randy – Yeah, I’m not so sure how much I like Twitter, but I do use it to mention things that I don’t think deserve a full post. I don’t spend a ton of time on it though. It can suck you in if you’re not careful!

  14. You are right that depressed expectations keeps us happy about service that should be standard not the exception.

    My WN schedule very similar. I had slightly longer turns and had the 737-300 o/n in LAX instead of SLC (in order to allow for cross-connecting flights at LAS).

  15. I once bought a fully refundable ticket on United and then had to change the date. After a 45-minute phone conversation, the agent said he couldn’t change the date, only refund the ticket. I took the money, and eventually flew on a different airline.

    To be fair, part of why it took so long was that the agent had to split the reservation first (it was originally a reservation for 4 people, and I was the only one who needed to fly on a different day). Throughout the phone conversation there was the sound of a lot of typing on the agent’s side — I got the impression he was typing a plain-text record of our whole conversation. And I don’t think he was a good typist. He was very friendly, though he appeared clueless at times (it took him multiple attempts to verify that my ticket was indeed refundable).

  16. Good Luck getting that check. I had United tell me once that they were going to send a check after a flight to London was canceled, and i rebooked domestically. Anyways, it took me 2 hours and 12 different agents to actually get them to put the check in the mail. Also, if you scream at the automated agent, it hangs up on you.

  17. I booked a flight using miles with United on the telephone because it was an open jaw ticket and their web site would not allow that. I was told that because it couldn’t be done on the web site, they would not charge me the telephone reservation fee. Later, the phone reservation fee showed up on my credit card. I called and complained. After 15 minutes or so, they agreed to refund the phone reservation fee. They said they would do it in 7-10 business days. I waited 10 business days. No refund. Called again. Another 15 minutes on the phone. They insisted that it had been refunded and to take it up with the credit card company. I called the credit card company and put it in as a disputed charge. A day or two later I got the refund.

    Another time with United I had a flight with an overcharge. Went though the same process. This time, I had to dispute the whole flight charge (like $286) even though I was only disputing about $39. This was an upcharge for Economy Plus, which I paid for but United couldn’t deliver on because of a cancelled flight. They didn’t dispute that they owed me the $39, they just couldn’t process the refund and get it to show up on my credit card. We went back and forth until it finally got fixed. United cost themselves a lot of money in terms of labor time instead of just issuing the credit simply, quickly and efficiently.

    My experience with credit card companies is that if they electronically receive a transaction that says “credit your account for $xx,” they do so that day and it shows up on your credit card on-line the next day. At worst, they do it the next day and it shows up the following day. They delays all come from United not being willing to part with the money. I sometimes wonder if they do this on purpose, hoping you will forget and then they will get to keep the money.

    On the other hand, you book a flight on Southwest and the price of the flight goes down. You go to their web site, enter the confirmation number and your name. You rebook yourself on to the same flight and you get a ticketless travel funds credit. You use that ticketless travel funds credit on another flight, without any drama. Most times you don’t even have to talk to an agent, but when you do, they are friendly and helpful, and based here in America instead of India. (An agent taught me the rebook on to the same flight trick — previously I was canceling and booking a new ticket)

    If you’ve got a fully refundable ticket at Southwest, you can cancel it on the web site and the refund shows up on your credit card in 1-3 days. Again, no drama, just smooth, efficient and fair handling of the transaction.

    And that, plus the whole change fee issue are the major reasons why I made Southwest my primary carrier over United when Southwest came to Denver.

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