Untied

Working for a company with the highest rated Customer Service doesn’t make me an expert in CS. But it does make me really appreciate the finer details of when it goes right and when it goes horribly wrong.

Here’s a case study in the latter.

My family arrived at SFO to fly United an hour before our flight’s departure time, having pre-checked ourselves and paid the $25 for our bag and child seat, online.

We attempted curb-side checkin with [name-withheld], seeing as the line was empty. I asked the agent if we had time to check our bags here, given our flight time was getting close. He said sure. But he helped another couple first, despite telling them at least once up front that the line started behind us.

The happy couple consumed so much time, filling in their little address cards, asking questions, and so on, that by the time the agent got to help us, he told us: sorry, we had just passed (by two minutes) the 45 minute window for checking bags and we had to therefore go inside.

Could he not have started us sooner?

I reminded him that we were on his line well before the 45 minute window, he explicitly said he’d help us, and he now said there was nothing he could do.

Point 1 — never lie to the customer. If he couldn’t help us, then send us inside immediately while we still have time to take another route.

We went inside, stood on line for another 5 minutes before getting to a kiosk. After punching in, the computer also told us it couldn’t help us, given this 45 minute window.

Point 2 — The curb-side agent should have told us to go straight to the “special line,” not waste more time with the kiosk.

We asked someone for help again and they directed us to the  “special line,” counter #25, which had what I’d guess was an hour long queue to get help and only two agents at the counter, a few more milling about.

We asked for “extra special help,” given we still had to get to the plane, and we have two kids, one of whom is disabled (this will come up again). The first agent laughed at us: “it’s your own damn fault for not getting here two hours early.”

Two hours? That’s what I’d do for international travel, but not domestic. This perhaps indicates a problem with your procedures, given security took only 15 minutes, about par in my experience.

Point 3 — Do I need to explain why you don’t laugh at your customers instead of helping them, even if you secretly think they’re idiots for not knowing how bad your service is in advance?

Meanwhile, we lose another 10 minutes trying to get help. No one cares. I watch a man nearby screaming “This is an emergency! I need help!” and he is completely ignored by the agents behind the counter. Completely.

I know how he feels.

Finally, another agent asks us what we need and we say “to just drop a pre-paid bag and a child seat. That’s it.” The man pulled us out of the line and did just that. I didn’t get his name to thank him.

Point 4 — Apparently, the 45 minute window isn’t such a hard limit after all. Why couldn’t the curb-side guy do this when it’s just two minutes over and he messed up the first time? Can’t you have a policy of a hard limit at 40 minutes and a soft limit at 45, subject to discretion?

The only problem is the helpful agent sends us to the wrong security checkpoint. He tell us gate 61 (correctly) but sends us to the far end of security for some reason, which consumes another 15 minutes in navigation.

It turns out, every single person we meet working at United so far “helps” us get farther and farther from making our flight. It’s like a comedy of errors, starting with a simple lack of attention.

Meanwhile, my wife is on the phone with United too, trying to help secure our checked-in seats and get help in general. The remote agent is polite, but for some reason neglects to tell us about the “15 minute no-notice seat loss policy” we’re about to discover. Instead, she encourages us to hurry up.

Point 5 — you may want to train your phone agents as to your  policies so they can at least advise us “it’s too late now, don’t rush, let’s find a new flight now.”

So we rush from the farthest TSA checkpoint, my pants comically falling down as I run because I don’t have time to put my belt on. Less funny for us, my autistic  son is crying, actually screaming, because we’re dragging him through the airport at maximum (for him) speed, down past 20 gates because the most helpful agent got confused about our gate.

We get to the gate, out of breadth. Thankfully the plane hasn’t left yet. Standby passengers are still waiting for seats.

However, the gate agent scolds me. “You had to be here 15 minutes ago. We gave away your seats already.”

“What? What about my bags? My child’s car seat? We were talking to United agents the whole time. How did this happen?”

“Nothing I can do. Go see customer service.”

Point #6 — we’re talking to United.com, asking them to tell the gate agents we’re coming. Not possible? We make it to the gate with enough time to board (I’ve seen most other airlines help people on in such circumstances) and yet no “please hurry or we close the door” PA announcement, no communication that our seats were at risk, no compassion shown whatsoever, especially for a disabled child and family. Not possible?

They just didn’t care.

I explained the saga thus far and asked the agent if the least she could do was apologize. It would cost her nothing to show someone cared. Not possible.

We finally catch our breath and make it to the customer service desk. Jo Ann is able to rebook us, only two days later on the same flight. I will say that she did everything right, within her power, at least starting now.

If only all of your agents who interact with customers thought of themselves as customer service agents first.

But the saga continues… Remember the bag and car seat? They’re now on their way cross-country without us, and we have 48 hours to wait before we can claim them.

We call United and the destination airport to help secure the bags. Truthfully, no one is willing or able to help. The United agents have to call the same unresponsive phone numbers we do and leave messages for more people who don’t care.

The bag, at this point, is now theoretically locked up somewhere (we don’t know for sure), our flight arriving 30 minutes after the office closes, and we’ve booked a hotel room near the airport just to get our bag and car-seat the next morning.

Point #7 — if your policy (unwisely IMHO) includes flying bags without people, you have to improve how people can track their bags and attach special handling instructions when necessary. We put RFIDs on cattle, but we can’t track luggage for some reason.

Is this the worst airline issue ever? Certainly not. Nobody died. Nobody even had to sleep on the ground.

But it’s my family’s all-time worst, however, even counting the time US Airways held us hostage on the runway for 6 hours while they kept failing to file flight plans correctly. My son is disabled and easily traumatized. And this was all so avoidable, getting worse and worse each time we asked for help.

And if the moral of the story for you is “get there early,” well, today we did. We got there three hours early, just in case, and now we’re sitting in the boarding area for two more hours past the original departure, having deplaned once already because the replacement plane for the first airplane you provided has bad brakes.

So yes, go ahead and blame the customer.