CFR Notes – United’s Front Desk Problems


I guess that anybody with just a passing amount of interest in air travel by now will have seen the debacle over United 3411 and the violently “re-alloctated” passenger. (If not, One Mile At A Time has a lot of coverage – this one will work as a starting point.)

I am not going to enter into the specific case – but for the record, I’ll say on the issues in it that –

  • I do believe United royally screwed up
  • I am happy to hear about the suggested analysis and revision of all their customer-facing policies
  • I think that the US consumer protection for air passengers stinks

But what I will say here – and it relates to the second point above – is that, in my experience, United simply does not empower their front line personnel to do much at all for their passengers.

Case in point: my experience from a cancelled LAN-ORD flight in September 2015 (read about it here).

What happened when we had received our text messages from various services that our flight would be cancelled and rushed to the airport was … nothing much.

The United lady behind the counter there flatly told us that she couldn’t do any rebookings, any information, anything at all – and on top of all of that, that we had to call United’s service center on our own (foreign plan = expensive) cell phones because her phose system was dead.

I mean… Anywhere else in the world when I’ve had a flight delay, a cancelled flight, any disturbance, the gate agents have at least been a pillar of professionalism. I’ve had rebookings done, I’ve had information on alternatives, I’d had status updates on the situation… in rare circumstances, I’ve had a professionally compassionate and excusing explanation as to why they couldn’t do anything right now – but then, invariably, advice as to how and when I might get help.

In fact, I will usually tell people that when you find yourself in dire straits while travelling, always remember that the gate agent is your friend and maybe the only one you have. But here? She flatly stated that in our sutuation, no help was going to be available for us because her systems did not allow her to help.

Whether that was “no help in general” or “no help because you are flying, ultimately, internationally” (and Lansing is a rather small, primarily domestic, airport) I don’t know. To state the obvious, I am not directing my ire at the specific lady in question but at the policies and systems that were so inadequate that they left her in a hopeless situation.

But I do know that I felt utterly let down by United’s lack of empowering their people – through systems availability and policies – to help their customers.

So I am not so surprised that they’d end up in a situation where lack of empowerment led them with only the bad options left. As we’ve all witnessed.

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