From QR Codes to Customer Woes: United’s “Agent On Demand” Is A Premium Perk Lost

Three years ago United Airlines launched ‘agent on demand’ where customers would reach local agents, rather than a call center, when contacting customer service via their mobile device – scan a QR code at a hub, and chat by voice or video to deal with rebooking and other issues.

This is a great feature, especially for the average passenger. It helps get real help faster, and utilizes agents efficiently.

It isn’t great for everyone, though. Passengers are being directed to use these QR codes for customer service instead of agents at the customer service counter – and sometimes even helpful premium agents in United Clubs that members pay to access (and indeed in my experience getting personalized help in the club from top agents has been the main reason to have lounge access in the first place).

Here’s one report from a customer service counter in Denver.

So, my flight was canceled today out of [Denver] and United will not *let* me talk to customer service agents. You read that right.

There are 3 customer service agents behind computers in the CS area, but you are not allowed to talk to them.

The entrance to the lane is blocked off with a sign that says “need assistance? Scan the QR code!”

I stepped past the sign in an effort to talk to the customer service reps and they started screaming at me.

A dragon came over with an iPhone and said I must use the kiosk. I told her that I did, and it flashed red saying “see an agent.”

She told me she was the authority that would decide if I can talk to a rep. After a few minutes of her bumbling around on her iPhone, it became clear she was not equipped to help. I asked her if I could talk to the CS desk and she said NO you must use the the new app feature. I tried that and they were hopelessly confused.

Totally insane to me that United canceled my flight and will not allow me to talk to the [customer service] people..

Now, it’s possible that those agents were servicing other customers via agent on demand! But don’t sit at a customer service counter and refuse to provide service. If they aren’t available, maybe they shouldn’t appear to be?

Another passenger noted a similar situation at Chicago O’Hare recently where staff were “screening people and were determining who could get in line to see a live [customer service] agent versus who should just go to the kiosk.”

  • When check-in kiosks were first introduced, those were ‘optional’ and you could always see an agent
  • Then they were no longer optional
  • Now you can’t just walk up to a customer service agent, either, when the airline cancels your flight.

I guess that’s still better than Frontier Airlines eliminating telephone customer service entirely, or maybe that’s really what United is going for?

We saw this elimination of in-person customer service happen last year at the United Club in Chicago, and other customers have complained about it in clubs, too.

The new United Clubs in Denver and Newark are excellent, but aesthetic isn’t the primary benefit of a lounge. United has a great mobile app. They’re providing a strong service to the occasional flyer. But for a carrier that ostensibly is trying to pursue a premium strategy, this is not that.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary — I have called the Global Services line once so far, and WOW. If all of the GS service will be that helpful, I am sold forever. Best service I’ve had in several years, from the professionalism to the wind-blowing flexibility I was offered. Delta Diamond used to be this good, circa 2014.

  2. All of this assumes someone has 1) A cellphone, and 2) A QR code reader. Neither is true for everyone. Technology is great when people know how and when to use it, and when to use some common sense. As Heinlein once put it, technology can work against you. In his words about being on the battlefield, “Someone less heavily armed (like with a rock), can sneak up behind you while you’re busy reading a vernier.”

  3. I agree it’s ridiculous! I missed out on an upgrade once because I went to the CS desk, scanned the code, then went to a bar. Tried to get it to work for 10 min. Gave up. Then called 1800 since I was mid-drink at that point and got an offshore rep who of course couldn’t help. By the time I got to the gate… If they had just said closed, I would’ve made the trek out to the gate. I’ve never understood how companies can offer tech products that literally don’t work. E.g. My dunkin app wasn’t working today so they lost a sale. How many billions of dollars are wasted on bad IT?

  4. As the owner of what is essentially a small IT company, I derive tremendous satisfaction when basic functionality on the websites/apps of billion-dollar companies just doesn’t work, and just doesn’t work in spectacular fail mode. For going on 2 years now, the Marriott website frequently gets in a state where it is submitting a search query that is longer than their server is configured to allow and makes their search non-functional unless I clear cookies or switch browsers. TWO YEARS.

    And don’t get me started on how bad the Wendy’s CFO has been bamboozled for the past 3 years by whoever they’ve been contracting to do their app… Buffalo Wild Wings’ IT also generally a travesty. (Their online ordering has gotten better, their app is still bugsville.)

    Anyway, makes me feel a lot better about our occasional bugs, and even better that as a small shop our customers can call us and we can fix anything in usually minutes.

    As for United…. it’s a good thing I drink and they made the ORD C concourse lounge food offerings so good, otherwise I probably would have ditched the lounge membership when they ditched the live agents. I get the efficiency argument – with the QR code they are right-staffed whether there are 1 or 10 people who need assistance, but man I really miss being able to hand a paper boarding pass to a lounge agent and adopt my best “Please let me know if you can’t do it, but it would really help me out if you could…”

    Someone behind a computer screen you don’t have eye contact with, with a queue of requests and likely a requests-per-hour performance goal just isn’t as likely to go the extra as they are with a person standing in front of them.

  5. Scott Kirby’s cost cutting continues. They took away the 1K dedicated customer cares lines, and now they sink to new customer service lows.

    I just am waiting for my 85 yr. old mom who has a flip phone to call me when she gets frustrated the next time she flies UA.

  6. Don’t you think saying don’t sit behind a customer service desk and not appear available is a contradiction since technically the lane to talk to them was blocked off…you just went around it lol

  7. Agent on Demand was broken when I tried to use it last month. My flight was cancelled. I used the app for Agent on Demand and after a 15 minute wait with no response I gave up, went to the ticket counter, waited 1 minute in line and was helped by a physical agent. Sad!

  8. Oh man I love Agent on Demand. The amount of times it has saved me and/or allowed me to make changes that otherwise would have cost me money if I call had called 1800. It’s one of the reasons that I refuse to fly any other airline. The agents on demand tend to me more lenient and able to break rules than if you call the regular reservation line. Hopefully, they do not get rid of it, but I do agree they should still staff some sort of customer service at the airport for people that need it.

  9. If I need a United agent I’m going in the club and talking to the rep. I’m not messing with the qr crap.

    Similarly when the agents say to use the kiosk to check in, I say no and hand them my passport. Sometimes they come out and do it at the kiosk to “show me how”. I’m not using it, do your job and don’t expect me to do it for you.

  10. I can say with authority AOD, “Agent on Demand” is fully supported and staffed by the company, we make every effort possible to staff and over staff agents throughout the system to handle any and all issues that arise for you the traveling public. Hiccups yes, but our agents are standing by to assist our customers.
    Believe me I know!

  11. I feel this entire article as a gate agent, we did not make this decision and it’s from corporate. We are frustrated also. This is all a trial/test experiment so we will see.

  12. This will be a big fail in the next weather or IT meltdown. And 100% avoidable, unlike the event that may trigger the fail.

    Congress and DOT need to start asking tough questions, assuming they have not already been greased with campaign $$.

  13. With all do respect . It is inching close to 20 years of smart phone release. The app is extremely user friendly. I had numerous times where my flight got cancelled and 3 taps and I was re-accommodated on another flight. Was the easiest thing in the world

    There will be a counter argument will be that some would like to speak to “a live person” or “some are not savvy with technology “. There will always be agents to assist with those that need assistance. But 80-95% of today’s travelers are tech savvy.

    In operational difficulties people can have an amazing app and 4 taps and re-accommodated or stand in an actual line for hours to hear the same travel options.

    Technology advancements is inevitable . Like when a lot go to the supermarket a lot more people would rather use self checkout than wait on an actual person to check them out.

  14. Go to to voice your concerns. And on that note tag Scott Kirby with your concerns. United always tries to follow suit with Delta. Does anyone know if Delta is doing this?

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