Here’s Everything Customers Hate About U.S. Airlines in 7 Seconds

Modern airlines are safe. They’re mostly reliable. And they’re a marvel of technology and dedication.

Despite the investment of billions of dollars into passenger experience, there’s a sense that too many employees at US airlines just don’t care. When we’re traveling, the trip is important to us.
When things go wrong, we’re at their mercy. And too often things feel far more controllable by the airline than they are.

So watching bags come off a United flight like this last Wednesday is just infuriating:

The baggage handlers aren’t there to do their job. Don’t tell me they aren’t enough employees, they’re stretched too thin. It doesn’t matter whether it’s these specific baggage handlers assigned to this flight or their managers or their managers’ managers.

And just watch the Mercedes SUV ready to pick up a Global Services customer likely on a short connection. That driver has a job to do, and it isn’t to deal with the luggage, but to the customer that isn’t getting picked up in a Mercedes it looks like the driver doesn’t care either.

It feels like Louis C.K. captures the sentiment here perfectly.

(HT: @djjohnpayne)

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. One part of this is that the coprorations don’t want to staff properly and won’t reward people who are loyal and go beyond the title of your job.

  2. Alaska, Virgin America, WestJet, JetBlue and Southwest. Five companies that, with the exception of skilled trades, mechanics, pilots etc……will hire people first. What I mean is, they hire a person and figure they can train a nice, cheery person to do the job. They will train the right person to be able to competently perform the tasks at hand. People who are not apathetic and at least enjoy their lives.

    All other North American Airlines hire by position. They are trying to find people with skills and then let them loose.

  3. That Louis video had more truth in it than a Sunday sermon. And the bags dropping….I hope no one checked a laptop.

  4. Love the delicate product positioning that United accomplishes in this video by slapping their logo on an unsuspecting Mercedes-Benz

  5. Yet another fine example of the great disparity between the (empty) promises Oscar makes that customer service at United will change for the better, and the reality as we see it firsthand and as documented in images recorded by other passengers, that it’s more of the same old crappy service that it was while the name on the door of Oscar’s office was Jeff Smisek.

    And what’s the excuse now?

    They charge most passengers $25/$35 for their first two checked bags, and as everyone knows these checked bag fees are ridiculously profitable.

    So what’s the dealio?

    People are paying for this service…the airline is laughing all the way to the bank with the outsized profits the checked bag fees bring in…the executives are cashing in their huge bonuses and stock options…and yet…there aren’t enough employees on the payroll to load and unload the bags?!?!


    At least Delta offers 2,500 SkyMiles for checked bags when it takes longer than 20-mins for them to arrive in baggage claim.

    But of course, just as it was during the Smisek years, it’s never really about what the airline can do for the passenger, and always HOW LITTLE WE CAN DO FOR THE PASSENGER AND GET AWAY WITH IT!!!

    Oh, and btw, Oscar, your employees HATE the new 10-abreast rows on the 777’s as much as the passengers you say you value and respect (but clearly don’t since these planes really weren’t designed for ten seats per row and those teeny-tiny aisles…) HATE these flying abominations…just sayin’

  6. Gary-

    Instead of continuing the negative comments, I think it’s time I just stop reading your blog… there’s simply no new content besides sensationalized “news” and hat tips. There’s nothing thought-leading about VFTW anymore.
    Pair that with the description of the CSP at the top of every page (best offer in 5 years??? I think you mean the same offer for the past five years)… it’s just hard to click on this site anymore and you don’t seem responsive to others’ attrition.

    Thanks for what you used to post but I think you’ve lost your passion for it.

  7. …and kills giant pet rabbits plus many other pets in the cargo hold over the years…

  8. @Matt:

    Here is a positive comment. After United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar and refused to pay for it, Dave created the video posted above. After Dave’s video went viral, with 17,546,449 views, United Airlines decided to pay for their damage to his guitar.

    Regarding the dead bunny, I was anticipating the editors of United Airlines Hemispheres magazine might publish a recipe for “rabbit stew” as a demonstration of their concern for helping to reduce the problems of world famine in poverty stricken areas.

  9. @Howard Miller –
    >> They charge most passengers $25/$35 for their first two checked bags, and as everyone knows these checked bag fees are ridiculously profitable.

    So what’s the dealio?>>

    Perhaps they charge $25 for your bag to fall from the top of the conveyor belt and $35 for your bag to fall from the bottom of the conveyor?

    Sign me up for the $35 fee please!

  10. …but united kind of brings much of the negative attention on itself…leaving aside the most egregious incidents in the news, as recently as a month ago, the check-in experience at Newark Airport for my partner, who had Polio as a young child, and has limited mobility in one of his legs, was extremely disappointing, with one agent being exceptionally rude, and several others claiming they never heard that a disabled passenger can be accompanied to the gate by a non-ticketed person (per federal regulations) to assist while they wait to board their flight, or more importantly, help out when there’s a sudden gate change.

    Except for a pair of flights on United in April that we took together, that immediately followed the widely reported Dr. Dao dragging incident, when United actually proved that it could deliver an exceptional service product from start to finish if it truly wanted to offer a better product than it typically has offered since the Continental merger (except, of course, for the abysmally small legroom in the main cabin rows where at 5′ 8″/185 lbs my knees were pressed against the seatback in the next row the entire time…), our experience, whether flying together, or separately, has nearly always been one in which it is abundantly clear that the unacknowledged/unspoken business model is to push the envelope to see HOW LITTLE THEY HAVE TO DO FOR THEIR PASSENGERS, AND HOW MUCH THEY CAN GET AWAY WITH.

    I would love nothing more than to praise United, and happily will, when either an individual experience is noteworthy, or better yet, when after several experiences, meaningful improvement on the ground (especially since that’s where the rudest employees often are) and inflight (the flight attendants usually are very good, or at least professional…it’s the dreadful seat pitch, the underwhelming streaming IFE [that is, if it even works] and except for the yummy Stroopwafel terrible edibles) is clear, unmistakable, and perhaps most importantly, palpable.

    Alas, and despite what Oscar says, except for the pair of flights taken in mid-April where the service at United was GOOD, the United encountered one month ago at Newark, was VERY MUCH the United passenger “experience” as it has been for the past 5 or so years.

    One should NOT be forced to cite (and begin loading web pages proving) federal regulations that specifically state disabled passengers can be accompanied to the gate by a non-ticked/traveling companion, as I had to.

    Further, encountering at first an exceptionally rude agent on the floor before even approaching the check-in desk (checked bags required since schlepping them through the airport obviously presents problems for disabled passengers), and then having not one, but two other agents say they “never heard before” that I could be issued a gate-pass is disingenuous.

    Either that, or these agents are badly underinformed about federal policies/regulations, which would be a serious problem in and of itself.

    Anyhow, after my partner’s plane departed I went back to the ticketing lobby, and spoke to someone else to politely and professionally address my concerns about how the check-in experience was exceptionally poor.

    This employee and I had a very nice “chat” about that and other service delivery issues where United lags its competitors.

    It was a pleasant and insightful conversation, too.

    So for the commenter above, I beg to differ…the negative comments by United are very much in line with the experience as I, or my partner, who flies far more often than I do (including transcons, international to Europe and Asia) know it to be.

    By contrast, our trips on Southwest, Jetblue and Delta are ALWAYS far and away MUCH BETTER than United.

    When we fly United, more often than not, it’s because Newark is the closest airport to our home and work, and because his employer prefers United for the network of nonstop destinations it serves.

    It’s certainly NOT for the woefully deficient service!

  11. @Matt — I *LOVE* this stuff every day, but if you don’t love reading it by all means don’t, that’s cool. as far as being “responsive to others’ attrition” fact check: the number of people reading this blog is up 115% year-over-year.

  12. In a few bullet points:

    – 1 crap service by Grandmothers
    – 2 crap service by grandmothers
    – 3 crap service by grandmothers
    – 4 crap service by grandmothers
    – 5 crap service by grandmothers
    – 6 crap service by grandmothers
    -7 crap service by grandmothers

  13. Flew LAX-OGG on UA F earlier this month, and gate checked the baby’s car seat and stroller (paid tickets). They showed up in OGG covered in tar. Gate agent said not her deal–go talk to baggage office. Baggage office couldn’t have cared less. Not their problem, don’t ask them to do their job, leave them alone and let them get paid for fucking around on their phones. Email to united and ultimately got a voucher, but the experaince left a very bad taste in my mouth. I would have walked out of OGG okay with an apology, some empathy, and an effort to help clean off the mess. Nothing anywhere close to that even occurred to anyone.

  14. @synd

    Grandmothers are sweet and kindly. United does not hire grandmothers. They hire rabid harpies.

  15. Funny (and sad) to read these comments. Fact is all of Corporate America is sucumbing to the unrealistic greedy demands for growth / profitability by Wall Street. Unfortunately, the airline industry is a rare exception wherein this greed is physically felt by its customer base. Truth be told, customer service, product quality, employee work-life balance, employee benefits, etc are are, in general, on the decline everywhere. The race to the bottom extends beyond the airlines……just sayin’.

  16. @Billy Greenrick

    Nonsense. Service in hotels everywhere I go has improved vastly. I’m stunned sometimes at how good cheap, budget hotels are now (Holiday Inn Express, Towneplace, etc.). Vastly better than 2 or 3 decades ago. Overall restaurant quality has also improved. Ground transportation has vastly improved.

    Why? The free market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. TripAdvisor, Uber, et al are all trying to make a buck (Greed). But their greed is making our lives better.

    The airlines are different because they enjoy a government-protected monopoly. The problem is not Wall Street. It’s Washington.

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