Wandering Aramean offers a nice discussion of this morning’s Frequent Traveler University session with a United executive who came out to face the music of frequent flyers.
He caught a red eye to make it to Newark, I think he showered, and then came down for a session which ran from 10am until lunch. To me, it was (hopefully) the beginning of United’s rapprochement with its customers — the March 3rd integration of United and Continental, their reservation systems, and mileage programs has been a disaster. At the Freddie Awards Thursday evening Robert Wuhl said that you could trust United to keep its promises — “when they promised 2 to 4 hour hold times, they key their promise!”
And of course it hasn’t been just telephone hold times, which have improved (although hardly to pre-March 3 United levels, though it’s worth remembering that the airline really is more or less Continental operating under the United name).
When reservations were migrated to the new system, segments disappeared. Upgrades haven’t processed correctly, either in advance at all at times (though in theory still in the correct order) or the waitlist hasn’t processed when seats open (so folks sometimes swoop in and grab seats not otherwise due to them).
Agents haven’t known how to handle the new system, so they say things are impossible, like protecting a flyer on a later flight “if I do that then all of your future flights will cancel.” Saying “this system doesn’t allow us to do that” is usually wrong, agents haven’t learned the new system (I blame the airline not the agents, even when the agents are recalcitrant). And agents haven’t learned the new policies, so they’ll often enforce policies that they think are still in place. Or agents will go about policing rules they believe are in place, like that upgrades need to be supported and requested sufficiently in advance so that when they don’t see how an upgrade is being supported they’ll deny it even when the passenger is on the list and would appear to clear at the gate.
It’s amazing how many things they’ve gotten wrong, despite public statements. There’s no question this was a gargantuan IT challenge. But the early claims that they had it under control, that they had run the drill and everything was fine, and then initially downplaying concerns — it just didn’t pan out.
That said, things have gotten better, and not just with hold times. As there are fewer and fewer pre-March 3 reservations, there are fewer and fewer problems. They have a long hit list that they’re working through and they’re working crazy hours to do it. And they’re nowhere near fixed or as functional as systems were prior to March 3.
It’s also worth noting that there are whole categories of other problems only tangentially related to the March 3 integration. Award tickets have had segments on partner airlines cancelled when the partner sees that there’s a reservation but the ticket number doesn’t get pushed through. This has happened most frequently with Asiana. But that’s not new, it was a problem with the pre-March 3 Continental as well. But it never used to happen with United, so in some ways it’s exacerbated by the merger even if the integration didn’t directly cause the problem.
And there are problems with the new upgrade rules, upgrade priority algorithms have had to be changed so that Global Services members weren’t being trumped by government fare Premier Silvers based on government fares treated as full fares. That’s still a problem, though, where 1Ks on non-full fare tickets are trumped by government fare Silvers on sometimes less expensive (but ‘full fare’) tickets. For most airlines that sort of thing is a rounding error but for United, operating a hub in DC, that’s huge. I hope they’ll revisit the approach here.
I think there are some real advantages for customers who started on the United side of the merger that’s often lost, perhaps because the gains were capitalized when first achieved shortly after the merger was announced. United used to block its members from booking award seats offered by partners when the airline expected to exceed its budget for partner award tickets for the quarter, claiming falsely that “no seats are available.” Frequent flyers called it “Starnet blocking,” the United folks referred to it as “throttling,” but that practice was brought to an end. And routing rules were relaxed considerably, United used to let its members take flights up to the published “maximum permitted mileage” for a given route, that was relaxed to be up to 15% over that maximum permitted mileage. And in practice that’s not seemingly enforced strictly at all in the post-March 3 world (it certainly hadn’t been enforced on the Continental side). Real friendly improvements on the redemption side that made United miles much more valuable.
It’s easy to understand why, after breaking its promises to customers with the integration, United doesn’t want to toot its horn too heavily about its improvements until it has the basics fixed. But those improvements are worth remembering, the positives balance the negatives for some folks, and that might be a step towards restoring some of the trust of which United is currently in significant deficit with its customers. Another big step was coming forward to stand in front of a couple hundred of those passionate customers, put no subject off the table, listen and give candid answers.
Seth scribbled down several important quotes, that I think give feeling to the session:
Upgrades are clearing more reliably, but still not happening all the time
We’re really bad at transparency for upgrades right now.
We’re telling gate agents to “Please don’t police upgrades. If the person is on the list don’t worry about how they got there.”
Also interesting was the discussion of Twitter and customer service, it was sufficiently shocking to see everyone in the room (to a 98% approximation) raise their hands when asked if they had a Twitter account that our guest pulled out his phone to take a picture as a dramatic way to capture the importance of the medium for others at the company. United certainly hasn’t made the strides there that Delta has (with @DeltaAssist).
It was much appreciated to have the face time, they’re working hard, and eventually one imagines they’ll fix the problems. A little bit of humility, certainly shown this morning, is a good step as well.