United Eliminates Automatic Travel Voucher Apologies For Flight Delays

United Airlines CEO-in-waiting Scott Kirby is known to ‘manage by spreadsheet’. If an investment can’t be tied directly to revenue-generation, it’s unlikely to survive. One customer investment that’s getting that axe is delay compensation vouchers. Passengers have been ‘surprised and delighted’ to get apologies from the airline and travel vouchers without even asking for them after long flight delays.

Via the indefatigable Brian Sumers an internal United Airlines memo details that the carrier will no longer automatically send out vouchers to passengers on flights that are delayed less than 6 hours.

United’s internal document says the change is based on ‘feedback they’ve received’. Negative changes for customers are always based on customer feedback, never tell you what that was or who the customers are who like negative changes.

The airline had been proactively sending compensation vouchers to customers when their flights were delayed for controllable reasons such as mechanical issues and crew (but not weather). By considering on a case-by-case basis whether to compensate customers when delays are the airline’s fault they’ll save significant money though United doesn’t say how much.

Now, for delays between four and six hours, employees will decide what compensation to offer — and they’ll only give it after customers ask for it, according to the memo. United agents can share compensation through a mobile app on their airline-owned iPhones.

“When situations arise, and they warrant compensation outside of this guideline, do the right thing to take care of the customer,” United told employees. “With the ongoing enhancements within the In-the-Moment Care app, you can issue compensation on the spot, recover service disruptions, and avoid sending the customer to a website or service desk.”

Sumers notes that “United’s new policy is similar to what Delta Air Lines now offers, and that’s probably by design.” It’s always a good bet to project American Airlines and United Airlines changes based on what Delta has already done.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Sending a thoughtful (aka, fact-specific) apology is WAY more important — and cheaper — for an airline. Just knowing somebody at the airline “cares” would be sufficient for most folks.

    Last summer, I had my first “tarmac rule” cancellation. It was on AA. It wasn’t their fault (it was caused by poor decisions by the local control tower and FAA Air Route Traffic Control). After about 5 hours on the airplane and a couple aborted trips to the runway, my flight was ultimately cancelled. I heard nothing from AA. I would have appreciated an “apology email” from AA explaining what happened, and I’m sure my much less knowledgeable fellow passengers would have appreciated it even more. Such emails make business sense. Sending money rarely does.

  2. United will no longer be the Premier airline of my choice out of SFO New Mileage Plus program is crazy making. No t customer or company friendly. Will be DL and AA’s gain.

  3. I think the moves UA has been making proves that many of AA’s mis-steps were Kirby’s doing. I see AA moving to a more customer friendly approach (which BTW I have seen on board and at some , not all gates lately). UA will be stand for US Airways – the sequel very soon.

  4. “Now, for delays between four and six hours, employees will decide what compensation to offer..”

    And what if the delay is between, say 2-4 hours? Would they still be able to do it or are they instructed not to do anything below the 4 hour threshold?

  5. This change, as Brian Sumers notes, is based of “feedback United received”.

    Maybe it went something like this?

    Scott Kirby to his team: “My feedback on this program is, if you want to keep your job, you will sto0 handing out the company’s money to people that are delayed…”

  6. On the other hand:

    I was delayed once for MX, probably was more than 1 hour, less than 2; I didn’t care, stuff happens. didn’t really get an apology or anything, didn’t care.

    But if UA is gonna cheap….

    “With the ongoing enhancements within the In-the-Moment Care app, you can issue compensation on the spot, recover service disruptions, and avoid sending the customer to a website or service desk”

    I may start asking for comps after any major/minor delay if the FA can just hit a button on a tablet and give me stuff.

    I mean if UA is going to halt automatically giving stuff when they think and unreasonable delay has happened, it’s only fair I also halt just assuming every delay is reasonable.

  7. My personal opinion about Kirby’s love for spreadsheets… I work with data all day long. It’s just what I do. But the data itself can only take you so far, and isn’t a substitution for human judgement, yet. It’s an aide, but not a replacement.

    Piss off your customers at your will and see what happens.

  8. A_B says: I may start asking for comps after any major/minor delay if the FA can just hit a button on a tablet and give me stuff.

    I’ve had FA’s on board tell me that they are monitored for what/when/how much stuff they are giving out, even if it’s a legitimate on-board issue. That has had an affect on how proactive and reactive they are when asking for anything. Many times, they have directed me to the website (and customer support) even though they are in possession of the In-the-Moment Care app. and can issue compensation on the spot. So they are clearly being pressured to limit their distribution of compensation.

  9. I have travel scheduling freedom within my company’s travel policy…I often take 11am-3pm flights during the workday just to avoid early mornings and late nights. But truth be told I could withstand a 4-6 hour delay without any real harm done.

    If this is a minor change that makes United more profitable and less likely to collapse some time in the future, however incrementally, I am all for it. I know it’s a “bean counter” mentality but who is going to stand up and criticize all of these ways airlines slowly leak money the next time they come to the feeding trough for a bailout?

    If I’m not asking for $300 because I’m delayed then don’t give it to me! Give it to the guy who missed his meeting or a connection or whatever….

  10. Whenever I have a significant enough issue that is UA’s (or any other airline’s) fault, I email the airline, give them the facts and ask for reasonable compensation. I would not wait for them to contact me. I think I have always gotten miles or an e-cert. But I suspect a lot of people just do nothing.

  11. I think this is short-sighted. As noted, your “average” flier often chooses airlines based on price, and perceived comfort/reliability. I know people who have had a bad experience on an airline, and simply never choose it again. Sending a voucher for an extreme delay, may cost some money – But it also builds loyalty, and will likely lead to your average person who only takes 2 to 4 flights a year, steering their business to that particular airline over others, especially if prices are in the same ballpark. It’s direct and highly effective advertising, and I’m sure costs less then securing a celebrity or intellectual property for the pre-flight video’s that everyone ignores….

    Even for frequent and high volume fliers – While this change likely won’t change how they book things and fly, it will certainly lessen good will and loyalty to a degree. With the cost of advertising, just to build those two things – I don’t see how this is a smart decision.

  12. I’d like to know if the compensation paid to customers is significant compared to the tangible and intangible costs UA incurs in extended delays. Instead of cutting comp to passengers, it seems that the best thing for the airline would be to take steps to reduce the number and duration of controllable delays. That helps the company and its customers.

  13. To think about the other side of the equation – after a six hour delay, is any form of cash compensation “enough”? You are already upset and then the airline throws you a $150-300 ETC and unfortunately many people react with incredulity, saying that they feel it was “cheap for what they endured”. Thus you have created more ill will than not sending it in the first place. Then you have someone who is still upset about the delay and may use the ETC just to burn it and be done. I would rather be given an apology in person and treated well rather than stare at my inbox waiting for funny money.

  14. In response to the comment from Mangar, above, I don’t think there is much evidence that current management values branding or loyalty, based on Polaris and MileagePlus changes. So long as planes are full, I suppose that makes some sense. But are they getting any incremental dollars?

  15. I will have to admit the compensation culture of hotels and airlines stacked with traveler entitlement has gotten a bit out of hand.

  16. That picture attached in your article of “ United Customer Service “ is in externally bad taste . It is not funny , it is vile and sad as is your opinion on the industry .

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