United speaks out!

A last minute change to the schedule of an event is rarely a good thing; swapping out speakers and shuffling slots is a pain for everyone. But when given the opportunity to have an official from the United Airlines Customer Experience group come in and talk with 200+ frequent fliers about the changes over the past 6 weeks, including the challenges they faced and the troubles they’re still facing with the merger and the PSS integration progress, you accept the pains and make the changes. At this weekend’s Frequent Traveler University event a representative from United’s Customer Experience group stood up in front of the group with pretty much no restrictions on what could be asked. A potentially risky move.

Much of the discussion focused on upgrades and the policies and processes around upgrades. Not particularly surprising given that the upgrade processing has been probably the most visible and, for many passengers, the greatest pain point. Perhaps the best news is that the company knows the system still isn’t working correctly all the time. Among other useful things said:

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."

Some people love the companion upgrade policy and some hate it. Some like the Y/B/M-Up policy and some hate it. And, not surprisingly, many don’t understand how the policies are built and how they work. The issue of wait-listed upgrades not being cleared when the award inventory opens up was also brought up again. There are some theories on why it is happening but nothing solid yet. Overall, some hints were offered about how things in the future that are going to be better. But just hints. Nothing confirmed.

There was also a decent amount of discussion about the agents and the seemingly new party line of "we cannot do that in the new system." There are some things that actually cannot be done anymore, but many of the examples provided, such as protecting on a later flight without canceling the existing segments, turned out to actually not be true.

There was the usual (and well deserved) abuse of the Newark station. Nothing to report on anything potentially getting better there, but it was discussed.

There was also a ton of abuse piled on top of the social media strategy, namely the Twitter account. The UA rep was shocked when he asked how many folks in the room used Twitter and saw nearly everyone raise their hand. And based on my personal experience I agree that the approach has been quite passive and low-key, almost to the point of seemingly non-existent unless they’re hosting a chat or similar. Constantly referring customers to the "official" channels which are also horribly back-logged and unresponsive isn’t helping their case. This was, after upgrades, probably the most significant area the group felt the company was failing horribly in.

It wasn’t all questions from the crowd. In some cases it was just comments about how things have run the past 6 weeks and months. Particularly pointed and brutal was a simple line offered up from one attendee:

You’ve broken every rule of customer service since the merger

And all he could do was accept that one; not really much of a leg to stand on to dispute it.

Finally, a few minutes were devoted to discussion of things not entirely related to the post-integration issues. It was quite interesting to hear from someone focused on the Customer Experience part of the organization what about the carrier he thought was compelling for customers and where he actually wanted that experience to be. Things like the route network and the non-flying earning possibilities were big on his radar.

On the route network front, the 787 was a big focus. Among other telling comments,

The 787 is going to be unbelievable…going to be exciting what we’re doing with it and where we’re going with it.

That’s not new but knowing that he’s on the inside and can see more about the potential routes makes me excited, too.

To the point of loyalty and the future of the experience it was interesting to hear discussion of how they want loyalty to be not to the mileage program but actually to the carrier and the in-flight product. They want loyalty to be focused on actually doing right by customers rather than being focused on rules and policies. That came out explicitly in the discussion about the upgrades and not wanting agents to be policing why the upgrade should be processed or not, for example, and it came out explicitly in one of the closing comments offered up:

I want you to be loyal because you know United will use common sense to take care of me.

It is going to take a while to build that level of comfort with many customers. Whether due to issues with agent training on the new platform, inconsistent application of policies or just the typical variances in terms of in-flight crew experiences, it is never going to be perfect. But the company has quite an up-hill battle in front of them on the trust and common sense front. It will be interesting to see how that develops.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I appreciated Carlos’ time, but something has to change. Both of my transcon 1K regional upgrades did not clear this weekend. Pre merger that was unheard of.

  2. Did they talk about TOD upgrade and if that was a policy that was going to stay? Arguably this is most frustrating part of the new UA is that they will sell the upgrades at the expense of 1Ks…

  3. Personally, I think it’s all just talk — after all, what are they supposed to say? However, I take it with a grain of salt. I’m a very level-headed person and don’t make knee-jerk decisions. Still, I won’t be trying to renew my 1K status this year. I’m not saying I’m quitting UA entirely, just avoiding them until they get their act together — it’s too frustrating. I’ve been AA EXP for the several years as well as UA 1K in parallel (I don’t like leaving all my eggs in one basket), so I’ll just fall back on the AA EXP for now.

    1. I don’t think that it is “all just talk” but I do agree that they still have a long way to go. There certainly is an aura of mistrust out there and, while at least acknowledging it in public is useful, that doesn’t solve the problem. Acknowledging that there is a problem is an important first step, but it is only the first step.

      To the ToD issue, it was definitely talked about. There was some confusion about the Fare-Up versus the Buy-Up and that was addressed, but there was nothing conclusive on the ToD thing other than the repeated note that all the claims about it aren’t going to do anything to change the potential issues there without more details for the folks in the company to follow up on. Frustrating, to be sure, but that’s where they’re standing on the issue.

      I have no reason to believe that a random mid-level guy talking to 200 folks in NJ is going to change anything with respect to the EXP match. Why would it??

  4. I don’t care about the 787. I care about the itinerary I purchased over a week ago on united.com that is STILL not ticketed. A simple round trip to Chicago. I call and ask and they tell me to wait. I’m tired of waiting. It is two months out and they still can’t reliably ticket a simple domestic itinerary. Would AA tell me to wait or would my confirmation email be in my inbox within minutes?

    1. If it is actually a normal ticket and it is taking that long then something is broken and it isn’t going to actually process, Tom. There’s definitely something busted in the record. Getting the right agent to figure out what might be a challenge (in my case the fare dropped out of the reservation) but you’re going to have to do that if you want it resolved.

  5. once the damage is done, it’s done. It’s really gonna take quite a bit to recover. I just don’t see that happening with the mileage plus program benefits going down hill with full head of steam unless some generous retention gestures are made to higher tier members.

  6. United is slowly making progress to a functioning system.

    Still too many things remain broken or unattended, many of us do not have the time or patience to remain on hold for long periods of time with no resolution.

    The phones are answered more quickly but to no end game. United has more agents answering the phone, but many with little knowledge or power to accomplish anything.

  7. I didn’t run into any issues on my last trip. I had 8 CPU eligible flights, all booked on PMUA (flights were end of March/early April), I had upgrades clear on 5 of them (as Premier Gold). On all of those flights except one my upgrades cleared as expected, on that one, I was #1 before I turned off my phone, right after I turned off my phone an FA told me to go up front as she was closing to door.

  8. After listening to this discussion, all I can say is thank God I am an EXP with American. I had no idea how happy I was until I heard all the United issues at FTU this morning. I hope it gets better for all the United people soon. I just fear that AA may have its turn in the barrel at some point as well.

  9. Any reaction to AA status matching 1K and GS to Exec Plat? Especially since 52,000+ people have already viewed the FT thread on this and the large number of GS and 1K flyers bailing to AA?

  10. As a 3MM with UA I should be 1K for life, but not get the 6 SWU’s if I fall below 100k miles in a year. I am going to fly about 60k with UA this year, but next year it is over. They won’t come clean about selling upgrades whilst elites are on the waitlist. Let’s face it, the number of flights with no elites on the waitlist is almost zero, so why would they ever be able to sell an upgrade to a General Member?

  11. @mark that’s incorrect, as 3mm you should still get the 6 swus if you don’t fly 100k eqm

  12. @Rob Well the only person who has ever said this from UA is UAInsider @ Flyertalk, so I am not sure we could hold them to it!
    It is not on the web site and what is there clearly says you get the 6 SWUs when you get to 100k

  13. This fall and early winter are going to be the crunch time, I think. I do hope that UA gets its act together and can deliver an experience, both day-to-day and in IRROPS, that persuades me to stay loyal. This is what they state their aim to be. Clearly they need time to do it from where we are today. By December, their progress towards it will start becoming clear.

  14. Seth – my sense is that it is the pmCO agents that are more rigorous about policing upgrades and not deviating from policy – and they are the ones that know SHARES best. The pmUA agents are more likely to be flexible but they don’t know the system as well.

    I liked Carlos’s statement that they want agents to use common sense to take care of me – but that’s going to take a cultural change for the pmCO agents. To take but one historical example, in IRROPS, pmUA would always book me onto other carriers to get me to my destination the same day, while pmCO would refuse to do that and in some cases put me onto the next day’s flight. Will they empower the agents to be more flexible and change that culture?

    I am excited about the 787. I’ve heard from travelers that the difference in cabin pressure and humidity makes a noticeable difference – but in any event 50 new international aircraft potentially mean a lot of new routes, depending on how many aircraft are retired, but they’re also repurposing many of the 763 ghetto birds for international operation.

  15. Regarding Twitter, on the one hand, UA clearly has a very weak presence compared to travel companies like DL or SPG; on the other hand, I’m not sure I understand why Twitter users get elevated customer service compared to everyone else. For companies that are present on Twitter, it’s like you can use it to get better service than all other customers. And does it encourage people to complain?

    I’m not so sure I think it’s the right business decision to train customers to complain or demand things via Twitter in order to get the best response. Just saying.

    1. The point isn’t that Twitter users should get better service; it is that they should be able to get service at all. Love or hate the platform there are millions of users and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

      I don’t think that the solution is to have a group on Twitter who just apologizes all the time. At the same time, there is a growing population that prefers venues other than phone and even email for support. Combine that with the fact that providing support via Twitter is rather similar to via phone from a general perspective and there is some very real value there.

      It is also worth recognizing the difference in synchronous versus asynchronous responses. A phone agent is the former. Email and Twitter while, when done correctly, appear to be the former but the really are the latter. That can work very much in the company’s favor in many cases.

  16. I’m disgusted to read this – it’s all just babble. The talk out of one side of the mouth and completely to another. I agree with another poster, who cares about how fabulous the 787? I’d would rather have them keep their promises. I can’t believe no one mentioned the Million Miler Program – not even on question?! re: http://www.millionmilersunited.com

    1. Well, the MM program was discussed. There were a couple questions posed but the complaints were hardly consistent. They didn’t consider that some folks actually like the changes to get spouse benefits, for example.

      I certainly understand not liking program changes. But I also think that living in the past is a foolish way to approach life. Knowing that the 787s are going to significantly alter the route map is actually a much more important thing to me than whether I get a couple GPUs every year. YMMV.

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