United closing two reservations call centers


A United 787-9, soon to be flying from San Francisco to Singapore (PRNewsFoto/United Airlines)

Technology marches onward. And for United Airlines that means the closing of two of its reservations call centers located in Detroit and Honolulu. The facilities will be closed as their building leases come up fro renewal. The Detroit lease is set to expire in March 2016; the Honolulu lease ends in June 2017. The move will save the company money but it does not expect to see a drop in service levels as a result of this shift. From a company spokesman:

We are making significant technology investments to support our Contact Centers and have chosen not to renew our leases at the Detroit and Honolulu facilities, allowing nearly all of our employees to work from home.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the work from home lifestyle can be better for employees. No more commute (which can be especially miserable in Honolulu), no wear on a car and maybe even choosing to deduct some work-at-home expenses from the tax bill. Picking up a few extra hours if there is overtime demand (i.e. major weather system) is easier and can be done in a much more ad hoc manner. But there are also challenges. An agent cannot lean over to their neighbor to ask for help. Or just to go to lunch together. Working from home can lead to a very, very lonely lifestyle.

For the company the benefits are obvious. There are significant savings in not leasing and operating a large call center space. Also, the agents are paid a lower hourly rate and are responsible for procuring the necessary equipment to perform the work (i.e. they have to buy their own computer). United does not expect to see staffing levels change as part of this move.

 

United is far from the first to pursue this business model for its call centers. JetBlue has been operating its facility in Salt Lake City this way since it began operations 15 years ago. Continental, now part of the United operation, shuttered its Tampa call center in a similar manner 6 years ago, allowing employees to continue working remotely or transfer to other locations.

The technology works and such an arrangement is feasible. But it is far from a sure thing and there is a very real chance that the more skilled employees in the group will use this as motivation to seek an alternate position. Just having the same number of people working doesn’t necessarily keep the service at “Flyer Friendly” levels. Definitely bottom-line friendly, though.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. This announcement is not a surprise and it was predicted many years ago, by the sCO employees, when the merged employee groups retained the sUA union, the IAM. The IAM promised to get equal wages for the work-at-home group but failed miserably.

    The work-at-home agents can be in contact with their peers via their IM system. Most agents, from the SLC closed center, actually now enjoy staying at home, due to the cost savings of time in commuting, food costs and use of their car.

    1. It is very much a mixed bag IMO. No surprise at all that it is happening. Real estate is expensive and the overall value to the company to keep a call center open is marginal relative to the value it gives the employees. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value there. IM is different than a face-to-face chat. I’ve done both for 15 years now and have seen the ups and downs of both.

  2. It’s just awesome that they save the real estate costs *and* reduce the pay rate of the employees. And require them to bring their own hardware to the job now. I am sure that this will inspire additional changes for other parts of the workforce.

  3. There seems to be a culture of excellence at the United HNL call center. I can always tell within a minute or so when I am connected there just by the level of assistance and friendliness. How can this culture be continued when the call center is atomized?

  4. Honolulu had the best pmUA agents, by far.

    Hard to argue with the economics from the company’s point of view, but my sense is that the work from home agents are more varied in competence, probably for the reasons you mention

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