Memo To United Airlines Management— Don’t Forget Who’s The Customer

My business partner and I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at High Noon today, having awakened far too early for a Sunday, Mother’s Day to boot. We were en route to Rochester, New York, to kick off a week of East Coast business meetings.

With raindrops battering the airplane windows as we approached the gate, we learned that a massive storm system had forced the cancellation of many United flights into in out of Chicago, including our connection to Rochester.

We entered the terminal and saw a line of at least five hundred people trying to re-book their connecting flights—the wait for the “rapid, self-service kiosks” made us wish for unconsciousness. A large dose of good luck and membership in the Red Carpet Club succeeded in getting us re-booked onto a flight to Buffalo which left in 45 minutes, and both of us were upgraded to First Class… As we waited to board, an announcement was made that the First Class cabin had checked in full and that the ten other passengers waiting to upgrade would have to fly coach. We were lucky, indeed.

But that’s not the punch line to this story.

We were the first two passengers to board the 737 and, to our surprise, five of the eight first class seats were already occupied—by United employees. They had even completely filled the overhead bins with their bags, and I had to politely ask for one of the dead-heading flight attendants to move her bag into coach so that I could keep my own bag with me. I even offered to carry her bag to do it!

The flight was 100% full. At least 1,000 paying customers of United Airlines were massively inconvenienced due to cancelled flights throughout UAL’s Chicago hub. There is no doubt that other passengers on Flight 1142 to Buffalo had been re-routed onto this flight. Did United have an opportunity to build goodwill with five more of their loyal customers by moving the extremely unhappy paying passengers up front and having the employees fly coach to Buffalo? Yes.

But that would be another airline in another world and another time. And this blog is about the real world, where airlines, companies that used to be in the customer satisfaction business around circa 1975, no longer consider the lasting impact on every passenger who will not forget the image of five employees hogging 63% of the First Class cabin on Mother’s Day during a massive disruption of service to paying customers.

And I’m one of the lucky minority who got to ride up front…


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