A letter to United Airlines CEO

Jeffrey A. Smisek
President and CEO
United Airlines
77 West Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Mr. Smisek,

Last Tuesday, August 15, I was scheduled to travel from O’Hare to LaGuardia on United flight 696. Eventually the flight was cancelled after several delays, and the alternative flight I was able to fly on, flight 694, was found to have an equipment problem, and we had to switch to another aircraft, incurring further delays.

I do not blame the airline for the weather and ATC related delays that befell flight 696, or the equipment problems related to flight 694. I do not even begrudge United for the three round trips I made between Concourses B and C trying to get alternate flights. However, I noticed many areas where United Airlines employees could have exercised greater compassion towards their passengers and better professionalism. Or at least, United could improve its processes significantly, if it couldn’t trust its employees taking the most appropriate initiatives in critical moments.

  1. When flight 696 was cancelled, there was no announcement at the gate that it was assigned (I forgot the exact gate number but this was on Concourse C, and different from the original gate due to the delays). Instead, the gate signage inexplicably started to show that the gate was to process a different flight. The cancellation was only listed on the departure notification screens. The next available flight for LaGuardia was over on Concourse B.

    Flight cancellation is a business decision on the part of the airline, but it is a disaster for its passengers. United should not simply announce the cancellation on the flight schedule boards. Instead, the first line of business after the decision had been made should be to reach out to its affected customers as quickly as possible and offer relief.

    I think a much more appropriate process calls for at least one verbal announcement over the PA system near the gate, and clear instruction that the passengers affected could get their rearrangements made either at the same gate, or at a nearby gate. Extra gate agents assigned to the task would have been welcome—after all, O’Hare is a United hub and there is no reason that it couldn’t mobilize some more resources for the task.

  2. When many of the passengers from the cancelled flight 696 reached gate B9 for rebooking on flight 694, they were left standing in line for more than 30 minutes, with none of them being processed in the mean time. At the beginning there were three United associates at the counter. Eventually two of them left, and the only one on duty left word with one person at the front of the line that he would not be able to process the change requests until the Pittsburgh flight, which was to start boarding soon, was sent off.

    Even though people standing in line may not be a planned event, it should be treated by the airline like a fire that needs to be put off. I don’t know why the two female employees left the counter without processing any of the people in line, or why the sole male employee who was left behind couldn’t process some of us before the boarding process for the Pittsburgh flight began, but mostly, I don’t understand why there was never a call for backups, for some additional gate agents to help out with the situation. Clearly, the airline and its gate agents did not care enough about their customers’ physical fatigue and mental anguish caused by the delays in processing their alternative flights.

  3. Our alternative gate for flight 694 was B19, and we were let to believe that we could just get over and board a plane available there already. We hurried over and waited in line, for another 30 minutes. It was after 20 some minutes that there was an announcement that we couldn’t board because they were waiting for the flight crew. Why was there no announcement at any time that people didn’t have to wait in line, but would be called in due time by boarding groups?
  4. On Thursday (August 16), I got an email from United saying that due to delay or cancellation, I was now scheduled to fly on United 3484, scheduled for Friday August 17 at 10:00 AM, from O’Hare to LaGuardia. I understand that this was due to some clerical error, such that United had not realized that I had reached my destination already. But…

    If a passenger of yours were delayed by more than 36 hours, should s/he be reached through email? Shouldn’t some customer service person be on the phone already, offering apologies, compensation, in addition to the alternative flight?

In fine, I suggest that United retool its processes in dealing with delays and cancellations, retrain its gate agents to treat each passenger with ultimate respect and compassion, and seize each instance of delay and cancellation, whatever their causes, as an opportunity for providing exceptional customer service.

And when the airline fails to excel at such an opportunity, a little apology and compensation for those gravely inconvenienced could go a long way towards earning some good well from its customers.



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