Certificate of Failure? Customer Service Recovery at United Airlines

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL San Francisco, CA Shanghai, China

United old-school logoAlmost every week I’ve talked about my recent experience with United Airlines, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you an update.

I reach out to anybody who either works at United or who might know this answer.

When a United Airlines plane has a problem and they ask you to fill out a form to send you a certificate, can somebody please tell me what that is?

I can tell you what created the problem – other than stupidity, ignorance and bad follow-through. In the service industry it’s not the delivery of the service that counts—it’s the recovery when things go wrong, and United Airlines did not recover really well.

For those of you who have not been following this story, let’s talk about my recent United Airlines flight that went from San Francisco to Shanghai. It was supposed to leave at a reasonable hour (one o’clock in the afternoon), getting into Shanghai the next day at about 5:30 because of the international date line. I was going over there to give a speech, have dinner, and come back.

That’s my life guys. You know this I live on planes. I’m not there for the fun and games – I have a schedule to keep. Memo to United: schedule – there’s one we can define together.

Recent US Airways News:

But let’s forget about that for a minute, because there are problems in the airline business, and there are days when planes are late – no problem.  Here comes the recovery part: the plane is five and a half hours late, no apology from United, no information whatsoever. We’re in San Francisco, which is their chief maintenance base.

United Airlines Boeing 747You’d think they have another plane, but they don’t. We weren’t in Topeka, we were in San Francisco! And so what do they roll out? A 747 that was otherwise known as the Amelia Earhart special. This is a plane they hadn’t even bothered cleaning, where the seats were frayed, the tray tables were sticky, and the wildest thing was that the plastic on the interior of the plane that used to be white had turned yellow, brittle and cracking.

The flight attendants could only apologize for the condition of the plane, but at least we were leaving five and a half hours late.

Read more from Peter’s Travel Detective Blog.

We get on the plane, and as I’m walking down the jetway there was a guy there with a folding card table handing out what looks to be like immigration forms. So he hands me these two things, I take them to my seat, and you know what they are? A mimeograph.

MimeographWhen was the last time you heard the word “mimeograph” – junior high school perhaps?

It was a mimeographed letter of apology from United Airlines, saying we are sorry for the inconvenience, please fill out this form. Great. I have to fill out a form.

So I open up this other document they gave me which looks like one of those prepaid credit card applications that you fold into three parts, seal and mail, and this is what it says: “United Airlines would like to apologize for this inconvenience, please fill out this form so we can send you a certificate.”

And I’ve been asking this question now for two and a half months: a certificate for what?

A certificate suitable for framing? A certificate that’s going to give me 500 miles that I can’t redeem anyway? A certificate that’s going to give me a discount off my next abusive flight?

Guys, I appeal to anybody who has ever flown or worked for United. Forget the issue that for five and a half hours I shouldn’t have to fill out any form, because they already had me on the passenger manifest, they knew me because of  my frequent flier number and anybody else on that plane’s frequent flier number.

United airlinesThey should have responded immediately. And the fact that they handed me a mimeograph letter means this has happened many times before. That mimeograph machine is smoking!

So if anyone is listening who has flown United, works for United, or can recognize what a United Airlines plane looks like and knows what’s in the certificate –  please solve my mystery for me and tell me what’s in that certificate.

This is ridiculous! And what makes matters worse is that the inconvenience on this plane was just getting started, because it’s a 13-hour flight between San Francisco and Shanghai.

I like to work on these flights, and I like to plug my computer into their power port. Well, their power ports weren’t working. The only thing they had available at my seat to me for my viewing pleasure was one copy of the movie Australia. This is a movie that already bombed on the ground, so why would I want to watch it in the air?

And then, to add insult to injury, on my return flight from Shanghai to Chicago, guess what? Same kind of plane, same deteriorating inside and the power ports weren’t working again.

You would think things would get better on my flight from Chicago to Washington D.C. when they wheeled out an A319, meaning (relatively speaking) brand new, but the power ports didn’t work on that either.

Certificate borderSo every opportunity they had to recover they failed miserably, and I’m still waiting for the big recovery, otherwise known as my certificate! I’ve got my art gallery on hold, and I’ve got my picture framers ready.

I would like to know what’s in that certificate, and I wasn’t the only passenger on the plane. Can you imagine how every one else is waiting for their certificate? Maybe it’s coming from the Pony Express?

Let me explain something—I’m going to give you two recent things that happened in the airline business and you tell me which would resonate better with you. They happened, by the way, on the same day.

JetBlue tailNumber 1: JetBlue announced if you lost your job, if you were pink-slipped or laid off because of the economic recession, you could cancel your JetBlue flight without penalty and get a full refund, no questions asked.

What’s even funnier is that on the same day United Airlines announced that they would disconnect their consumer complaints phone line. Hello?

First of all, let’s talk about it from an internal point of view—why would you even announce that? That’s a declaration of consumer war! They also announced, which by the way has been a long-standing policy for a number airlines, that if you are morbidly obese you have to buy two seats on the plane. If you literally can’t fit into one seat, you have to buy two.

This has been in the contract of carriage of five major U.S. airlines for the last 15 years that I know about, but for some strange, demented, and ridiculously suicidal reason, United Airlines decided to announce the policy.

Here’s the problem with that policy—who determines how fat you have to be? Do they have micrometers at the gates? Are they weighing you? This is ridiculous.

The only thing they really should have at the gates, honestly, is breathalyzers. Because I don’t want anyone getting on a plane already tanked. That’s when real problems happen. Because then you get someone completely drunk who thinks the cockpit door is the bathroom door. And you know what happens then – not a lot of fun.

In any case, I’m still waiting for my certificate, United Airlines.

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com.

For more, check out: JD Power and Associates Releases Latest Airline Satisfaction Survey.