United In Failure

Tue 17 September 2013

I enjoy flying. I actually dress up for the occasion because I still harbour the illusion that air travel should be a chic thing. However, the reality is that most flying is an ugly, non-romantic affair. Crocs, cut-off jeans and sweat pants, fluorescent T-shirts - when did flying become something akin to going to Wal-Mart at 2 in the morning?

Anyhow, I had a short trip planned out where I would fly from Calgary to Portland, Maine on a Thursday so that I could be ready for a wedding on Saturday, and return on the Sunday along with my parents, who were planning on vacationing in Banff. We were so happy we were able to get tickets on the same flight home, because that would mean we would have the opportunity to catch up (essentially an extra vacation day for both my parents and I).

For the tickets, I decided to go with United because they had a flight that went to Portland that only had 1 connection through Newark. As I was only going to be in town for a couple days, I only wanted one connection to minimize the likelihood of problems. I also gave myself a 2 hour window for layovers, because it’s not unusual for a plane to be 30 minutes late.

Calgary -> Newark -> Toronto -> Newark

So I headed to the Calgary Internation Airport Thursday afternoon. Going to the United kiosk, I tried to get my tickets. However, United was operating through Air Canada, requiring me to head over to the Air Canada counter to get sorted. The kiosk only gave me one of my two boarding passes. I went up to the Air Canada counter to inquire, and the attendants said I would need to go to the United counter. I walked back over to the United counter, and the employee checked their system, only to find that I had no itinerary with them. Apparently my itinerary is on the United Express system, so I actually have to sort out the next boarding pass in Newark.

Now what transpires on the flight is, admittedly, beyond the control of the airline. There’s bad weather in Newark, and after staying in a holding pattern for 20 minutes, the plane has run out of holding fuel and so the pilots head to Toronto to refuel. Hours pass, and it becomes obvious that I’ve missed the connection to Portland. The flight attendant tries to give me hope that my connection flight may be delayed, but she looks doubtful.

When we finally land in Newark, I ask the gate attendants if my flight to Portland is delayed, but it turns out that the flight to Portland is simply cancelled. Since the gate is Air Canada, I need to go to the United Express counter in order to arrange a new flight.

I wait in line over 30 minutes. The counter staff look tired and overworked, and it looks as though none of the kiosks are working. By the time I finally get to an attendant, she makes me wait several minutes while she fills out an overtime slip. After ample miscommunication, I’m told that because there are no more direct flights to Portland tomorrow(!), the tickets they can give me are from Newark to Washington D.C. to Portland, and I would be getting into Portland around 1:30 PM next day, a full 15 hours past my original destination time. I ask if they’ll at least put me up in a hotel room for the night (it was a really long international flight, after all), but because the delay was weather-related they will not. "You can sleep in the food court."

An evening in Newark Liberty International Airport

It’s worth taking a bit of a detour to describe the clusterfuck that is Newark airport. Upon deboarding, pretty much the first thing one does whenever they have connections is to check the arrivals/departures digital signage. Now what makes Newark bizarre is that most of this digital signage is airline specific, and the screens are not evenly distributed around the airport. The first ‘universal’ board I saw was outside of the terminals, out in the check-in area. It really shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to find a board with flights.

The airport is filthy, and the few cleaning staff one sees at night time appear to have no structure or method, randomly mopping spots and missing most garbage that lines the walls.

There’s no free internet (unless you want to leech the over-saturated Dunkin Donuts connection), although I know that this isn’t atypical at airports. I still think that free but laggy wifi trumps expensive but more reliable wifi. $5/30 min. of wifi isn’t reasonable. Also, the lack of power outlets sucks. At the least find some company willing to sponsor some charging stations (like they do in Denver airport).

Short of extensive renovations and a serious change in how Newark airport is maintained, I’m never flying through Newark again, and I’d suggest others do the same.

Newark -> Washington D.C.-> Portland

I stay awake the whole evening chugging iced coffee, as the prospect of falling asleep in Newark Airport really doesn’t appeal to me. Around 3 o’clock I stagger to the arrival/departure boards, and see that there’s a direct Portland flight that is leaving around 8 o’clock, meaning I would get in around 10 AM. I go to the counter, and after explaining the prior evening to the attendant, she books me on to the Portland flight instead. I’m thrilled, as it means I’ll be getting home at least 3 hours earlier, which in a 48-hour vacation is actually a good bit of time. I get on the flight, and I arrive in Portland ‘on time’ (almost 12 hours later than planned).

The Return, Portland -> Chicago -> Calgary

Sunday afternoon my folks and I get to the Portland Jetport to fly out to Calgary through Chicago. We wait in line for a bit, as it appears that there are only a few functioning kiosks attached to the United counter. For the kiosks that are functioning, the attendants have to help the people on the get their boarding passes anyway.

I don’t even bother with a kiosk, and go directly to an attendant. This is where it goes crazy.

In changing my ticket to go directly to Portland from Newark, the computer system removed the protection on the remainder my itinerary. What this means is that I no longer had tickets on the flights that my parents were going on to get to Calgary. The flights were oversold, so there was no chance of me going from Portland to Calgary on those flights and getting there same-day.

My mom is about to cry, because they’ve basically stolen a vacation day from her by us not sharing flights. I calm my parents down, but frankly I’m pretty upset, too.

I had to be at work the next day, so I asked what I could get so that I could actually get to Calgary same-day.

Portland Jetport -> Taxi stand -> Concord Bus Station -> Boston (Logan) -> Denver -> Calgary

So to get back to Calgary, I was given a taxi cab voucher to take me to the Concord Bus Station, a voucher to take the bus to Logan Airport, then a flight to Denver, and finally to Calgary. The attendant did the best she could, and tried to get me into first-class on the Boston and Denver flights.

I did make it back to Calgary, but it turns out that the seats she gave me weren’t actually first class ("Economy Plus" on Boston, and it turned out the Denver -> Calgary leg using a CRJ200 didn’t even have a first class section). It’s not that I didn’t get first class that concerned me, but the fact that they had a computer system that couldn’t even tell them that it wasn’t first class.

Reflections and deconstruction

I know, I know. "Dave, it can always be worse." And it’s true, it can. However, it’s a shame that so many of United’s problems are ‘system’ problems. Their system doesn’t work well.

So rather than cry over spilled milk, what are some of the actionable things that could sort out United’s problems in the future?

Fix the kiosks

I don’t just mean making sure they are functioning, but that they are also actually usable. When even smart people are left confused at the on-screen layout and messages, then you’ve got a problem. The fact that the attendants do most of the work on the screens basically means that now the customer also has to share in the pain with a non-intuitive system along with the attendants.

Kiosks should be in front of the line and quickly accessible, not attached to the counters. Seriously, take the time to see how Westjet does it - they pretty much figured this stuff out years ago.

Some good metrics to use would be "tickets independently acquired by kiosk" vs. "tickets acquired with assistance by kiosk" vs. "tickets acquired by counter attendant". And I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I’ve seen companies take these sorts of metrics and create perverse rules such as "don’t help the customer at the kiosk" - that’s not what this is. The focus should be "how can we make the kiosk experience better so that it surpasses the even the best counter attendant experience."

Treat overnighters right

If someone has to stay overnight in an airport because of a missed connection (even if it’s weather related), it would be great if you gave out $5 vouchers to at least get a cup of coffee and a muffin. It would be nice to have small pillows to hand out too, but that might be asking a bit much. Remember - it wasn’t the customers fault that the plane didn’t make the connection.

Fix your booking system

Seriously, changing a flight shouldn’t screw up the remaining itinerary. I wasn’t asking for special treatment, just the flights that I paid for. United is fortunate enough to have a few pretty nice counter attendants, but they end up looking stupid and ineffectual because the system sucks. Let me rephrase to better get the point across - these are not stupid, ineffectual people, but United has given them crappy tools so that they cannot do their jobs to anyone’s satisfaction.

Coordinate itineraries across your alliance

For an ‘alliance’ of carriers, there seems to be no information exchange at all. That’s lazy. At the very least United and United Express should share - I mean, they both have the United name!

I’m not so naive to believe that someone high up in United will read this, let alone take these steps. But at my workplace, when something fails this thoroughly, we write it down, so that we can constantly improve and be the best at what we do. It’s a shame that United doesn’t really care to be the best at anything anymore.

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