Monday, April 8, 2013

PR Can't Disguise United's Smelly Last Place Finish

I never thought I'd be writing these words, but here I go, United take a lesson from American Airlines and learn how to say "Sorry." 

Upon news that United was rock bottom last on the 2012 Airline Quality Rating, company spokesman Charlie Hobart told The Plain Dealer's Janet Cho"United's operations improved significantly in the fall of 2012 and we continue to meet or exceed our on-time standards and set new records for performance."

Last fall, when American Airlines couldn't get a plane off the gate and in the air on time, when turbulence associated with AA's bankruptcy and subsequent vacating of union contracts caused the airline to cancel flights by the hundreds, an airline spokesman, Bruce Hicks said, "This is not the way American Airlines runs an airline. It's not the way we're going to be running it in the future." Fast forward a few months and the airline is even putting these words into the mouth of Mad Men superstar Jon Hamm in the ad he narrates for the new American. 

"Its time to become better versions of ourselves, better than expected and more than before," goes Hamm's voice over.  It's been a rough go for American, but at least they're not ignoring their jumbo jet-sized public relations problem.

One cannot say the same for Hobart & Co. at United. Mea culpa ain't in their vocabulary. From the United Breaks Guitars videos in 2009, to the airline's recent and separate removals of travelers, Matthew Klint who wries the blog, Live and Lets Fly for taking a photo and the unidentified parents of two young children whose plane was diverted so they could be booted off a flight after complaining about a graphic PG-13 film being shown on the cabin monitors, (read James Fallows' story  about that here) something is very wrong this airline. 

When I say United's customer service is in the toilet, that's not just me overstating the case, just ask my sister. 

While in Newark, waiting to board her plane to Hong Kong, on Sunday my dear sis sent me an email saying on the United flight to Newark, "the entire cabin smelled like a toilet."  When she and her husband complained, "the flight attendant said they suspected the holding tanks for the toilets had not been emptied over night." 

Okay, s**t happens. What the flight attendant added, however, came as a surprise. She told my sister, "this is not an infrequent occurrence, particularly on the weekends." 

So when the professors at The Advanced Aviation Analytics Institute for Research at Purdue University issue a report saying that United is "the lowest rated airline" for 2012, it seems entirely credible. What I have a hard time believing is that no senior executive will step up and acknowledge that airplane on which my sister flew - the one scented with eau de toilette - is a metaphor. 

United, fess up, flush the tanks and start fresh. 

Post script: 

From Hong Kong, my sister wrote to me today to say she went online to the site given to her by United, to register a complaint about the smelly plane. She logged in, wrote the synopsis and hit "submit". In reply she got a message that the site was non working. 

"What an outfit!" she said. 


Anonymous said...

The real problem is that the repeated bankruptcies have not resulted in airlines actually going out of business. So we are left with these zombies that drag everyone else down. It would be nice if there was actual fear in the shareholders, management and workers for losing everything.

Cedarglen said...

Several decades ago the joke was Ma Bell: "We don't care - we don't have to." Today it is that thing called United. In my recent experiences, they truly don't give a UKNOWWHAT, unless your name is Tom wuzzhisname, their most frequent flyer. On a very personal note, I avoid United if/when there is ANY other choice, even one that offers a far less convenient schedule - and United's schedule is a joke. Saying that they are sorry is no longer good enough. In far too many cases their corporate behavior is intentional - the truly don't care!

Anonymous said...

Can't perfume the pig.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that Continental and United merged. I flew Continental almost exclusively and went out of my way to avoid flying United (even if it meant a higher price for CO connecting flights vs. a UA non-stop). You can really tell the difference between the personnel that were with United and those that were with Continental before the merger.

Example 1: at PIT flying to ORD. I was in 1st class and the PIT gate agent was complaining to one of the flight attendants that he didn't understand why people said Continental's customer service was so much better. A passenger came up and asked if he could upgrade to economy plus and offered his credit card. The gate agent said no, you have to do that at check-in, you can't do it now. Just after he said that a flight attendant from the back of the plane came up and said that she could process his payment. He then asked if they had discounts for active military and the lead flight attendant said, Oh, that's OK, no charge, just take an open seat in economy.

Example 2: (pre-merger) Huge snowstorm coming through DC the same day my boss and I are supposed to fly IAD to OAK. Our flight was cancelled, so I ask if they have any flights going to SFO or SJC, but no they don't. How about flights through LAX, SEA, PDX, ORD, or DEN? No, nothing at all. So we decide to go to the ticket counter to try and make sure that we are at the top of the standby list for the first flights the next day. We wait in line and miss a non-stop flight to SFO only to have the ticket agent tell us that there are no seats available for the next 3 days. We ask again, what about SFO or SJC? She says, nope, nothing. I tell her that Continental is flying out of BWI tomorrow. All of a sudden, she says, if you don't have any checked luggage, I can get you on a flight to LAX and connect to SFO, but you have to hurry to the plane and you will have only a 15 minute connection in LAX. We rush to the gate, get on a plane only 50% full and wait 30 minutes (for an on-time departure). The flight to SFO left from the gate next to our arrival gate at LAX, and we got home that night. If we hadn't pushed the ticket agent to do her job, we would have been stuck in DC for two more days.

The non-Continental employees at United generally seem to have the attitude that the passengers are impediments to getting their job done rather than being the purpose of their jobs.

Of course, if my pension got jettisoned to the pension guarantee board and my retirement health care zeroed out resulting in my $2000/mo. retirement getting reduced to $150/mo. I would be upset. If, while at the same time, the CEO takes $40 million of the $42 million profit that I sacrificed my retirement for, I might be a little hesitant about putting the company's best interests ahead of my convenience when dealing with customers.