Dear United Airlines: "You Have Designed Your Customer Service To Piss Off Your Customers"

After a mechanical snafu grounded his flight to Zurich, Aaron received several vouchers and an upgrade as compensation from United Airlines. Unfortunately, the vouchers and upgrades proved so difficult to use that he has given up and is now publicly vowing never to fly United Airlines again.

Aaron writes to United Airlines:

On August 5th, 2007, I had a flight from Dulles Airport to Zurich. I was meeting my family there for an once-in-a-lifetime hiking trip. I boarded the plane without difficulties, when the plane experienced a series of mechanical difficulties. We were kept on the plane, during an especially hot D.C. summer day, without power, without air-conditioning for two hours. We were then told to de-board the plane. We sat at the airport for a while, then re-boarded the plane, sat on the plane for another two hours, then de-boarded again. We then waited again at the airport for an hour, when it became impossible to make the flight to Zurich without violating your union policies. So the flight was canceled six miserable hours after it was supposed to take-off. I completely understand how this could happen. I can only imagine how complicated those airplanes are and I certainly appreciate safety precautions taking precedence. Though I would have appreciated some more communication and coordination from the customer service agents, I understand that they had limited information.

When the flight was canceled though, that is when the proverbial shit hit the fan. All the customers on the August 5th flight became to clamor to reschedule their flight for the next day. There were only two agents to handle the entire flight. I waited in line for another two hours and they had barely made a dent in the line. So I called a travel agent and had her book me on the next flight. I consider myself lucky to get that one.

At the front of the line they were handing out taxi and hotel vouchers. I live in DC, but it is about a $70 taxi to the airport. I approached the front of the line to ask for my taxi voucher and was told, quite rudely, to stay in line. So I called United Customer Service. They told me that if I took a taxi and saved a receipt I would be refunded the next day when I returned. So I paid for the taxi out of pocket, returned home, and then returned to Dulles the next day. Upon arrival, I checked in, and tried to turn in my receipts. The agent at the counter told me that they would not reimburse me. After explaining what happened the day before, she eventually agreed to give me $200 voucher. I thought this was more than fair. I had only spent $140 on the taxis so this seemed more than fair.

I got on my flight and made it to Zurich. My family was waiting for me in Zurich, and because of the schedule we ended up having to cancel a major portion of our trip. I flew home without incident.

I know that airlines are required by law to compensate their customers when flights are canceled for mechanical problems. Upon returning home, I stopped at the United desk at the airport to ask how we were being compensated for the previous day’s fiasco. At first I was told that I had received a $200 voucher, and that was my compensation. With much ado, I finally spoke to a manager who gave me a Systemwide Upgrade and another $100 voucher. I was thrilled with this deal. I was planning on a major international flight the next year and I couldn’t wait to fly business class on the flight.

In September I had to fly to Chicago. I went online to buy my flight and found a great deal. Having never used a voucher before, I was surprised to find there was no place on the website to enter the voucher code. I called United Airlines once again. They told me that vouchers could only be redeemed at the time of purchase at the airport.

Let me just take a minute to explain to you how idiotic this is. No one buys paper tickets anymore. No one. The only reason to have paper vouchers that must be redeemed at the airport is to make them impossible to use. But the whole point of vouchers is to make unhappy customers happy. By making the vouchers impossible to redeem you only frustrate the unhappy customer more. This stirs up all the reasons they were unhappy in the first place. This is the internet age. There is NO logical reason not to offer vouchers that can be redeemed online.

Anyway, I went to the airport to buy my ticket. The ticket at the airport was $125 more than online, and then they had the nerve to charge $25 for booking in person. So my $200 (reimbursement) voucher became a $50 pain in my ass.

Fast-forward to early May 2008. As I said before, I’ve been planning a major trip to Kathmandu, Nepal in early August 2008. I was excited to use my upgrade and voucher on this flight. I started looking at tickets. The cheapest flight from another carrier was $2000. United’s cheapest flight was $3000. But I was excited to use my upgrade and at the time I considered the $1000 premium worth it. I called United to book, and was told once again that I needed to go to the airport to redeem both vouchers and upgrades. Fine. So I traveled to the airport to book the flight. At the airport, I’m told that I actually have to mail in my upgrade. I argued for a while, but they were unsympathetic. I asked how long it would take to upload my upgrade to my account and they say a week.

I go home and mail the upgrade immediately to a P.O. Box in South Dakota. FedEX doesn’t deliver to P.O. Boxes so I send it Priority Mail. A couple days later it arrives. I still have the tracking receipt. But the upgrade never posts. Meanwhile the cost of the flight keeps inching upward.

Three weeks later, I call Customer Service. I need to book this flight. I spend three hours being routed to different people at different agencies and different people. Much of the time is spent on hold. Your music is awful by the way. The answer I finally get from a manager is that they have no record that I was ever issued an upgrade, and that there is nothing they can do. I ask to be reissued the upgrade, but they refuse.

The only conclusion I can come to from this ordeal is that you have designed your customer service to piss off your customers. Rather than make travel bearable, you antagonize them at every step of the way. Agents lie in order to pass the buck to someone else in the hope that the customer eventually tires and goes somewhere else. Well that’s exactly what I’m doing. I am tired of arguing with your agents. I’m tired of being passed from agent to agent. I would rather spend another six hours waiting on a hot tarmac in dark plane with no air-conditioning than deal with another minute of your customer service. That is why I am leaving United, and never coming back.

As a final note, I would like to remind you that I have yet to receive any compensation as required by law for the canceled flight on August 5, 2007. I expect this compensation to the address I have included below promptly. I will not accept vouchers or upgrades. Only cash or check will be accepted. Also, remember that I am concurrently filing this letter with various government agencies, so this letter should serve as notice.

Hopefully this letter will prompt some changes with customer service, but as you can imagine, I’m not holding my breath.



You probably are already aware of this, but because you were flying to Zurich, it’s likely that you are entitled to more compensation that your typical hapless domestic traveler. The EU (of which Switzerland is not a member, but does participate in occasionally) has much better traveler’s rights laws than we do. Check them out.

Be prepared, however, for airlines to try to weasel out of it.

(Photo: Zonaphoto )