The Not-So-Friendly Skies
I’m writing this month’s editorial aboard
a United Airlines A320 jet en route from San Francisco to
Orlando, Florida, a five-hour flight. I’m wedged into
seat 17D with my wife and son asleep in the seats next to
me. It’s been a frantic morning, made no less frustrating
by the poor quality I’ve received from United.
It’s tough for me to write discouraging remarks
about United. It’s long been my airline of choice.
During the last 20 years or so, I’ve flown hundreds
of thousands of miles on the airline. And when United entered
bankruptcy, I was more determined than ever to fly it; clearly
United needed the support of its loyal customers.
I naively assumed that bankruptcy would force United to
try harder--to become more customer-focused. Unfortunately,
United has instead implemented policies and procedures that
alienate loyal customers like me. The events surrounding
Sept. 11 and the economic downturn have forced nearly all
airlines to cut back, causing at least some customer dissatisfaction.
United’s reaction to the situation and its trip to
bankruptcy court has left its service quality sorely lacking.
For example, on my last two trips I was forced to pay
$25 extra at check-in because my luggage was overweight.
The surly agent informed me how much United had to pay in
workers’ compensation insurance because of “thoughtless
travelers” like me. “Thoughtless travelers”
like me? A traveler who has spent tens of thousands of dollars
with the airline?
When booking this trip, I clicked the box on United’s
online reservation system to let it know that one of the
travelers was 2 years old. Nevertheless, My wife, son and
I were not seated together. I called United several days
in advance of our departure to see if we could get seat
assignments. “We don’t do that until less than
24 hours before departure,” I was told as if I should
be fully aware of the airline’s inane policy. “Call
back tomorrow.” I did. “We hold a certain number
of seats for gate assignment,” I was told this time.
“You’ll have to do it when you check in.”
So they have the capability to seat us together, they were
just unwilling to do it. When we arrived at the airport
in Sacramento we were told, “Sorry, you’ll have
to check at the gate.” At the gate an exasperated
agent told us, “You should have requested seats together
when you made your reservation. I can’t do anything
for you here. You’ll have to check with the gate in
I could go on and on. OK, maybe I will: Lines at check-in
have gotten ridiculously long; wide-body aircraft have been
replaced with small and uncomfortable regional jets, 737s
and A319/320s, even on transcontinental routes; and meals
have all but disappeared.
I admit that I’m no economist and I’ll never
understand airline economics, but I do know lousy service
when I receive it. I also know the standard answer to all
my grumbling: Low-fare carriers like Southwest and JetBlue
have forced the major carriers to resort to these Draconian
tactics to survive. Nonsense. I cannot and will not believe
that the only way to respond to a more efficient competitor
is to lower the quality of your product, alienating your
customers and employees.
The major airlines have been complaining about deregulation
and low-fare start-ups for more than 20 years. Instead of
complaining and slashing service, maybe they should try
to improve the quality of the service they provide.
P.S. After I wrote the first draft of this I thought I
was too hard on United. However, that was before we arrived
in Orlando and our luggage didn’t. Argh!