Is United Airlines’ complaint line closure the future of customer service?

When the nation’s third-largest airline stops taking complaints by phone, what does that mean? Yesterday’s news that United Airlines would shutter an Indian call center that took complaints after a flight, telling customers to send a letter or email instead, has a lot of air travelers scratching their heads. I count myself among them.

“Why?” asked reader Jonathan Yarmis. “Instead of asking why people aren’t satisfied with the phone response and fixing it, they just say, ‘Hey, our phone line sucks. Let’s cancel it.'”

United says it is able to respond better to customers who write, since they often include more detail, making it possible to provide a more specific response. And it has a point. I almost always encourage people who have a problem with any airline to write instead of calling.

Asking people to write instead of call is not necessarily a bad idea. But should it be their only choice?

What about the many passengers who still don’t have access to email? Sure, they can still mail a letter, but response times are considerably slower. These folks on the other side of the digital divide already pay more for their airline tickets because they have to shell out an extra booking fee for using the phone. Are they being punished for not owning a PC? It looks like that.

I remember the last airline that tried this. Skybus told its passengers not to call it, but to write. Eventually, it stopped responding to emails. Then it closed down.

I’m not sure if the same fate will befall United, although my colleague Peter Greenberg seems to think the airline is on a path to oblivion.

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I also wonder if this means the same thing for all United customers. Will the super-elite Global Services frequent fliers have to put their complaints in writing to the United employees who were trained to serve them, too? Somehow, I doubt it.

(Let’s not be too hard on United. Remember, Southwest Airlines, which is said to have some of the best customer service in the airline industry, doesn’t accept email. How retro!)

United is doing the right thing by encouraging its customers to use email to communicate with it. It’s more efficient, faster and in most respects better than a phone call. But unplugging the customer complaints line may be taking it too far.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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