United’s effort to regain air travelers’ trust gets off the ground – slowly

By | January 24th, 2016

Like a 747 loaded to capacity, United Airlines is rising — slowly, steadily and improbably.

“I thought I was imagining it,” says Anne Klein, who works for a marketing agency in Durango, Colo. “But United is listening. It’s trying to improve.”

Klein had two recent customer service experiences that gave her hope. The first, a handwritten thank-you card for her business, slipped to her by a flight attendant. And the second, a response to her request for a $68 refund after one of her flights had been canceled for mechanical reasons. Instead, United sent her more than she asked for: a $100 gift certificate.

Many passengers had all but given up on the airline after a painful merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. United had managed to alienate customers ranging from frequent fliers like Klein to ordinary vacationers, thanks to significant cuts in its loyalty program and new policies that seemingly demanded fees for everything. Not surprisingly, its customer service scores were among the lowest in the industry.

But, in September, United’s new chief executive, Oscar Munoz, said enough was enough.

“Let’s be honest,” he declared in a videotaped message to customers. “The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees. While it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise or our potential.”

The changes have been small, but they’ve added up. In November, the airline eliminated an unpopular $50 processing fee for tickets refunded to passengers after unplanned events such as jury duty, illness or death. In December, it announced that, starting this month, it would serve a choice of snacks to economy class passengers at no additional charge. It also plans to eliminate another charge this month: a $25 fee for ticket receipts.

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All the while, United’s management has been asking its customer-facing employees to redouble their efforts to win back customers. And it’s focusing on its core performance, specifically its flight-completion numbers, or the number of scheduled flights actually flown.

“Our customers want reliability from us,” says Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United’s vice president for customers. “It’s on-time performance. It’s a high completion factor.”

During the busy Thanksgiving holiday week, United delivered an on-time performance in the 70th percentile, its highest level in three years, and a 100 percent completion rate. It was no fluke. United’s internal customer service numbers have been climbing steadily since Munoz made his promise: In November, it beat its 30.6-point customer satisfaction goal by two points; in October, it scored a 30.8, exceeding its goal by 1.3 points; and for September, it exceeded its 27.4-point goal by 4.3 points.

United stresses that this is just the first stage of rehabilitating its image, a process that became more challenging after Munoz suffered a heart attack in the fall and temporarily stepped aside as chief executive. But it hopes it’s on the right track.

“Oscar has given us a renewed focus,” says Pineau-Boddison.

So how is United’s initiative going over with its customers? Elizabeth Helsley, a frequent international traveler who works as a business consultant in San Diego, was stunned after one of her bags went missing on a recent flight from Paris to San Francisco by way of Newark. She wasn’t stunned because her bag had gone missing, but by what happened next.

“After I arrived, I received a text message alert that one of my two bags did not make it and would be delivered to my address within 24 hours,” she says. “I also received an email where I could track my bag, see who was delivering it and at what time. At no time did I have to wait in line or on hold for them to rectify their mistake. They simply took care of it and kept me informed every step of the way. To me, that was amazing customer service.”

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The technology used to track and deliver those bags, part of United’s effort to upgrade its internal systems, is a key part of the airline’s new customer initiative. Last year, the airline introduced a service that allows customers to follow their luggage on the United smartphone app.

“Before we had this, only our airport employees could see the luggage in the system,” says Pineau-Boddison.

More improvements are planned. In early 2016, United expects to fine-tune its system to allow people with delayed luggage to specify their delivery preferences.

To be sure, United still has a long odyssey ahead. It scored 60 out of a possible 100 points on last year’s authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, the lowest of any legacy airline and just a few points above discount carriers such as Frontier and Spirit. And it still has plenty of critics, including some of its own employees, who remain quietly skeptical.

And the airline has a long way to go before some air travelers will come back. They’re passengers like Lex Page, an attorney from Portland, Ore., who endured years of United’s indifferent attitude and mediocre service before he finally gave up on the airline.

“Let’s just say that if United Airlines were to give me a free first-class ticket to anywhere they flew, I wouldn’t take it,” he says.

Have you noticed positive improvements in United's service recently?

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  • jim6555

    I didn’t vote. My most recent trip on United was an over Thanksgiving weekend roundtrip from Orlando to Los Angeles. Both flights were non-stop on Boeing 737-800 equipment and both were unremarkable. The outbound flight arrived at LAX about 20 minutes early but there was no gate available for the early arrival. The return flight left on time and arrived at MCO a few minutes early. My biggest gripe was that even though I had recently acquired a United Mileage Plus Explorer credit card, I did not receive one of the card perks (checking a bag for free) because my ticket was not purchased using the United card. It was purchased prior to my becoming a card holder. I used to have a Delta American Express card and they would provide the free bag perk regardless of how the ticket was purchased.

    I didn’t see any evidence of United being an improved airline on this trip. Perhaps I will when I use accumulated miles to fly them again in a few months.

  • MarkKelling

    I understand United’s stance on the bag fee and have no issue with the requirement that tickets be bought using their card. However, I feel they should provide some method to handle the bag fee during the first few weeks after first receiving the card. Maybe a few coupons you could present when checking the bags? After all, if you are a frequent flyer they should expect you to have flights already purchased.

    The fact that your flights over the holiday were unremarkable actually says something about how much UA has improved over previous years! ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    The issue is that many of the new and improved customer service offerings at United (and most other airlines) is that they are not system wide and are being tried in limited areas to test their viability. So a few get the hand written notes. A few get a link to track their late baggage. A few get the “better ” coffee on their flights. The rest get the same old tired flight attendants who would rather have you arrested for harassing the flight crew than serve you a decaf coffee.

    And if UA (or any other airline) offered me a free 1st class ticket to anywhere, you bet I would take it!

  • Carchar

    I voted “yes,” but I have had very good luck in experiencing good service from accommodating and friendly FAs on United. I am only a gold level leisure traveler, so I know they have higher spenders, whom they appreciate a lot more.

  • Sorry, but United have lost my business as long as there are alternatives to get where I want to go.

    Why? Well a few years ago – after SIX harrowing months of follows-ups to keep my case live – I received a $54 check in compensation for $6,300 worth of equipment checked in the jet-way at Washington Dulles. It’s clear that an employee took the bag home which is why there should be security when employees LEAVE the airport.

    Has my personal boycott hurt United? Well, yeh, over $22,000 worth of tickets spent on other airlines thus far, plus we run a tour company and have an influence with our clients who ask for travel advice.

    I’ll say it again, whatever business you’re in DO NOT bite the hand that feeds you!

  • DZN1

    I’ve flown United since 2007 (700K Lifetime miles in that time) and most years have gone between 1K and Platinum status. It’s always been the case that, if you have high status with legacy airlines, they tend to treat you better and I’ve experienced it. I will mention that the biggest issues I had with United is handling baggage problems – most of the time, they were extremely “meh” about the issue and that it would get solved eventually. If United is making an issue to fix that, that would make me happy.

    I voted “yes” because of a baggage issue that was quickly (by United standards) resolved below.

    BTW, please make sure you have the right luggage when exiting the customs area on an international flight. Someone took my bag by mistake (he didn’t read the identifying tags) and he called the baggage desk (about the time I walked up to them and said my bag was missing). I got my bag outside security (held by a United agent) but the other person had to wait until all bags were accounted for and cleared by customs before he could retrieve it (an hour delay).

  • TMMao

    Up until recently, the free checked bag offer also seemed to have an undisclosed condition — the ticket had to be purchased using the UMP Explorer card on United’s own website. It was useful to have a copy of my UMP Explorer card statement showing the airfare charge so the check-in agent could waive the fee. But on my latest flight last week, their system now recognizes that my ticket was purchased using the right card, but on another website [that had a better fare than UAL’s own site.]

  • just me

    Is this a joke? They celebrate 2% improvement on a lousy base score. Let me know when they hit 50%.

  • Sue Kielty-Clark

    United Airlines cancelled my flight into NYC due to weather on the 23th-totally understandable, even though I contacted them 48hrs prior to flight and they advised the flight would be on schedule as the storm should be over by the time the aircraft landed. Once the flight was cancelled I attempted to rebook at Eppley and was unable to do so. I called United on the way home from the airport and was on hold for 70 minutes till signal was lost. Tried the next day, on hold for 45 minutes until a rep answered. After speaking for 65 more minutes they advised there would be a fare increase if I did not use the flight within a “grace” week. The exact ticket for the same days/times after this designated grace-no penalty week came to $884. Original ticket was $345. NO refund offered-United Airlines still has my money for no service provided. The rep told me to file a complaint if I did not want to pay the fare difference. This is how United Airlines treat their customers….a triple increase to rebook a flight they cancelled. Ouch!

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