Is United Airlines getting a customer service upgrade?

You’d think reports of superior customer service from an airline like United would be random — a one-off for a carrier that consistently gets inferior scores.

Maybe not.

We know that the folks at United who work with super-elite Global Services members were sent to the Disney Institute, which offers courses on ways to improve customer service. United-watchers know that Barbara Higgins, a former Disney employee who is now in charge of customer service at the airline, is behind many of these positive changes.

But in the last few months, I’ve seen evidence that these improvements have trickled down to the people on the front lines of customer service. All the way to people like Rachel Schachter, a camp counselor who wrote to United with the following concern.

My colleague traveled with your airline on 6/11 on the itinerary below, from SAN-SFO-PDX to work as a counselor at our summer camp near Astoria, OR. His connecting flight in SFO was delayed and he missed his connection to PDX by just two minutes. As a result, he was rerouted through Seattle, arrived several hours late and was unable to take the shuttle that we had reserved for all the staff to come from PDX to our camp. He had to spend the night in Portland and fly to Astoria the next morning.

Our camp is a not-for-profit organization for children, and in light of the current economic situation we have very little extra funds, and we had not planned to pay an extra $75 for Mr. Max to fly to Astoria on Seaport Air. Because his inability to arrive at PDX on time was the fault of United, we would be extremely grateful if you would refund the $75 for Mr. Max’s flight to Astoria, OR.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing in United’s contract of carriage that says it has to offer a refund in a situation like this. And Mr. Max was not a Global Services member, nor was he what would be considered a “premium” passenger.

But two days later, she received the following response:

I am sorry to hear [Mr. Max] was delayed from San Diego to San Francisco in which he then had to overnight due to missing his connection to Portland. We realize the importance of getting our guests to their destinations safely and on time, we are very sorry to have let you down on this occasion.

A check in the amount of $75 will be issued under separate cover, directly in your name which you can transfer to Camp Young. When we issue a check, an individual name must be listed on the check instead of an organization or business.

Also, for the inconvenience Mr. Max incurred in having to overnight in San Francisco, we are enclosing an electronic travel certificate as goodwill that can be used towards a future flight on United or United Express.

As a valued guest with United, we appreciate your business and hope you will give us another opportunity to serve you under more pleasant circumstances.

Great job, United.

To be completely fair, Schachter sent her first email to Higgins, not to the main United customer service address. (I advise people with a legitimate grievance to start at the front door and only escalate the complaint if they’re ignored.) But something tells me, based on the many recent reports I’ve received from happy customers, that she might have had the same response if she went through normal channels.

I hope this trend continues.

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.

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.