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Letter: Reflecting on the rise and fall of United Airlines

By   /   Friday, May 4th, 2012  /   1 Comment

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Dear Editor:

I’m an avid reader of the Pacific Coast Business Times and a small business owner in Oxnard. I’m also a huge fan of yours and read all of your columns and perspectives and learn from them.

Editor Henry Dubroff’s April 6 column on what’s happened to the United Airlines business model rang so truly to me over these last two days, compelling me to write and join your chorus.

Several years ago, I flew a lot of American Airlines routes across the U.S. for business, but their customer service was awful. So I made a conscious decision to make United my airline of choice, pack all of my miles there in my Mileage Plus account and try to enjoy the rewards I might reap. I even selected a Chase/United Visa card so that every dollar I spent on it would convert to a United mile. What a concept! Through flights and purchases, I achieved Premier status and really enjoyed the benefits: separate check-ins, two free bags (for business I always check two and carry two more on the plane) and extra legroom via automatic Economy Plus seating (my clients won’t pay for Business Class or First – you know, the TARP fall-out effect).

Three days ago, I flew out of LAX to DIA then drove to Vail for a business meeting and back yesterday morning. The last time I had flown on United or a Star Alliance member airline was in January (for which I have still not received credit). I called the Mileage Plus phone line the night before to check in because the system wouldn’t recognize either my United Mileage Plus Account (what I call my real account) or my newly merged Continental One Pass account, now referred to by UA personnel as my only account. I got into the recorded message loop, which tries everything in its programming to keep me from speaking with a human. When I finally got into the queue at 10:30 p.m. Pacific Time, the recording told me that they were closed and I had to call back after 7 a.m. – Central Time. Wasn’t this the service-based airline I used to love? And they close their service lines in a 24-hour world?

My flight the following morning was at 6 a.m. — no problem, I’m used to flying eastbound early from the West Coast. At Premier check-in at LAX, the check-in person could not find any link or records in their system for either of my Mileage accounts or verify my Premier status for free bags. So as not to miss my flight, I paid the $25 for one bag and proceeded to the gate. I was going to phone again when I had time.

The Boeing 757 was a full cattle car. Onboard staff was unusually curt and rude (I now sense that the merger stress is getting to them, too). There was no room in the overhead bins due to countless roller-boards taking up more than their fair share, requiring me to check my traveling case with two laptops in it (that’s why I carry that bag on board).

I called United again yesterday morning at 7:10 a.m. Central time, only to have the queue announcement tell me that there was a 30-minute wait in the phone queue. (As you mentioned in your column, multitudes needing assistance). I had to leave to get back to Denver for my flight home so I was unable to remain on hold. I decided I would talk to a live person at the airport check-in.

Upon getting to the Premier desk at DIA, I was told that in March and without notice, I had been stripped of my Premier status because I had not flown 25,000 miles (EQM’s) in 2011 and I was now, well, just another regular traveler. This agent could, however, tell me the number of miles in my account which the agent at LAX could not access the day before. One of this desk agent’s colleagues, hearing my tale from a few feet away, came over to me and urged me to “Write to them!” Coming from a uniformed airline employee, I took that to mean that the rank and file has heard enough from passengers.

So I endured another full flight back to LAX, leaving an hour and 10 minutes later than scheduled, cramping my productivity, costing another $25 for bag-checking.
Today, I received a “how did we do?” email from United Airlines for my outbound flight and in the open comments section I stated that “your service seems to have gone downhill in the past six months and … After these two flights on 4/18-19, I’m seriously looking for other airlines to fly going forward.”

I’m sure I’ll get another one for the return flight and will reply in the same manner.

All I can say is “what a great airline it used to be.” And I stopped flying Continental years ago, too. The metrics of spreading bad word of mouth about a service experience are true. Thank you for saying something about it. I echo your sentiment and conclusions and I’ll speak to many more about my experiences as well.

Thank you for your time,

 — Rick Bloom
CEO, Rick Bloom Audio Visual, Ventura

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1 Comment

  1. Doug Dennison says:

    I sympathize with your experience Rick, as many of mine on United have been similar.
    The Continental merger has only amplified the pre-existing problems at United.
    I now try to fly Frontier as much as possible (esp to Denver and to connections within their network) and Southwest for other destinations.

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