Geography has forced me to concentrate my air travel with United, and lately I haven’t been very happy. Apparently I’m not the only one, as an article in today’s USA Today describes several stories of woe. Here’s my favorite…
Passenger Carolyn Smith of Singapore complained to the DOT after what she calls a "flight from hell" from San Francisco to Hong Kong in January. Eight hours into the 14-hour flight from San Francisco, the United crew announced none of the lavatories in coach were usable, she says. Only the business cabin bathrooms worked, she says. The crew asked passengers to stop drinking so they wouldn’t need the bathroom and did not serve the second meal, Smith says.
I guess I better stop complaining about not getting a complimentary elite upgrade very often anymore. At least I don’t have to worry about doing sphincter strengthening exercises before flying, just in case. United has been particularly hard-hit with customer service issues.
Their discontent with United reflects a particularly vexing problem for the USA’s second-largest airline: a severe decline in the quality of service at a carrier that once prided itself on just that. United arguably has fallen furthest and fastest among the big U.S. airlines in its ability to keep customers satisfied.
What has caused this once great airline to fall so far?
"Bankruptcy is a cataclysmic event," [Chief Customer Officer Graham] Atkinson says. "It forces you to think about sacred cows." During restructuring, United shed 21,000 jobs, about a quarter of its workforce, and cut annual expenses by $5 billion, yet today it is flying about as many passengers as before bankruptcy.
Sure, bankruptcy is hard. But when does fundamental customer service, for customers that create the top line that airlines turn into the critical bottom line, stop becoming a sacred cow? However the article also points to another issue that has hurt United and many other airlines. An issue that regular readers know is a hot button for me.
Officials say they are working through customer-service problems related in part to the outsourcing of jobs during the reorganization, which ended in 2006. Among jobs United outsourced were hundreds of U.S. phone reservations and customer-service jobs. They went to contract call centers in India, the Philippines and Poland. The remaining United call centers in the USA serve only its high-mileage customers, international passengers and special groups such as military personnel. United also eliminated 200 U.S. finance jobs, including 30 in refunds, and outsourced the work to India.
So, once again, how much did that outsourcing really save? How does the few bucks an hour compare to the cost of a customer service nightmare that is now making headlines? I’ve also always been fascinated by strategies that negatively impact new customers while trying to protect loyal customers… like the high-mileage elite folks in this case. Wouldn’t a long-term business perspective suggest that the opposite was a better strategy? It’s sort of like providing quality healthcare for the elderly while ignoring the young… who will thereby never become elderly.
As a final nail, hopefully not in the coffin, the entire industry has begun to "optimize" the number of passengers on flights. Incredibly complex software is obviously involved, and you know what I think of incredibly complex software. The number of empty seats has fallen dramatically, which some would say is in the best interests of the airlines. Really? Better hope you don’t get bumped, which is a more common occurence these days. Instead of easily being able to find you a seat on the next flight, it can now take several days to find a flight with even one seat available. The USA Today article describes several of these cases.
Don’t forget who really pays the bills.