Monday, August 23, 2010

Airline Customer Service Games

I had an interesting experience recently where I got better service from an airline by threatening to abandon my travel plans. I didn’t intend for this to be a bargaining technique, but it seemed to work out that way.

I was scheduled to fly 3 legs to a U.S. destination on a Sunday on United Airlines. We were an hour late leaving which made me miss my first connection. There weren’t any actual airline employees nearby to help me get a new connection and I ended up calling United Airlines customer service.

U.S. air carriers use various techniques to keep their flights quite full, and I was told that they couldn’t get me to my destination until Tuesday (two days later)! The agent tried to convince me to just take a flight to a city nearer my destination and hope to get on another flight to my destination by getting on a standby list.

However, I insisted that if I couldn’t be scheduled with guaranteed seats the whole way, I wanted to turn around and go back home. I’ve had experience with the extreme over-booking of the last leg of the routing the agent wanted me to take. This strategy would surely have left me stranded overnight.

The agent on the phone insisted that she couldn’t make such a change for me and that I’d have to find a customer service agent in person in the airport. This is silly of course. Why couldn’t an agent book me on a flight back home? I gave up and started wandering around the airport trying to find a United Airlines customer service desk.

The second such desk I found had actual agents at it. The agent I spoke to gave me the same story initially – I’d have to just fly somewhere else and hope to get a spot on a flight for my last leg. When I told her that I wanted to go back home, her attitude changed. Suddenly, she had several other things she could try. Eventually, I had a routing through a new city with guaranteed spots on each leg, or so she told me.

After the second leg, I wandered over to the gate for my last leg and inquired about switching to an earlier flight. After tapping on her computer for a bit, the agent told me that I wasn’t actually assigned a seat on the later flight, and that I’d have to pay a $50 change fee to get on a flight whose doors would close in just a couple of minutes.

So, now I was faced with either paying $50 extra or have the possibility of missing my meetings and staying overnight in some random city if I couldn’t get on the later flight. It may have been that I still had a guaranteed spot on the later flight, but I couldn’t take a chance. I don’t think it was right to extract $50 in this way, but I had little choice.

In the end I got where I was going on time. However, if I had accepted the first answer I got, I would certainly have ended up arriving for my meetings at least a day late. United Airlines seems motivated to keep their customers from abandoning their travel plans. Some possible reasons are the loss of revenue from refunding part of the flight costs, the likelihood of the customer flying a different airline next time, and the bad word of mouth that would result.

I’d be interested to hear from any readers who have been forced to abandon travel plans after completing at least one leg. How hard did the airline try to keep you from turning around and heading back home?


  1. @Thicken: I agree that inexperienced travelers are at a disadvantage. I probably could have got out of the $50 charge, but at the expense of missing the earlier flight. The frazzled agent was trying to close the door on me. It was either let her swipe the card or watch her run away without letting me on the plane. I haven't decided yet whether I'll try to get the $50 back or not.

    1. The above comment is a reply to Thicken My Wallet's comment:

      I have missed connecting flights before (even on airlines where myself or my colleague were elite members). The response is generally the same: if the customer service rep has to work to get you on the next flight, they won't try hard.

      If you tell them what to do (in a nice way), they will often do it without charging you. However, you really have to understand how flights work to do that (I once got to SF late to get to LV and rather than wait stand-by for flights which were over-sold, we told them to re-route us from SF to LA and take our chances in LA which has a lot more flights out; then we told the LA counter that the SF people told them not to charge us).

      But, clearly, that puts someone that does not travel at a distinct disadvantage. I have never tried the "I am going home" tactic but I will keep that in mind next time.

      BTW, United and AC share the same commitment to making their customers' lives miserable.

  2. Yeah, that $50 sounds like a bribe.

  3. I've had my fair share of over booked flights and those agents are always frazzled. I wouldn't want that job I tell you.
    This past April I was heading to Florida to visit my folks and my spirit air flight was over booked by about 6 people. I was traveling alone, so when they asked for people to take the next flight I happily approached the desk to help out the frazzled agent. I think I received a pretty sweet deal ... $300US and two round-trip tickets good for anywhere spirit flies. So I took my deal and wandered the airport for about 11 hours. I felt like I was in the movie Terminal along side Tom Hanks. Overall, I'd say the airline handled it pretty well.

  4. @Chris B: I wish United handled these situations as well as what you experienced.