United Breaks Guitars...and Still Treats Passengers Like Crap

These days, who hasn't heard the United Breaks Guitars story? Or the Delta Charges Soldiers Returning From Afghanistan $2,800 to Check Bags story? What do you figure the total cost of the crisis management/damage control for each of those fiascos was? In the case of United Breaks Guitars, the figure of $180 million has been tossed around, which I think is a bit of a reach, but even without the drop in stock price allegedly caused by the incident, there are certainly costs associated with managing a brand's reputation in this age of social sharing. From the cost of social media monitoring software to social media staff and/or agency fees to staff time monitoring, compiling, responding, and doing general damage control...we're talking a big chunk of change.

So while behind the scenes brands--especially United, after the guitar thing--are spending this big chunk of change to monitor and maintain the company's reputation, it's up to the people who actually interact with customers face-to-face to make sure the customers' experiences are good. And while "the customer's always right" has always been a good practice if a company wanted to be known as one that excelled in customer service, these days it's even more important when you consider any given customer may be what is reverently known as an "influencer." Obviously United thought there was nothing special about the guy whose guitar they broke....guess they didn't realize that a "nobody" on a plane can easily end up being a "somebody" online, as in a person capable of generating 10,565,270 views on You Tube, inspiring who knows how many negative comments about United both online and off, and certainly affecting both sales and crisis communication spending in a negative way--not to mention stock price.

I say all this as intro to the ridiculous experience I had on United flight 925 from London to DC on June 20, 2011, which I am sharing here in hopes to illustrate that, while I'm surely not the United Breaks Guitars guy and most certainly not in the same league as the service men and women who risked their lives in Afghanistan defending our freedom only to be shown gross disrespect by Delta, I am a customer. A customer who trusted United as my airline for my first overseas voyage ever, and who paid not only a large price for the privilege, but an additional $89 each way to upgrade to Economy plus.

I was traveling with a friend, and when I booked the tickets, I spent a decent amount of time on the phone with the United sales person orchestrating our seating arrangements. The agent helped me select two seats next to each on both outbound and return flights, and both my friend and I paid the up-charge to sit in Economy Plus so we would be able to sit in a two-seat row.

The first leg of the trip went fine. On the return trip, we printed our boarding passes the night before only to realize our seat assignments had been changed and we were not sitting together after all. At the gate the agent quickly remedied our situation, giving us two seats together again. We boarded, found our seats, and took them--only to realize there were not one, not two, not three, but FOUR toddlers directly next to us already screeching. Had the flight been full, that would have been the end of it--sucks to be us. But it wasn't --the Economy Plus section had plenty of empty seats and Business class was well over half empty. Figuring we had nothing to lose, we asked how much it would cost to upgrade to Business. The answer: 500 pounds. Each. So basically double the cost of the flight--no thanks. Instead they gave us two new seats in economy plus. Fabulous--we were fine with that, and it would have been the end of the story.

Then the movie came on and my friend realized her seat's sound was broken. Great--this is a seven and a half hour flight and we paid an extra $90 for these seats--thanks but a broken sound system is not ok. I figure at this point, flight already in the air, business class empty--if I were the flight attendant I would have just moved us to Business class and been done with it.  Nope. No dice. We were told by the purser (I guess this is like the head flight attendant?) that we could move back to the screaming kid seats to sit together, or my friend could move back to Economy or another empty seat in Economy Plus. Those were our choices. We noticed the woman in front of us had an empty seat beside her so maybe she could switch with us and everyone could be happy. Perfect solution, at last. Except she refused. Didn't want to move.

So my friend said fine--now having already missed half the movie--for the next movie she'd move to the seat in front of us--the EMPTY seat. But before that could happen, that lady decided she was entitled to two seats and spread out, falling asleep with her legs spread across the empty seat. So my friend went to check out our original, kid-screamy seats--one of the kids lay sleeping peacefully across not one but two unpaid for seats. Nobody wants to mess with that, and I wouldn't want them to.

So basically this resulted in two hours of chaos, three unpaid-for seats being used by other passengers eliciting nothing other than a slight shrug from the flight attendant--and me and my friend having to sitting at separate ends of the cabin once she finally relented and moved to a new seat to watch the second round of movies. Oh, and Business class remained 90% empty.

Do the math: they wouldn't allow us to move to business class because we didn't want to pay 500 pounds each. Meanwhile, the flight attendants allowed the lady in front of us to take an extra seat worth more than that for free with no problems, and the other passenger was allowed TWO unpaid seats across which to lay her sleeping kid. (Which, by the way, I don't begrudge the mom or kids...I'm just trying to make a dollars and cents point. I do, however, begrudge the lady in front of us for taking  two seats with working sound systems when she could have had our two seats and everyone would have been happy.)

Add to the unearned revenue for those three unpaid-for seats the fact that I will NEVER be flying United again--seems like it would have been a lot cheaper and easier for United to let us sit together in Business class. Other airlines do it all the time.

Oh, and I didn't even mention the fact that the flight crew basically disappeared during most of the flight, and  that two of the three restrooms located next to my sear were accidentally locked early in the flight, resulting in two hours of throngs of five or more people at a time loitering in the aisles waiting for the ONE available restroom because some genius had managed to lock the other two even though they were empty? At one point I pressed the service button on my seat THREE times and waited 30 minutes with no answer and no flight attendants in sight before I finally had  to go up to the next section to ask where the crew was because I was getting tired of people crowding around my seat while they waited for the one available rest room.

Was my experience really that horrible? To me, it was. Did it cause the world to end? No. But what it did do was two things: gave me time to write a blog post while stuck on a flight with no friend next to me and having missed half the movie dealing with BS, and made me mad enough to vow to never fly United again. First world problem to be sure, but from the standpoint of social media ROI, it's something I find compelling--the disconnect between the hype and effort companies like United and are putting into social media on the back end and the flight attendants and employees interacting with customers.

United, how much are you paying for social media monitoring, Tweeting, triaging issues, and responding? What's the point if your on-flight crews don't give a bloody rat's ass about passenger experiences, however minor they may seem? That my friend could say to the purser "I need to sit near my friend because she has to take medication when she flies and I don't want to leave her alone" and he could just totally ignore the comment--why is that ok? Why was the purser (and by the way, WTF is a purser anyway?) "on break" for hours during an international flight? And why was it acceptable that two out of three restrooms were accidentally locked and sitting empty for three hours resulting in a mob scene in the aisles with no crew to be found? Aren't there supposed to be restrictions about passengers standing around the aisles in a huge throng during flights?

I say do yourself a favor and implement some cost savings by just abandoning the ruse that you care about a good customer experience, good customer satisfaction ratings, and exercises in futility like having a presence on Twitter. Because it's absolutely clear your in-flight crews have no idea what marketing is trying to accomplish with social media and aren't capable of providing even rudimentary customer service.

P.S. Southwest--please start flying to the UK. kthxbai.