United Loses Children

By | August 19, 2012

United Airlines - N771UA

In June of 2009, we reported on how Continental Airlines had lost a young girl who was travelling under its unaccompanied minor program.

Another similar situation has arisen with United Airlines, which merged with Continental, to the point that there is a petition on change.org, asking United to either redesign or discontinue its Unaccompanied Minors program.

At the end of June, United was flying a ten year old girl from San Francisco to Traverse City, Michigan via Chicago for a summer camp program. Her parents received a call from the camp that the girl was not on the flight and the United representative in Traverse City had no explanation.

So, after a twenty minute hold with United, a representative initially insisted that the parents were mistaken, and the girl had arrived. This prompted another ten minute hold where it was discovered she had somehow missed the connection. When asked to confirm where their daughter was, and being told that wasn’t possible, it prompted another forty minute hold. The two parents split up, and the other called the United Premier line, and found out that the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago had apparently forgotten to show up.

They had also forgotten to tell the parents that this service had been outsourced in the first place. Of course, by this time, the shift of the woman looking into this on the Premier line had finished, but she was prevailed upon to stay on to help, and was able to connect the parents to their daughter. From the time of the first phone call to talking to the girl took one hour.

Where was she? She had been in Chicago for two hours, and had been refused help by several United personnel, even after advising she had a connecting flight. She asked repeatedly to use a phone to call her parents and was refused. She was promised her camp would be called. Finally, arriving in Michigan, United succeeded in losing her luggage. It arrived on the third day, after hours of phone calls and trips to the airport for a bag that supposedly arrived several times.

The complaint process was equally stressful, as it must be filed by an agent, not by the aggrieved party. The whole process took an estimated 18 hours collectively on with the airline. It took a month and a half, and intervention of an NBC affiliate to get a response from the airline, who refunded the ticket and the unaccompanied minor charge. The third-party handler has yet to comment.

United is not as concerned by bad customer service as it is by bad publicity. They have been experiencing loads of problems in the aftermath of their reservations systems cutover in March. In April, we sat with a 1K United member, who spent over half an hour telling us how unhappy they were. And this was one of United’s top tier customers, telling story after story of how United wasn’t even trying to keep them happy as one of their most valuable customers.

The old saying is true. Companies spend a lot of money to get a customer(marketing), but very little to keep that customer(customer service). According to the DOT, United is now responsible for one in three consumer complaints. Delta, which is number two in the United States, had 1/4 of the complaints United did(443 vs 1740 out of 5159). We hope United will start addressing the bigger problems. Maybe they can bring Gordon Bethune, United CEO Jeff Smisek’s former boss, back to consult.