Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Using Social Media to Resolve an Issue with United Airlines

We're off to New Zealand in December. There are no nonstop flights from hometown Minneapolis (MSP) to New Zealand, but I found one-stop itineraries through Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco, and Houston. These are good cities to connect through in the winter: they don't get shut down by snow.

Everything was fine until United changed our optimal one-stop itinerary to two stops. This added several hours to the journey, and introduced opportunities for misconnects.

The minimum moving parts

I originally booked flights with United connecting through LAX: MSP to LAX nonstop, then a nonstop to AKL Auckland, New Zealand. I reversed this efficient itinerary for the return.

Too many moving parts

Last week, United cancelled nonstop service between Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Our non-stops would now be one-stops through cold-weather cities Chicago and Denver.
One snowstorm in either of these cities, and we could misconnect: there were too many moving parts. Even if everything worked on schedule, these itineraries turn four-hour journeys between Minneapolis and Los Angeles into seven-hour journeys.

I embrace disruptions when traveling, as they are inevitable and add to the richness of the journey. I've written about this in Wabi-Sabi Lessons for Imperfect Journeys and other posts. However, I like to try to preempt disruptions

Time to call United

United still flies nonstop from Minneapolis to San Francisco and Houston. Could they change the itinerary to Auckland to be via San Francisco or Houston?

I couldn't change the itinerary online without incurring change fees and paying the difference between the original ticket price and the now, higher price. I decided I would have to resolve this by phone.

The United agent said "no" but she would check with her supervisor. After a few minutes of looping on-hold music, she got back on the line. Good news, we could fly non-stop to San Francisco then non-stop to Auckland. They would waive the change fee, we would only have to pay the difference in the fare.

"How much?"

"About $4,000."

I asked to speak with the supervisor. The supervisor would not budge. She would not accept that the cancelled flights had been cancelled. There had simply been a schedule change.

I ended the call. 

First world problem: this is not fair

An airline contract of carriage does not embody symmetric rights and responsibilities for the provider and consumer of services. If the provider can change itineraries at will, so should the consumer. If an airline cancels a flight, the customer should be able to change the reservation back to something resembling the original reservation. 

Truth is, airlines are only contractually obliged to take you to your destination... eventually. They can change the itinerary at will. 

Resolution via social media

I was disappointed with United. When this sort of thing has occurred with Delta, I've been able to resolve the issue, to my satisfaction, in a single customer service encounter.

I've had great success resolving issues with Delta via social media. Maybe I could resolve this issue with United in a similar way.

I privately Direct-Messaged @United via Twitter, supplying our reservation codes and stating the desired outcome. In this and subsequent interactions I was careful to avoid negative emotion. 
  • Often, with Direct Messages, you have to Follow the recipient; United has opted out of that requirement. I expect most US airlines and major travel businesses welcome Direct Messages from non-followers.
  • Unlike Tweets, Direct Messages are private and do not have a 140-character limit. 
  • It was essential to identify our itinerary. This should only be done via a Direct Message, as it is private.
It took over two hours to get a response. The response was apologetic, polite, and to the point.

After apologies, the social network agent got to work.

The social media agent called the cancelled flights "cancelled" which put us on the same side of the issue. And I had that in writing.
We were re-booked via San Francisco, at no charge, exactly as I wanted. I posted a Tweet, thanking the airline.
But it was not that easy

For two hours, United had ignored my requests.

During that time I re-submitted my request several times. I sent polite Direct Messages (private) and posted polite Tweets (public).

  • Generally, it is poor practice to post text-only images with a Tweet. It is at variance with the Twitter culture of succinct short-form messages, and ignores accessibility conventions. However, this was the only way I could Tweet sections of my Direct Message conversation with United.
My Tweets started to appear on @United's Twitter page alongside United's self-congratulatory Tweets. I was getting "likes" from strangers.

I tried to provide evidence I was not a professional complainer by referencing one of my blog posts, An Unplanned Night in Houston.
In 2015, I was on a United flight to Tokyo that turned back at the runway in Houston because the pilots had "gone illegal." Because of delays due to equipment problems, the pilots would run out of cockpit time before the flight reached Tokyo. I wrote about a United agent, Jackie, who did a wonderful job re-booking me, spotting and fixing an error in my itinerary, and booking a room in an airport hotel.
After posting the "I'm not a complainer" Tweet, I noticed the 2015 "Unplanned Night" blog post was starting to "trend."
People were clicking through on the Tweet. I kept Tweeting.

Eventually, I posted the following Tweet to United, and the travel desks of the New York Times, CNN and the BBC.
United responded within minutes. I did not need to keep upping the ante.

Note: I took the photo at the top of this post when I was riding my bicycle near MSP, June 2016.

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