#UnitedSUCKS – Not a good brand reputation (but true)

UnitedI travel quite a bit for business and pleasure, and I have to say my most recent travel on United Airlines (from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver) was the worst experience I have ever had on an airline. #UnitedSUCKS (the trending hashtag) should be painted on their airplanes. Talk about the inability to deliver on a brand promise – although I have to admit, I am not sure they actually have a brand promise, understand, or even care about what their brand reputation is. Their customer service was so shockingly bad that it almost felt like we were being pranked. As it turns out, when I shared our experience as it was happening on Facebook with family, friends and colleagues (many of whom are journalists – quite a few are travel writers), there were dozens of responses talking about how United Airlines had treated them poorly too.

I am going to write this blog post in two installments – there was so much wrong with how United Airlines treated us and many, many other passengers that it will take more than one post to explain it. I am appalled by the unprofessional, often rude, clearly incompetent actions by United staff in both Puerto Rico and Houston (where we ended up stranded after United caused us to miss our connection to Vancouver).

We always tell clients that public relations and a brand promise are connected. Having everyone who works for your organization deliver on the brand promise is crucial to your success and a strong brand reputation. Customer service is at the core of your business – especially if you are a service organization. Clearly, no one cares about this at United Airlines. They are a shining example of what not to do when it comes to customer service.

Two cruise ships docked in Puerto Rico on Sunday, November 16 – letting thousands of passengers off – most of whom were heading home. Many had flights with United Airlines. Paul and I were two of those people. We got to the airport at 9 a.m. – our flight boarded at 1:20 p.m. We were going to spend some time working before we boarded, but there was no one at the United desk to check us or anyone else in. However, Southwest, Delta and all of the other counters were open. The United desk was completely empty.

At about 9:15 a.m., people started to line up at the United area – so we did too. We were about 25 people back in the line. We expected that the desk would open at 9:30 a.m. – nope. 10 a.m. came and went. Still not one United employee to check anyone in. The lineup kept on growing longer and longer and longer… The clock hit 10:30 a.m. and still no one arrived to take our bags (we had already checked in online) or to help any of the hundreds of other United passengers who were growing increasingly frustrated with standing in line (while so many other people who had booked with different airlines sailed through check-in and were off to their gate). There were no signs to say when the desk would open. No one at the airport knew when the United staff would show up.

At 11 a.m., the United Desk finally opened with two people (one for first class and one for economy). By that time, all of the other airlines had maybe 20 people in line at any given time. They had checked in the majority of their passengers – passengers who were now through security and enjoying a coffee or bite to eat on the other side. The United lineup had grown to hundreds and hundreds of people. Frustration was in the air.

There seemed to be some confusion about how a lineup works, as the first person to arrive at the United desk took anyone who came up to her – instead of looking to the first person in line (the people who had been standing there since 9:15 a.m.). People from the middle of the line started to swarm her and she began checking them in. It was chaos.

By the time we got to the front to be checked in – about an hour and 15 minutes later (even though we were only behind 25 other people in the “proper” lineup), they had added two other United check-in agents. Yet – the line behind us had not become any shorter. It was long and full of upset and frustrated people. We wondered if some of the people at the back of the line would be checked in by the time their flights left. As we were checking in – I mentioned that to the person behind the United Airlines desk. She shook her head and said: “The cruise ships do this to us every week. They let you off the ship too early.” Really? So this happens every week when the cruise ship lets people disembark and readies the ship for the new passengers… Apparently, no one at United realizes that if they opened up the counter an hour or two earlier it wouldn’t turn into such chaos. This wasn’t the cruise ship’s fault. It was United’s for understaffing a busy period – that they know happens every week!

Adding two people for an extra two hours each, once a week – how much would that really cost budget-wise? I would estimate less than $250 in hourly wages. And what is the cost to their brand reputation for all of the people who went on Facebook and Twitter that morning and talked about how poorly they treat passengers and showed how long the line was. (You actually couldn’t get it all into one photo – the line wrapped a long way around the airport.) Or all of the people who said they won’t fly United again. Me included. It seems like they are busy watching their pennies while dollars are flying out the door.

We finally got checked in, through security, and then sat at our gate. Because we were near the front of the line, we got to the gate about an hour before our flight – which was a luxury compared to what others experienced. We saw person after person coming to the gate minutes before boarding. They were frustrated, angry and upset about the inefficiency of United. People – including some elderly and physically challenged individuals – stood in line for anywhere between two and three hours trying to check in. No other airline at the San Juan airport had this kind of issue.

There was no communication from United to passengers waiting in the line to check in. No one from United asked anyone in the long lineup what their flight time was – or if someone needed to be rushed through so they wouldn’t miss their flight. If they were cutting it close, people had to take it upon themselves to cut into the line to get checked in and go through security. And everyone I asked in the airport who was booked on United said the people checking them in blamed it all on the cruise ships and the fact that “every week, they do this to us.” Talk about denial.

It was a nightmare. By the time people boarded their flights, they were frustrated. And it only got worse from there…

Stay tuned for the next post on more challenges United faced with its brand promise. To give you a glimpse of things to come, it took us 32 hours to get from San Juan to Vancouver and we arrived in Vancouver 46.5 hours ago but haven’t seen our luggage yet.

They really should change the branding on their planes to #UnitedSUCKS. It’s what their reputation is – and it’s the brand promise they deliver.

(Image credit: © Boarding1now | Dreamstime.com – United Airlines Boeing 757 Photo)

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