Thanks For Flying With Us. Please Give Us All Your Money.

Today I had quite an experience with United Airlines. It has very little to do with much of anything I usually write about here, save one key element: I have posited that to succeed in what I've been calling the Conversation Economy, companies must learn to have conversations with their…

Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 9.55.18 PM.pngToday I had quite an experience with United Airlines. It has very little to do with much of anything I usually write about here, save one key element: I have posited that to succeed in what I’ve been calling the Conversation Economy, companies must learn to have conversations with their customers at scale. (And to do so, they will need to leverage open platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. and, of course, change the way they instrument their business. But more on that later).

Well, here’s a tale of one company failing miserably at doing just that, even while, in the end, due to my own insistence (and most likely, the rising level of anger in my voice), it kind of, sort of, managed to not totally fail.

But first, the backstory.

I am a United flyer, in the main. I’m not saying I’m a proud, loyal, or passionate United flyer, but a United flyer I am. I like their “PS” service between NY and SF, and I fly that route a lot – to the point of knowing the flight attendants and picking exactly which seats I settle into each trip. I tend to fly United where ever else I go (and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I go to a lot of places). I’ve been an Executive Premier there for a long, long time (though I think it dropped at some point during the bad years of 2001-02) – which means I fly a ton with United. At some point or other this year, in fact, a gate agent at United let me know that I’m a million mile flyer – however, most of their agents on the phone have no idea what I’m talking about when I recite this nugget back to them.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, I know the airline really, really well. And when I fly, even with my family, I tend to fly with United, even though I’ve had my share of travel and customer service disasters (and you all know, regardless of what airline you fly, what I mean by that).

But does the airline know me? No. Not at all. And today was a remarkable example of that in action.

So today my wife and I decide that we’re going to fly to Arizona for Thanksgiving – all five of us. Her family is there, and we’ve decided to join them. Since this is not a work trip, I use Expedia to check flights between the Bay area and Tucson – I’ve been there many times in the past, and I know direct flights are very hard to come by. Turns out, there is a direct flight, and it’s on United, and – double luck! – it’s just at the times (departure and return) that I want to fly. Economy seats are priced, roundtrip, on Expedia at about $440 each. Pricey, but it’s not like I have a lot of choice. It’s a week away, and there are no other direct flights. And yeah, it’s true, I’m willing to pay the extra hundred bucks to not have to connect through Vegas, LA, or Phoenix when traveling with three kids. Anyway.

Experience told me that the kind of reservation I wanted to make would require human interaction – five seats, three kids, possible upgrades, etc. – so armed with the flight numbers and times, I called United directly.

Now, it’s Sunday afternoon around 1 pm. After running a gauntlet of voice recognition driven commands, and finally asking, five times in a row, for an “Agent! Agent! AGENT! …. yes….AGENT!” I get…an agent.

Now United, like many large companies who must handle a large volume of customer service, has a preponderance of customer service agents based in India. They are almost universally pleasant, professional, and courteous, but, I have found, they are also not very good at coloring outside the lines. So when I call in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, with three kids in the background, asking whether there’s a good business fare for my wife and I, and whether we might get an upgrade from economy, and oh by the way is there any chance the flight leaving at 7 pm is relatively empty, and if so, might we get seats in economy near the front, etc. – well, it’s been my experience that nine times out of ten, the call will devolve to the point where neither I nor the still-professional but clearly flummoxed customer service agent are having any fun. At all.

Which is exactly what happened. However, this call took a turn for the worse not based on a lack of communication, but on the real time usury of United’s pricing system. Herewith an edited transcript of my conversation with the agent:

ME: So how much would it be if my wife and I flew in Business, and my kids flew in Economy?

AGENT: There is no Business class on this plane.

ME: OK, so that means there are two classes of service?


ME: OK, great, so let me ask it another way…how much would it be if my wife flew in the more expensive class, and my kids flew in economy? I just want to know in case it’s a good deal. Otherwise, maybe I’ll try to get upgraded….

AGENT: So you want two First Class tickets?

ME: Erhm…well, no, I want to know how much a First Class ticket would cost?

AGENT: OK hold on….(45 second delay)…OK, that would be $1633.20.



ME: But it’s a 90 minute flight!


ME: (Recalling the Expedia fares of around $440). And how much are the economy seats?

AGENT: For three?

ME: Erhm….well, I just want to know how much an Economy class fare is.

AGENT: Let me check. (90 seconds go by…..) OK. Economy class fare for three would come out to $447 for each, round trip.

ME: (Relieved) That’s great. Let’s just do five Economy fares then. No way am I going to pay nearly four times the Economy rate to sit in First!

AGENT: Erhm….(30 second delay)….well sir, just a minute.

ME: Is there a problem?

AGENT: Well, no. Can I put you on hold?

ME: (Fearing the Interminable Purgatory Of Hold) NO! Please don’t put me on hold. What’s the problem?

AGENT: Well, it’s just that the system is now giving me a new price for each Economy fare roundtrip.

ME: (Fearing the system). Why?

AGENT: Well, before, I asked for just three seats. Now you want five.

ME: ….and?…

AGENT: And well, there are only six left on that flight.

ME: So….what is the system saying to you now?

AGENT: Sir, the price is now $2011.

ME: Holy sh*t.

AGENT: Sir….

ME: Really?

AGENT: Yes, so can I put you on hold and see what is going on?

ME: Yes, please do. Please.

For the next five or so minutes, I am put on hold, which for no additional fee includes a very peppy rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a tune I never, ever thought I’d dislike. But over the years, United has put that faith to the test.

About a minute in, I start to twitch. I’m not one to hold well, and my wife is now hovering over my computer, asking what is going on. So I fire up Twitter and post this plea:

Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 9.58.31 PM.png

Of course, nothing happens immediately (and as of this post, still nothing…8 hours later). So back in the moment, I have a revelation – I think I have a special phone number for Super Premium United Customers, one that I got at about the same time I was told about the Million Mile thingy.

I look it up in my contacts and yes, there it is. So I call it on my cel, even as I’m on hold with United.

Same voice recognition tree. Same result – I’m screaming “AGENT” about 30 seconds or so in.

And after some reconciliation between me and the computer, an agent does indeed come on. A very nice Indian gentleman who asks how he might help me.

ME: Er, hello. Forgive me if my voice sound strained but so far I’ve had a rather rough time of it with United’s pricing system. I have a complicated fare I’m hoping you might help me with. (Secretly, I’m hoping I can find a backdoor into United pricing heaven, of course…)

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: Well, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)?

AGENT: Certainly.

ME: (A bit sheepishly) Uhm, and…can I ask you something?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: Is this the super special line?


ME: Well, it’s just that I called a number that I thought was for premium customers, but the voice mail tree was the same and you didn’t seem to know who I was….

AGENT: I am a reservation agent.

ME: Oh yes, I know. I was just wondering if you…

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: OK. Well, tell you what. Can I give you my mileage number? Would that help?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: (Gives number).

AGENT: Thank you. Now, how can I help you.

ME: Well, again, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)? It’s just that I tried this already, and I got a really, really high price on the seats, higher even than the price for First Class, and the agent told me it was because there were only six seats left, and I wanted more than three, and…anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to pay that much for seats that were quoted to me at $447 during the same phone call, is it?

AGENT: I don’t know, sir.

ME: But really, I mean, well, it’s usury, isn’t it? It’s not fair?! When I asked for just three seats, I got a quote of $447 each!

AGENT: Sir, it’s just how the system works.

ME: But … (resisting the urge to scream “DON’T YOU KNOW I’M A GOOD CUSTOMER WHO SHOULDN’T BE TREATED THIS WAY?!!”)

At this point, the other agent came back on my other line. I told the agent on my cel phone that I’d call back and returned to my original call.


ME: Yes, I’m here.

AGENT: Sir, I’ve checked the system, and that’s the price.

ME: So you are telling me the “system” is now saying that instead of paying two times $1633 for First and three times $447 for Economy, if I want to pay for only Economy seats, I have to pay five times $2011?

AGENT: I am afraid so sir.

ME: That’s more than $10,000 to fly my family 90 minutes!

AGENT: (silence)

ME: OK. Look, I understand this is not your fault. Can I speak to a supervisor?

AGENT: Certainly. Can I put you on hold?

Look, it’s late, and I have a long day tomorrow, so I won’t bother you with the resultant blow by blow. Suffice to say, after about another thirty minutes on the phone, I managed to get five economy class seats on the flight, at an average of about $550 each. It took a lot of wheedling, patience, arguing, anger and resolution, not to mention delivery of information I had already delivered more than once. The fellow, who was a supervisor, even tossed out the $25 per ticket “ticketing fee” that he was supposed to tack on (not that I knew about that till he told me he was waiving it, sensing he’d lose me entirely if he forced another $125 in fees on me. He was right, and I do appreciate the gesture).

So in the end, we’re on the damn flight.

I got off and I told my wife, in so many words, that we’re going to see f*cking Grandpa for f*cking Thanksgiving in f*cking Tucson after all.

So thanks United, for making it that much more special! As you might imagine, I can’t wait for Virgin, Southwest, or Jet Blue to start direct service between SF and Tucson. Because when they do, I won’t think twice about switching.

Until then, however, you’ve got my business. But if I were in your shoes, I’d be very, very nervous about the future of yours.

52 thoughts on “Thanks For Flying With Us. Please Give Us All Your Money.”

  1. If you ever get into a conversation with these folks during less busy times, as I have, I’ve been able to determine that even the call centers in the U.S. run by veteran folks (Alaska used to have these, may still) are completely hamstrung by the horrible IT.

    A couple times I’ve commiserated about something the system was barfing out to the agent, who was legitimately trying to help me, and they started listing off the number of “screens” that they had to deal with — each screen is a different system generally with different commands. One told me that the Web site I, as a customer, work with is vastly better than the tools they have behind the scenes, which are like 1970s tech barely gussied up.

    Fundamentally, airlines except boutique ones like Virgin America and certain premium flyer programs in certain airlines (obviously not United) seem to have lost their interest in retaining flyers because of the race to the bottom for fares. They seemingly don’t think they can do anything to keep us.

    About a decade ago, when I was flying United enough to keep regular Premier status, when my wife and I traveled together, she was boggled. With seemingly little effort on United’s part, it was like flying another airline, and a better one. We got in a line of 150 people during a Chicago layover, and I called the Premier line as we got into line. They told me, “Sir, leave that line and walk to gate such-and-such and there will be new tickets for you.” And there were.

  2. I’m sorry that you went through that. I just posted last week about the theme that I see growing around customer service as the place “where marketing begins”. My post was titled “Give the Gift of Superb Customer Service” and also picked up and commented on here included the now infamous “United Breaks Guitars” video which reflects some of the same carelessness that you experienced.

    The comments that I received further surface the fact that a lot of companies still don’t understand how big of an accelerator the web has become for both positive AND negative customer momentum.

  3. John really a very interesting dialogue You have experienced. American Airlines experienced a similar situation I was in time. This topic was brought up to very good. You have to stay current with the subject.

  4. You’ve perfectly captured the gist of my conversations with the reservation line of -any- airline I’ve ever called. What I think is sad (about the state of customer service) is that you preface this story with the fact that you fly enough to be a “premier” member. As if this scenario acceptable for even a 1st-time customer?

    I do think it’s interesting that your main frustration is with the airfare market changing out from under you during the period of a phone call. Aren’t we all supposed to be accelerating towards “real-time”? 🙂

    I guess one big problem is that airline tickets have always been a “market” (buy according to fluctuations in price), but they’re presented as a “menu” (take as long as you’d like to decide)

  5. If they knew how much trouble they were in, do you think they’d keep acting that way?

    Well, I guess maybe so, if they just don’t know how else to act. The more you look at them, the more you can see a bad combination of ancient B-school textbooks and IBM mainframe salesmen dancing on their shoulders, telling them to abuse the customers whenever possible.

  6. Let me get this straight – you are trying to book 5 seats on a United direct flight 10 days before Thanksgiving and blogging to say you are surprised that the price is outrageously sky-high? Why is that a surprise? Thanks to lingering effects of 9/11, fuel prices, and the recession, all airlines are reducing the # of flights and pushing to keep them near/at/over capacity. If you had booked this flight a week or two earlier, none of this would’ve happened.

    I’ve worked on revenue management systems for one of the largest hotel chains (and airlines use similar technologies). Your situation is just scratching the surface of an incredibly complex and multi-dimensional problem. What you see is a simple 90-minute direct flight between two cities. What the computer reservation system sees is a massive network of interconnected flights all over the world with schedules spanning multiple days cross-referenced against the aggregate flying history of millions of passengers across multiple years. Trends are analyzed and over-layed with the current rate of booking and measured against historical data. Plus factors such as repair histories and even weather delays are included.

    Bottom-line – too much demand – not enough supply – and the computer KNOWS (statistically speaking) somebody will be stupid enough to pay $2K for an economy seat on this leg of the flight less than 1 week before Thanksgiving. So it wanted to hold-out for that mythical passenger to appear in order to maximize revenue.

    The call-center agents (as frustrating as they are)…are just trying to do their low-wage job. It’s all about the money. Any other week other than Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter…you are probably treated pretty well. But on those peak weeks…all bets are off.

  7. I’d like to know more about the “Conversation Economy”, but the link is just bringing me back to this blog page.

  8. When someone says that company gave great customer service what they usually mean is someone at the company “broke the rules.” What you were asking for a is a lot of rule breaking. Now maybe united should do that because you are a great customer. However, this post is not something I think your average reader of the blog can relate to. We all deal with complex airline pricing everyday and aren’t part of the “million miles” club.

    So as it relates to “the conversation economy” part of that is knowing your audience so that you can hold a conversation.

  9. I too am a loyal United flier. Been Premier for years, almost entirely based on personal travel. Their customer service got really bad when they first started outsourcing (e.g., I asked for something near Albany and was offered a ticket to Atlanta) and I was so upset about this that I once called up the phone tree to someone in Chicago who actually cared about this. It wasn’t long thereafter then that I noticed the customer service had gotten a lot better, with better evidence of training and accountability for the CSRs in India.

    And sometimes I get customer service that’s really good. Really good. Thinking outside the box that’s really helped me out. So it’s out there. Which may be why it’s so disappointing, and why it stands out so much, on the more rare occasions when the customer service fails (and fails so expensively).

    On the other hand, like you, I like “knowing” this airline and how it operates. Sometimes I think about trying out Virgin America (WiFi!) but flying United is comfortable and familiar, and the predictability ultimately makes for a better travel experience. (And if we want to talk about Customer Service Fail, don’t get me started about Delta, who’s done so much to screw up me setting up a frequent flier account I don’t think I’ll ever fly them. Dumbasses.)

    Finally, I think there is a special phone line. Or if not a special phone number, I think the system has a routing mechanism based on your frequent flier number. Occasionally it’s failed, but usually it seems to work, and it generally seems to recognize me based on my caller ID when I call from the number tied to my account.

  10. Not sure how United works well, but on American, when I see a price I want to lock in, I can hold a reservation for 24 hours or so, which locks in the prices, while I can get on the phone and negotiate upgrades and the like. I’ve gotten hosed by this move quite a few times before and have learned my lesson.

    Then again, American does have all-American based customer service help, and the hotline for Elite members goes to a different, more powerful helpdesk.

    Not that American would help you much in SFO, since they only fly to Boston, Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami and New York-JFK, but still.

    *Very* curious if United follows up with you.

  11. I have to disagree with Frank. Yes, they are just doing their job and yes United are using an economic model to set their prices based on demand, but I disagree that a customer that should have built up some “United Juice” with customer loyalty be treated in this manner. One might say that everyone should be treated the same, but John is right that customer service should be what sets you apart from competitors. It’s a lower cost service that could reap much better long term rewards if done properly.

  12. I have to disagree with Frank. Yes, they are just doing their job and yes United are using an economic model to set their prices based on demand, but I disagree that a customer that should have built up some “United Juice” with customer loyalty be treated in this manner. One might say that everyone should be treated the same, but John is right that customer service should be what sets you apart from competitors. It’s a lower cost service that could reap much better long term rewards if done properly.

  13. Yes I’ve always wondered if consistent pricing would be a competitive advantage for an enterprising airline.

    I know that I would be a consistent, dedicated customer if I knew that it would cost, say, $275 each and every time I flew to Minneapolis. I just can’t stand the crapshoot that exists today.

    So instead of a dedicated, consistent customer, the airlines have an unhappy, inconsistent customer that despises the entire experience.

  14. The way airlines work is via fare buckets. When one ‘bucket’ sells out of seats it moves up to the next bucket. What United did a bad job of explaining (because their customer service centers are generally poorly run and outsourced) is that there were only 3 seats left in the $440 discount economy bucket. You wanted 5 seats. The remaining two $1000 fares were mostly likely Y fares or fully refundable. I’m sure you know this. So almost all airlines automatically price your request into the higher bucket to meet your requirement for 5 seats – the default is not to grab the lower fares and then the higher fares. It is smart business for them. The way around this which they could of explained (but why would they) is to buy the 3 seats left at the $440 price in one reservation and the other two at the higher price. Obviously you were able to secure an even better deal by haggling with them but that is an extremely rare occurrence. You airline status means nothing in the pricing of a ticket.

    When not flying to Tuscon you should switch over to American. Their call centers are in the US and their transcon service is better. Plus they just shelled out $10.6 mil to employees for Customer Service Incentives!

  15. John, this sucks, and it’s great for the story. I’m actually quite surprised that their twitter account didn’t get back to you ASAP. What’s up with that? And why haven’t they already learned of your displeasure and offered to fix it?

    I was explaining twitter to a co-worker, and she didn’t really get it, so I ran a search for our client’s name. Naturally the screen was filled with about 50% “Blank from SFO to NYC” and 50% “SCREW BLANK FOR DELAYING THIS FLIGHT!” Etc etc. Air lines are in the business of service recovery, and twitter more than any other service allows you to FIND service failures almost instantly. The fact that they have an account, but still weren’t able to help actually makes it a double failure. Not looking good so far.

    Also, I really agree with Glenn above. It’s an IT issue, but it stems from a large problem. Air lines don’t make enough money, plain and simple. They used to, they no longer do. So they need to squeeze as much as possible. They outsource to India. IT suffers because the old legacy system that runs on DOS still gives me the accurate price calculation based on our most recent pricing tables. Sure, the business needs have changed, but it does 80% of the work, and the rest we’ll work around.

    In the old days, this used to work. You’d be mad and annoyed, and you’d tell 12 people, and they would all think “well, it’s flying, figures.”

    But today is different. Today you told 24,000 people. Sure, as the volume goes up the quality of the relationship goes down, so it’s not like this will convince me not to fly UA. But it does remind me of the time they crashed ticketing at ORD earlier this year and my flight was 3 hours late. And that doesn’t make me want to choose them. It makes me have to choose them, sometimes.

    Companies will survive for a long time based on having to be chosen. They won’t thrive.

    And one day, Google will eliminate them with something better. After all, being able to fly to a destination is just an extension of a web search…

  16. #1 Anybody that flies as much as you should know that booking flights on Sundays and for Thanksgiving is insanely timely and costly.

    #2 Southwest does fly from both Oakland and San Francisco to Tuscon and there are plenty of outbound and return flight options on various dates between each. As a matter of fact there is a reasonable time option from Wed to Saturday for $462, otherwise south of $550 is doable for various dates and it takes about 5 mintues to book, total.

    Your rant sounds more like a case of needing to retire the narcissism (thinking people actually care what you say on Twitter) and more about taking personal initiative and becoming more resourceful with using the Internet… and placing faith in companies that have proven to be better time and time again instead of the status elite membership crap that sounds good over dinner at the country club

  17. @Joe – Well, yeah. I knew it’d be expensive. But not 2 grand each! And sure, Southwest does fly that route, but not direct. BIG difference with three kids, trust me.

  18. BTW, Expedia themselves aren’t very good at customer service, despite being located in Texas. Seemed to me they were trying to hire as cheap as possible 🙂

  19. John
    I am a long time reader of your blog and I think that your frustration with United highlights a very important problem for many companies. While I think you’re right about how companies must engage in this new conversation economy, most companies will never get it because are unclear of what they stand for. In other words, by trying to please everyone they end up WOW-ing almost no-one. That does not scale in this new economy. A huge part of being outstanding at something means being not good at something else. Southwest who you mentioned switching to is great at on-time arrivals/departures. Bad at main airport coverage. Virgin rates really high on service, not so great at price. United is middle of the road everywhere. Not a place I would want to be.
    You also mentioned the outsourced customer service. I recently wrote a blog post talking about customer service as a core competency. I would love your thoughts.

  20. Frank wrote: “Let me get this straight – you are trying to book 5 seats on a United direct flight 10 days before Thanksgiving and blogging to say you are surprised that the price is outrageously sky-high?”

    That’s not what John’s surprised about. He’s surprised that a multi-year pattern of loyalty and high spending doesn’t result in something better than the airline using its usual policies to screw him instead of providing him service relative to his past and future revenue profile for the airline.

  21. John, in your conversation, I did not see them being inconsistent except being prices. You asked for a 3 seat quote first and then you asked for 5 seat quote. There is only one thing people focus on perishable supplies, i.e., they are gone wasted if not sold. Perishable supplies have also another angle, that there quantity is limited and as you start hitting the limit the price curve raises exponentially.

    The question which some people ask is why they did not quote 3 tickets at $4xx and the the two at $2xxx is because you want the family of 5 traveling together, even in case of unforeseen circumstances such as missing a flight. Airline does not want that, oh two of you could travel in the next flight since you paid $2xxx whereas the rest will travel on a later flight. Typically $2xxx fare might have also included a fee the airline is expected to pay to the passenger who would volunteer to give up their seats for you in case of an overbooked flight.

    In some sense, the airline actually did not have any seat. The 6 seats the agent was mentioning you most likely included their overbooking budget too. So my perspective is that you should be thanking that they are at least offering you additional 2 seats, because not offering these sold-out seats equally means offering you a price of infinity for the two seats.

  22. Just to see the rational of my comment and the airline pricing, when at the gate the airline seeks for volunteers to give up their seats for a voucher of a few hundred dollars, try to accept the voucher. That may bring down your cost of travel form $5xx to may be $2xx, or if there is no other direct flight, it may even bring your cost to free, because the airline will be offering a lot more money for giving up the seat.

    If you find yourself not accepting money for delayed travel, well then you should accept that being on the plane for those 90 minutes was worth your money. United airlines offered a good customer service to you because it gave you 5 tickets for $2xxx, while they quoted this price for 1!

  23. John, your story sounds all too familiar. After maybe half a dozen such experiences, I now avoid flying when driving or taking a train would be at all practical. Fortunately, I don’t need to travel as much as you do.

    How much would you be willing to pay for good customer service? Would 10% more than United et al. are charging be too much? How about 20%? To be sure, the airline business is far from perfectly competitive, but presumably, the basic problem is that airline executives don’t think enough people would pay enough for good customer service. I don’t know whether they’re right.

    Have fun in Tucson. It’s a gorgeous area.

  24. Sooner or later brand organisations will understand that poor customer service in this ‘conversation economy’ is going to have a dramatic negative impact on their bottom-line.

    Of course, it works both ways. If they engage in it and delight consumers they will reap the financial rewards of increased loyalty and may be even advocacy.

  25. I hate to ask this, but did you consider using the internet to solve your problem? United has a reasonably effective website which would have made this much easier than talking to a person on the phone. Incidentally, I don’t think that demand based pricing is unreasonable… but your technophobia is baffling: you won’t use their phone system (to route you to a more appropriate agent) so you get the cheapest call center they’ve got, harass the poor guy because you don’t like the price, then have a fit onto Twitter and expect satisfaction.

    Politely, who the hell do you think you are, exactly?

  26. Well @Internet Guru, I DID use the web. And btw, DID try their site, which gave me a price of – wait for it – $1004 each. I didn’t put that in the piece, but I did that while i was on hold waiting for a manager.
    Oh, and btw, I did follow ALL the prompts on the phone system, the first and the third time I called. Same result as second, in which I just asked for an agent. SO…you tell me, whose fault it this?

  27. @Frank, @Steve

    I am just agree with your point.

    Although them declare that they want to service the public,every company want to make money from business.

  28. The cost of air travel has not kept up with inflation! I will never understand why someone doesn’t think twice about paying $6 for a cup of coffee or over $1,000,000 for a home (both have increased in cost at least 10 fold over the last 40 years) but they complain if they can’t fly somewhere for a couple of hundred bucks and get upgraded to first class at the same time! Look up the cost of air travel in the 1960’s and convert that into today’s dollars and see what you should be paying and then stop complaining!

  29. BTW. The non stop flight from SFO to TUS is on a United Express regional jet. United Airlines outsources this flying to SkyWest Airlines and sells the tickets as United Airlines, but they are required by law to tell you this when they sell you the ticket. SkyWest operates both 50 seat and 66 seat regional jets on these routes. The 50 seat jets have only economy seating and the 66 seat jets have 60 economy seats and 6 first class seats. Remember, these are regional jets flown by another airline with SkyWest employees.

  30. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it.

    From my perspective as a former airline employee and frequent business traveler, this piece simply lacks credibility. John’s lack of knowledge about United and their services, his general misunderstanding of how airfares work, and his claim to know United “really, really well” make his rant seem disingenuous and far-fetched. He doesn’t speak the language of an elite United passenger, he asks things that a seasoned passenger wouldn’t ask, and he approaches the entire situation from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

    – The first drop credibility comes with his claim to have been an “Executive Premier” for a “long, long time”. There is no such status level – the author presumably means Premier Executive, a level that wouldn’t likely be confused by someone as familiar with United as the John claims to be.

    – John loses further credibility by doubting the availability of direct flights from the Bay Area to Tuscon. San Fransisco is a United hub and has United (or United Express) flights to practically everywhere. San Fransisco has had Tuscon flights for years. The mere fact that SFO is a United hub is reason enough to suspect that there would indeed be non-stop flights from there to Tuscon.

    – His credibility is further damaged when he explains that after finding what seemed to be a reasonable price for a non-stop flight at his desired times for a short-notice holiday trip, “experience” told him that a five person reservation with possible upgrades would “require human intervention”. Experience tells me that if I find the times and dates on the carrier of choice this close to a holiday, that I should go ahead and book. Inventory is already limited and filling up fast – especially in a market served only twice a day with regional jets. Instead of just booking the tickets (or maybe making a quick check of he decides to start making phone calls, increasing the likelihood that the somewhat reasonably-priced seats will be taken by someone who decided to click to purchase instead of wasting time by involving an agent on a simple domestic itinerary without so much as a connection.

    – Credibility takes another hit for even caring about upgrading on a 90 minute flight. As a Premier Executive (or even a lowly Premier) he and a companion can book complimentary Economy Plus seats on the same PNR. The couple inches of legroom gained with Economy Plus are the major part of the United “first class experience” on such a short flight – especially one served by an RJ.

    – John asks for business class seats. Domestic flights with business class are rare and are limited to widebody aircraft, usually serving hub-to-hub flights and United’s P.S. equipped 757s – not the kind of equipment a seasoned elite would expect to serve Tuscon. John acts like the overseas reservations agent is clueless for correctly stating that there isn’t any business class service between SFO and TUS. You have to understand that business class is an odd request for a 90 minute route served by regional jets.

    – John seems surprised to find that paid first class seats are expensive. Did he expect the agent to just assign first class seats by virtue of his status as a million-miler? If first class is really that important to him then he should expect to pay the price. Otherwise, use some 500-milers and request the upgrade online. Again, no need to get an agent involved. I would probably even count on the request clearing at the 72 hour window since I can’t imagine many other elites are going to waste upgrades on such a short flight.

    Again, I’m not a huge United fan. There are plenty of things not to like about United and about air travel in general, but I have difficulty sympathizing with John given that he doesn’t seem to know how airlines, let alone United work.

    Based on the story as reported, John appears to be a high-maintenance customer who caused his own bad experience and is now using his position in the media to exact revenge – even after the airline capitulated to his demands.

    Having dealt with elite customers who feel that they are entitled to special favors and waivers beyond the program’s guidelines as an employee and having sat next to them as a former elite passenger myself, I assure you that the airline and its customers will be well served when these passengers take their business elsewhere.

  31. John,

    1. The whole bit about changing prices in real time when loyal customers is mid-transaction illustrates what happens when loyalty programs rub up against dynamic pricing. I was buying a gift on Macy’s wedding registry, checked with the bride, and the price went up 20% on me. I’ve never been back to since. Rant here:

    2. As much as you fly, you should be 1k not premier exec! The 1k line does not hit an indian call center. I should know; my mom wont make a reservation without getting me on the line and making me conference in an agent who is certifiably in Chicago or Denver!

  32. Surely someone who flies as often as you knows how flight pricing works?

    It sounds like United bowed down to your “I’m really important” threats and yet you’ve still chosen to berate them on a public forum.

    Lovely customer you must be.

  33. You really need to relax, if you are such a loyal United flyer you would have known to call your Premier Exec line right from the get go as I do – calls are still answered in the US for this line – most of the time you don’t even have to ask if your profile is up to date as the caller ID picks up where you are calling from and just asks to confirm your name.

    UA has had the charge for phone ticketing for quite some time; maybe you should have just booked online from the beginning.

    The sense of entitlement in your post is through the roof, you were looking for relative last minute fares and were “SHOCKED” at the prices, get a life, and don’t go to Tuscon, we don’t care.

  34. John: I truly am sorry to hear that you had such an awful experience. But without wishing any more experiences upon you, I’m not at all surprised. As Frank wrote:

    …and the computer KNOWS (statistically speaking) somebody will be stupid enough to pay $2K for an economy seat on this leg of the flight less than 1 week before Thanksgiving. So it wanted to hold-out for that mythical passenger to appear in order to maximize revenue.

    I think that Frank is essentially right. The systems that we’re creating are essentially about statistical optimization. Just as Google knows exactly how many ads it can show before it starts to piss users off, so United knows just how much it can charge, to whom, and when.

    You may want “loyalty” to be that criterion that United optimizes on your behalf, but it is not. Data-driven methods don’t care about loyalty. They only know/care about just how far they can push even their loyal customers before those customers break. Like Google, the data helps them know exactly what they can and can’t get away with. And so they’re optimizing for what they can get away with, not necessarily what is best for you.

    But this is the world that we really want to live in, right? This is what we’re so excited about, this Web 2.0 world in which data about us is flowing and being captured everywhere — and used to determine exactly how much they can charge us, loyal customer or not.

  35. wow,youre such a frequent flyer that you dont even know the correct title of your status. do everyone a favor and don’t fly from SFO to TUS until one of those other airlines you mentioned flies it non-stop (btw, direct is not the same as non-stop), you’ll be waiting a LONG LONG time. I suppose United should have been honored to have you aboard and shouldn’t have even charged you. You do realize you can book the ticket and then worry about the free upgrade later. you feel you’re entitled to it for nickel and diming United. Try driving for that price, oh wait it’s not convenient for you. You have the attitude of entitlement typical of “elites” but you sure don’t seem to know anything about the airline industry. Either you’re dumb or full of #$%@, but I suspect it’s both. Please, fly Virgin America, They’ll be happy to burn through your cash with their unsustainable fares and poorly paid employees, and it would mean you could never come anywhere near this part of the country.

  36. Its a place to take your passion uto highest level. These people are real family personnel.
    One can expand their business through social network & its the only place where who share revenue with its members

  37. John, I find your rant disappointing to say the least. I’ve been a loyal reader of yours for years. And I flew all the way from Australia to attend 2 Web Expos and 1 Web Summit.

    I think I know your style. And this clearly is not it.

    Everyone has a bad day now and then. Obviously this was yours.

    I admire your insight, your obvious passion for the web, your elegance on stage when interviewing the Zuckerbergs’, the Ballmers, the Murdochs of this world.

    What I dont admire is that you used a forum which you have worked hard to build to vent about a day in the life of John Battelle which went pear shaped.

    The thing is this. No one really cares. Especially given that you didn’t engage US (your readers) in the conversation. You simply yelled.

    I’m a United Million Miler and 1K. I’ve never been treated by UA like this. Ever.

    I know how the system works. And even I know (as an Aussie) not to try and book flights the week prior to Thanksgiving. But if I had to (like you chose to do), I would have done it all online.

    Sometimes you need to trust the system. In this case, the system didnt fail you. You failed it. Period.

  38. John, you’re getting slapped around pretty good all over the internet because of this post appearing on The Business Insider.

    We all have bad days. You should have taken a deep breath before clicking on the “send” button though.

    No need to go on a four letter word filled tirade because we’re hurting your feelings. It’s just all part of maturing process.

    BTW.. “We know you had a choice. Thank you for flying United.”

  39. OK guys. Thanks for all the comments. In particular, the critical ones, which keep me honest. So, honestly:
    1. If you think my mistake at calling the damn program “Executive Premiere” vs. “Premiere Executive” is damning, I suggest you go pound sand. You know what I meant, and somehow, I don’t think mixing up the damn words in any way means I “don’t know United.” Man, do I know United. I’ve flown a million or miles on the airline. Perhaps the reason I don’t know the program’s proper nomenclature is because its not so good at branding itself? But if you want to blame the customer, go nuts.
    2. Yeah, I know direct is not non stop. And your point is?
    3. I DID call the PE line. But not at first. I called it second. Why? Because my contact program listed UA’s main number first. So sue me. I’ll change that. But again, your point?
    4. About “doing it all online.” No way in hell. Do you have three kids and a bad back and a need to figure out complicated multi-class fares and upgrades? It simply cannnot be done online. Sorry. Need a human.
    5. I HEAR YOU ALL on the topic of Thanksgiving. I KNOW it’s a bad time to try to get a good fare. I just didn’t expect it to be more than two grand a seat for economy.
    6. United never “bowed down” to me, nor do I expect any special perks. United did finally capitulate to my demands that they not overcharge me, but it took two hours of my time to make happen. Never once did my “status” as a million mile flyer or a blogger come into play. My point was to tell a story, one that I sense a lot of folks have endured. It’s a story of a company that is tone deaf to its customers, and has put into place systems that most of us simply cannot understand. Some of you can, and I appreciate that you can. But honestly, it’s not realistic to expect this of your customers. It’s fatally flawed.
    OK, enough.

  40. Having grown up traveling on various airline carriers since about 3 weeks of age – and coming from an entire family of airline professionals I can tell you this:

    Whenever you approach airline travel with the expectation that your preferred status will actually result in preferential treatment – prepare to be disappointed.

    Airline travel, no matter how much you pay is more than just a service it is a privilege that many will never experience. It is one of the few experiences in life that you completely transfer your well being and safety over to that of trained professionals.

    As Frank said there are levels of complexity that are beyond consumer understanding.

    Finally, don’t make the mistake that you matter – because from the standpoint of the airline you don’t.

  41. John,

    Give Southwest a try, you may actually like it and indeed they “get” customer service.

    Also, your threat to take your business elsewhere as soon as another carrier offers direct service seem fairly benign given that Southwest does indeed offer direct flights.

    I could be mistaken but that is likely the point behind the other commener’s assertion that you don’t know the different between direct and non-stop. In any event, it doesn’t exactly lend credibility to your threat.

  42. @Rob. Sheesh, come on. When I said “direct” I *meant* non stop, OK? SWest doesn’t have non stop! Somehow it’s the customer’s fault if they misuse airline nomenclature?!

  43. No. It’s the media professional’s fault if they aren’t taken seriously after presenting themselves as being experienced customers within a given industry, using that industry’s terms interchangeably, and then specifically asserting that they know the meaning of the terms when that turns out not to be the case.

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