The Passenger Experience Can Create Friendly Skies Or Unfriendly Skies

Web: — E-Mail:

15/04/2009 – The Passenger Experience Can Create Friendly Skies Or Unfriendly Skies

This morning I found an interesting story on The Consumerist, by way of a fantastic airline industry blog Shashank Nigam’s SimpliFlying ( This story details how a woman and her boyfriend were trying to catch a United Airlines flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Portland (PDX) to be with the woman’s mother in the final hours of her life.

The United Airline front line ‘customer service representative’ could have shown some customer service and made sure this couple made the flight or she could have argued with the couple, taken her coffee break and allowed this couple to miss the incredibly important flight. In this instance, United’s front line staff member did everything in her power to make sure this couple missed the flight, causing the woman to nearly miss all of the precious little time she had left with her mother.

In fact, the later flight the couple was switched to arrived at PDX at 12:15am and her mother passed away at 2:50am.

…my opinion on this incident, corporate culture and the decline of the ‘passenger experience’ follow at the end of the letter that was sent to United’s CEO Glenn Tilton following the incident.

Dear Mr. Tilton:

When the employees of large companies discard compassion, respect, and common human decency and instead place their own interests in front of those they are chartered to serve, then they are no longer deserving of the public’s trust.

On February 19th, I received a phone call from my girlfriend’s father indicating that her mother was close to death, and that-if at all possible-I should try and get his daughter to Portland, Oregon as quickly as I could.

I immediately left my office and began making arrangements to leave San Francisco for Portland, including calling the United Premier Reservation line on my way home to book a flight. The gentleman on the line provided me with a reservation number, informed me that I could pick up my tickets at the counter, and wished me the best of luck as the timing would be tight. On our way to the airport, I commented to my girlfriend that our ability to catch the 7:50 flight “would depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Little did I know that the only unkind strangers I would encounter would all be wearing United blue.

We arrived at the airport at 7:20, but with very short ticket and security lines I felt that we had a decent chance of making the gate before the doors were closed. I explained to those customers waiting in line that we had a family emergency, and each agreed to let us move to the front.

The first agent to help me indicated that he could not ticket any passengers, and referred me to a different agent at the end of the counter. I approached this new agent, provided her with my record locator number and explained my emergency. I also asked her if there was any way she could contact the gate agent to let them know we were on our way, and perhaps keep the door open a few minutes longer if we were delayed at security.

To my utter amazement, your agent handed me back my record locator number, looked me straight in the eye, and informed me that she couldn’t ticket me because “it was time for her to go on her break.” I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly, so I repeated the nature of our emergency. Again, your agent informed me that it was time for her break, “she had no choice,” and that if I had a problem with it, I could talk to her supervisor.

I was absolutely horrified. The only person at the United counter who had the ability to ticket passengers felt that it was more important to go grab a soda than to give me a decent chance at making a flight to be with a dying relative.

I argued with this woman for a good 10 minutes, growing increasingly agitated. Even those passengers who had let me move to the front of the line voiced their objections. She did nothing to assist me, choosing instead to continue to quote company policy. Why she didn’t just leave to go on her break is beyond me. Before she finally left, she placed a call to her supervisor and said, in a very sarcastic tone, that there was a customer at the counter “whose mother is sick and dying and who wants to hold a flight and speak with a supervisor.” She refused to provide me with her name or employee number.

By the time I was able to find somebody new to help me, it was clear that I would no longer be able to make the 7:50 PM flight. I asked the new ticketing agent if there was any way that he could contact the gate to let them know we were on our way, but he said it was impossible. He booked us on the 10:30 flight.

Upon receiving our tickets, we ran to the security line and quickly made our way to the gate to see if there was still hope of making the 7:50 flight. The plane was still there, but the door was closed and your gate agent was turning other passengers away (including those who had arrived late on a connecting flight). I explained our ordeal to the gate agent, who simply provided me with some “United-style” sympathy: not only could he not re-open the gate, but he told me that he could understand the behavior of the ticketing agent because “management really makes us work some unreasonable schedules.”

A perfect keystone ending to the most imperfect, flawed, and horrifying customer experience I have ever had in my life.

I realize that we can’t legislate good customer service, and I suspect that no regulations were violated in this noble attempt by your staff to have us “fly the friendly skies.” However, given the animosity that your employees seem to have for their management as well as their passengers, I hardly have faith in their ability to serve the public interest in other matters, including those involving passenger safety.

My girlfriend’s mother passed away at 2:50 AM, shortly after we arrived in Portland. We will, of course, never know what we might have been able to share with her in the two and a half hours we burned sitting at a gate at SFO.

I certainly hope your agent’s break was worth that price.”

The above incident occurred for multiple reasons, not the least of which it is a deeply entrenched corporate culture that needs to be changed from the top down. This corporate culture prevalent in multiple Legacy Carriers is that of ‘Us vs. Them,’ and this feeling directly impacts passenger interaction and the overall passenger experience. While the United Airlines customer service representative blamed unions regulations, the Unions do not prevent their members from exercising human compassion or judgment. What is present though is the feeling that United’s employees are not empowered to assist passengers and have little personal investment in the company’s success or failure.

These passengers in a time of crisis chose to fly with United Airlines. They could have flown with Southwest (out of OAK) or Alaska Airlines…but instead they chose to ‘Fly The Friendly Skies‘ and this is how they were repaid for their loyal patronage during their time of personal crisis.

As legacy carriers continue to compete for their market share among low cost carriers in a declining market they need to not only focus on branding, but also adopt the concept that “Passenger Experience Is Everything.” Branding gets passengers to choose an airline, but once ‘in the door’ it is the passenger experience that primarily keeps passengers loyal.

There is a reason a Alaska Airlines, who also flies non-stop between SFO-PDX at similar times to United Airlines, has received JD Powers awards for customer satisfaction and 17 Freddie Awards since 2001 and United Airlines has not. Alaska’s front line agents are empowered to make their own choices, while they have their own management/labour issues, it does not spill over into the most passenger’s customer experience with the airline, while it occurs quite often with multiple legacy carriers. (Yes, I know Alaska is technically a legacy carrier, but it is not generally included with the 5 primary major legacy carriers in the United States).

Many airline executives and airline-marketing executives discuss getting first hand accounts of the passenger experience, however they do not seem to get a full-scope of what passengers face while flying their carriers. Airlines need to engage in some significant hands-on research of their airlines, and their competitors, to get a wider scope of how they can improve the customer experience. Airlines can still charge for baggage, pillows, meals, downsize mainline aircraft to regional jets and still offer their passengers an excellent customer experience on a consistent basis.

A better customer experience translates into a better customer satisfaction, which translates into a loyal passenger. All of this ultimately translates into revenue for the airline, and no one wants to lose revenue in any economy!

You can read Shashank Nigam’s take on this incident on Simpliflying here:

Happy Flying!


  1. I am so glad that you published this letter. As someone who has been involved in the service industries all my working life, I have become appalled at the rapid decline in customer service across the board. It is rare to find an employee who is genuinely concerned with providing a positive customer experience in any industry.

  2. I had a similar experience with Delta Airlines during my father’s passing. I had driven back to Gainesville the day before my father passed, as we were told he had been improving and I had been down for nearly a month (fort laud) and needed the quick drive up to tie things up back up north. My mother called around 6:30AM on memorial day with the shocking news that he had gone into cardiac arrest late in the night, battled for hours, and just passed. My Uncle called and told me to rush down via plane, as (I know this sounds odd) we were allowed to be with him finally unhooked from all cords and machines, at peace, before well…you know.

    So I called Delta, flight is only 30 minutes long, I could make it. That was the only flight out in the small regional airport there to FLL just then. The Delta rep, who knew the situation and had to bear with me as I choked back tears to even give my name, would not process the payment with my Uncle’s credit card!! We have the SAME LAST NAME!

    The Delta rep SERIOUSLY told me that my Uncle could leave his brother’s side at Hollywood Memorial and go down to FLL and show his ID to the Delta reps and buy a ticket for his young college student niece trying to make it down to see her father the last time before his funeral days later.
    I called Southwest – booked a ticket with ease out of MCO but had to drive 1.5 hours to that airport. Southwest CALLED THE TICKET AGENTS at MCO to inform them of the urgency to catch a flight I might miss. I got there, was given priority, and they walked me over to security to get me through and on that flight. I missed seeing him afterall, but at least they tried and showed more than compassion for my situation.

    Had I had the strength back then to recount the tale coherently on paper, Delta would have received a letter. What would I have got though? A free ticket on a carrier I vowed never to do business with again?

    That took place May 2006, I still have yet to book with Delta again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *