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I miss flying Continental Airlines


I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence but it was the first time we flew Continental, under United name and we had a bad overall customer experience.

I have been a loyal customer of Continental Airlines for many years now. My family and I use it for all our vacation and business travels. Although I could find other airlines offering more competitive air fares, I would still choose Continental. I have always found comfort and satisfaction flying Continental. The merger of United Airlines and Continental was announced in 2010. This union formed the largest airline in the nation, under the name United. I still patronized Continental during the post merger transition. I was remarkably surprised that they had maintained the consistency of their service level. I continued to be a very happy customer.

Until…

Last week, my family traveled to California for vacation. Of course, we chose to travel Continental. This time, the name on the plane was noticeably changed to United. Also, it said  “Premier Access” on my boarding pass instead of the usual “Elite Access”. I expected our flying experience to be the same or better. A merger of two companies usually means the best practices of both established firms are retained. The outcome is usually the best of both companies.

I was wrong…

I flew back to Houston from Ontario, California last Monday. My wife and our twin infant boys were travelling with me. As can be expected when travelling with two infants, we had a bulky stroller with lots of baby stuff (formula, diapers, the works) in preparation for the three-hour flight.

What would you expect when boarding a plane with kids or infants? My expectation is to have a bit of consideration — maybe priority boarding. I understand that first class goes first (they paid for it), then military and passengers needing assistance — typically those in wheelchairs. But aren’t people with strollers and infant children also in need of assistance?

We were in boarding group 5. I don’t know if it was just me or because of the experience, but I feel bad about the  number tag on priority boarding. This was printed prominently on the boarding pass. So groups 1 to 4 board before us. Usually, it does not matter to me if I were to board last;  but since I am travelling with my twin babies, it certainly mattered now. I want them to be comfortable. So it became more personal.

More than half of the passengers were already boarded and we were still waiting for our group 5 to be called.  My wife went to ask the gate service attendant because normally, in any flight (and not just with Continental), the people with infants were among the first to be boarded. But she got an unfriendly response and told to just get out of the way and wait for our group to be called. During our actual boarding, I asked the same attendant and got the same rude response.

I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence but it was the first time we flew Continental, under United name and we had a bad overall customer experience.

Here is another…

Arriving in Houston, we got our baggage and were surprised to see that one of our bags had a broken handle. The handle was destroyed in such a way that you could no longer use the luggage. It was a relatively new bag that we bought last January. It was only the second time that we used it.

We went to the United Baggage Service office in the airport. We were attended to and were given a reference number and a claim number. We were given a contact number and instructed to call it for follow-up and further assistance.

My wife called the number later,  only to be referred to another office. That office asked her to call the United office at the airport instead but could not give her the contact information. On Monday, after we got home from the airport, she had received an email from the claim case that was filed and on it was contact information. She called that number and was told that the case was closed and she should call the United office at the airport if she had questions. At this point, my wife had to use a search engine to find another contact number for the Baggage Service office of United Airlines and get a clearer response to the status of our bag damage claim. She had to talk to several people and was passed on to several offices giving her conflicting information about the case. They damaged our bag and we had to go through all these just to get an answer that the claim is still in process. So far no resolution to it yet!

As you can imagine, this was such a frustrating experience for us flying United. The front-office customer experience was already bad and the after flight back-office service was just as bad!

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  1. Lorelei May
    April 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about your bad experience. Especially when you are flying with infant twins. I have flown with Sydney and Reagan numerous times. Sydney was 9 months the first time she flew and Reagan was 3 months the first time she flew. We fly anywhere from 3-4 times a year. It is essential for me to board as soon as possible to get situated on the plane. There is a lot to do from diaper changes, filling bottles, and arranging toys and snacks for easy access. I have been flying Southwest Airlines exclusively for the past two years. Not only do they not charge for baggage, I can usually find great ticket prices. They always allow us to board after first class regardless of our boarding group. On one occasion we were running late and they were calling my name on the intercom to make sure that I had a gate check-in tag for my stroller. The agents are always friendly and helpful.

    They also have celebration days, which they give out fresh baked cookies or free alcoholic beverages. Depending on what they are celebrating. It is definitely a nice treat when all the Airlines are cutting back and charging for everything under the sun.

    • Glenn Remoreras
      April 17, 2012 at 11:26 am

      Hi May Thanks for your comments and input. We are closely considering Southwest in our upcoming trips. I just looked at their website they do have very competitive fares and based on how you described your experience, seems to be a good alternative. Will try this out for sure. Thanks again.

  2. Ira
    April 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I have noticed that so much of what is known as “Customer Service” has become people trained to follow a script and never deviate with measurements based solely on performance evaluated solely on following the rules. Employees (or those outsourced to follow the script) have little to no empowerment to apply common sense. This leads me to believe that management doesn’t trust their people to think for themselves – they don’t trust their judgement!

    Unfortunately your experience is not uncommon.Also unfortunately, customers seem to only have access to employees that are left completely un-empowered to solve problems even if they wanted to. I recently had a service issue with ATT and after getting passed to the third person (keeping in mind I had to explain my issue to the new rep each time even though they had the case notes) in frustration I asked” can you direct me to someone who has authority to address this?” and I was told, “Sir, no one can address that for you, we apologize”. Really?

    Service can be a huge differentiator and value-add to all involved. And loyalty (you mentioned you had premier status) should actually stand for something. I recently saw a Delta commercial that I thought was great; the slogan was “Don’t let the rules over-rule common sense”. Let’s hope it’s not just a marketing slogan and more organizations empower their employees to move off “the srcipt” when it;s called for.

    • Glenn Remoreras
      April 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Coincidence, just today, I called AT&T because I did not receive my first billing for my recently established Uverse account. I know that my account was very close to being overdue, but I did not recall getting the bill- by mail or email. Two things stood out from my experience this morning when I called AT&T service center.

      Firstly, it took forever just to finally get to speak to someone, a lot of nested questions. It was was really frustrating to go through all of them, especially for me who just wanted to speak to someone who can address my concern. I personally prefer to speak to someone when I call service center, I hate robo-agents!

      Secondly, when I finally got to someone, the lady was obviously following a script. She was so in a hurry to drop me off the line that she almost sounded rude in the phone. At one point, she was egging me to pay by phone, she did so repeatedly. My main concern was to get a copy of my bill, so I can review and pay it the way I want to pay it. Obviously she did not understand my concern. She was following a script that will either lead me to pay by phone or drop the call.

      I assume she was on a hurry to end the call to limit call time duration. The shorter the call time the more calls the center can handle. Payment done by phone could also be a performance indicator, it led the agents to repeatedly ask me to pay, even if I did not want to in the first place!

      I like the Delta slogan that you shared: “Don’t let the rules over-rule common sense”. Common-sense here would have been, listen, listen, listen, ask, empathize, understand the concern, provide options/ solutions, address the concern then happy customer. That did not happen because common-sense does not follow a script, it is so variable, depending on the person and situation. So if you don’t have a process that empowers your front line to actually do something, they can’t do something. Other thing is the performance measures, it dictates how you employee behaves. If call duration is a performance indicator for agents, of course they will strive to do it, so their tendency is to hurry the call, regardless if they are addressing the customers’ concern or not.

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts Ira.

  3. Miguel Soria
    April 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Glenn, no questions or doubts about people starting to choose another airline, we in Houston feel like we lost not only the headquarters but the company caring about customers,

    I found this other article very interesting.
    http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2012/04/17/united-southwest-houston/?iid=HP_River

    Regards
    Miguel

    • Glenn Remoreras
      April 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks for sharing this Mike. Now I understand. I hear a lot of this frustration in talk show radio in Houston and the plans to make Hobby Airport international for Southwest. I welcome competition. It is better for us.

  4. June 15, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    I miss Continental too and have had similar poor experiences on United. About a year ago, I wrote a blog post exploring the question, would Continental’s service be impacted by the merger. Spoiler alert — Yes.

    Here’s the link (Southwest is also included for good measure):
    http://www.toistersolutions.com/blog/2011/6/29/is-there-such-thing-as-the-united-airlines-effect.html

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