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When my son was 12, we sent him from LA to Washington, DC on United to visit his grandparents. When I tried to buy unaccompanied minor service for him, I was told (erroneously) that at 12 he was too old. On the trip back, his flight was cancelled, and he was put onto two different flights, with a plane change in Chicago. At LAX, I asked United to check to see if he had made the connection, and they refused. Why? You guessed it -- because I had failed to purchase unaccompanied minor service. Over the years, I've flown United only when there was no other option, and there's always a problem: there was a pilot, during a beef with management, who stood outside the jetway of an already-delayed flight, looking at his watch, until he announced "Uh, oh, I'm over my limit", delaying the flight for another two hours. When passengers complained, he said, "Good. I'm glad you're unhappy. Tell management. It's their fault." In Texas, when all flights were grounded due to thunderstorms at 9 pm, passengers from our flight were shuttled from gate to gate for hours, never given accurate information, until we were finally herded into a deserted auxiliary area, devoid of water and chairs, with just two agents for hundreds of people. Passengers stacked suitcases for seating, and scrounged water and snacks, for a couple of elderly passengers who were suffering terribly, and begged the United ticket agents for help, or to at least take the seniors first. The agents refused on both counts. Most of us were there until almost dawn. And these are just the most egregious experiences I've had personally, not the petty indignities endured on every United flight I've been on over the past 10 years. As someone who remembers how United used to be -- believe it or not, more than two decades ago, I wrote advertising for the airline -- the change is disheartening, but after all these years, I think it's permanent. In my observation, there are two common threads to the United experience. The first is an almost pathological rudeness on the part of almost every United employee you encounter. There is something so toxic about the work atmosphere that even people who may be perfectly nice outside of the job seem to relish the opportunity to be mean once they put on the uniform. The second is a system-wide, and deliberate, failure of communication. On United, it's almost impossible to get timely, accurate information, if you get any at all. On my last United trip, I saw a man ask a polite question about a gate change, and heard the United gate agent snap, "Do I look like an information kiosk?" Gate agents and flight crews refuse to give information on flight delays even when it would be the quickest way to make passengers happy and prevent conflicts. And it's everywhere: you can't get consistent answers at any level of the company, from reservations to customer service to ticketing agents. There's even contradictory information on different pages of United's website. My guess is that working at United makes employee feel so powerless that they use rudeness and withholding of information to exert power on the only people who can't do anything about it: passengers. They'll continue to get away from this for a long time, because financially, none of it counts. Think about it: customer service experiences can't be quantified by Wall Street. Therefore nobody measures them, they have no impact on stock prices, and you never, ever hear them mentioned by financial news pundits. If they keep this up, of course, the company will implode someday, no longer able to summon enough passengers with the need or the stomach to fly United. Executives, Wall Street, and the pundits will blame fuel prices, or union woes, or economic conditions, but no one will ever, ever say, "We failed because we were mean to our passengers and that made us suck at our jobs."
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Aug 18, 2012