Flying United is Like Being in a Kafka Novel

I am a frequent flier with United Airlines. I’m one of the many road warriors to have witnessed the decline of our airline’s service, even as it rises from bankruptcy. While flying earlier this week I read with interest the article by Barbara Higgins, the new VP of Customer Experience. She seems like a great person and comes from Disney – so she should be well versed in customer experience.

Like many of my fellow road warriors, I’ve noticed the decline in service attitude among the airline’s employees. What has frustrated me the most, however, is the dehumanization of the United experience in recent years. What Higgins cites as steps to greater convenience for travelers I perceive as steps to treating customers like cattle being herded onto cattle cars.

I was recently flying from San Antonio to Des Moines through Denver. The connecting flight was canceled due to weather. I went to the "customer service" center to find long lines of frustrated fliers queued behind a number of kiosks. Not a human United representative in sight. For a human I had to trek to another part of the airport. The line for a human was at least a half a football field long. I couldn’t even see the counter. So, I called Customer Service and was informed by the CSR, in broken English, that there were no flights until late the following day. The CSR then put me on hold and disconnected me. I called back and received another CSR who booked me on a series of flights from Denver to Springfield to Chicago to Des Moines late the next day. Just accepting my situation was easier than trying to communicate with a woman who could barely speak English.

The following day I went to the airport to check in for my around-the-nation tour home. The kiosk wouldn’t pull up my itinerary. No human in sight. I had to pick up the phone and talk to another disembodied voice. I picked up the phone and was informed, after a few minutes, that the young man on the other end of the line had fixed the problem. It still didn’t work. "Have a United Representative there at the kiosk help you" he told me. What human? There wasn’t a United employee in sight. I went searching for a live human being. I finally found a human behind a United counter. He didn’t speak English.

I’m all for modernization. I’m all for technology that provides convenience and efficiency. What I want is a warm human being who is present with a smile and a willing spirit to help me. Increasingly United has made me feel like the protagonist in a Kafka novel: dehumanized – confused – void of options – without hope. I’m at the mercy of a computer system (that recently failed), a kiosk, or a CSR for whom English is a second language.

I wish Ms. Higgins well and desperately hope that she can bring more to the table than a silly red carpet at each gate. Please, Ms. Higgins, save me from "The Trial" of flying United. Make me feel like a human being again.

  7 comments for “Flying United is Like Being in a Kafka Novel

  1. July 15, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Uh oh! I’m flying United to Chicago on Tuesday–first time I’ve flown with them in over a decade. You did remind me of one of my traveler’s tips: always have their 800# programmed into your cell phone. The last time my American Airlines flight was canceled due to weather, I was able to get everything fixed by calling their 800#. I was standing in a line of easily 100 people, there were still at least 50 in front of me when the operator rerouted me.

  2. July 15, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    I ran across this reading about United Airlines. We have a trip we can reschedule because they messed up a trip of ours back in December. There was a snow storm, and they told us to go ahead and fly out because even if we didnt make our original flight out of the destination, we would easily be on standby for the next flight. Then, of course when we got to the layover destination, they said that all the premium point members get first dibs, and we might be on standby for 3 days!

  3. July 26, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Last week I had the pleasure of flying on Delta for vacation, and I noticed the same things that you pointed out, Tom… more self-service kiosks and less staffing, even in their headquarters hub. The most distressing problem that I had was trying to get an upgrade on my flights. For the past four months, I had been calling and requesting to PAY for an upgrade, and was rerouted into oblivion… and when I talked to the agents at the airport (Seattle, Atlanta, and St. Thomas), I was given the run-around. I finally said to one of them: “you do realize that I’m TRYING to give you money, right?” No dice… so much red tape that we never got anywhere on the upgrades/changes to my ticket.
    Alas, I had great service once on the plane, so my hat’s off to the flight crews.

  4. July 26, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    HELLO?! Airlines, are you listening?! Unbelievable. You try to do business with someone and they don’t want your money. Hmmm…any wonder all the major airlines are teetering on the brink of or pulling themselves out of bankruptcy! Thanks for the great story.

  5. July 27, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Flying Clubs Airport

    The Dunnellon Sport Flyers is a United States Ultralight Association Florida chapt

  6. Kathy
    December 3, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I knew I couldn’t be the only one who noticed the United/Kafka connection. I’ll spare the details, but right now they have me sucked into a vortex of frustration.

  7. December 3, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    No, Kathy. You’re definitely NOT alone.

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