People deal with frustration in all kinds of ways. I knew a girl in high school who used to cry. I tend to shake my fists, punch inanimate objects and, occasionally, growl. (It’s not pretty but I’m not perfect.) Dave Carroll, facing endless unsatisfactory phone calls and poor customer service, writes songs.
You see, according to Dave, United Airlines breaks guitars. Specifically, United Airlines broke his guitar. The crux of the story is that during a stopover in Chicago while he was on his way to Nebraska, baggage handlers allegedly threw his $3,500 guitar and broke it. (I say “allegedly” although no one really seems to be disputing this point. I just can’t afford a lawsuit.) Attempting to receive some kind of compensation for this, Dave repeatedly made contact with United and was repeatedly told that United was not responsible for the damage.
Cut to Dave, with a new guitar and a new song, “United Breaks Guitars”. Viewed more than 3.6 million times, this catchy little act of vengeance has become an internet sensation and certainly a thorn in the side of United Airlines.
More than this being a story about revenge, though, I think this is a story about creative problem solving. Though Dave may never have received his desired monetary compensation, he’s achieved a level of fame that he would, most likely, have never achieved without this song. And, much as I may be prone to futile seething, this is probably a good lesson for all of us. Channeling our frustration into other outlets than oh, say, punching and growling, might just be the best revenge of all.
In a prime example of virtually inviting people to kill the messenger, United Airlines has instructed its employees not to allow overweight passengers (those who cannot sit in one seat with the arm rests down and/or cannot use the safety belt with a single extender) to board unless they purchase an extra seat.
Furthermore, according to United’s newly posted policy, if no extra seats are available, passengers will have to either pay to get upgraded (if there’s room in that section) or wait for the next flight with two available seats.
Now, other airlines already have similar policies; both American and Southwest are on the books as having the right to require purchase of a second ticket. But unlike both of these airlines, if there is an empty seat available on a plane, United won’t switch the affected passenger to a seat next to the empty one so that he or she won’t have to pay double. Perhaps this is to avoid inconveniencing another passenger already seated next to this empty seat? But doesn’t it also inconvenience (and cost) the affected passenger? And wouldn’t there have to be switching anyway, if they’re going to place this passenger next to an empty seat to charge him/her?
Obviously, this is a tricky issue no matter which airline is involved. Does forcing a passenger to pay double penalize them for being overweight? Or do charges like these accommodate (also-paying) customers’ rights to comfort? It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It’s easy to imagine people thinking they’re getting last minute deals and then not actually being able to board the plane for lack of an extra seat. You can’t really plan a 3-day weekend vacation if you don’t know when you’ll get a chance to board. It’s also easy to imagine passengers being very displeased with the front-line employees who have to enforce this policy.
It’s worth pointing out, I think, that seats are already so closely grouped that airlines are actually able to charge more for seats that have more legroom. Could part of the problem be that seats are just too small to accommodate enough people nowadays? I have no answers at all. However, I can tell you that I’ll be watching very closely to see exactly how this plays out.
(As always, we welcome your thoughtful, insightful, and respectful comments.)
United will be disconnecting its customer service phone line this coming April, and instead will ask passengers to submit complaints and compliments via email and letter. The airline says written comments generally result in happier customers, because written comments tend to be more detailed than verbal ones and this leads to more effective responses
from customer service.
I can believe that, but at the same time, is there anything more frustrating than writing a thoughtful email to customer service ... and then waiting, waiting, and waiting some more only to receive a canned response? Well, is there? Oh, what's that you say? Calling customer service and being put on hold for three hours is worse? I guess you have a point there.
My sense is that people will be divided on this. On the one hand, speaking on the phone gives you the satisfaction of actually speaking to a real person, a captive audience that can at least feign interest in your plight and perhaps even accomplish something. But at the same time, sitting around while on hold only adds to the frustration you are calling about in the first place, and this frustration builds and builds until finally you unload on the entirely innocent and likely underpaid service rep on the other end.
On the other hand, emails seem easy to ignore, but at least you can send the thing and get on with your life. And United is right: Sitting at a computer, you have time to craft your message and include details you might otherwise forget while on the phone.
What do you think? Do you prefer to file your complaints or compliments by phone or email? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Should more airlines follow United's lead? Thanks!
United's Premier Line offering of add-on perks allows regular passengers to enjoy some of the benefits usually reserved for elite-level frequent flyers. For a cool $25, United will let you breeze through security, check-in, and boarding while the rest of the coach-flying hoi polloi wait in line.
While $25 is nothing to shake a stick at, it's not an exorbitant amount of money either, especially if you manage to score cheap airfare for your flight. And if you're the type of person who is always running a little late, or if you simply don't like airports, these perks will give you some peace of mind leading up to your flight.
Premier Line is available at 14 cities overall, including Chicago, Washington (Reagan and Dulles), Boston, New York (LaGuardia and Newark), and Los Angeles. United will sell only a limited number of Premier Line slots per hour in order to keep the express lines moving at actual express speeds.
Of course, elite-level frequent flyers, who log tens of thousands of miles each year to earn their benefits, aren't exactly singing United's praises following this decision. And who can blame them? After all that time spent in planes, at airports, and so on, shouldn't elite-level perks be set aside for elite-level passengers?
United says no. And for average Joes like us, that's the right answer.
"Fashionably late." It's a cliche, but when you're attending a party, it's always better to be sure you won't arrive while your host is still showering. United Airlines seems to be banking on similar feelings from its passengers when it comes to in-flight Internet service, which the carrier has just announced it will boot up on "p.s." transcontinental flights between New York and California later this year.
United isn't exactly sending shockwaves through the travel industry by teaming up with Aircell to operate that company's Gogo Wi-Fi service. As we saw back in November, five other U.S. airlines— American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, and Virgin America—have some level of onboard wireless Internet already, most of it Gogo.
United is only offering wireless on its p.s. flights, which come with more amenities and greater comfort in all classes of service, and it's charging a flat fee of $12.95 for the entire flight. The other airlines mentioned above have similarly restrictive Internet service for about the same price.
If United is simply sticking with the pack, and not getting a head start, what is its value proposition to the us? Well, if you're the type of passenger who wants to kick back in your comfy seat and log on to the Internet, maybe you're also chilled out enough to appreciate the airline's "fashionable" timing.
The Times of London reports that a man is suing United Airlines for serving him too much wine, which led him to drunkenly quarrel with his wife after they landed—obviously United's fault. Elsewhere, a man is suing British Airways for "hurt feelings" after the airline fired him (and then reinstated him) for stealing 12 small bottles of whisky. He claims he simply forgot to pay for them.
I'm only halfway done with my mail-order law degree, so I can't really tell you if these cases will actually hold water. But the theme here, if you haven't already guessed it, is people suing airlines for absolutely preposterous reasons. The Times has a list of other ridiculous lawsuits, including a woman in Sweden who sued a local airline for freezing the family hamsters, and a man who sued (and lost) after British Airways booted him from a plane because he was, to put it politely, malordorous. The Times also threw together a fake lawsuit, so see if you can pick it out (hint: it's not the hamsters).
What are some of the more ridiculous airline lawsuits you've come across? People suing for emotional distress due to subpar airline food? Severe trauma from a horrible in-flight movie? Leave a comment below and share your favorite!
One of the biggest hassles for air travelers today is dealing with baggage. It's always been a "drag" to haul a huge broken-wheeled suitcase across a parking lot, but lost luggage remains a problem, and most carriers have instituted fees, even for first-checked bags. That's why United's new partnership with Federal Express is so welcome. Rather than having to schlep your bags to and from the airport at both ends of a trip, FedEx will swing by your home or office, collect your bags, and deliver them to your destination within 24 hours. Prices for this service start at $149 each way.
Back when United began charging for checked bags, BookingBuddy blogger Heather Gilbert took it rather hard, attributing a personal packing crisis to the new policy. As she wrote in February, "I’ve never gone on vacation and actually worn all the clothes I’ve packed. Most of my clothes are simply an insurance policy meant to cover my various whims and 'what-ifs.'" This spring, her fellow blogger Nicki Krawczyk came up with the ingenious solution of wearing all of her clothes onboard: "That’s right: all four sweaters, three shirts, two pairs of jeans and two pairs of khakis. You’ll be warm and rather bulky, but since other people don’t seem to care about encroaching on your seat space, you can pay that back in full."
Perhaps such extreme measures aren't necessary anymore. United's new service isn't cheap, but it's highly competitive with more established luggage-shipping services. According to the Wall Street Journal, United will get your 50-pound suitcase from Santa Monica to Manhattan for $179 one-way, while the same service from Luggage Forward would run you $364, and Luggage Concierge would charge $333.
So maybe it's time to travel light. You can throw your laptop and a few snacks into a carry-on and head on over to the airport. Leave the heavy lifting for the experts.
We all know drivers who've headed down the wrong road and gotten lost in a seedy neighborhood, despite their passengers' pleas to turn around. Well, United Airlines is no different than those drivers. (OK, it's much bigger and not at all human, but bear with me.) United took a wrong turn by choosing to begin charging for meals in coach class on transatlantic flights and in business class on domestic itineraries. But, to its credit, when passengers spoke up, the airline pulled a u-ey and rescinded its earlier decision to can free meals.
Obviously, United wanted to cut costs and pull in revenue with its plan to start hawking food onboard, and the proposed $6 snack boxes and $9 salads would have brought in a certain amount of income. But along with the cash there would have been bitterness, and the airline's management was wise enough to read the writing in the sky. After months of watching new fees spread from one airline to another faster than you can say first-checked-baggage charge, it's heartening that United has decided to take heed of customer feedback.
Sometimes you don't need a GPS, or Google, or even a good old-fashioned paper map. Sometimes getting back on the right road is as simple as just listening to those sitting in your seats.
If you've watched at least an hour of the Olympics this year, you've no doubt seen one of United's fancy new animated commercials. They are meant to convey a sense of wonder and magic, as if either of those two words apply to the average traveler's flying experience these days (except to say, "I wonder how late my flight will be"). However, if you've managed to miss them, fear not, for I have included them below. And since these commercials are clearly aiming to create a cinematic experience, I'll be putting on my film critic's hat and offering a little commentary on each.
This United ad is aiming for a Surrealistic expression, representing the joy and comfort of flying in a swirling field of color and shape. Unfortunately, to me it looks like a chalk drawing done by a (admittedly very talented) kid on his parents' driveway. This ad doesn't quite do it for me, so I'm giving it 1.5 stars.
This ad has all the emotional depth of a Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy, but it does contain, at its core, some truths about relationships: Nothing is worse than leaving your loved one behind, and nothing is better than returning. Also, it's socially acceptable to attend business meetings with a heart-shaped hole in a … er … conspicuous area of your clothing. The animation is uninspired, but I'll give this ode to amore 2.5 stars.
This is where the creativity really starts to enter United's ads, and it comes with a thrilling storyline to boot: Ordinary man follows runaway plane ticket, which leads him to a secret world where—gasp!—he is abducted by freakish death fairies! Always resourceful, the man escapes down some floating stairs, leaps off a star, and floats back to safety with his umbrella as a parachute. But wait—his presence changes the colors of the real world! Is he a death fairy, too?! I smell a sequel. Oh yeah, the animation rocks. 3 stars.
This commercial picks up on the Finding Nemo oeuvre, but absent a clear plot, it can't come close to that film's heart and charm. That said, the animation is very, very cool, and the ad features a fat, laughing orca slapping its belly. Add that to my ever-growing list of images I could never have imagined seeing. 3.5 stars.
What do you think of United's new ads? Let me know by leaving a comment below.