Monday, August 13, 2012

More bad news for United

The United States Department of Transportation customer complaint numbers are in for the first half of 2012 and they're pretty ugly:

United Airlines customer complaints soar in first half of 2012. Olivia Pulsinelli, Houston Business Journal.

United Airlines tracked the highest number of consumer complaints among all U.S. airlines during the first half of 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report shows.
Between January and June 2012, United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) logged 1,740 complaints, more than three times the number tallied by American Airlines, which ranked second.
That’s also up from the 502 complaints United logged during the same period a year earlier.

Ouch.

ChronBlog weighs in as well.

United Fliers Voice their Dismay, Kiah Collier, Chron.com

Both articles mention the change-over to the SHARES computer system in March, which was undoubtedly the driving force behind UA's race to the bottom.  Beyond that however was the decidedly customer unfriendly approach that UA took to the entire situation.  It was almost as if Smisek and company ignored the impact such a change would have on operations, and had no contingency planning.

In Houston, things are worse.  As UA continues to streamline operations at IAH, their largest hub, there's anecdotal evidence that Houston fliers are starting to lose it just a bit.  Over the weekend blogger, and frequent traveller, Stephen Seagraves tweeted that he was hearing complaints against United for weather delays, with fliers somehow suggesting things would be better if CO was still around.  To be fair, In-flight entertainment experiences notwithstanding, the flights that I've had with United this year have gone fairly smoothly.  Madrid was a mess (right during the switch-over) as the wife and I both had boarding pass issues which caused us to be shouted down by gate agents, but our trip to Santa Barbara was, really, just about what we expected.

In many ways I think United is starting to smooth things out and operations are getting back to something resembling normal.  On a perceptive level however I think they have a long way to go. This goes double for Houston, where UA is currently viewed as something worse than Bud Adams, a civic Benedict Arnold if you will.  Is there anything they can do?  I think probably so.

 - Smilin' Jeff Smisek needs to come out and publicly apologize to customers.  There have been reports that he's apologized in investor meetings and conference calls but that rings hollow to many.  United needs to make a mea-culpa television commercial and fess up to their short-comings, promise to do better, and then DO better.

 - United needs to shoot straight with Houston about their future plans for IAH.  I believe UA when they say IAH will continue to be an "important" hub for them.  What I don't believe is that IAH will continue to be their largest hub.  At least, not in the long term.  Logistically IAH offered advantages to South America, and UA is going to be facing tough competition for those routes.  There's nothing that UA can do to bring back the portion of Houstonians who think their inferiority complex is the most important thing in the world, because of this they've lost the Houston Chronicle, the Apple Dumpling Gang, and everyone who comments on ChronBlog travel articles.  The good news is I believe that to be a small, but vocal, travel minority in Houston. They can do a better job being honest with the fliers they are retaining.

 - Just straighten up and fly right.  This is the biggest thing.  People will forgive a lot of woes if the flights leave/arrive on time, the service is friendly and things work.  Stop telling us about how great the nightmare Dreamliner is going to be and work on making sure the 737/757(etc.) product is everything it can be.  Producing a good product is key. Besides, most airports are never going to see the Dreamliner in person, but they see the other planes multiple times every day.

 - Stop trying to placate the politicians. It's very clear that UA has lost support in the current administration. They shouldn't spend any time trying to get it back. Worrying about Annise Parker is a distraction from the goal of building their brand.  Let Parker be Parker, worry about making United a good airline again.

As I stated earlier, there are significant portions of their customer base that UA is not going to see on their planes for a while, but there are new travellers who will be willing to board UA metal provided the service is top-notch.  I consider the angry, bitter Houston traveller a lost cause, I think that UA should as well.  I've got a flight coming up to Anchorage later this month, I have high hopes for it because my expectations are where they should be.  With my status I should get econ +, I'm bringing my own food on board and I'll have my iPad loaded with two or three movies.  I'm handling the food and entertainment, I just want United to get me their safely and on-time.

That shouldn't be too much to ask.

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