From the cheerful way United's CEO, Jeff Smisek, virtually greets you at your seat before takeoff, you'd think everything was just peachy in the newly-merged, friendly skies. More routes are being added, new planes are being bought, the online reservation system is supposedly getting easier and cabins are being modernized with wireless Internet access. So, how come everyone you talk to now refers to it as "United F#&*n Airlines?" That's easy. Just pull back the first-class curtain and you will see the "friendly skies" aren't so friendly after all.
First off, it's no secret, when it comes to customer service, United is commonly regarded as one of the worst airlines in the business. They may brag about their "most admired" status in the industry, but that survey, conducted by Fortune magazine, only polled industry insiders, not consumers. A look at the recent data compiled by consumer research company the Temkin Group paints a different picture.
While almost every airline in the business enjoyed a bump in customer satisfaction last year, only two dropped significantly: American and Continental. At this point, you'd expect it from American, as it's in bankruptcy. But what even Continental employees seem to be saying about their chipper CEO, is that he's well on his way to guiding the nose of this once-proud airline down to where United currently is, and, at the same time, betraying the legacy of former Continental chief executive Gordon Bethune. One senior flight attendant in Houston even went as far as to coin the phrase, "It's all Jeff'd up!" -- referring to Continental's current day-to-day operations.
When Bethune, a former Boeing executive, took the reigns of Continental back in the early '90s, the airline was at rock bottom in almost every category. Within a few years time, he took the struggling carrier from worst to first. After his departure in 2004, Larry Kellner stepped in as the new CEO and maintained the above-average experience Continental customers had grown accustomed to. (It was Kellner who introduced DirectTV, lie-flat seats and other amenities in a post-9/11 industry.) No one can say for sure why he chose to resign as CEO, but insiders say he was against the merger with United from the start. While, on the opposite end, Smisek, then president, was eager to become CEO of the world's largest airline.
Whatever advancements Mr. Smisek has been touting for the past year-plus in his welcome message, ask most customers and they'll agree, it sure seems like they're heading in the wrong direction. For example, one change not welcomed by its lower-tiered elite passengers is the change to the Economy Plus seating policy. Used to be, extra leg room seats were made available to elite members when booking the flight. Since the merger, that policy has been scrapped, and United now only offers whatever seats may remain at check-in. In order to ensure an extra leg room seat for a long journey, loyal elite members must purchase the seat like everyone else. Strike one.
Next, is United's new pet policy. On one hand, the airline says it has made it "safer" for pets to travel, requiring they now be labeled as "cargo," rather than "baggage," which allows them to be placed in a climate-controlled space in the plane's hull. On the other, instead of costing a few hundred dollars to ship a dog overseas, it now costs several thousand. This rule, in particular, has been financially crippling to our servicemen and women in the military who routinely need to move from base to base and are now being forced to find other means of transport. It also has everyday passengers with pets up in arms. Strike two.
Last, but definitely not least, is United's overall customer service. A glimpse of the airline's Facebook page shows a staggering number of negative comments on a variety of issues, with dozens of additional comments supporting the criticism; i.e., one man who earned a million-mile status with Continental was put in coach and denied an upgrade because the agent said his ticket was "too cheap." A first-class passenger had condensation from the AC dripping on him the entire way to LAX. Another woman states she recently returned from a trip to Florida with her 80-plus-year-old mother who was just out of the hospital and needed special assistance, and, she said, when they tried to board early, she was literally yelled at by the attendant at the gate and told to "Wait her turn!" It may be old hat for United travelers, but Continental customers are simply not used to being treated in that manner. Yet, all signs point to the fact that they better get used to it fast. Strike thr- wait, that was a foul ball.
If you've flown United/Continental coast-to-coast recently, you know you'd be lucky to get a power adapter at your seat, as the planes they use for the long hauls are inexplicably much older. Why? Not even customer service reps seem to know. Rumor has it it, it's because the older planes are apparently bigger. This obviously allows United to book more seats, but, meanwhile, the smaller planes, fitted with power adapters, DirectTV and everything else you'd expect on a cross-country flight, are used for short hops up and down the East Coast. Forget about Wi-Fi. If you're flying from L.A. to New York, it's a crap shoot if you'll even have your own video monitor. And, this, supposedly, is from the "most admired" airline in the business? Strike three. Yer out.
It definitely seems, instead of raising United to the level where Continental used to be, Mr. Smisek is content in lowering the expectations of Continental's employees and customers to that of United's employees and customers. And, that just doesn't fly.
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