It turned out that my flight to Chicago this morning on United Airlines was oversold and three volunteers were needed. After some negotiation, I offered to give up my seat, despite the meager $250 in compensation being offered. But then my new routing options were laid out, options and inflexibility that get to the heart of what is wrong with the merged airline. I also do not like being lied to. Let’s recount my conversation at Gate 62.
ME: I understand you are looking for volunteers today. What’s the offer?
AGENT: $250. Where you headed?
ME: Frankfurt. Only $250? You’re not getting a lot of takers. How about you up the offer a bit?
AGENT: No. The system does not allow it. I can’t.
ME (grinning): You can specify whatever amount you want in SHARES. [which is true]
AGENT: Nope, since this is a Chicago flight, the max I can do is $250. If you were going to Newark, I could do $300, but never more on a domestic flight. [which is baloney]
ME: Well, okay—so how would you get me to Frankfurt?
AGENT: Hmm (tapping on her keyboard). Nothing through Cleveland, nothing through Houston, oh, I can get you through Newark [love how she doesn’t check any legacy United hubs…]
ME: Business class?
AGENT: No, coach.
ME: You do know I am on a business class ticket, right?
AGENT: Yes, but United business isn’t our business. We only have a two-cabin product called BusinessFirst. It’s like first class. You cannot have that.
ME: Actually I’m on an award ticket booked into business class—not upgraded. Your BusinessFirst product books into the same booking class. Second, if you want to get technical, I am flying in US Airways Envoy Class, a joint-venture partner—so you would share the revenue anyway—and a carrier that also has a two-cabin product, with a wonderful refurbished business class with even better seats than Continental.
[edit: shame on me, as others have pointed out below, US Air is not an A++ partner--I knew that...]
AGENT: Let me see (types on her keyboard). You’re on an award ticket—I can only get you coach.
ME: Forget it.
AGENT: Wait. I can get you first to Newark, but definitely only coach to Frankfurt. That’s a BusinessFirst aircraft and you are only booked in business. [yes, you already said that…]
ME: Correct--just book me in I-Class, or if there are no seats left, you can book me in J/C/D.
AGENT (gasping): We can’t do that!
ME: You can pretty much do whatever you want during irr/ops—if you really need my seat, you can book me through Newark in whatever booking class is available.
AGENT: No, you’re wrong—I’ve been doing this for 20 years and that is impossible.
ME: I’m not going to pull rank on you, but I’ve been a United 1K for six years and this sort of thing happens all the time. Of course you can do it—the question is, are you willing to?
AGENT (knowing I know what I am taking about): Well, I am not going to do it. I’d rather IDB people and give them the cash then give you the seat. You are booked in business class and I won’t put you in BusinessFirst. United has three cabins, we only have two. [why does she keep saying this?] But you can pay the difference in fare if you want the seat.
ME: What do you mean the difference in fare? I’m on an award ticket—I paid with miles.
AGENT: The fare is $16,432 and you paid 427…it looks like Pounds, so if you want to pay the difference, I can put you in BusinessFirst. Otherwise, it’s coach.
ME: I’ll speak to your friend over here (motioning toward a supervisor standing a few feet away).
AGENT: Okay! Maybe he help you, but I can’t do it.
ME (to Supervisor): I understand you need a few volunteers on this flight and I am willing to give up my seat. Your colleague is only offering economy class to Frankfurt and I am on a business class ticket.
SUPERVISOR: Let me see what I can do. (typing away furiously) No—there is no business class available.
ME: I’m checking loads rights now on my iPhone. You can route me LAX-SFO-FRA, LAX-EWR-FRA, or LAX-IAD-FRA.
SUPERVISOR: Those flights are sold out.
ME: As I said, I am looking at loads right now and there is space. UA950 to Washington is F1, A1 and UA955 to FRA is C7.
SUPERVISOR: But I can’t book you in full-fare.
ME: You can, it just depends on how much you want the seat. Do you want to save your company the cost of paying out cash to a person you are going to involuntarily deny boarding to, or just route me on United metal on seats that would go to upgraders anyway?
SUPERVISOR: You have a point, but I just can’t do it.
ME: Forgive me for saying so, but I am shocked. I’ve been flying United for eight years on a very regular basis and during irr/ops they can do whatever they want and aren’t questioned for it. Will you get in trouble if you book me into full fare? Why not just book me into business, then call inventory management to open I Class?
SUPERVISOR: Well, irr/ops is one thing, but an oversell situation is another. I would have to answer for this.
ME: I know UA overbooks a lot of flights, but can’t irregular operations be broadly defined to cover instances when there are more passengers than seats? Especially when you are under pressure to get flights out on time and these passengers (pointing to a couple nearby who were berating the gate agent I spoke to earlier) are supremely ticked off.
SUPERVISOR (grinning): You better take this flight sir—I just cannot help you here.
ME: Very well—if you change your mind, I’ll be in 5A. Give me credit for trying to help…
SUPERVISOR: Indeed, sir. Thanks for trying.
* * *
I am not particularly angry at the gate agent or her supervisor. Unfortunate as it was that my flight happened to depart from Terminal 6, still manned by ex-Cons (who now have disturbing “X-Con” pins on their lapels), I simply received another dose of the Continental Airlines worldview and sadly an indicator of what may be in store for all United customers in the future.
While United went after customers who broke the rules, Continental went after FAs who comped snack boxes or gate agents who upgraded passengers during irr/ops. United agents were empowered to take matters into their own hands (and thankfully, some of them still do) while Continental agents were afraid, very afraid, and consequently adopted an attitude that has driven so many people away since 3/3/12—an attitude that customers are inherently suspect, that upgraders and award travelers are leeches, and that it is better to take the easy way out (just IDB a few customers who don’t have seat assignments) then try to find a reasonable solution for a customer willing to give up his seat.
I’m now siting in the United Club in Chicago O’Hare, ready to board my flight to Philadelphia. United had to pay to several hundreds dollars in cash to distressed passengers instead of offering me an easy solution that would have benefited both parties. But apparently they see things differently than I do. It is what it is, but it is not the United Airlines I know. Or at least was not United Airlines I knew…
I’ll save it for another post, but the very concept of IDB bothers me. If I were a regulator, I’d think about radically raising the minimum compensation levels for IDB, thereby forcing airlines to entice passengers with reasonable VDB offers. Giving a company the option to essentially unilaterally breach a contract would not fly in any other industry—it shouldn’t in the airline industry.