Monday, August 18, 2014

The Customer Service Disaster that is US Airways

It has been fascinating to watch the rise of customer-centric business models over the last decade.  From Rackspace's "Fanatical Support" promise to the acquisition of Zappos by Amazon solely for their customer service capabilities, consumers have benefited from this new-old way of saying, "the customer is always right".  Unsurprisingly customers like that.  Perhaps more surprisingly in some board rooms, businesses who try it find that they experience less churn and higher profit margins.

Nobody seems to have mentioned this trend to US Airways.

The problem at US Airways is really quite simple:  Their people are not empowered to fix problems easily - so everything becomes hard.

After a routine booking problem, US Airways:

  • Informed me that they could not put me on another flight the same day, even though they had seats available.
  • Suggested that they could sell me a new ticket for $1,200 in place of mine.
  • Canceled my return flight against my express communication to the contrary.
  • Caused me over $900 in additional costs, some of which went to them and the remainder to other companies.
  • Blamed each stage on US Airways computers who would "not let" the humans handle a routine variance.

Here is my story.  I was invited to attend a reunion of some former shipmates from the US Navy.  The reunion was in Maine from a Friday-Sunday in August, but I needed to be in San Francisco that Sunday.  I very much wanted to go.  We were a close group back in the day and I wanted them to know that I cared enough to attend.  Trying to get from Washington, DC to Maine, back to DC and then to the West Coast was going to be tight.  I am a disabled veteran and find that too much travel, even daily commuting, can reduce my ability to walk well or even at all.  I lose workdays due to these problems far too often.  However, I hadn't been bitten by airline problems in a few years so I was confident that I could squeeze it in and willing to take the risk.

The best flight seemed to be on US Airways. US Airways Flight 3332 leaves DC's Reagan National Airport at 10:20 AM and arrives in Portland, Maine just before noon.  I carefully sorted the flights by arrival time so I could calculate how much time I could actually spend with my friends.  The last thing I wanted was to arrive late or need to leave too early.  My flight to California was scheduled to leave in the early morning of the Sunday, so I booked a flight back to DC that left Portland Saturday at 4:00 PM.  Both flights were direct and therefore quick.  I reported to my wife that the trip was possible and booked the tickets via Expedia.

Traffic around DC can be unpredictable and even more so currently with the construction of an expanded HOV lane on I-95.  I left home early and arrived more than two hours before my scheduled flight.  US Airways happily checked me in and I breezed through security.  My mood was upbeat as I contemplated the reunion.  I wished I had been to the gym more regularly.

My boarding pass said that my flight was to leave from Gate 41.  The flight wasn't on the departures board yet and a flight to New York was advertised on the sign above the gate.  I put both down to the fact that I was so early.  I killed time by topping off the charge on my cell phone and chatting with other passengers.

I noticed about an hour before my flight that the New York departure hadn't occurred yet.  In fact, it was due to depart just ten minutes before my flight.  There was no way that another aircraft was going to get to that gate, refuel and reprovision, board passengers and depart in ten minutes.  Something was not right.

The gate agent told me not to worry.  The New York flight would leave and mine would be along next.  OK.  I had my shoes shined, looked through the shops, checked my email and wandered over to the departures board.  There was still no listing for my flight.  Uh oh.  I carefully reviewed my boarding pass.  I was checked in on a flight that was scheduled to leave twelve hours later, at 10:10 PM.  US Airways Flight 3460.  Now how did that happen?  I thought back to my careful sorting by arrival times.  It would have been difficult to have selected a flight from the very bottom of that list whose arrival time was the following day.

The gate agent directed me to a separate desk between gates where three ticket agents for US Airways sat.  None of the three were helping anyone.

"Um, I seem have made a terrible mistake", I started.  "I was supposed to be on Flight 3332 in 45 minutes, but was booked for a flight this evening.  Can you help me?"  The ticket agent took my boarding pass and turned to her computer.  She typed.  A lot.  Airline systems seem to require a very large amount of input.  She informed me that she couldn't help me because I was not within six hours of my flight's departure.  I was shocked.

"I really need to get to Maine today", I said.  "Surely there is something that you can do?".  "Well", she replied, "you could buy a new ticket."  She informed me that Flight 3332 had "plenty" of seats and that for a mere $1,200 she would be more than happy to put me on it.

"Wait.  Are you telling me that even though I am booked on your airline for a flight to the same destination today and have checked in for that flight that you cannot give me one of those empty seats on the earlier flight?".  I had no checked bags.  I was carrying an over-the-shoulder bag with just enough for a one-night stay.  My suitcase for my longer trip to San Francisco was packed and waiting at home.

I wondered at this point why US Airways would have let me check into my flight and receive a paper boarding pass fourteen hours before my flight was scheduled.  I knew you could do that online but it struck me as odd that it would be allowed in person.  The TSA agent who checked my boarding pass and ID similarly said nothing.  Did they not care or think nothing of someone apparently intending to spend all day hanging around a terminal?  The security implications seemed to be less than ideal.  On the other hand, a casual mention by either the US Airways agent or the TSA agent would have served to tip me off to the problem.

"That's right, sir.  The computer won't let me do it."  She went on to explain that even if I had been within the six hour window she would need to charge a $200 change fee.  I could live with the fee but baulked at the proffered ticket price.  I asked for my boarding pass but she grabbed it away from me.  More typing ensued while she explained that she needed to remove me from the morning flight and put me back on the evening flight.  Minutes passed.  Minutes more.  Eventually she stopped typing and handed me my boarding pass.

I went to the gate for Flight 3332.  Maybe I was just dealing with the wrong person.  The gate agent was pleasant and sympathized. She expressed dismay that she couldn't help me.  "The computer", she said, "won't allow me to give you one of the seats we have."  We spoke briefly about post-911 changes to the power of gate agents to move passengers through the system.  She suggested that I could go to the ticket agents outside of security but doubted that the answer would be different.

I called my wife and asked her to look for other flights to Maine.  The ticket agents outside of security were polite but firm.  There were no flights that US Airways or its partners could put me on that would allow me to arrive on Friday.  No seats were to be found on the United flight out of Dulles Airport, 45 minutes drive to the West.  Things were not looking up.

Discussions with my wife went better.  She identified a flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport an hour to the North and booked me on it for roughly $250.  I informed the US Airways ticket agent that I could get on another flight and would take my scheduled return flight back on Saturday.  She said nothing to indicate that would be a problem.  I had to hustle, but left National Airport for BWI having exhausted all other avenues for arriving in Maine on the day I intended.

Where did the error in booking occur?  My Expedia receipt confirmed that I purchased a ticket for the evening flight.  Perhaps it was my error and perhaps an unintentional bait-and-switch between Expedia, Sabre and US Airways; a bug somewhere.  I know software systems well enough not to presume that the error was mine although it certainly could have been.  The important thing to me was getting to Maine on time and without further damaging my health.

I did get to Maine in time for dinner.  The only way for me to make the trip at that late hour was to drive to BWI then fly to Boston, rent a car in Boston and drive the three hours to my destination in Maine.  I could barely walk by the time I arrived.  The rental car company charged me an extra $200 to drop the car at the Portland Jetport instead of returning it to Boston.  I had no choice: my return flight on US Airways left from Portland.  Besides, I'm not sure I could have driven back to Boston if I wanted to.

My old shipmates and I spoke until the wee hours, reminiscing and catching up on lives after the service.  It was just after six in the morning when I received a text from my wife that my return flight had been canceled by US Airways.  I called Expedia as the message suggested.  In less than 10 minutes the Expedia representative determined that he could not help me because my ticket had been somehow "taken over" by US Airways.  I would need to deal with them.  You should not be surprised at what happened next.

US Airways refused to allow the Expedia rep to transfer my call to them.  They instead insisted that I call them directly.  I am left wondering why this basic courtesy offended them.  Perhaps it is simply a matter of corporate policy designed to insult Expedia and other middlemen who are reducing their profit margin.  Whatever the reason, I spent the next two hours on the phone with two US Airways representatives.  The first call dropped or was cut off.  I called back.  They informed me that there was no way to get me back to DC that day.  I couldn't miss my flight to California for work!  Finally, by 8:30 AM, I was magically offered a flight from Portland to DC's National Airport if I could depart at 12:30.  I hustled down to breakfast with my friends, spent the time I could and raced to the airport.

A woman waiting to board in Portland complained to me that she had come in on a flight with a two-year-old and been assigned exit row seats by US Airways.  The error was entirely the airline's fault and, when caught by the gate agent, she wasn't allowed to board.  This is just the kind of routine problem that used to be handled quite competently by flight attendants on an aircraft.  No more on US Airways flights.  The woman said she was kept from boarding until everyone but three people had boarded the flight.  Those three were asked whether any of them would volunteer to switch seats with the woman and her child.  Fortunately, she was seated and the flight took off with her on it.  What would have happened otherwise?  She was told she was to be left behind.  As crazy as that sounds, it was entirely consistent with my experience.  Again, US Airways rigid policies snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  They made something easy into something hard.

I arrived at National Airport and began the long Metro and bus rides to BWI to retrieve my car.  I tweeted my frustration to @USAirways and was pleased to get an instant response.  The conversation, however, went nowhere.  The droid pushing the sound bites back to me had no more power to right wrongs than the gate agents, ticket agents, call center workers or flight attendants.  US Airways had systematically stripped them of any power to go off-script.  After six queries and responses my questions passed a magic threshold of undetermined quality.  I was awarded a hyperlink to the formal customer complaint system.  I arrived home, less than an hour's drive from National Airport, five and a half hours after landing.  I'm now in San Francisco and relying on my wife to carry my bags, a situation I find demeaning and embarrassing.  It takes me minutes to climb out of a car.  I avoid stairs and standing for any period of time.  I simply hurt more and I hate it.  All because a poorly paid ticket agent couldn't put me on a flight with "plenty" of seats available because her computer wouldn't let her.  Her company is demeaning to her as well.  I pity her need to work for them.

This lengthy blog post is my answer to US Airways.  I have submitted a link to it via the US Airways customer relations site.  I will wait with bated breath for their answer which, no doubt, will be polite, firm and utterly unyielding.  To do otherwise would not, perhaps, be permitted by their computers nor in compliance with their policy.  Updates here when I know more.