How United Airlines is Making a Customer Service Comeback

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Like a 747 loaded to capacity, United Airlines is rising — slowly, steadily and improbably.

“I thought I was imagining it,” says Anne Klein, who works for a marketing agency in Durango, Colo. “But United is listening. It’s trying to improve.”

Klein had two recent customer service experiences that gave her hope. The first, a handwritten thank-you card for her business, slipped to her by a flight attendant. And the second, a response to her request for a $68 refund after one of her flights had been canceled for mechanical reasons. Instead, United sent her more than she asked for: a $100 gift certificate.

Many passengers had all but given up on the airline after a painful merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. United had managed to alienate customers ranging from frequent fliers like Klein to ordinary vacationers, thanks to significant cuts in its loyalty program and new policies that seemingly demanded fees for everything. Not surprisingly, its customer service scores were among the lowest in the industry.

A new hope

But, in September, United’s new chief executive, Oscar Munoz, said enough was enough.

“Let’s be honest,” he declared in a videotaped message to customers. “The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees. While it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise or our potential.”

The changes have been small, but they’ve added up. In November, the airline eliminated an unpopular $50 processing fee for tickets refunded to passengers after unplanned events such as jury duty, illness or death. In December, it announced that, starting this month, it would serve a choice of snacks to economy class passengers at no additional charge. It also plans to eliminate another charge this month: a $25 fee for ticket receipts.

All the while, United’s management has been asking its customer-facing employees to redouble their efforts to win back customers. And it’s focusing on its core performance, specifically its flight-completion numbers, or the number of scheduled flights actually flown.

“Our customers want reliability from us,” says Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United’s vice president for customers. “It’s on-time performance. It’s a high completion factor.”

United rising?

During the busy Thanksgiving holiday week, United delivered an on-time performance in the 70th percentile, its highest level in three years, and a 100 percent completion rate. It was no fluke. United’s internal customer service numbers have been climbing steadily since Munoz made his promise: In November, it beat its 30.6-point customer satisfaction goal by two points; in October, it scored a 30.8, exceeding its goal by 1.3 points; and for September, it exceeded its 27.4-point goal by 4.3 points.

United stresses that this is just the first stage of rehabilitating its image, a process that became more challenging after Munoz suffered a heart attack in the fall and temporarily stepped aside as chief executive. But it hopes it’s on the right track.

“Oscar has given us a renewed focus,” says Pineau-Boddison.

"Amazing" customer service

So how is United’s initiative going over with its customers? Elizabeth Helsley, a frequent international traveler who works as a business consultant in San Diego, was stunned after one of her bags went missing on a recent flight from Paris to San Francisco by way of Newark. She wasn’t stunned because her bag had gone missing, but by what happened next.

“After I arrived, I received a text message alert that one of my two bags did not make it and would be delivered to my address within 24 hours,” she says. “I also received an email where I could track my bag, see who was delivering it and at what time. At no time did I have to wait in line or on hold for them to rectify their mistake. They simply took care of it and kept me informed every step of the way. To me, that was amazing customer service.”

The technology used to track and deliver those bags, part of United’s effort to upgrade its internal systems, is a key part of the airline’s new customer initiative. Last year, the airline introduced a service that allows customers to follow their luggage on the United smartphone app.

“Before we had this, only our airport employees could see the luggage in the system,” says Pineau-Boddison.

More improvements are planned. In early 2016, United expects to fine-tune its system to allow people with delayed luggage to specify their delivery preferences.

To be sure, United still has a long odyssey ahead. It scored 60 out of a possible 100 points on last year’s authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, the lowest of any legacy airline and just a few points above discount carriers such as Frontier and Spirit. And it still has plenty of critics, including some of its own employees, who remain quietly skeptical.

And the airline has a long way to go before some air travelers will come back. They’re passengers like Lex Page, an attorney from Portland, Ore., who endured years of United’s indifferent attitude and mediocre service before he finally gave up on the airline.

“Let’s just say that if United Airlines were to give me a free first-class ticket to anywhere they flew, I wouldn’t take it,” he says.

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