United Airlines' "Tech Failure" Was Really a People Failure

Yesterday, United Airlines experienced yet another computer breakdown; this time world-wide. I was caught right in the middle of it as I was attempting to travel from my home in Los Angeles to Orlando. Today the company asked for feedback on my "airport experience" and here's what I told them:

My airport experience was 3 hours of utter chaos, starting at 6 AM when I got to the terminal at LAX. No United personnel knew anything, or said anything to the people who just kept coming in waves, or offered any answers. I was stuck outside by the SkyCap desk for 2 hours, and the only thing the United personnel kept doing was to tell people "just go down there." Wherever "there" was. The street and sidewalks were jammed with confused people, many of whom were getting angrier by the minute.

And who could blame them? There were no announcements via a PA or bullhorn, not even an ATTEMPT to interact with customers on a meaningful level.

I, and many others, were getting more frantic and upset, and the United personnel did nothing to deal with this understandable human dynamic. Questions like "Should I stay or try and find another flight? Should I go home? Are flights being re-scheduled? Are we under attack?" were all met with shrugs and "go ask someone else."

It was ASTOUNDINGLY bad customer relations.

Eventually they had to do something with all of us out on the street (oh yes, the two hovering helicopters did not make us feel any calmer), so we were finally allowed to enter the terminal on the command of one employee. Who did not tell us what to do or where to go, as a couple of thousand people poured into the terminal. Finally, after asking 4 different people, I was told to go in the "Special Services" line. (Or additional services; not sure now what the name was.) Some people went into regular desk attendant lines, some didn't. And still there were no announcements being made, no info given, no attempt at crowd control. It took me almost 10 minutes to find out where this supposed "Services" line even was.

Thankfully, there was one 60-ish, white haired United male employee with a lanyard badge (wish I'd gotten his name) at the Services line who had actually taken command, and was barking out "6 AM flight people, you go first! Then 6:30s, and so on." He was reassuring; when I talked to him he said "yes, hang in there: we're checking in people by hand, the old-fashioned way. And, although the flights are being delayed, you WILL get on the plane and you WILL get to your destination." It was something everyone who worked there should've been saying.

After 90 more minutes in line, I was able to check my bag, confirm my flight and go on to security. Once I got to the gate area at 70b, our gate assignment changed 10 minutes later. Then changed again, And a 4th time. If it hadn't been so frustrating, it would have almost been comical: all these people following a trail of bread crumbs down the halls, saying "where are we going now?"

It was only at the 4th gate that a staff member got on the PA and said "folks, I know this is frustrating. We're frustrated too; please hang in there and we'll get this sorted out. Chicago people, you sit down now and let the Orlando people board first; then I'll call you back up here." She again showed initiative, in stark contrast to many of the other staff we encountered.

BTW, at every opportunity -- starting at the Services line -- I thanked United staff and crew for hanging in there with us, for dealing with whatever they were dealing with. I knew that many of them were just as in the dark about the situation as we were. What separated a few from most was how they DEALT with both the situation and with us.

Yesterday's event was described as a computer failure; however, the biggest failure I saw was not with technology, but with people. Primarily, those United people on the front line -- the staff who are first to interact with customers as they arrive at the airport. That was a failure of massive proportions: a failure involving basics such as respect, empathy, compassion and understanding.

This is now the 3rd major computer breakdown the company has experienced since last November. And, it will probably happen again... at least until they hire more competent programmers who are willing to start over if the system has become unworkable.

In the meantime, I suggest that United Airlines start drilling all employees on how to handle a computer failure like the one that happened yesterday. It has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with people skills.