Two weeks ago, we published a detailed story highlighting some of the challenges United customers have faced in the wake of the switchover to Continental systems (even though technically speaking (which is important for this post) the Continental brand no longer exists. One of the challenges our team personally faced was trying to cancel a refundable ticket online while at the airport. To wit, "With two hours to go before a flight this week, we tried to cancel a ticket online for which we had not yet checked in so no need to "un-check" (something that took 30 seconds with the previous United site given the identical circumstance). After trying to cancel the ticket, a screen popped up saying to call United to complete the transaction. We called the Premier (Platinum) line and a voice said the hold time would be 45 minutes to cancel the ticket." Fortunately, we were able to cancel the ticket. But that's not the end of the story.
It took United over a week to refund it. But the manner in which they notified us was surprising, and some might argue confusing or misleading. On Friday, I personally got an email generated at 2:37 AM CDT. At first, I dismissed it as a spam/phishing exercise because of a number of glaring items including the title ("Your Refund Request"), cutesy fonts as well as the domain/return address and website links embedded in the note. Yet after confirming ticket numbers, the email appeared real enough. We print it below:
From: Customer Refund Services - firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Your Refund Request
Date: March 23, 2012 2:37:48 AM CDT
To: Jason Busch
Reply-To: Customer Refund Services - email@example.com
March 23, 2012
TICKET(S): 016 ---- ---- ----
Dear Jasond Busch:
Customer Refund Services has received your request for refund of the above referenced ticket.
We are pleased to inform you that your request has been approved. You may check the details of your refund by entering your 13-digit United ticket number, beginning with 005, and last name or your 8-digit refund request number, using the link below.
Thank you for choosing United Airlines. We look forward to serving you again.
Of course a few things stand out here, not the least of which was that I was never booked on a Continental flight (and the website links don't work -- they go to a main web site, not the one intended). Nor does the Continental website technically exist anymore, despite the links (and never mind the fact refunds used to be processed within days -- or faster -- with the old United system, as I recall).
Moreover, despite my criticisms on Spend Matters as well as those of hundreds of other top-tier loyal fliers, United has done nothing over the course of three flying nightmare weeks to address the archaic web and ticketing system they slammed into place post acquisition. As someone noted in the comments to my first post, there's a procurement angle here as well. United has opted for the "make" vs. "buy" approach with Continental, using a system they owned outright vs. one they previously had to "rent" each month.
Perhaps there's a broader lesson here when it comes to procurement and total cost management -- not to mention customer satisfaction. To wit, sometimes a decision may appear cheaper on a unit cost basis, but when total costs (overtime for ticketing agents, fliers who use other airlines because of issues, etc.) are factored into the equation, the scales tip firmly onto the other side. Let's hope United recognizes the mistake they made and investments what they need to in order to remedy the situation.
- Jason Busch (Premier Platinum on United, but writing this post on a Southwest flight last night)