The human touch isn’t dead — a United Airlines “win-win”

by Janice Hough on October 10, 2012


Most frequent travelers these days, especially those without elite status, have given up on customer service at the airport.

But every once in a while there are reminders of the good old days, when they really were the Friendly Skies. This is a rare post about a nice story. It is a story where a United Airlines gate agent saved a young woman’s weekend, and probably saved her airline having to pay out a travel voucher as well.

In this case, my client wanted the best possible fare for a weekend trip to see her boyfriend. I ended up booking her a Friday afternoon flight from San Francisco to New York’s JFK Airport with a relatively tight connection (45 minutes) in Los Angeles. The most forward seat available was in row 32.

A nonstop would have been preferable, but the connection had a much lower price. So, she decided to risk it.

When booking the flights, I advised her to take just carry-on luggage and to speak up if there looked to be any delay in San Francisco. I figured that United would probably agree to put her on an available nonstop if they knew she would misconnect. I also advised her to check with the gate agent, since they would have the most up-to-date information.

As it turned out, while the San Francisco to Los Angeles plane appeared to be on time, United had canceled another San Francisco to Los Angeles flight earlier in the day; all remaining flights were full, with long standby lists.

The traveler got to the airport early, and asked the gate agent if the flight looked like it was on time. She told me she also asked nicely if, since she had a close connection, there might be a chance of moving to a more forward seat since she really wanted to make it to New York that night.

United’s gate agent apparently knew about the problems with the canceled flight, as she quickly confirmed that the woman had no need to go to Los Angeles and immediately started clicking keys.

A minute or two later, she asked the traveler, “Can you run?” Well, sure. The agent explained there was a seat left on a nonstop leaving in less than 15 minutes. If my young client could get to a gate some distance away in a hurry (Gate 72 to 80, for those who know SFO), she could get on the nonstop and not have to worry about her LA connection.

My client took off running, and made it quickly to the other gate, where an agent was actually waving to her. She was the last person on the plane, which had a few empty seats. The flight attendant closed the door behind her. (It was such a last minute effort that I first learned this had happened when her boyfriend called to ask me to translate the quick text message on her new flight.)

As it turned out, this was a bigger deal than anyone thought at the time, as her original flight had a last minute cargo delay and would have misconnected in Los Angeles. Having the agent get her on the earlier flight kept her from getting stuck in Los Angeles; she landed in New York three hours ahead of schedule.

What’s striking about this case, however, is that everyone benefited: The traveler got to her destination early, her boyfriend didn’t have to drive to JFK at midnight, United Airlines got significant goodwill and freed up a San Francisco-Los Angeles seat they really needed (not to mention the hassle they would have had in trying to rebook her later with the delayed flight).

Kudos all around. In an automated world, polite humans meeting up with competent humans can still make a difference.

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  • Daniel P Shields

    What a great story! I wish this sort of thing happened more often! As you say, everyone benefited. Sadly it seems airline employees are unwilling to take the initiative to make this sort of logical action.

  • Anonymous

    Nice story. We had a similar one (re-accommodation) happen to a customer on Delta this morning. I’m glad you pointed out the good deeds airline employees do each day without getting any glory. Thank you.

  • AKFlyer

    I believe the fault usually resides with airline management, not gate employees, when such a rational rebooking request is refused. Airlines apparently think they can make more money by charging exorbitant rebooking fees than they could save by freeing up seats on backlogged flights. It must be nice to be a gate agent working for an airline that doesn’t insist in shooting itself in the foot like this. — most service employees like being able to help fellow humans.

  • Anonymous

    And it took just three comments to get to an insult, as nicely as it may have been phrased. Actually, this kind of thing happens a lot. Thing is, when these types of things are going on, gate agents are dealing with hundreds of issues, not just yours. This issue got raised at just the right time, and as Janice said, it worked to EVERYONE’S benefit. People get moved to more convenient itineraries all the time….when it is in the airline’s benefit. Too often, people want to purchase the cheap option….which is perfectly fine, as long as they realize they are agreeing to a contract with restrictions when they make the purchase. Then the customer will come to the airport and try to get moved to the nonstop, just because it is more convenient for them.

    In this case, the customer got lucky. She gambled on a tight connection, and if it didn’t just work out in her favor, she would have had a much less enjoyable weekend. It’s great it worked out for her.

  • Anne – Music and Markets

    How great it is to read some GOOD news about an airline! All too often we only hear the bad news. We, too, have had some wonderful experiences with United (most recently a TATL upgrade at the last minute – love those surprises!) Glad you shared this story.

  • Anonymous

    I had a gate agent cut me a similar break, albeit many, many years ago, before the days of “no waivers, no favors”. I was connecting in AMS to LHR to then catch a connecting flight to India. The AMS-LHR plane was getting delayed to the point that my sister and I would miss our connection to India, and with it being the holiday season, would probably be hard pressed to get a replacement connection any time soon. After asking nicely if there was any other way to get to London, the agent found us 2 seats on a competitor airline going to LHR that would just allow us to make our connection. We had no loyalty on that airline, and she had no reason or obligation to do that for us. Our bags were delayed for 2 days, but at least we didn’t lose our vacation.

    The real key, as you pointed out, is to POLITELY ask the agent for help. While there certainly are plenty of rude, unhelpful airline employees out there, sassing back is guaranteed to get you nowhere fast. If you initially get an unhelpful employee, you’re better off quietly walking away and trying your luck with someone else.

  • Carey

    We had an experience last year where the gate agent(s) made a great difference. We were going MCI-SLC-OAK on Delta. Our MCI-SLC flight was really delayed, and we were really worried about our connection. We ran to try and make the connection, but failed. The nearby Delta service desk people were ever so polite, and happy to tell us we’d been already booked on the next flight to OAK. The next people in line were abusive and threatening, they were “going to sue” and “you HAVE to get us home TONIGHT” etc. Needless to say, they WEREN’T accommodated, and we were so thankful that we’d been polite when we approached the desk. What goes around often returns in oh so many ways.

  • Carey

    We had an experience last year where the gate agent(s) made a great difference. We were going MCI-SLC-OAK on Delta. Our MCI-SLC flight was really delayed, and we were really worried about our connection. We ran to try and make the connection, but failed. The nearby Delta service desk people were ever so polite, and happy to tell us we’d been already booked on the next flight to OAK. The next people in line were abusive and threatening, they were “going to sue” and “you HAVE to get us home TONIGHT” etc. Needless to say, they WEREN’T accommodated, and we were so thankful that we’d been polite when we approached the desk. What goes around often returns in oh so many ways.

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