Bizarre Phone Conversation with a United Manager

I just had the most bizarre phone conversation with a United “manager” named Sheila from Houston. She had the sass of a drag queen and the petulance of a hormonal preteen. This was in regards to a flight I booked for my dad to attend a funeral in London. Since it was such a stressful time, I decided to book him on United Business Class. My dad had a great flight in Business and raved about the in-flight experience.

The return was a different story. There was no Business availability, so I booked him on First so he could still have a lie-flat seat and get some sleep. When he checked in, the rep didn’t even look up as she spoke to him. He thought she was still chatting with a colleague, when she snapped and repeated her question in a loud tone. My cousin was with my dad and told the rep there was no need to speak to him that way. She snapped back, “You, stop talking and stand back!” Everyone was dumbfounded by this response and my cousin informed her that he would not be moving, and it was within his right to stand at the check-in counter to see off his guest. She folded and said, “Fine. But don’t talk to me.” With this charming encounter over, my dad made his way to the gate.

On board, he found his seat wasn’t reclining at all. The flight attendant told him the engineer was off to lunch and it would be another 20 minutes before he could be helped. The engineer came by, tried to fix it but couldn’t. The seatbelt wasn’t working either. This isn’t just a comfort issue, it’s a safety issue and one that I’m sure United could face fines for.

In any case, he spent the entire flight with a broken seat and seatbelt. When I complained to United about this, they didn’t respond.

After a few interactions on Twitter (in which I was told they would follow up with customer service), I finally received a call today from a very hostile “manager” from the Houston corporate office. She started off the call in a very aggressive tone. She claimed they had sent us two “apology” emails and appeared angry that I had contacted United via Twitter. In addition, the seat had been fixed and “the matter has been resolved.”

I didn’t think it was unreasonable to get part of the points I spent on the ticket back, since I had shelled out 67k miles for a lie-flat seat that wouldn’t recline an inch. She offered me 5,000 points and got even more agitated. I told her I didn’t think I was making an unreasonable request, since I would have gladly booked a coach ticket rather than waste 27k miles if I’d known the seat wouldn’t lie flat and the seatbelt wouldn’t function. She took offense to my wording and responded dramatically, “Travel is never a waste!” Was this a prank call? Things were getting weird. I told her of course travel isn’t a waste, but shelling out 27k miles for a seat that doesn’t work, is.

She claimed “there is no difference in miles between Economy and First.” I explained to her that there is in fact a 27k mile difference between Economy and First, and as a “corporate manager” she should know that. She claimed she does in fact know how award travel works and stuck to her guns.

She still harped on the fact that I received two apology letters, even though that’s now irrelevant. Even if I had received these phantom apology letters, this unpleasant interaction would have countered any good will the letters might have extended. She reiterated, “I will not be crediting more than 5,000 points – maybe 7,500.” She was getting loud and when I asked to speak to a supervisor, she countered with “I am a supervisor!” – I guess this explains why her behavior goes unchecked. I asked for her full name and she surprisingly spelled it out, adding “You’ll probably tweet about that too.”  I didn’t know whether to admire her gusto or tell her off. I have never dealt with a customer service rep (let alone a manager) who was so hostile, belligerent, and unprofessional. It was unnerving and slightly entertaining at the same time. Like arguing with a teenager, though I’m not  sure who I was in this scenario. An innocent by-stander?

I explained that her anger was completely out of order and perhaps she needed to find another line of work if she can’t deal with customer complaints. She took a breather and offered me 15,000 points as compensation. Fair enough. She also made a point to remind me “They will not count towards your bonus!” I assume she meant elite status – yet another example that she didn’t understand award programs…or revenue travel for that matter. Either way, I wasn’t expecting these points to count towards my “bonus.”

She finally let go of some of her aggression and wished me a nice day. Am I going to “tweet about it” like she so disdainfully pointed out? Hell yes, I’m going to tweet about it. When your customer service is this terrible in every aspect, you’re going to get called out on it.

I’ve flown United domestically and never had a problem (this was pre merger). In fact, when I decided to go for status next year, I considered United until the slew of complaints I came across. Any time I mention United to someone, I hear “I’m never flying with them again. They ___ (insert complaint here).” Then there’s the fun The Points Guy had when he showed up at the airport with a confirmed ticket that couldn’t be issued. Clearly, customer service is a weak point that needs to be addressed.

Does anyone else have a problem with United, or is it just me? Please share your grievances and maybe United will take a hint and change the company’s anti-customer culture.

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19 thoughts on “Bizarre Phone Conversation with a United Manager

  1. Parag at Frequent Flyer University had a similar experience. See his post, “The Clusterf%&# That Is United.”

    Sorry to hear this, rudeness is bad. Sometimes irate customers provoke that reaction from employees, but praise to you for keeping your cool and sticking to your guns.

    Hope the situation got resolved.

    • Thanks Marcus. I’m fine with the outcome, but the interaction left me bewildered. It wasn’t as big a clusterF$%& as what Parag put up with. I actually laughed at her dramatic outbursts and the Twitter comment, but altogether that kind of behavior is insane. I’ve worked in customer service and it takes a lot of patience sometimes, but I’m wondering what it is with United’s culture that makes a manager from corporate think its ok to speak to customers like this – in full attack mode. Anyway, I hope the story entertains people. Most folks I know have a United horror story and now I guess I do too.

  2. I’ve read United horror stories before but always shrugged it off. For some reason this article stuck to me. I’m currently trying to accumulate United points to fly Business or First class, but now I’m thinking twice about doing it.

    • I recommend accruing their miles and redeeming with their partners. As for revenue travel, I will not be giving United my business. American and Delta treat their customers with much more respect.

      • May want to go check American Airlines Facebook page before you book with them. My daughter and I just went through the nightmare of a lifetime with American. We got the same response with their customer service that you got with United….a response only after she started tweeting about their terrible customer service.

        • They are definitely the lesser of two evils. The AA Twitter team is great about responding to people’s complaints. United, on the other hand, couldn’t care less whether complaints are via Twitter, at the MegaDo, or any other forum.

  3. Sounds like par for the course nowadays with them. My favorite time with them was when they split our PNRs and rebooked my infant son on a separate flight by himself. I also spent the night in the San Franciso airport after a MX delay when their miserable failure of a CS team couldn’t/wouldn’t get be a hotel. I’ve been a Mileage Plus member since 1986 and Prem/prem exec/gold/plat since 1997 and .8MM and I’ve never been treated worse than this last year. Next year I’m flying with Alaska, at least with my family and on non mileage run trips. I can guarantee any continued business I do with UA will not be very profitable for them, and there is no way in hell I’m using my miles to fly their airline.

    • Booking a 1-year old on a separate flight? Completely ridiculous. It’s pretty bad that a customer takes their business elsewhere after 26 years of loyalty, but I honestly don’t think United cares. I’ve never encountered a company that consistently displays such disdain for the people keeping them in business.

  4. Lol…United has been less than easy going toward award travelers for a generation now…Ive been in the Discount Airfare business for 15 years and I could tell you stories.
    Like the lawyer who sent his mother & stepfather in first class to Australia using his points…
    However, United has long taken to the assumption that anyone flying in upper class on points that are not their own, or points from a different last name (such as the lawyer’s 70 year old mother who had remarried into a different last name), simply MUST have bought them from a stranger or broker…they must have!!! No argument. “He is my son!” she professed….”We don’t believe you United said, …we know you bought the tickets and unless you admit it, we will not fly you back to the United States…” And because they dont like that, they (United) feels a police-style interrogation and the threat of no return flight from across the world unless the poor couple admitted to purchasing them, is perfectly acceptable.
    The lawyer later sued and was awarded two round trip first class tickets anywhere in the world, he was awarded the cost of buying two first class one-way revenue tix and $300k in legal fees (he handled the case so that went to to him).

    Did UA lighten up as result? Not a chance. I have had many clients over the years come to refuse to fly them anymore.

    • Thanks for sharing this Jeff. This is further proof of the anti-customer culture within United. I’m glad your customer was able to at least get the situation rectified. Count me among those who will avoid United at all cost.

  5. Unfortunately, these stories are becoming increasingly commonplace amongst so many airlines. It’s appalling, and what is terrible is that at some point, as with this woman, there is no one “higher up” to speak to and any further escalation is impossible. I have been on the phone in a similar situation and felt helpless to push the issue further. There is only so many airlines I can boycott!

  6. Interesting that Twitter ruffles so many feathers – I may actually have to use the silly service in similar situations…

    You caved too easily – 15K miles is no where adequate compensation when seats don’t function in First – I’d be irate if I spent one second in a malfunctioning seat on an overseas flight – and expect my entire trip to be comped! As for the so-called CS rep, you should give her full name and rip her a new one – no way should she be a supervisor.

    • I agree, that was customer service at its worst. Tons of people tweeted United a link to this post, but they don’t seem to care. In the end I came away with 20k, which is fine, considering she was completely deadset agains giving me any points to begin with.

  7. The airline needs to be governmentally find. the FAA should be notified so that United Airlines can be fined properly. Not having a seatbelt in a seat is a big FAR violation.
    THAT IS WHY THEY BECAME NERVOUS WHEN YOU TWEETED ABOUT IT. The supervisor needs to be fired. You need to write a letter to Jeff Smizek.
    Every person has someone the answer to. I would write yet another letter to United and demand compensation for the entire trip. I would also contact the FAA whistleblower hotline. It seems like a lot of work, but people like that will not get fired until you push until you were treated with respect you deserve.
    I hope someday you find friendlier skies.

    • @ Eich, thank you. Some of my followers tweeted the story to Jeff and he never responded. I think morale is just very low at United and nobody cares. If they were to fire every incompetent person, they’d have to employees left. :) In the future, I’ll keep all international travel to foreign carriers.

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