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« Got cred? | Main | Hagan gains momentum »

May 09, 2008


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Stop flying. I have. If enough other people do, I bet customer service will improve.

Ian McDowell

What if those cramed into the rows 11 and back had gone ahead and occupied those seats anyway? Just what could the airline have done? Had I been on that flight, I would certainly have suggested such a course of action to my fellow passengers. I've done similar things under similar circumstanes, and never been kicked off a plane or arrested (well, actually, I have been arrested, but just once and not for anything like that).

Ed Cone

AC: I had a business meeting in California, flying was the only option.

Ian, the homeland security regime makes that kind of stuff dicey these days. It's not a matter of getting kicked off a plane (in flight, at least) but being put on a list that makes flying even harder or even impossible. I also think people realize the thing you realize while arguing with a dim and obstinate phone rep: the flight attendants didn't make the rules, their dumb and/or heartless bosses did.

Graham Shevlin

there is a reason why United has been known within the industry as Untied for years...there was even a website called untied.com containing numerous instances of United's failings (I believe that the site is no longer maintained).
To be fair to United, all of the airlines in the USA are suffering from severe failures of imagination and attention to customer service.


And people wonder why I haven't flown since 1999. :-o

Ian McDowell

Quite right about the poor flight attendants not making the rules, of course. The Draconian homeland security response MIGHT be surmountable if enough passengers could be convinced to move to the empty seats as an act of passive resistance, and if it could be filmed and quickly put on YouTube, but yeah, it would be a dicey gamble.


I so would have taken the eco+ option!!! They offered an upgrade to business on our London flight but it was an eye popping $750.00 a person!!! We declined.... Luckily on the was back we were on a 777 with only 100 people, so I got a whole row to myself...

Oh and no matter whats playing on the seat back, don't ever watch P.S. I love you!!! It was sad enough leaving London, but compounded even worst by the fact I couldn't stop crying from that movie!

Jeremy Morris

Reminds me of a Northwest flight I was on last month. Mid-flight I was killing time at the front of the plane waiting to use the head and yakking with the steward(ess). Noticing a key hole in the door to the flight deck I asked her whether only an air-marshall would have a key for it. "Oh no", she said brightly, "I have one right here" and proceeded to show me a key on a lanyard round her neck.

What exactly is the point of a bullet and bomb-proof door if any old terrorist just has to ask a female steward where the key is, and then, ah, take it? Maybe I'm missing something...


Ed, good story - found it thru Jeff Jarvis' link and it caused me to mention it on my blog as well rant a bit on why I no longer fly (http://502sec.blogspot.com/2008/05/why-i-prefer-not-to-fly.html).

I'd loved to have seen one of the airline folks come aboard before the plane left the gangway and offer to sell those seats for $40 (heck, let 'em add a $10 gate fee), I'll bet folks would've taken it. Too bad no one in the airline industry is that entrepreneurial.


"When it became clear that the flight would be packed six across from row 11 back while row after row sat empty in the front, people asked if they could move up. The flight attendants said no, you have to pay for those seats. Not very customer-friendly or situationally aware, but comprehensible."

If they give the product away for free then it's perceived value is reduced. In addition, for anyone who did pay their $30 at check-in, they could easily demand to be re-paid the $30.

I understand you want them to sell the seats on the spot, but there is just no orderly mechanism to do so. For example, if 25 people wanted to pay to move up, what order do they take them in? How do they ensure the upgrading process doesn't delay departure? If there are only middle seats left, how do they decide which one gets filled. Since a plane generally pushes back within 5-10 mins of closing the door, its just not feasible to do paid upgrades in that time.

Ed Cone

JohnK, people move, and get moved, from seat to seat all the time.

Check out the pictures above -- it looked absurd, especially given the fact that the premium seats are indistinguishable from the cheap ones. You could have moved the middle person from each of the rear rows to the front with no disruption.

And whatever the issues on board, it seems to me United could upsell at the gate, once it was clear that the spacing issue existed.

In my view, there's a larger issue about customer service involved.

I'm supposed to be on the Cavuto program on Fox Business on Thursday night to talk about this, so I appreciate all the pushback and conversation -- I want to make an intelligent argument, not just sound like I'm whining.


Much ranting about nothing from someone who doesn't understand the product he bought. United offers you multiple ways to get into Economy Plus.

1) Fly 25,000 miles/year on them or their alliance partners and you get it free until February of the 2nd year after you meet that threshold. Actually not hard if you do a few business trips, family visits, and vacations a year and show some loyalty to the provider (which includes Lufthansa, Air Canada, US Airways, Swiss, ANA Japan, and about 15 more airlines). Fly that much in 2008 on any or all of them credited to United, and you get E+ free until February 2010.

2) Buy it for $349 for a full year.

3) Buy it at Online Check-in on the web where it's offered for a fee (varies depending on length of flight) if any E+ is left.

4) Buy it at the gate for a fee.

5) Befriend a Premier member who has reached a threshold in their program that lets her gift someone else "Premier Associate" status which gives you E+ and some other benefits for a year.

6) Whine on a blog about why you weren't allowed to steal the space once you are aboard.

When you go to Albertson's to buy a half gallon of milk and it's their last half gallon, do you think you should get a full gallon for the same price because they have more of them available?

If you didn't buy E+ through one of the many ways it is available to you (and UA markets the hell out of it) before boarding the plane, you simply chose not to get the upgraded product. You have no business complaining about why you weren't able to move to it free, or purchase it when they aren't allowed to sell it onboard (for the many reasons already posted).

If you go to see Speed Racer at the multiplex and it sucks, are you allowed to "move up" to Iron Man for the same price?

Airlines have a lot of problems, true. And United has quite a few of them. But given that UA is one of the few airlines that sells the upgraded economy space in the US at all, if you didn't buy it before walking onto the plane, you got exactly what you contracted for: one coach seat in the regular coach section of their plane, with the regular legroom they provide on that particular model of plane (and they have the right to sub a different plane too.)

Stop your sobbin'

Ed Cone

Nobody's sobbing, Mark. Nobody's trying to steal anything. Customers reacted politely to a poorly-allocated, poorly-marketed product. I wrote about it. We're talking about it.

One glitch in the system: the check-in kiosk asks if you want to upgrade. If you say no, it shows you only the economy section -- not the empty "economy plus" section in front of it. If you saw all those empty seats on the screen, you might be motivated to upgrade from the packed steerage class -- as people were when they finally saw them live, at which point purchase was not an option.

Airlines are in trouble. They have bad reputations with customers. This situation may be instructive in some ways -- I don't really see the value of telling people to shut up about it.


Ed, sure there are plenty of things to complain about. But not this - you had the choice to purchase the upgrade to E+ and you declined it, as did the majority of the folks in the back. If you had pressed the upgrade button on the kiosk, it would have showed you what was available in E+ before you had to commit to paying for it. There is no rational reason to show it to you after you've said you don't want it.

Hey, I get E+ for "free" (well from the business I give them) and there are plenty of times that there are seats up front in a true "upgrade" - the separate cabin of First or Business. I'd like to move up from E+ to Business for free once onboard too. But that would be stealing. I also might like to move up using the upgrade certificates one earns every 10K miles flown - but I know that I have to request that before boarding the plane. Not after.

Seeing the empty space with roomier legroom up in the front portion of economy is marketing by United to get you to consider buying it on your next flight. It doesn't mean it's there for Economy "minus" passengers to "poach".

Or you could swear off UA and fly one of the many other airlines that only give you 30 or 31 inch seat pitch throughout the whole plane (American, Northwest, Delta, Continental, US Airways). You're beating up on one of the best features of UA compared to its competition, because you were too cheap to pony up $30 for something you had "non-buyer's regret" after you saw the product.

If you want to beat up on UA, try one of their many flaws: bad management who want to sell the airline instead of run it, demoralized employees (though they usually don't take it out on the customer unlike some airlines), old planes, broken headphone jacks, the horrible concept of them merging with US Airways, etc. But it's nonsensical to attack them for offering a product which gives you the option to purchase more legroom, just because you and the other 20 rows of people in the back were too cheap to buy it.

Your coach ticket on any airline actually entitles you to nothing more than the worst coach seat on the plane, unless you've purchased the "extra space" product. That product is currently offered only by United and by jetBlue (who copied United). Only those two airlines even give you the option of a slightly better coach seat for a nominal fee. Why are you beating up on them offering choice?

There was nothing wrong with the customer service here. The problem was with the customer expectation.

Ed Cone

"The problem was with the customer expectation."

There's the rub, isn't it? United allowed a situation to develop in which the expectations of its customers were not satisfied.

You can continue to insult the passengers as cheap and greedy or unsophisticated, and defend the airline as doing all it could, but at the end of the day the deal was this: United allocated its seats poorly and left its customers unsatisfied.

The attitude you put forward is exactly the one the airlines need to overcome. They don't understand they're in a service business.

Frederic M

Huh? Give me a break!

"There's the rub, isn't it? United allowed a situation to develop in which the expectations of its customers were not satisfied."

The customers on that flight who were not seated on Economy Plus cabin simply did not have access to it (non-elite members) or opted not to pay for it. I don't understand what you are complaining about? The painful truth is that, savvy customers do take the time to get to know the product that they are purchasing. As noted, the information is out there on how and where these E+ seats could be purchased.

This elite member who enjoys the benefit of access to these seats in exchange for more than 150,000 purchased miles on United annually, along with other customers who do their research and opt to pay for these seats, applaud the flight attendants for standing up against the cheap mob.

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