A Look Back at United Airlines' Customer Service Snafu

Airlines are notorious for less-than-stellar customer service. Though some succeed at consistently pleasing customers, many struggle with customer satisfaction due to delayed or canceled flights, uncomfortable cabins, and hefty fees on a day-to-day basis. As a result, when a travel crisis such as the one United Airlines recently experienced occurs, already frustrated flyers become outraged, and the role of social customer service becomes more important than ever.

United's July 8 travel nightmare that grounded nearly 5,000 United Airlines flights occurred due to a "network connectivity issue," which ultimately forced the FAA to issue a ground stop for the airline at 8:00 am that day. By the time the travel ban was lifted at 9:49 am, thousands of passengers across the country were stranded. It was the second time United was hit with a technical issue this summer—the first was on June 2, when departures in the U.S. were delayed due to computer issues. In fact, since merging with Continental Airlines in 2010 and adopting its passenger information technology in 2012, United has been experiencing frequent computer glitches.

"United Airlines has a history of hiccups and service breakdowns.  We all know how Dave Carroll's guitar was broken in O'Hare on his layover en route to Omaha," Chip Bell, author and customer experience expert, says. "Over fifteen million people have watched his YouTube video 'United Breaks Guitars.' Their shaky reputation in the consumer service arena would suggest their response to a computer-caused shutdown and the delay of over a thousand flights and cancellation of almost one hundred flights would warrant an over-the-top service recovery," he adds.

But United's response, especially on social media, was met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, experts praise United for deleting any marketing-related tweets and posts that it may have had scheduled for the day of the crisis. The company also made an effort to respond to tweets and Facebook posts from customers with individualized replies to humanize the interactions, which is praiseworthy, says Jayme Washington, COO and president at WashTone Media, a digital marketing and social media agency. 

United Airlines did a number of other things right as well. For example, they used SparkCentral, a tool that enables enterprises to handle high volume of customer service inquiries across social media, to prioritize those that needed a response, says Sarah Chambers, a customer support evangelist at Kayako, a customer service platform. "Customers were [also] never directed to call a 1-800 number or send an email. They were gently guided to a self-help service, or to direct message and continue the conversation. Fees were waived for rebooking and flight changes, which made it easier for customers to find a solution," she adds.

On the other hand, however, Washington says, a proactive post from the brand acknowledging the situation came too late. "Brand crisis management should have been in place and kicked in way before the first 7:43 a.m. eastern tweet. Customers were tweeting at 5 a.m. regarding delays," she says. Furthermore, the tweet was too vague, Washington says, and required more details and transparency. "When in a crisis, you must give your customers insight on top information. A simple tweet [saying] 'We experienced a network connectivity issue. We are working to resolve and apologize for any inconvenience,' doesn't cut it in today's social media world especially if your brand is inconveniencing people," she explains. Customers also complained that agents weren't being helpful at the airport, offering little information on what was going on or when flights would resume.

Once the issue was resolved and planes were back up in the air, United Airlines made a smart move by sharing a video message from Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United's senior vice president for customers. Though Bell says the "heartfelt apology" was a "terrific start," the company waited too long to issue it, according to Washington. In the aftermath, the brand should also have considered a different approach to reparations. Rather than issuing frequent flyer points that only benefit travelers that fly regularly, Bell says the brand was better off distributing travel vouchers or other rewards geared towards passengers that only fly occasionally.

Though the airline responded adequately, United could have done a better job with its crisis management response, and has a thing or two to learn from its competitors. While Bell is confident that Southwest would have done a better job on the ground thanks to its commitment to customer attentiveness, Chambers points to KLM as a model for customer service on social media. For example, KLM recently automated the process of searching for fares and tickets through Twitter. Now, when users tweet at the KLMFares handle with a destination, they receive a response within a minute with the lowest fare available, and a direct link to buy tickets. Users can even include the month or date of a travel for a more specific price quote. KLM is redefining social customer engagement, Chambers says, and other airlines should strive to innovate as well.

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