Thursday, August 02, 2012

What do United Airlines Customer Service and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness have in common?

2 August 2012
My trip home from Athens to Washington began smoothly.  I had arranged an early morning departure to connect with a mid-day flight from Geneva to Washington that would get me home in the early evening.  The taxi arrived on time. The driver was congenial.  The airport check-in line, though lengthy, moved swiftly.  The agent gladly entered my Singapore Airlines frequent flyer information and explained the benefits to which I was entitled. The contrast with my Dulles International Airport experience was stark.  It appeared that my travel Karma was good until a  few moments before landing in Geneva, an announcement that my Geneva to Washington flight been cancelled was posted on passenger cabin videos..
Normally when a flight is cancelled, the airline concerned has staff members awaiting arriving passengers to explain what arrangements have been made for their well-being.  There were none.  A Swiss Air agent suggested contacting the transit desk.  The transit desk had no United Airlines agent present.  The Swiss air staff member said she had received no information from United Airlines. She told me my only option was to go through passport control to the departure hall, then to the arrivals hall where I might be able to contact a United Airlines agent who could.  She provided three Kiosk numbers.
Following her advice I located the kiosks.  Only one of the three, labeled “Economy” was staffed. A United Airlines agent who was guiding passengers toward the single kiosk explained that there was no special service for first, business or priority gold passengers.  “There is only one line, I don’t know why.”  he told me.  I parked myself at the end of the line, which continued to grow in length and was not moving.  A  single stressed and harried agent was attempting to respond to passenger concerns, but, it appeared,  with little success.
After about ten minutes of waiting and no movement, a second agent approached me from outside the Kiosk area. “You are a Priority Gold member?,” he queried.  When I answered “yes” he escorted me away from the United Airlines kiosks to a window labeled “Swiss-Port.”  Three staff members were on duty and there was no line.  “These people will help you,” he told me and then walked away without further explanation.
When I explained my status and circumstances one of the agents immediately went to work, providing the support I had hoped to receive from absent United Airlines staff members.  She surveyed travel options, booked a Lufthansa flight  through Frankfurt the next morning.   She verified that my bags had arrived, and, when I said I would not need them, arranged to check them through. 
She then directed me to the “special assistance desk” which was accessed via a special telephone-accessed door that did not require going through passport control to receive transport to Geneva and an overnight hotel voucher.  I felt badly for the doomed queue of passengers still waiting forlornly at the United Airlines kiosk, but knew I could do nothing to save them from their fate, whatever it might be.  
By the time I arrived at the desk, the efficient Swiss Port staff had searched out and booked a more attractive same-day option, a flight from Geneva to London, connecting with a United Airlines London to Washington flight leaving from the same Heathrow terminal.  The fight left on time and, while United Airlines Business class service was indifferent, I was happy to have received an upgrade and be approaching journey’s end…
…Until I arrived in Washington to find, after a long wait, that my baggage had not arrived.  After clearing customs, I was directed to the United Airlines “Baggage Services” office where a long, slow moving line of fellow passengers and four harried UA staff members awaited me.  I had a Geneva flashback.
When I reached the head of the line and the agent had filled in necessary forms, she explained that, according to her computer, my bags were still in Athens.  I assured her this was not the case; that I was confident they had arrived in Geneva.  “Well…” she explained, “our computer does not connect with information from Swiss; that must be the problem.”  The transaction of waiting, standing in line and filling out a Delayed Baggage Report had taken more than 90 minutes.  However the agent expressed confidence that my bags would be delivered by the next afternoon or evening.  “Check in during the afternoon” she advised me.
The next afternoon I checked the United website and received the information that the search for my bags was still in progress. No information was available.  I called and reached a staff member.  He informed me that the bags had not been located.  When I asked him to check further he told me, after a wait, that the bags had been located in Athens.  I explained that this was impossible.  I had checked in early, the bags had a priority tag and I had been assured by Swiss Port that the bags had arrived in Geneva.  When I explained that another United Airlines staff member had told me about the problem - United computers could not connect with Swiss computers - he simply kept repeating, “the computer shows your bags are still in Athens.”  He would not listen to or accept the possibility that the computer was wrong and the information I was providing was right.  “Call back in about eight hours” he advised me. After several unproductive exchanges.  I thanked him and began mentally composing this blog posting;
Being a positive individual I am still hopeful that my bags, containing my printer, camera and valuable documents will still arrive sometime.  But experience with United Airlines today is causing my hopes to dwindle.  It is 10:05 PM.  More than 24 hours have elapsed since I arrived and more that eigh hours since I spoke with a staff member.  United Airlines baggage checking website just provided me with the following information - the same as previously.  "Tracing Process Continues:  Check Back Later."
How many hours have I spent with this Kafkaesque process, yet to be resolved?  How many more hours will I spend?  What fate awaits me and my baggage?    I shudder to think of the hours I will need to spend  should I have to submit a claim.  I pray that my karma will spare me this fate. 
This I cannot control. It is in the hands of the Gods. However future air travel is within my control. I will never book a United Airlines flight again, no matter how inconvenient and or costly it is to escape this fate.
What do United Airlines customer service and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness have in common?

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