Thursday, August 02, 2012

Why United Airlines ticketing agents merit our altrustic compassion

27 July 2012

Reasons why the customer service on US Flag Airlines is so much inferior to that provided by most international carriers is a frequent conversation topic among travelers I meet.  For many years, avoiding US carriers (Southwest Airlines excepted), even if this required a more circuitous and costly routing, has been high among my travel planning priorities.
On my present trip to Zurich and Athens, however,  there seemed to be no reasonable escape from two transatlantic legs on United Airlines.  Through its “code share” with Swiss Airlines, United Airlines offered the only non-stop flight between Washington DC and Zurich.  
For those unfamiliar with code sharing, this is an arrangement that permits airlines to list their flights as if they were being offered by a “code sharing” partner.  Think of it this way.  You have made a reservation at Washington’s elite Hay Adams Hotel adjoining Lafayette Park.  However when you arrive at the check-in desk you discover that the Hay Adams management has chosen to “code-share” with the local YMCA, located not adjacent to the White House but in the low-income district on the Anacostia River’s banks. In fact, using this analogy to illustrate the disparity between United Airlines, and carriers I most commonly use,   Southwest Airlines, Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airlines, and Qatar Airlines, does Anacostia and a fine organization, the YMCA, an injustice.
It was United’s Ticketing procedure that was most egregious. (See my later blog about flight cancellations and loss of baggage).  Passengers seeking an international check in were herded (a bit like cattle to the slaughterhouse) towards a lengthy queue that, after a wait, spewed us towards a long rank of Kiosks fronted by touch screen terminals.  A sign over each bore the designation “easy check in." Sadly this was misnomer for both staff and passengers.  Far in the distance, I later discovered, were a small number kiosks that were available to serve passengers who had the temerity to seek “full” service.  
Since my “priority gold”  frequent flyer status allowed me to check two bags, I had packed in a manner that facilitated this, however “easy check in” did not offer this option.  I was only allowed to move to a baggage checking agent after I had inserted my credit card and been assessed an additional $100.  When I reached the agent and asked a about frequent flyer miles, her initial response was “your travel agent didn’t enter your card number.”  (My usual practice was to present my Singapore Airlines Kris Flyer card when I checked in. Star Alliance ticketing agents not affiliated with United Airlines always welcomed it.)  In this instance, however “move on” was the clear message from the agent’s body language.  I didn’t move an inch.  “Could you please enter my card number” I asked, in the most congenial tone I could muster.  After a pause, the response was a reluctant “yes.” My card number was duly recorded and new boarding passes grudgingly printed.  There was however, no mention of a refund for the $100 “excess baggage charge to which I was entitled.   
By this time I was exhausted by the effort of maintaining relentless good humor through a process that seemed not only dysfunctional, but inhumane. I decided that regaining freedom from United Airlines ticketing minions, without further negotiations, was worth $100.  Could their process be designed to produce exactly that result?
Venting ones anger at the stressed and dispirited United Airlines staff members I encountered would have been easy, but wrong.  I only had to endure the check-in experience for about 45 minutes.  It is their misfortune to be its instruments, with no opportunity to manifest humane interactions that make ones work-life worth living, every hour of their working days.  Our response to them should not be the natural one:  frustration expressed as rage, but altruistic compassion.  They are victims of a management system that makes their work-life what it is.  Their wages, are - indeed - ‘compensation’ for adverse circumstances.
But what about the top managers whose policies create suffering for employees and passengers alike.  They, too, merit our altruistic compassion.  The Lord Buddha’s teachings remind us that no action is without consequences.  What we sow, we reap, if not in this life than in our next.  What fate lies is store for top managers of the employees whose suffering I witnessed at the UA international check in counters?  No-one can say for sure, however I fear that their next life may not be a good one.  

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