We’re Sorry, All Our Computers Are Helping Other Customers. Please Hang Up and Dial Again


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Try this one out for horrendous customer service. The son of good friends was flying home from college in Canada for Thanksgiving. He didn’t want to cut any classes, so he booked himself on a late afternoon United Airlines flight to a United hub – with a 45-minute transfer to his destination city. Understanding the risk, he was prepared to lay over if necessary, and, cross your fingers, rebook on Thanksgiving morning. And now the “fun” begins.

Knowing that his departure city had “weather,” his anxious Mom called United in the morning to check flight status. The computer that answered told her the flight was – gulp – cancelled. But the computer didn’t understand her request to rebook him, despite her screaming into the phone. All she got was, “Please pick a new option.” So she tried to find a person at United. But there aren’t any. At least none that pick up the phone in these modern times. Automation wins the day. Computers answer United’s calls. And if you need a person, you’re screwed.

But not this resourceful mom. As a world renowned scientist, she travels the globe. But not on United, because United has only limited presence in her home city. However, a similarly renowned colleague she knows lives in and flies out of another United hub. And it just so happens that she’s a gazillion-mile flier. So Mom called her; “stole” her United identity for a day; called the gazillion mile line (after a gazillion miles, you do get to call a person); miraculously, given the day, rebooked him on a much earlier flight (and I’m not revealing any names here, in case you didn’t get home from Montreal for Thanksgiving, having been bumped from your flight); and all lived happily ever after, right?

Not yet. You see, whichever United computer is responsible for e-mailing passengers whose flight is cancelled fell down on the job and failed to e-mail Son, so he didn’t know his original flight was cancelled. And he was in class, with his cell phone off. Fortunately, Mom had to get him the rebooking info anyway, so being further resourceful, she called the Dean of Student’s office at this university and finagled her way through to getting a security guard to interrupt a lecture, fish Son out of class, and give him the scoop. He dashed for a cab, just made his new flight, got home, and enjoyed Thanksgiving day with his parents.

Oh, and he’ll never trust United again. So he’s switching to another known screw-up in the aviation world. Which means United may just get him back. But I’ll bet Mom stashed away in Outlook the frequent flyer info and magic telephone number. Just in case.

As for United, if this little tale ever reaches its eyes, you can trust that it will sternly discipline all the computers involved. But United had better watch out, because if it goes overboard on the punishment, these computers might very well unionize.


  1. Point taken. And even when I’ve been at the airport with my cell phone, I’ve either received stale information or I had no easy way to act on my SMS or voice mail messages. Airlines have to make their back-end processes more real-time and interactive. It’s not enough to get a voice mail saying your flight has been delayed. How about the ability to reply to a self-service portal, which can handle a few basic and obvious actions? Or a URL embedded in an email landing you on a page with the next few flights? Yeah, the airlines give you nice ways to make reservations and check-in, the devil is in connecting bi-directionally to customers when things go wrong.

  2. Andy – nice point.Hopefully an airline or two or three will use after-the-sale service to gain a competitive advantage.


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