Service Recovery at United Airlines

Summary: Effective service recovery at airlines should be second nature given how much practice they get, but at United, the bromides were plentiful, but meaningful explanations were sorely lacking. This article examines United’s service recovery efforts in the contexts of a service recovery model.

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Service recovery actions intrigue me. What actions do companies take when an upset customer complains? I’ve written elsewhere about the three principles against which the fairness of service recovery acts should be judged:

  • Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. The adequacy of any compensation offered for the problem the customer experienced.
  • Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. The policies applied and speed with which the issue was handled.
  • Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. How you were treated during the process to resolve the problem.

Stephen Tax and Stephen Brown presented these points in their 1998 Sloan Management Review article, “Recovering and Learning from Service Failure.”

There’s no industry that has more practice in service recovery than the airlines, and I guess this disproves the adage that “practice makes perfect”. As a frequent traveler, I enjoy The Middle Seat column in the WSJ. (Okay, I’m partial to it since Scott McCartney, the author of the column used an idea of mine for a column about how TSA has screwed up its Pre-Check security lines.) A recent Middle Seat column focused on the apologies that airlines provide when customers complain.  The gist of the article was:

Airlines say they try to make responses conversational and personal. They aim to apologize and acknowledge the problem, providing more information about the particular situation after research, then offering some compensation as a goodwill gesture, such as some frequent-flier miles.

[Note: the Wall Street Journal is a closed site, but if you search on “Trouble Selling Fliers on the Fast Airport Security Line” and“The Art of the Airline Apology”, you may be able to access the articles.]

By pure happenstance I had 2 complaints awaiting response from United, both from a flight in June to deliver a survey workshop in Dubai. And before you get the idea that I’m a constant complainer, these I believe are the first complaints I’ve filed with United. The responses from United border on comical in their hollowness. Let’s look at them against the benchmark of good service recovery principles.

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My first comment to United was about the brain-dead service design of its brand new service counter in Terminal B at Boston’s Logan airport. My flight to Newark was delayed so that I would miss my overseas connection — not a trivial issue. The physical design of the queues violates basic queuing principles by making it difficult for agents to serve any customers other than the customers in their immediate queue, and the supervisor on duty didn’t compensate for the poor design by shifting workers or customers.

The result was very longer waits for United’s premier customers — and no wait in the other customer queues at the counter. Some agents were standing at their counters doing nothing while a queue built up 25 feet away. A basic service principle is to take special care of your better customers — D’oh — and to build flexibility into the system to accommodate the random arrival pattern of customers. When they designed the physical counter, they should have thought about the implications for wait times the design could cause. Alas, they did not.

But here’s the response I got to my comment pointing the gross shortcomings

Thank you for contacting United Airlines regarding your June 6 experience in Boston.

Our goal is to provide a seamless experience from the moment you book your flight until you arrive safely at your destination. Based on your comments, and the inadequate handling you report we have room to improve. Please be assured we understand your concerns and that your comments have been forwarded to division senior management for internal review and necessary corrective action.

Mr. Van Bennekom, you are a valued MileagePlus Gold member, and we appreciate your business. In recognition of your loyalty, I will gladly add 7,500 goodwill miles to your MileagePlus account. Please visit to verify your mileage balance in five to seven business days.

We appreciate your loyalty and the offer of your expertise.  After all, a great customer deserves a great airline.

A bit over the top, and more importantly, I never got any follow-up from the management at Logan airport about how my concerns were being addressed in their system design. But that response is great compared to the response to my other issue.

On the day of my return flight home from Dubai, I saw that my reservation online was missing a segment — the flight from Dubai to Zurich on Swiss. (The entire itinerary was purchased through United.) So, I confirmed my itinerary with a United phone rep just 8 hours before departure. When I got to the airport to check in, my return itinerary had been cancelled. In my comment to United, I asked in all sincerity how this could happen and what I could do as a customer to make sure it didn’t happen to me in the future.

Here’s the vapid response.

Thank you for contacting United Airlines.

I appreciate your patience and offer my apology for a delayed response to your message.

Please accept our sincerest apologies for the many inconveniences that you endured with your reservation. We truly appreciate you taking the time to point out the issues that you faced as we work hard to correct problems brought to our attention. We understand how disappointing this was for you and we apologize for the factors that contributed to your overall dissatisfaction. Although we can’t explain or undo what you experienced, [my emphasis] we can work to correct it. This situation will be reviewed and addressed internally with our Senior Managers. Your concerns will be taken very seriously.

It is never our intent to inconvenience our most loyal customer, and I am very sorry your valid expectations were not met. Your feedback will help us evaluate what has happened and allow us to make necessary adjustments as it tells us what areas we need to improve on. We appreciate the time you took to share your experience with us and the opportunity to apologize for any inconvenience.

I understand that we can’t undo all that you have experienced but as a gesture of goodwill I will be crediting your account with 7,500 miles. We ask for your patience as it can take up to 14 business days for the miles to be credited to your account.

We at United apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for bringing this to our attention. As a loyal Premier Gold Elite member your business and satisfaction does matter to us.

Interestingly, Scott McCartney’s article says

United said it tries not to go overboard on the apology. “Generally we tell the customer we are sorry they did not have the experience they expected on United,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said. “We try to be empathetic to the customer but not sound insincere.”

Apparently, this agent didn’t get the message. I followed up on my key request.

Per my note, I would still like to know *how and why* my reservation was cancelled so that I can take steps as a passenger to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

The response to this was an auto respond. How can they not be able to explain how a reservation gets cancelled? It’s a transaction that was initiated by a computer program or an individual action. Just tell me the conditions that led to the action so I can try to identify and compensate for such a mistake in the future.

In fact, I learned that if you reply to an email from United Customer Care, you get this auto respond that has been mail merged with information from your case number.

Thank you again for taking time to let us know about your recent experience with United Airlines.

7500 bonus miles have been added to the MileagePlus account, XXX.

The reference for this item is: YYY

For current information on your MileagePlus balance, as well as information on the latest services available to you as a valued member of MileagePlus, please visit our website at

I did get a response two weeks later from the agent, telling me:

I am still trying to find out the answers to your concerns. Our Tech Support is still looking into the issues.

As I post this update yet another two weeks later, I still have not learned how to become a better customer.

So let’s evaluate these on the 3 requirements of good service recovery.

  • Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. The compensation was fine. I really didn’t care about any compensation. But what I really wanted was an explanation of the cancellation issue. (Is that Distributive or Interaction? A bit of both.) I try to be a smart customer and smart traveler. I really wanted to know how to avoid having this happen again in the future. Here’s the black eye for United from me. They haven’t given me any explanation whatsoever. Shame on United for that.
  • Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. Not an issue here.
  • Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. I came away with the feeling that the replies were perfunctory and my feedback just vanishes into the ether. The replies didn’t instill greater loyalty in me for United. I have a fairly sensitive BS meter from 27 years of teaching, and it was flashing red reading the emails, especially the second one.

I know that United is not unique in hollow service recovery.  But what they’ve taught me is to expect little in the way of a substantive reply.

Fewer bromides. More real explanation.