Whoops, UA you could sure do a lot better with long delays and cancels

Last night, as they were towing our plane from the gate in Miami there was a very unusual bump — turns out they put the tow bar on wrong and damaged the landing gear. It became clear in time that we would not fly that night (FA timeout loomed.) I’ve seen this a lot, so I was on the phone immediately to book another flight, but I would still need a hotel voucher for the night, as would most other folks on the flight, even if they took the same flight the next day after the repair.

They sent everybody back to the check-in counters to get processed, and they only had a few staff since all other flights had left. As such there was a long line, and the first 3 people in it took 10 minutes each to process because they were trying to change flights as well as get vouchers. Overall, it’s a terrible experience, and it’s been this way for a very long time — a decade ago I saw multi-hour waits for people to get vouchers after weather in Dulles.

There is so much they could have done better, and since this happens all the time, and has for decades, I am not sure why they don’t. Here are some things they could do.

Everything should be doable over the phone or online

I rebooked my flight on the phone. So should everybody. There are a thousand phone agents. Non-status passengers were getting long hold times, so perhaps they should have a special priority code for passengers who have had a major problem like an overnight delay or cancel.

More to the point, the agents should be regularly announcing to people in line, “If you need to rebook, please call this number or use our app.” Several times passengers came up to the counter to say, “would you please announce to the line what’s going on?”

These vouchers are just a piece of paper with a one-time-use credit card number and other relevant info on them. They should be electronic. Everybody should be able to just get their voucher on their phone. Failing that, they should be able to use the check-in kiosks to print a voucher. Go to the kiosk, scan your boarding pass, get your vouchers. How hard can that be? (Update: Apparently Delta does this giving UA no excuse.) Only go to the agents for special requests. Failing that, if you really need to talk to a phone agent to get your voucher confirmed, let them enable you to print it at the kiosk.

Ideally, the customer should not need to do anything. You should get a notification by app or text saying, “Sorry your flight is delayed overnight. Here are your vouchers.” The people who don’t have the app downloaded will have it pretty quickly rather than wait in line.

Electronic vouchers

Sure, some vendors might not be ready for electronic vouchers. But if airlines said, “Take electronic vouchers or don’t get all this business” I think they would change pretty quickly. As long as a few vendors take them, you can tell passengers, “Here is your electronic voucher, good at these vendors. If you wish a different vendor, go to a UA kiosk or counter to exchange for a paper voucher.” I don’t think most passengers would bother.

If you can’t do it online, do it in bulk

The terminals at the gate should simply have spewed out the vouchers in a big stack and the gate agents (not the counter agents) should have handed them out quickly to people by calling names or forming lines based on last name. Then they could deal with the special requests. Doing it at the gate is important because all the people there are passengers — out at check-in you need to re-verify that. At the gate, if need be, they can flash their boarding pass — there are scanners for that of course — and get their vouchers.

Use Lyft or Uber for transport and handle other airports

I rebooked out of Fort Lauderdale. It’s only a 30 minute drive at night. They were quite unprepared for that and took a long time to issue me vouchers for there. This can be improved, or I can be a special case if need be.

They gave me a voucher for supershuttle to get to Fort Lauderdale. I was surprised to see that Supershuttle’s fare for a shared ride was $39, while Lyft was $36 for a private ride. I wanted sleep so I took the Lyft at my own expense, but it would save them money if they allowed Lyft and Uber to be providers for ground transport.

Make it all frictionless

It was the airport that broke the gear, but the airline had to deal with it. One measures the quality of a company by how it handles failures even more than how it works when all is right. Here’s what I think would have been the best result.

  1. As soon as a delay was likely, the computer should have reserved an alternate flight for me, and sent me a message to select my preferred alternates. These seats would be protected against other people in the same boat, though I might lose them to paying external customers. (As a 1K in first class, I expect to be treated better here.)
  2. As soon as the delay or cancel is confirmed, my phone should have beeped to let me confirm whether I want to take the continuation or the alternate flight.
  3. Next the phone app should have generated the vouchers and put them in the phone. Or better still, the information should have been transmitted to the hotel and my booking made and already checked in (if I’m an out of towner.) Instructions on how to get to the hotel and its shuttle schedule should come with that.
  4. While I am in transit, I should be able to browse my food options on meal vouchers, and order online if the restaurant offers that.

Discouraging voucher use

The only reason I can imagine the airline keeps it so painful is they wish to discourage voucher use. For example, if flying from your home city, they surely want you to go stay at home. If they make the process really painful, people who would find it convenient to stay at the airport (due to long trips, traffic, parking or early flights) might give up and go home, saving the airline money.

The airlines could make automatic issuance of vouchers happen only for people who don’t live in the airport town. That leaves the people who were visiting friends or family and have a place to stay for free. The airlines will prefer you use that. One solution would be to offer visitors some flyer miles or flight credit if they are willing to handle their own expenses. Flight credit is cheap for airlines, as many people never get around to redeeming it.

How do other airlines do?

Does United just suck at this? Are there airlines which do what I propose, or otherwise handle this a lot better?

Print the voucher from the same system that scans the barcode

There's a printer attached to the same (I speculate, but nearby for sure) computer that scans the barcode on the boarding pass. Have the people line up again, scan their boarding pass, then print their voucher.

And if they want, they can pay for their own expenses and enter the voucher number into the airline's computer system and receiver a "greater value" of airline miles than the value of the voucher.

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