What could United have done better? — my catastrophic flight that got canceled after 13.5h of delay

Two weeks ago, I needed to be in San Francisco for a meeting I was invited to. My flight was supposed to arrive at 3pm the day before the meeting, which would have given me more than enough buffer time for any delays. In the end, the meeting didn’t happen, and I was not in San Francisco on that day. My United flight, UA2080, wasn’t only canceled, but rather got canceled after a 13.5 hour delay. I was stuck on 2 different aircrafts, able to complete 3 different in-flight movies on the ground.

Here is the timeline of what had happened on that day… To give a sense of my emotional states, I added an emoji next to each event.

Ok, this list with positive and negative, mostly negative, was too glanular, so I needed to summarize the story into one sentence with one emotional state in order to tell others.

United Airlines had been struggling with its brand image, especially since Dr. David Dao was dragged out of a United plane back in 2017. I even found an article listing tragic United scandals. That being said, there were certain positive moments in my experience. One captain personally purchased sandwiches and snacks for us waiting for catering supplies, for instance. Unfortunately, positive stories like this were overshadowed by the negative experiences:, unfriendly and unhelpful staff that was unwilling to take ownership of the situation. Why does customer service in the US’s transportation industry feel so broken? Is it because there’s simply not enough competition given the demand?

Air travel may gradually lose its market share

For many passengers, especially for budget travelers, air travel is the inevitable choice when traveling long distances. However, this advantage given to airlines keeps shrinking as other transportation methods become faster, cheaper, and/or more comfortable. Fast Company did a study to see which transportation method survey-takers prefer depending on the distance, and how that impacts autonomous vehicles. With getting to the airport, lining up for security, and waiting for flights, the air travel is only preferred if the destination is far enough as per people’s subjective opinions (see chart below for reference). According to this study, about 70% of travelers preferred taking cars or autonomous vehicles, even for 7-hours drives, especially if the alternative of flying required them to rent a car at their destination. Only 40% of them preferred a car for that duration, if they had to drive. The statistics deviate to 42% favorable for autonomous vehicles against 15%, if drive is 11-hour drive.

Unlike smaller, budget airlines, passengers expect more reliable and better services from legacy players including United. Without being able to handle proper follow-ups, it’s getting harder for customers to justify choosing to fly with United or with airplanes period.

My entire United flight experience made me want to explore solutions that United could have done to make my experience more decent. For example, each ground staff could have had, at least pretended to have, a sense of ownership when responding to customers. This should have been the case even if they weren’t particularly responsible for what the customer was asking and had to relay the issue to other staff members who could better address it. Amongst all comments I could have brought up, I want to focus the solution on two things- the principle of least astonishmentI, and IKEA effects.

The principle of least astonishment

In customer support, it is important to guide frustrated customers to feel that there will be a resolution for their troubles. Anxiety for unknown arrival time was one, but as my situation worsened, I was more worried about United not recognizing my trouble at the equal cost of my engagement. I had wasted my time and hotel charge, not to mention the opportunity cost. I simply didn’t trust that United would recognize my trouble and provide a fair compensation for my personally accrued cost.

The POLA is a design principle that says: design should behave as each user expects. Typically customer relationships get destroyed, because marketing often drives high expectations. Although this is completely not United’s fault, I selected UA2080 flight out of 14 of their other flights, because Google flight suggested it to have less delay chance compared to others. Thus, my setback from the expectation was even larger than it otherwise would’ve been.

Fyre festival was full of existing astonishment, at least for documentary viewers (Image source: With Hulu and Netflix’s Fyre Festival Docs, Instagram Influencers Get Their Gimme Shelter | Mashable)

Each support touch point was an opportunity for United to present a realistic resolution to its customers’ problem. The first step, in my case, was to receive an updated flight time. However, as they failed to meet all updated schedules, customers stopped seeing any of the presented updates as a resolution. Instead, everything sounded like a joke. For example, I could have changed my flight to an earlier time if they had made a decision to cancel my original flight sooner. Instead, every update couldn’t be taken seriously.

While contiguous updates about delays were announced, I wondered if my credit card would cover some of the cost of my delay (some credit cards have clear insurance policies that insures users for a predetermined cost for delays over a set number of hours). This predetermined resolution for quantifiable trouble was clear to qualify to me.

If United had shown their policies on delayed or cancelled flights, could it have managed our expectations better?

30-minute guarantee for Domino’s Pizza is still a strong driver to attract customers in new markets (Image source)

Another example of the POLA principle can be found in Domino’s Pizza. Domino’s pizza had been famous for its 30-min guarantee delivery system, and their pizzas became free in the case of late deliveries (over 30 minutes). This simple policy without complex conditions was a strong marketing drive for their expansion. Although airline business costs are larger and their operation is more complex, the clarity of an unconditional policy in Domino’s case may be applied to insurance policies for flight delays.

The app mockup below shows an example of a flight delay due to a mechanical problem. Screen 4 does not only show updated information, but it also displays the current delay in relation to different flight delay policy milestones in a meter format. In this case, the delay is under mechanical category, which could provide more generous returns for customers, considering that this is a controllable variable, in contrast to weather or natural disasters that United cannot plan for.

For example, if this flight got delayed over 3 hours, passengers would receive 10% of their cash back (30% for 6 hour delays or 100% for 12+ hour delays). In the case of weather caused delays, United’s policy could be to give $60 meal vouchers at 12 hour delay mark. The key is to present the policy formula to passengers in advance of the delays so that passengers know they will have some form of compensation. Additionally, the formula should clearly demonstrate that these passengers would receive increasing returns as the situation worsens. A clear policy may also incentivize the company to switch passengers to other flights sooner, especially for those with connecting flights.

IKEA Effect

In comparison to unfriendly interactions with ground staff, all cabin attendants were extremely friendly and helpful. I even sympathized with them, because they had to spend hours with frustrated customers when the delay was not their fault. This sympathy inspired me to explore a solution by applying the IKEA effect.

IKEA effect — the increase in valuation of self-made products (Image source)

IKEA effect is the cognitive bias that causes people to see a disproportionately higher value in something when they are involved in creating the product (please refer to more from my past post about IKEA planning studio: IKEA without Impulsive Buy or IKEA Effects: New NYC Planning Studio). The name comes from IKEA furniture and the involvement with simple yet time-consuming building efforts the customer has. Consequently, customers seem to feel more love toward the furniture that they built.

A classic example is Betty Crocker instant cake mixes by General Mills in the 1950s. The psychologist Ernest Dichter advised the company to require adding fresh eggs instead of keeping powdered eggs that were previously already in the mix. Housewives then loved how their cakes suddenly felt like their own creations due to a simple personal input. The United flight may also reduce passengers’ frustrations by giving them the opportunity to take action or make decisions by themselves instead of waiting for and relying on United’s assistance.

Ready-to-cook kits are modern version of Betty Crocker cake mix from 1950s — the classic example of IKEA effect (Image source: Blue Apron Links With Dieters in Comeback Effort | The Wall Street Journal)

For example, at each delay mark from the previous solution, the app could provide simple choices:

  1. Keep the same flight and receive some returns in the worst case
  2. Switch to another flight that would depart sooner, but requires a layover
  3. Fly the following day instead with a free upgrade
  4. Cancel now and receive a $200 voucher in addition to a full refund of the original flight cost

The key is to lead customers to feel they are solving this problem by making choices. Choices should be fewer each time and should demonstrate clear pros and risks. It would make it easier for customers to keep coming back and make more changes as the situation changed.

Additionally, when I was at the airport, I noticed that 3 or 4 passengers got together to share and verify the updates given for the flight delay. Given this sharing attitude, as one passenger finds an optimal solution, the app can hint at him/her to share it with others with the same destination. Other passengers may be helped by this information, and the original passenger gets connected to other passengers in the same situation, allowing them to help each other. The first passenger may be rewarded by helping others, and this also helps them feel more responsible with their decision.

After I came home, I sent an email to United that explained my horrible experience, but I did not receive any reply from them. I was not reimbursed for my hotel payments, so I simply hope to get a refund for a seat upgrade that I made, as promised. I am a frequent Star Alliance flyer, and I hope United will do and become better than this situation has shown me.

I was reinvited to the event in San Francisco. Of all other choices, I decided to take the exact same UA2080 flight, today!! If this flight is as disastrous as the last one, I will create another post with more ideas. I simply hope that’s not the case.

At last, here is my detailed timeline on that day, legible version.

Please don’t waste your time by going through this.

9:00am

  • On the subway to the airport, I find out my flight is now expecting a delay of over 3 hours 😞

9:50am

  • At the United counter, I ask one of the staff members if I can look for another flight, because of the delay. She tells me to go talk to another guy. No smiles nor signs of compassion. 😞
  • I go over to another United employee and ask the same question. He tells me to go talk to another staff member. Again, no smiles nor signs of compassion. 😞
  • I go over to another employee and ask the same question. He just says, “So?” followed by silence. In the end, there was no flight that arrives sooner, so I decided not to change the flight. Of course, no smiles, nor signs of compassion. 😤
  • I go over to another person and ask if I have a lounge access (I should have a lounge access given my Star Alliance status, but it was not printed on my ticket). She looks pissed off, and tells me, “If it’s not printed, no. If you think you have an access, just go and try.” Not a smile, but she simply looks annoyed before I even say anything. 😤

3:15pm

  • I go over to the gate, and all passengers are informed that the flight is going to be further delayed.

3:35pm

  • 👮 (The captain) explains the flight estimations and United’s plan to arrive at the destination as fast as possible, at the gate before boarding starts.

3:50pm

  • I receive a text message saying, “We’re now boarding flight UA2080 to San Francisco. We look forward to seeing you on board soon.” 🙄
  • Passengers beginstart to board the plane, but the plane doesn’t depart from the gate for a while.

4:45pm

  • The plane taxis at the gate for a while, and passengers are informed that flight control will not allow any flights to take off due to severe weather.
  • I receive another text message informing me of this further delay🙄

5:05pm

  • I receive yet another text message informing me of an even further delay🙄

5:35pm

  • 👮 informs us that we are on the 12th slot to take off and currently waiting our turn.🤩

5:40pm

  • I receive another text message: “We’re sorry for the additional delay. Severe thunderstorms over Newark are currently blocking our departure route, and we hope to have you on your way shortly. We know this wasn’t part of your plans, and we appreciate your continued patience as we wait for weather conditions to improve.” 🙄

6:50pm

  • 👮 informs us that there is a mechanical issue, and the plane has to go back to the gate. The team would try to fix this as soon as possible.

7:20pm

  • We are informed that this flight is now cancelled and told to go to customer service. I anticipate that calling won’t connect me to the proper agent, so I decide to go back to the lounge and talk to an agent there.🙄

7:25pm

  • At the lounge entrance, there is one staff member who seems to be free to talk, so I ask if she can help. She tells me to go check-in the lounge with the other receptionist first and come back, and that she could help then. I check-in and go back to this person, and she just points at the line for the customer service and tells me to wait there.🙄

7:30pm

  • Another passenger on the same flight is on a call with customer service, and he is informed that there are no more flights from Newark to San Francisco for this day.

7:56pm

  • While still waiting for an agent, I receive another text message that the flight’s departure time has been changed to 8:15pm, departing from a different gate. If this information was fact, I would have had no time but to get onboard, so I decide to talk to someone at the lounge entrance. 🙄

7:57pm

  • The receptionist at the lounge entrance tells me they can only scan tickets to check if customers are allowed in the lounge or not. They cannot help me with anything else, so I decide to wait for a customer service agent. 🙄

8:15pm

  • I get to talk to a customer service agent, and she tells me that United has found another aircraft, which was arriving from San Francisco, so all passengers are guided to this new aircraft. The estimated departure time for the flight is now 9:00pm, but the arriving aircraft is scheduled to land around 8:45pm, so we are expected to depart no later than 9:00pm. 🤩

9:05pm

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 9:35pm. 🙄

9:45pm

  • We board the plane.

10:05pm

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 10:30pm. 🙄
  • The new 👮 explains that the aircraft is waiting for the catering services, which are legally required to fly.

10:20pm

  • Flight attendants hand some sandwiches to passengers, which have been personally purchased by 👮. 😍

10:45pm

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 10:59pm. 😑
  • 👮 further informs us on the catering service situation, and he sounds frustrated as well. 🙂

11:00pm

  • 👮 has to be switched, because the team wouldn’t make it to San Francisco by the time their shift is up. So we wait for a new crew. 😑

11:32pm

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 11:45pm. 😑

11:50pm

  • All flight attendants also have to leave the flight for the same shift scheduling reason. We wait for new flight attendants. 😑

12:00am

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 12:15am. 😑

12:20am

  • I received another message informing me that the flight is scheduled to depart at 12:35am. 😑

1:30am

  • I receive another message informing me that the flight is officially cancelled.🤪

1:46am

  • I receive an email with $175 travel certificate that expires in 1 year. 😤

2:00am

  • I talk to an agent, and the next possible flight is leaving Friday night, arriving Saturday at midnight. She offers me only a meal voucher. However, I later found out that I was supposed to receive a hotel or taxi voucher, because it was a mechanical problem. I wish I had known in advance, and as explained throughout this article, would encourage United to make this clear to manage passenger expectations and maintain positive client relationships. 😤

Follow on Medium: https://uxdesign.cc/what-could-united-have-done-on-that-day-5c0fd86b4aa7

References

5 Ways Airlines Can Improve The Customer Experience: The Points Guy | Newsweek

People hate flying, and it could lead to the demise of the airline industry | Fast Company

This is what people hate the most about flying | New York Post

Here Are All the World’s Airlines Ranked By On-Time Performance (Congrats to Hawaiian, Alaska, Delta and United) | Insperity

Southwest Airlines Gives $5,000 to Passengers on Fatal Flight | Bloomberg

Stats: Newark Airport Had Worst On-Time Performance in 2017 | Travel Agent Central

Google Flights will now predict airline delays — before the airlines do | TechCrunch

6 Airline ‘Improvements’ — and What We Want Instead | SmarterTravel

The Beautifully Efficient Airplane Boarding Method That Mere Humans Just Can’t Pull Off | Popular Mechanics

20 Scandals United Airlines Wants Kept Under Wraps | The Things

Astonishment, Expectations And Reality In User Experience | TechCrunch

How the ‘Ikea effect’ subtly influences how you spend | BBC

The “IKEA Effect”: When Labor Leads to Love | Harvard Business School

Use The IKEA Effect To Ramp Up Shopper Engagement | Forbes

How the “Ikea effect” explains today’s startups | Fast Company

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