United’s Customer Service Fiasco

One of my all-time favorite television programs is The Andy Griffith Show.

Don Knotts brilliantly portrayed the nervous, by-the-book Deputy Barney Fife. A number of plots in the show’s early years went like this: Deputy Barney used his authority to enforce the letter of the law, creating sticky and frequently hilarious situations. Sheriff Andy Taylor would intervene, to Barney’s initial dismay, counteracting his deputy’s orders for the benefit of those caught up in the mishap.

If I had my way, these plots would be required viewing for United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz.

United needed to clear four seats on a flight to Louisville, Ky. from Chicago O’Hare. The seats were needed to transfer a new United crew for a Louisville-based flight.

This is an ugly task: replace four paying customers with four of your own employees, and make these changes on the plane where everyone already had been boarded.

This situation has trouble written all over it, and one would think the airline proceeds with extreme caution and understanding. Instead, here’s what happened: The next flight to Louisville was nearly 24 hours in the future, so United offered $400 and a free hotel room in exchange for vacating the seat. No takers. They upped the dollar value of this offer to $800. Still no one interested.

Thus began the dreaded involuntary bumping. Three of the four passengers left the plane without incident, but the fourth, a Kentucky physician, refused to budge.

69-year-old David Dao insisted he had patients to see the next day, and getting home was a priority. His refusal led to a call from the United crew to airport security. The result was a violent, ugly scene captured on a passenger’s smartphone video that has gone viral. Video shows Dao’s face bloodied, and it shows security dragging him down the aisle and out of the plane as men, women and children watched.

Millions of outraged social media users vowed never to fly United again. Comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel had a field day. An online contest popped up, soliciting new United Airlines slogans.

As some laughed, many others saw this as a sad, completely avoidable event.  These observers were infuriated by the way United forged ahead with such heavy-handed tactics.

What many did not understand is that everything United did was within the letter of the law.

Airlines are allowed to overbook flights and bump paying passengers. If they wind up with too few seats, they must ask for volunteers who are willing to be bumped to another flight. After that, they are permitted to involuntarily bump passengers, even those who have been ticketed and seated in the cabin.

Airline crews also have the power to determine who will fly and who will leave the plane. They work with airport security to remove passengers who could pose an annoyance or threat in a confined space. I have no quarrel with this policy. In fact, if it is ever reversed, I’ll trade airline tickets for a cabin on a ship or train.

The problem is that United, like fictional Barney Fife, fails miserably at finding solutions rooted in customer service, adhering instead to a rigid legalism.

The latest J.D Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study puts United at the bottom of the rankings for traditional carriers, the same position it ranked the previous year.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik poses the hypothesis that United employees who deal directly with travelers might not have the authority to resolve problems. These employees, often at the bottom of the corporate food chain, might fear losing their jobs far more than the loss of a customer or the threat of a public relations disaster. In light of that fear, they will cite chapter and verse from the contract of carriage, no matter the costs.

Hiltzik points to Muñoz’s initial internal memo on the Dao matter. It wasn’t a pledge to serve the flying public and an outright apology. Instead, Muñoz observed that the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Perhaps under the airline’s culture, they indeed had “no choice.”

It took a third statement from the CEO to finally produce something resembling an appropriate apology — a statement crafted (finally) with the paying public in mind.

The impending investigation and litigation will uncover the details of this ill-fated, involuntary bump of a paying passenger. In retrospect, an offer of $2,000 to take that next-day flight might have saved the airline millions.

But who has the authority to authorize that kind of incentive?

United and other airlines would do well to change their corporate cultures and empower people who deal directly with the flying public. Give them the latitude to put an end to these situations quickly and, if necessary, outside of the letter of the contract of carriage.

This would allow airlines in potentially damaging moments to, as Barney Fife would say, “nip it in the bud” and end the threat. Sheriff Andy Taylor would grin and nod his approval.

In an industry heavily dependent on repeat customers, it also would make good business sense.

Do You Keep a Daily Travel Diary?

How do you keep your travel diary?

Those of us who write about travel find it essential to keep a daily accounting of where, what, and, of course, how: the gritty details that will help other travelers experience the same pleasures. Document costs, addresses, schedules, and more.

But do other travelers feel this persistent need to keep this daily diary as they’re trying to relax and enjoy a vacation?

I am making the argument that they should do so.

Many are good at taking pictures to document a trip. But as months and years pass, the details of the trip are not always fully captured in these images. In years past, they’d be developed and sit in envelopes, waiting to be transferred to albums. These days, they linger untouched in digital files largely forgotten on an external drive or in cloud storage.

But the camera lens might have missed the helpful docent who provided valuable, time-saving tips for visiting that massive museum. There might not be any images of the clever shortcut that saved 30 minutes of idling in the sluggish big-city traffic. Details like these vanish, or become so hazy that they’re of little use to others. Perhaps just as importantly, they disappear from your list of good travel memories.

How should a traveler document each day? Some will emerge from a favorite bookstore with Moleskine writing tablets, and scribble every detail. Others will set up a laptop during the train ride from Montreal to Quebec City and pour out the details of the previous day while still fresh on the mind.

Perhaps you’d like to create a blog to preserve your travel experiences. GetJealous.com provides a service where “you can show people photos and diary entries, they can send you and each other messages on the message board, and a map will plot where you are and where you have just been.” Another service that uses the tagline “Creating your own diary has never been more fun” is TravelDiariesApp.com. Here you can save pictures, create maps, and keep the whole thing completely to yourself if you wish. Click another link, and you can share your experiences with others.

These suggestions are only intended to start you on the road to documenting your experiences — both good and bad — for the benefit of others and for your future entertainment. It will become a habit, and it’s a good habit to take into the new year as you plan your travels.



Rediscovering the Oregon Trail


Just more than 90 years ago, my late father was born in Jefferson County, Nebraska. This rural county on the Kansas border has been losing population for decades. The interstate highway system never touches the county, bypassing its county seat of Fairbury.

But this area was once the focal point of the nation’s most daring, ambitious travelers.

In the late 1850s, the Oregon Trail brought quite a few travelers through Jefferson County. It’s possible to walk on the actual trail, preserved in Rock Creek State Historical Park. You can still see the deep ruts the steady stream of wagon trains carved into the landscape more than 150 years ago.

This was also the route of the Pony Express. Here at Rock Creek Station, riders would quickly change horses and continue their sprints across the prairie. Recruits were to be “wiry of build, and preferably orphans.” There were stations like this across the Pony Express route, spaced according to the length of trail on which a horse would begin to tire.

At this point in the Oregon Trail, Rock Creek was little more than a ravine. But it posed one of the first major topographical obstacles for the westbound travelers. The property owner built a bridge across Rock Creek, and charged the travelers a toll for its use.

This remote station was the scene of a murder that grabbed national attention. “Wild Bill” Hickok was judged to have acted in self-defense, but the shootout was fictionalized and exploited by dime novelists as Hickok’s reputation and legend grew.

The difficulties faced along the Oregon Trail are well-documented. Illness claimed the largest number of lives. It was a risky passage with no guarantees of success. Of the half-million who made the trip during a 20-year stretch, about 10 percent died en route.

That’s quite a bit of history for an area largely unknown to the rest of the country.

Visiting Rock Creek Station’s restored buildings and visitor center requires the purchase of a one-day Nebraska Park Entry Permit for the modest sum of $5. Finding the place is a bit of a challenge. It’s a few miles east of Fairbury at the intersection of 710th Rd. and 574th Ave.

Discoveries like this will enhance your travel experience. Get off the main roads and find out more about the states and regions you visit. And while you’re at it, try to imagine how difficult such travel was in the days before paved roads and internal combustion engines.

Just How Expensive is Your Flight?


The U.S. Department of Transportation wants airlines to be more transparent about fees that impact the cost of air travel.

Secretary Anthony Foxx wants a new rule that would require airlines to prominently display their added fees at ticketing time.

Here’s an excerpt of the DOT news release on May 21: “Currently, fees for additional services are often difficult to determine when searching for airfares and as a result, many consumers are unable to understand the true cost of travel before purchasing a ticket.”

Airlines are not happy about the proposed rule, and management claims adding this burden will result in higher costs that will be passed along to consumers.

However you might feel about government intervention in private enterprise, there is one good point to be made here: it’s often difficult to comparison shop, because the fee structures vary greatly from airline to airline. An airline with the lowest airfare but sky-high fees might not offer the cheapest ride.

Patrick Surry of Hopper.com published a study of how fees impact the true costs of flying. Surry found making changes in variables such as change fees and wi-fi availability “can significantly increase the true cost of flying.”

The analysis, for some reason, doesn’t include Southwest Airlines. But it is an interesting look at what it really costs to fly these days, and it should make us all think about what amenities we’re willing to pay for at time of ticket purchase, and which we gladly can forgo.

Ireland’s Gap of Dunloe


We all visit places that are greatly hyped and yet sometimes quite disappointing upon arrival. Then there are places about which you’ve heard relatively little, but that prove quite impressive from the first moment of your visit.

Put the Gap of Dunloe in Ireland’s County Kerry on that list of deeply satisfying, largely undersold experiences.

Just a few miles from the popular city of Killarney, the Gap of Dunloe does show up in Internet searches and pictured in the windows of tour operations. They can sell you a combination of bus excursion, hike and boat ride that forms a round-trip tour from Killarney.

But you need not part with a lot of money to enjoy this natural treasure.

If you have transportation (or can arrange a taxi ride), go to the parking lot at Kate Kearney’s cottage. The hiking trail starts there and continues for about 10 miles. The paved but narrow road will take you through green, rocky meadows, alongside sparkling lakes and eventually through the pass (or gap) from which the area gets its name. Along the way, you’ll see sheep, dodge horse-drawn carriages (and the manure they leave behind) and even a few automobiles (people do live in this area). But the enduring memories will be forged from the cool, fresh air and the impressive scenery on the edge of Killarney National Park.

County Kerry is famous for its two scenic drives: The Dingle Peninsula drive and the Ring of Kerry circuit. Hiking the Gap of Dunloe can be combined with either one of these drives, which can begin a short distance from the cottage.

A few words of warning: unlike those scenic drives, the Gap of Dunloe route is not a loop. If you walk forward four miles, you’ll be walking back that same distance. For families, it pays to hire one of those horse-drawn carriages (called jaunting carts) for at least part of the trip. You’ll also need protection from the elements. There are few shelters along the route, so have rain gear and a warm coat ready for the changing weather conditions.

This might be obvious advice, but it is worth adding: have your camera batteries charged and ready for action. Visiting the Gap of Dunloe will make you thankful anew for digital media. You’ll want to take far more pictures than would have been practical in the days of film.

Beware of Aggressive Insurance Pitches for Worthless Coverage

Consumer advocates are warning travelers to beware of “travel ‘protection’ insurance policies, which are often worthless to consumers.”

The National Consumers League did a study last year on trip-cancellation insurance. The group found that form of insurance is “aggressively marketed during the airline ticket-buying process.”

How aggressively? Quite frequently, there is one of those check boxes that is pre-clicked “for your convenience.” Consumers must actively decline the option (un-click the box) or they could unwittingly add the insurance to their tabs.

The study found that the exclusions — loopholes that relieve the insurance company from its obligation to pay — are also the most common reasons a consumer cancels a trip. Some examples: illness involving an existing medical condition, pregnancy or childbirth, termination of employment, date changes on a student’s test or a rescheduled business meeting.

Good advice: Never buy an insurance policy without checking and double-checking exclusions.

Another observation: Any company that tries to sneak into your shopping cart a worthless insurance policy probably has other tricks in store as well. It might be a good sign that it’s time to shop elsewhere.