United Employee Cancels A Customer’s Airline Ticket Because He Videotaped Their Argument

United Airlines has moved to make major changes to their internal procedures since the dragging incident that caused a tremendous media uproar.  They announced changes to the amount of money they offer for customers who voluntarily choose to take a later flight.  And, they announced a renewed focus on customer service.

Some of those changes are due to their own internal discussions on how to improve.  There’s also a desire not to have congress step in to regulate the airlines further, a heck of a motivation.  While the United dragging incident is the most visible recently, the public as a whole is looking for a pound of flesh for the degradation of customer service overall in the airline industry.

It’s a long process to change a deeply seated belief that the customer isn’t the first priority.  Today’s news of an United Airlines employee canceling a customer’s ticket over a disagreement is a prime example of that.  Take a look for yourself:

The Customer Is A Big Part Of The Problem

The customer was upset that they were getting charged a different amount to check their bag on their return flight as opposed to the outbound flight.  When the discussion got heated, they started videotaping the argument.  To be clear, I’m 100% in disagreement with the customer’s actions.  Videotaping a disagreement with someone else is rarely going to de-escalate the situation.  If their goal was to get their bag checked at the lower price, trying to embarrass the employee their dealing with is unlikely to aid their cause.

The Employee Needs To Understand They Were Wrong

No matter what the customer did here, the employee is wrong.  The statement from United doesn’t actually say that, but I hope they believe it.  If there’s any hope of breaking the cycle of combat vs. customer service, it’s dealing with this type of issue directly.  The airlines are customer service businesses.  Even though the customer’s behavior is escalating the situation, the agent has a role to play.  They need to help the customer, even if they’re delivering bad news.  Maybe the first fee was right, maybe it was wrong.  It really doesn’t matter.  My guess is there was considerable back and forth before the video we watched.  The situation kept escalating.

It’s hard to tell whether this was an issue of empowerment or behavior.  Did the employee have the authority to propose a solution?  If not, should they?  Did the company prepare her for a customer filming them?  No doubt she would have been better off excusing herself and getting a manager.  United certainly would have been.

The Final Two Pennies

This won’t be the last story about a conflict between airline employees and customers.  Customers are upset.  In a lot of ways, they have a right to be.  They don’t deserve to be treated poorly.  That customer wasn’t helping their situation.  But, canceling his ticket was a huge escalation to the situation.  Whatever comes next is significantly more painful than many alternatives.

United Airlines will pay a price for this video.  The question is whether they’ll get what they paid for, and learn a lesson on how to engage their front-line employees.  They need to prepare them to properly deal with an increasingly belligerent customer base.  And, they need to remove those employees who aren’t prepared.

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18 Comments

  1. UA employees act like dictators and treat customers like imbeciles — they refuse to accept that the customer may be right/treat the customer like an intelligent person. in this case the customer had a valid argument — he had paid $125 for a bag on the previous flight. the UA dragon should have at least been willing to discuss it instead of dictating that the fee would be $300 and then canceling his reservation because he was filming her — it’s clear from the video who the hostile one was. the customer filmed her because that was all the recourse he had at that point. hopefully he finally managed to speak to a supervisor. some organizations (schools too in our experience) have a culture of hostility and contempt, and UA is obviously one of them.

    1. Stacey, the only thing we disagree on is whether the customer had other recourse. I agree that the employee handled it poorly. But, the customer could have asked for a supervisor or chose to file a complaint later. The video didn’t help him solve it. His credit card statement and a picture of the scale would have been proof enough.

      1. the bottom line is: who is paying, and who is being paid? nobody’s doing anybody any favors here. the one being paid should have been doing her job, which *should* include a modicum of courtesy since she’s in a service industry. when i was working at a 7-11 during my college days, even if a drunk walked in we were told to address them as “sir” and ask if we could help. there was no question of being abusive or hostile.

  2. When in the hell did it become appropriate or acceptable to stuff a camera in someone’s face and start filming them … because you are having a disagreement over fees.

    There are countless ways to respectfully escalate or seek resolution in a case like this. This guy apparently did not choose that route.

    The next time I’m at the grocery store and the price of bananas shows up incorrectly on the cashier’s scale, I’m going to stuff a camera in her face and threaten to post her response on social media unless she concedes. Yep. That’s the intelligent and mature way to do it.

  3. I’ve got no issue with videotaping the discussion on bag fees. its not up to the customer to de-escalate. What if they told you “its $300 for your bag. if you don’t like it, pound sand” What are you supposed to do at that point? Just roll over?

    1. Rjb, no need to roll over. But, video doesn’t solve it. At that point, I’d ask for a supervisor. Failing that, I’d take a pic of the scale. And, keep in mind the customer could have been wrong.

    2. you said it — it’s not up to the customer to de-escalate. the customer isn’t supposed to know the airline’s policies/exceptions. if the agent knew the reason for the increased fee she should have explained to the customer what that was. maybe there was a valid reason, but as far as the customer knew he was being ripped off because he’d just paid $125 for the same bag. i fly SQ and UA about equally, and the contrast is astounding … SQ agents are equally firm, but they’re certainly not militant, aggressive, hostile or abusive.

  4. The fact is, airline policies and fees are too complex on most airlines, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to conclusively determine fees in advance, and where even airline staff make mistakes (all too frequently). There’s also a 101 different ways to avoid or reduce fees, each which have their own layers of complexity. IMO, the problem is this level of complexity. Airlines should simplify their fees, simplify their product and have less exceptions. Where there are fees, they should be available and printed clearly on the purchase receipt or even on the boarding pass. That would do a lot of alleviate these kinds of disagreements.

    1. Ross, I agree fees are complex. To some degree, we as customers helped drive that by choosing low-cost carriers over the legacy carriers. We might say we hate being “feed” to death, but there are a lot of people flying those low-cost carriers paying those fees.

      1. I’m not against fees per say, it’s the complexity of fees that I see as the problem. Situations like this might never occur if the customer had a clear understanding of what those fees would be and they were applied consistently.

  5. I finally had a chance to look at the video. The customer service agent explained that the linear dimensions of the bag were greater than 62 inches and that the reason for the additional fee. The customer agreed to pay the fee but the agent refused to accept it because he was videotaping her. His videotaping her is a pretty aggressive thing to do, and the passenger may indeed be a dick, but the bottom line is that he offered to pay United airlines $300 to transport the bag. She should’ve shut her mouth, collected the $300, checked him in and moved on. The customer was apparently trying to speak with management, but was getting nowhere. management did nothing because his ticket was canceled and he wasn’t transported by United airlines. So it looks to me (again) like multiple United airlines personnel were involved, but no one was able to take the mans money and move on.

    1. Rjb, agree. Even if the customer was screaming while videotaping, there was a better resolution by the employee. If the employee doesn’t get that (and union rules preclude UA from terminating), then folks like this need to be moved to roles that aren’t customer facing.

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