Thursday, November 18, 2010

The $400 that slipped away

A warning to all those crazies for whom the phrases "overbooked flight", "looking for volunteers", and "alternate routing via Spokane, El Paso and Halifax" might spontaneously release a flood of endorphins: the airlines don't always play fair.

Case in point: a few days ago I found myself awaiting the boarding of an overbooked flight, and the experience ended with a distinctly disappointing outcome -- though not for the reasons a casual reader might expect. To illustrate the event and provide a valuable take-away, indulge, fair reader, into the (privileged and confidential -- no, not really) communique that I dispatched to the senior tranches of United management (no, actually just to outsourced henchmen on the subcontinent):


To Whom It May Concern:

I am disappointed with a recent experience of volunteering my seat on an overbooked flight. The experience occurred yesterday, November **, 2010, at San Francisco airport and concerned UA ***, SFO-IAD.

While waiting at the gate for boarding to commence, I learned from a gate agent that UA *** was overbooked, and I asked for my name to be added to the list of potential volunteers. In conversation with another agent, I learned that I was at the top of the list. Then, as boarding commenced, the agents indicated that they*d need my seat and those of several other volunteers. The agents proceeded to process some of the other volunteers, off-loading them from UA *** and re-booking them on subsequent flights. Finally, as boarding was finishing, an agent indicated that my seat would not be needed after all, and that I could board UA ***.

My disappointment stems from the fact that I don't believe gate agents followed the proper order in processing volunteers. The belief is based on the information from one of the agents that I was at the top of the list of volunteers and, furthermore, on the improbability that all the volunteers processed before me held 1K or Global Service status.

In closing, I hesitate with submitting this claim, as the issue is not particularly serious. Furthermore, one of the agents was apologetic about the turn of events and personally escorted me to the aircraft to ensure that I found space in the overhead bins for my carry-on luggage. Yet, I have chosen to write after all because I felt let down by the whole experience, and the experience might highlight an area in which United could better manage its relations with its frequent fliers.



What is, in brief, a salient take-away from this experience? For one, the utility of being a "nice guy" does have its limits. On the one hand, maintaining a sociable and unhurried demeanor is surely appropriate when interacting with stressed agents contorting to dispatch an overbooked aircraft without sacrificing punctuality. And not only is such sentiment socially appropriate, it is also economically efficient, as it increases the chances of karma returning once the agents process volunteers' re-booking and issue compensation. But on the other hand, being too detached and amicable can invite fulfillment of the aphorism: "Nice guys finish last."

Indeed, that's exactly what happened to me. Despite being at the head of the volunteer list (and of this I'm certain), I did not push for priority processing; instead, I gave the agents some space, watching as they processed several other volunteers. Then, when they unexpectedly found themselves with an extra seat, I was the odd man out. Going forward, the savvy traveller (er, the selfish crazy!) would do well to tweak his relationship strategy with gate agents to avoid the risk becoming a push-over.

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