United CEO Scott Kirby waxes eloquently about improving customer service and making United Airlines the best airline in the world. But when it comes to actually caring for customers in a consistent manner, United still has a long way to go. In the rudest of ways, my family was thrown out of the United Club in San Francisco (SFO) prior to our flight to Zurich earlier this week. The problem was more than the agents’ confusion over lounge admittance rules; it was their rude, apathetic, and downright nasty attitude.
Thrown Out of United Club In SFO By Rude and Indifferent Agents
Regular readers of this blog have accused me of being on the United Airlines payroll for my generally-positive coverage of United, but that is not the case. While United has been my preferred airline for nearly 20 years, there have been some rough patches over the years. While I am a very satisfied United flyer overall and optimistic about the future, what happened earlier this week reminds me that my favorite airline still has a long way to go in transforming its customer service model.
On Tuesday, the same day the incident occurred at the United Club F-Gates in SFO, Scott Kirby told employees during a town hall meeting:
“If we can deliver the kind of customer service I know we can – the kind that we delivered during the pandemic where we had a 30+ improvement in NPS – there really is nothing to stop us.
We’ve got the seven best hubs of any airline in the world, and I know many of you have heard executives stand on stages like this and tell you that in all the years that you’ve been here. We never did everything it took to realize the opportunity. That’s why we bought 270 airplanes today. It’s because we are going to do whatever it takes to realize our destiny. And our destiny is to be the biggest, the best airline – not just the biggest and best airline in the world, the biggest and the best in the history of aviation. So, who’s with me on this!?”
I believe Kirby is saying all the right things and have been impressed with his tenure thus far. I am particularly pleased with his emphasis on customer service. But there remains a disconnect between his words and the actions of many employees on the ground.
My family and I were traveling on SWISS from San Francisco to Zurich in economy class. We had lounge access on the basis of my Star Alliance Gold status. When you check-in for your SWISS flight, you are given a check-in confirmation that appears like a boarding pass, but does not have a barcode on it. It does include your name, flight date, flight number, gate, seat assignment, boarding time, confirmation number, and everything else a boarding pass includes.
We used this to access the United Club lounge in Los Angeles without any issue earlier in the day. It’s very simple: when a barcode is not available, agents enter the PNR, then scan your Star Alliance gold card. I’ve accessed lounges on this basis numerous times over the years.
But the agents in San Francisco immediately and rudely said we could not enter the lounge.
AGENT 1: This is not a boarding pass. You can’t come in.
ME: This is what SWISS gave me during check-in. They will issue an updated boarding pass at the gate after they verify our vaccination documents.
AGENT 1: Then go get it. You can’t come in with this.
ME: The agents are not at the gate yet. It is too early.
AGENT 1: *shrug* Then you cannot come in.
ME: That’s not the policy. You can easily enter our PNR, scan my Star Alliance Gold card, then allow us in on that basis.
The agent next to her then chimed in.
AGENT 2: Don’t tell us how to do our job. I’ve worked here for years.
ME: It’s not my first flight either. You should know the protocol for letting me in. I had no trouble at LAX earlier today.
AGENT 1: You’re not coming in. We have no idea if your ticket is real without a barcode.
AGENT 2: Those are the rules. You’re not coming in.
A Club member who witnessed the exchange chimed in our behalf. He told the agents they were in the wrong and that I should have access.
They sneered at him. He guested in my wife, which was a beautiful gesture, and then offered to accompany my four-year-old son and me to the SWISS gate to sort out the problem. As we began walking out of the club, the agents yelled at him:
AGENTS: Hey! Hey! You can’t leave her in here. If you’re leaving, she needs to get out now.
ME: She’s just changing my daughter’s diaper.
AGENT 1 (in the most dripping condescension): There are restrooms outside.
The member pleaded my case with the agents but they ordered us all out. I asked him if he would remain in the lounge a few minutes until my wife had changed my daughter’s diaper and he readily agreed. What a Good Samaritan.
I went outside, began walking toward the SWISS gates (a good 12-minute walk at the end of the international terminal), then just turned out around and came back. It wasn’t worth it. It was just the United Club. We’d all just head to the gate.
I’m not going to name names here, but I did record the agent’s names and have sent a formal complaint to 1K Voice, my first complaint in many years. I’ll let you know how United responds.
There are two issues at play. One is the technicality of what constitutes a boarding pass. Two, and more importantly in my eyes, is the rude, arrogant, condescending way my family and I were treated.
Let’s just say the barcode rule was correct (it’s really not…which is why I had no trouble accessing the lounge in LAX). Even if such a rule was in place, the agents treated us subhuman, like we were vermin trying to access their sacred temple.
I’ve got news for you – I would not fake documents to try to sneak into any United lounge. At the end of the day, it’s still a mediocre lounge with mediocre amenities. Still, this lounge has real sentimental attachment for me and I was looking forward to introducing my family to it and showing my son the constellations painted on the lobby ceiling.
Forget the fact that I am a 1K MillionMiler flyer with United. Their smug, arrogant, condescending language and manner was beyond inappropriate.
United has implored its employees to embrace Core4, this idea of being:
But when it comes to practice and not theory, these agents showed they were uncaring, undependable, and inefficient.
While I am hopeful that some retraining will solve the lounge dragon issues at SFO (actually a long-term problem there), my incident demonstrates that United must do more to teach its agents to be friendly, caring, courteous, and even to understand its own rules. It’s one thing to be confused over what constitutes a boarding pass. It’s quite another to treat passengers so poorly. There is simply no excuse.