Who you deal with on the phone when you call an airline matters greatly, even when you have elite status. A recent pair of interactions with United Airlines demonstrates this vividly.
Two United Airlines 1K Phone Agents: Two Very Different Outcomes
1K is United’s top-tier published status, given to passengers who fly quite a bit and spend quite a bit on their United tickets. One of the perks of travel is dedicated reservation agents with minimal hold times to help with your travel needs.
A 1K Award Expert client encountered a massive schedule change on his award ticket from Croatia back to the United States. And when I say massive, his LOT Polish flight moved back three days! That hardly works when you are on a cruise ship…
In these situations, when no other “saver” award space exists, United will typically open up a saver seat on its own metal. So, for example, instead of flying LOT Polish from Dubrovnik to Warsaw to Chicago you might be rebooked on Lufthansa from Dubrovnik to Frankfurt (assuming award space is available) and then United from Frankfurt to Chicago. Even if the United flight shows no saver space, United’s support desk can open up a seat since the change you are making is actually involuntary.
I thought it would be a quick phone call to make this change. But when we called, the 1K agent who answered very politely but very firmly said there was nothing she could do. Our conversation went something like this after I suggested the itinerary:
Agent: “I’m so sorry. I’ve looked at space and see nothing at the saver level.”
Me: “Sure, but let’s look at opening a seat on a United flight.”
Agent: “No, they don’t allow that.”
Me: “Would you mind at least trying?”
Agent: “It’s just not possible. I’m sorry. The only thing I can do is refund the ticket.”
Me: “No, no. Let’s leave it alone and hope that saver space opens later.”
So helpful, so very helpful…what an intolerable level of apathy that evidences poor training and a lack of customer service.
We called again. This time, the interaction was very different. Once again, I specified which itinerary would be acceptable and asked if she could open up a saver seat on United due to the scheduled change. 20 minutes later (it apparently took some time to reach her support desk) it was done.
Such different outcomes are not uncommon: you really have to discern if your agent is willing to help or not. I was very kind with the first agent and did not argue at all, for fear she would leave a negative note in the record. Be careful not to argue, as negative notes can make your life much more difficult (agents seem to back-up the previous agent by default when it is documented).
Even with top tier status, the agent you speak to matters. Imagine if an unexperienced traveler just allowed the first agent to cancel the reservation. There was no other space – the traveler would be left with nothing and United would be off the hook. And of course this scenario is not unique to United Airlines (as we saw yesterday with American Airlines). So if you don’t get the answer you are looking for from your reservations agents, remain kind and calm, hang up, and try again.