United airlines versus Switzerland

Since my time in the US, I am a long-standing United airlines (actually Continental) customer. I enjoyed the service and especially the modern computer system. The transparency of United operations towards their customers is just years ahead of their competition. I simply enjoy viewing the seat map, upgrade standby list, boarding pass etc. in my app or online. The even nicer feature is to see where the next plane comes from and if it is still on schedule. Yes, I’m a geek but kudos United!

Well, now I live in Switzerland (ZRH as main airport) and sometimes catch myself considering to switch. My last flight was again one of these moments … let me elaborate.

I’m usually traveling on tight schedules (because I unfortunately travel too much). This means, my plane usually starts boarding when my train arrives in the station. The time to get to the gate is very deterministic. So far, I have done this for intra-European flights, and it works great! After United sent me this email about the online check-in and app, I thought I’ll try it for overseas as well – what can go wrong!?

Well, so I checked in using the app — worked great as expected. Then, I made my first mistake: I asked at the check-in to reconfirm if that would work (I was on a very tight time schedule and needed to get breakfast in the lounge, so I could not afford to go back and forth). Ok, they told me that I need to repeat (at least parts of) the check-in procedure. So this took forever, as usual, this is why I used the app check in in the first place. So far, overall, a time loss (needed to do both, app check in and counter check in …). Uff! Also, the personnal seemed unfriendly as usual, they’re not United reps after all and it seems they don’t care much about service or the perception of the airline in general.

Ok, at the end, I proceeded to ask if United managed to buy into the Panorama lounge so I cound get breakfast. This requires a bit of explanation: the international terminal E in ZRH has no SWISS lounge. United only cooperates with SWISS afaik, which operates a lounge in A. So all Staralliance member airlines BUT United buy into the Panorama lounge which seems to be somewhat independent. There are immigration and train between A and E, so no way to quickly change terminals. So I asked if United managed to buy into the E lounge, the person at check-in reconfirmed with the apparent lead and both agreed that I could, as a Staralliance Gold member with an Eco ticket use the E lounge now (this was after I explicitly told them that this did not used to be this way). Ok, great, so I minimize the risk of missing the plane which was boarding at that time.

When showing up at the E lounge, I was told that I was not allowed in. They even tried calling check-in or a United representative – nada, apparently all at the gate. So they called the gate and got the answer “the plane is already boarding, so send the customer down”. Well, I wonder if they have breakfast for me at the gate. Total fail United, total fail! The lounge desk personnel was not further willing to continue this discussion, so I went to the gate and asked about the situation.

First, somebody from swissport (the company that United hires for managing check-in etc.): I said I wanted to complain about their process. Apparently swissport doesn’t even have a mechanism to complain and they sent me to complain to United. Seriously, they do NOT have such a channel — well, this makes it just too obvious how much they care about the customer. Ok, finally, there was a United representative at check-in (first time I saw somebody from United at the ground in ZRH actually). So I explained my situation and got a “sorry, they must have made a mistake”. It was, like often, with this latent, one could call it arrogant, “well, maybe it’s your fault and you may not have understood what they really said/meant” sub-tone. Gaaaaaaaa! At this point, I was ready to go up any wall, and nearly lost my temper. I repeated that I clearly understood what they said (even what they discussed in German) and that it was a very simple question after all. Fail #2: don’t treat customers like idiots (at least check before if they are).

Ok, accepting this mess (the boarding process was coming to an end), I explained that my major problem with this is that I didn’t have breakfast. Immediately, they pointed me to the airport shop so I can go and buy a “Gipfeli”. Wow, you screw up and then you ask me to fix it myself — great cutomer care! I asked explicitly if they wouldn’t have some snack in the plane – I got a clear no (which we all know is false). Ok, so I bought my breakfast before running into the plane … wow. I mean, it’s really not about the $20 breakfast, but the total unwillingness to (1) accept that something went wrong on their side and (2) trying to fix it, even a little bit!

And then, I get into the plane and it’s like a different planet. As usual, everybody is friendly and helpful. The purser (who is now called “International Service Manager”) asked for feedback and I told him the story. He suggested to send the story (especially since the situation in ZRH is latently suboptimal) to United. I also got to talk to the United sales manager for Switzerland for quite a while. We had very interesting discussions and I even learned something, well, I’m glad I left the problems on the ground but I’m not really looking forward to checkin in to the next flight ;-) .

One more somewhat riduculous issue in the context of United vs. Switzerland is that, sometimes, one has to use SWISS as a carrier (based on either route or time). United sells code-share tickets but really nothing seems to work between the two airlines. For example, there is no way that either SWISS or United can reserve a seat for such a flight. Yes, not even SWISS can! Sorry, what!? My secretary gave up after hours on the phone … so I’m not even looking forward to the return flight the day after tomorrow (probably 9 hours in a middle seat …). Gaaa! This seems to be the most effective way to get rid of frequent fliers. Thank you.