Sunday, April 17, 2011

Continental and United: How to Lose A Customer's Money (That You Already Have)

I think I am officially abandoning my loyalty to Continental Airlines. Not because of anything they've done but because they're merging with United Airlines and United's complete indifference to customer service.

Let's back up a step.

When I'm traveling for work, as I am today--actually right now depending on what activities you include in the act of travel, I book full-fare tickets. These are not cheap tickets, but they are flexible -- fully refundable, fully changeable. It's not uncommon for a full-fare economy ticket to cost more than a first class ticket on the same flights. One of the other perks since the advent of bag fees is that the fare includes two free checked bags.

In theory, at least.

I'm headed back to Kansas City today. I couldn't find a nonstop flight on Continental today, so when searching for full-fare tickets Continental offered Continental-coded United-operated flights from Cleveland to Chicago (Ohare) and from Chicago to Kansas City. Fine. I booked it. I paid something like $1,400 for the privilege of not one but two barbie jets, but at least I don't have to worry about bag fees, right?


I went to check in with United and the kiosk warned me that "Additional Fees Will Apply". Pardon my Internet French, but WTF? Seriously, W...T...F? I call over the United employee and he immediately launched into the "the customer is always wrong" mode. When I asked for a supervisor, the priceless line "I'm all you get." Screw that. Seriously, screw that. I'm not going to pay more than a grand (be it my money or as in this case my company's money) to be insulted. I'm certainly not going to spend that plus another $60 to check the bags and be insulted.

I just don't roll that way.

So I tell him to refund the ticket. He spends a good ten minuted dawdling around before telling me that since it's a Continental issued ticket (a point I raised at the outset) I have to go talk to Continental to get the ticket refunded. So I roll down to Continental's counter. While the agents I spoke with contradicted Continental's baggage policy* they were both quite helpful and quite apologetic. When I asked what the add-collect (i.e. fare difference) to change the B-class ticket to Y-class they shocked me. $-10.

Yes, ten it's dollars less expensive for the ticket that (according to them) that doesn't have any bag fees.

I tell them to go ahead and reissue the ticket. Before they did that one of the agents offered to talk to the brute at United to make sure that that fix the problem on United's end. It would. They try to reissue the ticket but United's system won't let them. Continental has a non-stop but it's completely full and oversold. Continental can't get me to Kansas City without leaving my original flights as-is, and my having to pay the fees for the outbound.

And that's just not happening.

I had wondered if anything could drive me to the point of uttering the phrase "Cancel and refund the outbound segments" and I found it. The agents exhausting every possibility to fix the problem on their end and the United brute's unwillingness to manually waive the fees [even after being asked by the Continental agent who was assisting me] I saw no other option.

If I capitulated and paid the fees, United sees no downside to providing amazingly poor customer service combined with at-best shady business practices. I don't think the $500 in revenue I'm depriving them of will really be noticed, it's more symbolic than anything else -- but maybe someone somewhere will see that they had a $500 one-way passenger who suddenly disappeared. Maybe they'll ask. Maybe the complaint that I'm going to file with the DOT will get noticed. But at least it's off my chest.

It's not a ticket that I didn't book -- it was a ticket that was booked, issued, and I was prepared to use -- but if United doesn't want my business, I certainly don't feel obligated to give it to them.

So how am I getting to Kansas City?

I literally rolled my bags 100 feet down the concourse and asked Southwest, "Can you get me and my bags to Kansas City today?" "Yes." "Let's book it."

While I've always thought that Continental employees were efficient, friendly, and professional (three traits lacking from the surly United agent, and United employees in general), the two Southwest employees who assisted me in booking the ticket may have set a record for being friendly and helpful. Oh, and the "Business Select" fare? $312.40 with all taxes. Southwest's most expensive fare is nearly $200 less. And includes bags. And includes two free "adult" drinks.

I kept my originally booked Continental-coded Continental-operated flight from Kansas City back to Cleveland because Continental's (friendly, helpful, professional) agents assured me that there would not be any problems on the way back. But if there are, I won't hesitate to have that ticket canceled/refunded as well... and guess who I may switch to. Permanently.

I had hoped that Continental would bring their positive traits to United in the merger. But that's clearly not happening.

Since moving to Cleveland 2005, I've flown 135 flights on Continental and only 12 flights on other airlines. So much for loyalty.

(If any part of this post doesn't make sense, it may help to explain that Continental and United are in the process of merging, with United to be the surviving with each trip it becomes harder and harder to fly on "Continental" without having at least some part of the trip tainted by United.)

*-They said only Y-class fares qualify for the free bags, and I was booked in B-class. Continental's baggage policy (here) says "Any customer traveling on full-fare economy class tickets" is exempt from the baggage charges; If you select "Full fare" when booking a ticket on B-class is offered as "Full Fare". So it either is or isn't but they can't have it both ways.

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