Airline no-show policies, communication failures and our expectations

This week a blogger posted a lengthy rant about his customer service experience with United Airlines over the Thanksgiving weekend. The short version of his story is that he bought a roundtrip ticket, didn’t show for the first flight (drove instead), so United canceled the reservation. A few days later, he shows up wanting to take the return flight only to be told he no longer had a reservation. Standard operating procedure for just about every airline I know of, but the guts of his post reveal more, and I actually take his side on some of it. I know there are two sides to every story, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It really boils down to proper communication that manages expectations. First, I’ll fail the blogger, for not realizing the no-show policy is standardized across the industry. Doesn’t everyone know that? At the same time, I will take his side and fail United for the way he was passed around in a very believable way. I’d recommend reading the full account to see what I mean. The highlights of United’s errors include:

  • Sending him the “Online check-in is now available” email for his return flight after it had likely already canceled. This absolutely should not have happened.
  • At check-in, assuming he must have the wrong airline or confirmation code.
  • Passing him off several times to various telephone and airport agents.

In the end he makes some valid points, but is incorrect in saying he “was offered zero recourse.” It sounds like United did offer the next available flight late in the afternoon for the going fare at the time, which was more than $300. Instead, he went over to Virgin America, where he had a very pleasant experience and found a cheaper fare on an earlier flight home. From a pure customer relations standpoint, though, he details seven “Lessons Learned” which should be on the must-read list for every airline front-line employee.

My main reason for posting this is due to the responses he received from his post. At the time I read it, more than 30 people had posted comments, and it is a curious case of perception and awareness of airline policies as to whose side they took. I saw 16 people agree with the blogger and are putting United on their “no fly” list, whereas only 9 people acknowledged United did nothing wrong on policy, but could have been softer in their delivery. My takeaway from this is that United really could have done a better job handling this scenario, but at the same time, it could have easily been the same story had he flown Virgin to begin with, and went over to United for redemption.


  1. Very fair commentary on my post. I was a bit naive for not knowing the policy, but I’ve never been in the situation to find out before, and the airlines that I usually travel (jet blue and virgin) don’t have such a policy or don’t enforce it rigorously.

    Just found your blog, and like it a lot, by the way!


  2. It seems completely wrong of an airline to cancel an entire itinerary without any notification — How hard would it be to trigger an email or SMS message warning of a pending cancellation and offering some alternatives?

    Normal people cannot be experts in the minutiae of airline cancellation policy, and it is perfectly reasonable for a customer to expect their return flight ticket to still be valid — why should I think otherwise? Especially if you send me a “check in online” email instead of cancellation notice.

    How hard would it have been for the United representatives to be polite? How hard would it have been to empathize with the customer? Here was an opportunity to deliver exceptional service, make up for a wrong (broken email notifications), and improve the system for future travelers. But that didn’t happen. Why?

    I suspect the real answer has nothing to do with corporate profitability and everything to do with how poorly United treats their ticketing agents and how there is little or no reward for satisfying customers. An empowered agent who is rewarded for customer satisfaction would have figured out some solution. Apologize (free). Discount the full fare later flight and apply funds from the unused ticket (the marginal cost of an additional traveler on a mostly full airplane is probably $15). And so on. But this didn’t happen and I am guessing it’s because United makes it difficult for agents to actually solve problems (there is probably a set of uncomfortable hurdles an agent must jump over to discount or apply funds from one ticket to another). And clearly there is no incentive for the ticketing agent to report the complete failure of the email notification.

    The ticketing agent was being human. The company doesn’t care to solve the customer problems, doesn’t respect the gate agents’ discretion in discounting and applying funds, and has no rewarding process for improving the system (reporting email notification failures, for instance). The end result is bad customer service.

  3. @Rich: Glad we made contact, and thanks for the kind words.

    @Matt: I absolutely agree United made several mistakes, and policy aside, they could have been more proactive when his reservation canceled. Your recommendations for improving the system are fantastic, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about lack of agent empowerment. Excellent analysis, Matt, and thanks for taking the time to post your comment.

  4. @Darren: Great post–your commentary is right on the mark.

    @Matt: I was just talking to someone at UA about “bending the rules” last week. It used to be quite prevalent, but UA has clamped down the last few years, even threatening to fire agents for their first offense. I think it will only get worse. While I like the fact that carriers like LH are consistent, I must say that I prefer the old UA “anything goes” method. Then again, airlines are out to make a profit, not serve as a charity for travelers who don’t abide by the terms of their ticket!

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