United Airlines Retweeted WHAT?!

United isn’t known for its social media prowess. Particularly on Twitter where it has a minimal presence compared to other domestic airlines. Yesterday afternoon I saw a rare retweet from them that linked to a third-party article.

a blue screen with white textIntrigued, I clicked in to read the article. It was written by Peter Shankman, a well-known entrepreneur, author, speaker, etc. He observed an interaction between a distressed passenger and a United agent at LaGuardia recently and wrote about how this agent turned a potentially costly situation for the passenger into a customer service win – at the surface.

The short story is that a passenger turned up at JFK instead of LaGuardia for her flight. The United agent at JFK said there was nothing they could do and that she would have to go to LaGuardia. Knowing she’d miss her original flight, the passenger called United in the cab on the way to LaGuardia to be told it would cost hundreds of dollars in change fees to get on the next flight to her destination – money she didn’t have.

Upon arrival at LaGuardia, she pleaded her case with the United agent, who in turn generated boarding passes (she had a connection in Chicago) to her final (unknown) destination and waived “the fees.†The passenger was ecstatic and this is what Peter observed – a potential costly and disheartening situation for the passenger turned into a customer service success. And the customer was thrilled, going so far as hugging the agent and other random people proclaiming, “United is so wonderful, thank you, thank you, thank you!â€

Not to take away from how this passenger felt, nor the observations Peter made, but for those of us with a bit deeper knowledge, this was mostly a customer service failure in my book.

There’s a thing called the “flat tire rule,†whereby if you present yourself at the airport within two hours of your originally scheduled flight, United will (at least they did pre-merger) allow you to fly standby without fees on the next flight. Doing a bit more research into who Peter is, I noticed Seth (BoardingArea’s The Wandering Aramean) brought this up in the comments on the original post from him, not the one United retweeted.

It’s great that the United agent at LaGuardia generated confirmed boarding passes for her instead of making her go the standby route. That’s to be applauded. What concerns me about United retweeting this particular article is:

  1. The JFK United agent definitely could have mentioned the flat tire rule at the minimum and perhaps even tried to rebook the passenger on one of the West Coast or Dulles-bound flights out of JFK with a connection to her final (unknown) destination. That would have been excellent customer service.
  2. The phone agent could have also saved the passenger some worry and advised about the flat tire rule.
  3. Peter brings up in his story the situation where United “lost†a 10-year old girl recently traveling unaccompanied. That story has been blasted across the news this week. Was it wise of United to retweet an article mentioning it?

I’m obviously writing this totally separated from what actually happened. There are a lot of unknowns. Did the JFK agent try to rebook her? Were the next flights out of LaGuardia wide open and the agent empowered herself to avoid the standby requirement? How late was the passenger? And so on.

It’s still a heartwarming story for the casual observer and United scored a win with this customer. But I don’t think United – an airline with a damaged image and terrible operational performance lately – should have retweeted an article mentioning that the first agent this passenger encountered said there was nothing they could do, as well as further coverage of the unaccompanied minor situation.

That’s just me.

Related posts:

Some Airlines Understand the Power of Social Media, Some Don’t

Interview With the Head of American’s Social Media Team

Another Hilton Social Media Success Story


  1. To be honest, people already have the JFK-style perception of United and everyone has heard of the 10 year old story, so I really don’t think including those two in the article did any damage to United. That leaves just the part about the LGA agent, which obviously reflects well on United.

    • @Kris: On the surface, absolutely. The LaGuardia agent “won” for United and “won” in this article. But there’s a deeper level here. United’s image is suffering terribly right now and the last thing they need to do is retweet an article mentioning other disservice (the 10-year old UM story), let alone that an agent of theirs at JFK saying, “there’s nothing we can do.”
      @Matthew: I look forward to your post.

  2. Fully agree Darren. JFK agent should have found a way to re-accomodate passenger, not forced her to go to LGA. Read my blog tomorrow and you’ll read about true UA above and beyond customer service. Not simply following the flat-tire rule…

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