So, I'm a travel writer. I've written for Forbes Travel guides, I’m the author of five travel books (Moon, Reedy Press), and was one of the travel writers for the Santa Barbara News Press. The point is that I travel frequently - domestically and internationally - so I understand delays, occasional lost luggage, mechanical and computer malfunctions, and other odd delays like the time an airline literally forgot to put gas in the plane. And as a travel writer, I’m also a writer, so I understand deadlines, specificity, communication, and details.
I’m flying out of San Francisco to go home in April, 2017. On the way to the airport I get a text that my flight on United Airlines is delayed. What began to unravel at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) with United was nothing less than mystifying, and it’s all about communication, or rather United’s lack of it.
Once at my gate began a series of gate changes and delays. But it wasn’t just my flight. It was 70% of all United’s flights that Sunday. You can see in the photo I took of the monitor the most egregious was the 4-hour delay for the poor folks trying to get to Salt Lake City - and 10 of the 14 flights shown in the photo were delayed. The gate agents were unhelpful in supplying information for people in the United Terminal. As is my usual custom, I turned to Twitter expressing frustration specifically that my wife was leaving town the day after I was to get back from San Francisco and I was bummed to now have less time with her.
Replying to @michaelcervin
We certainly do not mean to keep you waiting. We completely understand how frustrating delays are.
7:32 PM - 30 Apr 2017
Oh, thank you, United. Glad you “understand.” But as is my nature, I’m curious as to why so many flights were delayed and why we were not notified earlier. I find out that SFO was repaving their landing strips. Huh. I guess that needs to be done, never thought about it before. So I contacted SFO inquiring about when all this planning to shut down various landing strips began. A very nice man named Doug Yakel, Public Information Officer, Marketing & Communications at SFO, wrote me back.
“Runway 28L. We have been meeting with our airlines since summer 2016 to discuss the project and make a collaborative decision on when to conduct the closure. The consensus from the team was that the weekend was the preferred time, as many airlines have reduced flight schedules on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. On our end, we’ve used press releases, the dedicated page on our website, and social media to get the word out.”
So…summer 2016, it’s now April, 2017. Not to mention my flight was Sunday night. Disconnect. United had lots of time to communicate with their passengers given they knew when the delays were coming. Did they tell anyone? No. Had I been aware, and certainly everyone else who was delayed, we could have adjusted our schedules so as to not waste time at SFO. But United didn’t care about communicating with their consumers.
(As a side note I tried getting on another United flight to home but Mr. Arrogant Gate Agent would not allow me to move to a different plane, even though there were seats – no, he wanted to charge me a $75 “change fee,” this in spite of the fact that I didn’t cause the delay, seats were available and United clearly was not focused on helping their passengers get to their destinations!)
To be fair, United’s website did offer this disclaimer, buried deep where few would find it: San Francisco runway construction: Customers traveling through San Francisco International (SFO) may experience flight delays and gate changes through the summer due to runway construction work. We encourage you to check your flight status and gate number for any changes, and allow extra time for any flight connections. For more information, please visit FlySFO.”
But do you look for hidden info on an airline website? Probably not, yet they clearly could have forwarded that information based on ticket purchases and flight times. But no. United felt it was not an important issue to effectively communicate on. And this is where United fails. Sure, other airlines fail too, but United has had a crappy year, as Forbes recently reported: Who wasn’t perplexed by the long list of recent PR debacles committed by United Airlines? First there was the strange situation of barring two girls wearing leggings, next the forcible removal of a paying passenger, then like a sequel to the movie “Snakes on a Plane,” except this time (in real life) a man was stung by a scorpion while in-flight, next an unhappy Easter surprise when a healthy prize-winning bunny died upon landing, and to top it off – a real emergency when an engine blew out mid-flight. What a string of PR nightmares!
Sure, people will still fly United because it’s cheaper, but that strategy will only work for so long before the public turns against United in tangible ways. Bottom line, United Airlines? You. Need. To. Communicate. Better. Starting now.