Tuesday, June 29, 2010

United Baggage Mishandling

I don’t know what is it about baggage handling that seems to be so difficult for United Airlines, but there is something that they just don’t get.

This is the recognition that passengers like to travel with their bags, and can get a touch shirty if they are separated; particularly if the separation is utterly and completely inexplicable.

Like last week.

My bag was checked from Frankfurt to Winnipeg, travelling via Chicago. It arrived in Chicago, and I gave it to the tender care of a disinterested United employee to transfer. Now I know that I had an overnight stop (arriving on June 23rd at 2100, departing on June 24th at 0940), but the bag was tagged, and there appeared to be no issue when I handed in my bag.

We were finally reunited on June 27th late in the evening, some seventy-two hours since we parted company.

Seventy-two hours.

Needless to say, while my bag was AWOL I got a touch excited from time to time about the issue, and tried phoning to find some update. A silky-smooth computer tried in vain to answer my questions, but after a while I just said “agent” to everything, as I needed to talk to a human. Which I did, and very kind and soothing they were too. Clearly their scripts had a number of Soothing The Client options, and Ahmed (“I am in India, Sir”) was particularly adept at their use.

They were, however, completely and utterly useless at explaining how, in this post-Talibanic world of completely-over-the-top security, a bag can remain “lost” for four days in a major international airport.

I was advised that “There is a huge backlog in Chicago”; well, that’s all right then; who knows what will happen by the time that the summer really starts. “There are seven miles of conveyor belts between the international terminal and the domestic flights, Sir”; fascinating, but a bit irrelevant. “The weather in Chicago is terrible”; so what?

The question is a simple one. What on earth happens to bags that go astray? Do United’s employees simply gaze at them with periodic malevolent chuckles? Do they enter some parallel yet invisible universe? We all know what they do to musical instruments, but does this sense of institutional mischief extend to the more dull and mundane suitcase? Are the rings around Saturn really composed of errant Samsonite luggage?

Or is the problem simpler and more worrisome. Has United, in its potentially futile efforts to balance its books and make a profit, spent its energy on increasing sales and passengers while simultaneously cutting back on its staff thus ensuring that there are too few employees to handle the business? I don’t think that this is a million miles from the truth.

I remember one airline CEO explaining to a meeting of their significant agents that they knew exactly the size of an airline that would make sense in today’s market; their route structure, aircraft size, staffing levels and revenue requirements were relatively simple. However, this business model would fail to generate sufficient revenue for their current and future pension liabilities.

The airline, a major player in North America was stuck. They could not shrink to the size that the market demanded and were forced to reach for unsustainable revenues. Needless to say, they eventually had to merge with another, and today their historical issues have been moved further along the chain.

And this is the truth about the airline industry today. The past liabilities, accrued during two decades of unbridled expansion fuelled by cheap money, cheap oil and an environment of Growth has left big, big headaches. Until the carriers can sort out these major problems, and the American airlines are not alone in this dilemma, there will never be a logical aviation industry.

Deregulation did bring some major benefits to many, but it is sobering to note that at the time that President Carter unleashed this demon, seven airlines carried 72% of the country’s travellers. In 2010, four airlines carry over 85% of North American travellers. And with the merger of United and Continental, this relentless concentration of airlines (or "rationalisation" as some of the apologists for this rampant behaviour would say) will simply continue.

I do think though, that despite their issues, looking at resolving the simplest of tasks, keeping passengers and their bags together, should be a priority. I know bags go astray, but in my case, with United it is roughly 10% of the time, and that is not funny.

Employees like Ahmed (”I am still being holding, Sir”) do not resolve anything. They only increase the frustration of those who truly believe that United doesn’t give a damn about customer service.