Customer Disservice

Forget Broken Guitars, United Airlines Lost a 10-Year-Old Girl and ‘Didn’t Care’

A case study on what not to do.
350850300 18074853 Forget Broken Guitars, United Airlines Lost a 10 Year Old Girl and Didnt Care

United Airlines counter at O’Hare (Photo: Chicagobreakingnews.com)

According to the latest YouTube tally, David Carroll’s viral video hit, “United Breaks Guitars,” has picked up somewhere in the vicinity of 12.3 million hits since it was first posted in 2009. The little ditty has also a spawned a book, a public speaking career, and even a startup. (Gripevine, where Mr. Carroll is a cofounder, lets angry consumers gripe to the right customer service rep.) To say nothing of Jack the Cat, the Facebook-powered albatross around American Airlines’s neck. (RIP!)

One would assume, then, that the intervening years have taught United a little something about how to respond to the possibility of bad PR: swiftly and with humility. One would be wrong.

On his blog today, business guru Bob Sutton–author of “The No Asshole Rule” and “The Knowing-Doing Gap”–recounts the sad and scary journey of a 10-year-old unaccompanied minor named Phoebe traveling to summer camp, and United employees’s unwillingness to “help assist or comfort” Phoebe after a representative failed to show up to escort her to her connecting flight. Mr. Sutton says United “lost” Phoebe, although a more nuanced description might be forgot about, ignored, and then ignored some more. 

From her parents’s perspective, however, Phoebe was very much lost. Mr. Sutton links to a four-page letter to United from Annie and Perry Klebahn, who recount the harrowing hour between a frantic call from the camp that Phoebe never showed up, until someone at United was willing to track her down in Chicago and see if she was okay. Mrs. Klebahn didn’t have much luck with a customer service rep in India, who put her on hold for 20 minutes, before putting her on old for another 40 minutes.

Luckily, Mr. sutton noted, Mr. Klebahn “is a ‘Premier’ member in the United caste system so he got to speak to a human-being in the U.S.” As the parents’s letter states:

The first person [Mr. Klebahn] spoke with was not able to help but she finally transferred him to someone who also confirmed that Phoebe did not make her flight.  When he asked why she could not say but put him on hold.  When she came back she told him that in fact the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight.  He was dumbfounded as neither of us had been told in writing or in person that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor services to a third party vendor.  We were shocked to learn this. Regardless, he asked if she could help us find Phoebe to be sure she was okay and he got put on hold again.  When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help.  My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do?  She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help.  15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay.

Poor Phoebe had it even worse:

She landed and no one came to get her.  The attendants where busy and could not help her she told us.  She told them she had a flight to catch to camp and they told her to wait.  She asked three times to use a phone to call us and they told her to wait.  When she missed the flight she asked if someone had called camp to make sure they knew and they told her “yes—we will take care of it”.  No one did. She was sad and scared and no one helped.

If you can believe it, United then proceeded to lose Phoebe’s luggage for three days–as her parents clocked more and more hours of time on hold. The company’s response to crediting the Klebahns the $99 fee for accompanying a minor? A resounding meh.

We asked if we would be credited the $99 unaccompanied minor fee (given she was clearly not accompanied).  They said they weren’t sure.

We asked if the bags being lost for three days and camp having to make 5 trips to the airport vs. one was something we would be compensated for (given we pay camp $25 every time they go to the airport).  They said that we would have to follow up with that separately with United baggage as a separate complaint. They also said that process was the same—United field what they hear from you but you do not get to file the complaint yourselves.

In fact, it was only when a local NBC TV reporter expressed interest in their plight that United executive called the Klebahns at home to “try to cool them out,” reports Mr. Sutton.

After the reading the troubling saga, investor David Pakman tweeted, “Remember the #unitedbreaksguitars video? Now someone has to make a #unitedloseschildren video.” Quick, what rhymes with WTF?

In response to request for comment on the incident, United Airlines spokesperson Charles Hobart told Betabeat, “We have reached out to the customer directly and we’re looking into this matter.”

UPDATE 7.05 p.m.: Mr. Hobart emailed Betabeat with the following statement about the company’s follow-up with the family:

We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing the matter. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers.

We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge.  We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com