Saturday, September 26, 2009

United Check-in Fail

(This blog entry is part of the This American Life* series)

The blue shared shuttle van dropped me of at the United Airlines domestic terminal at San Francisco international terminal two and half hours in advance of my flight to Buenos Aires. The next 30 minutes were a disaster. And I truly hope my fellow passengers will decide with their feet and not their carefully saved up airline miles, when they plan their next trip.

Sure it was a clever automation idea to streamline the check-in procedure. Let’s write some software and allow people to self check-in at touch-screen kiosk. We’ll save the wages of the people normally assisting with the check-in (and perhaps even stick it to the unions).

Step one: let’s get rid of the lovely check-in ladies and men. Keep a couple of baggage handlers to move the luggage onto the conveyer belt. But don’t let the handlers touch the kiosk. Faulty Towers’s Manuel had already provided the script: “Kiosk? I know nothing! I am from Barcelona.”. We might need a few people to assist, but you’ll to go via a special line or you have to show up with your long board or Fluffy in a cage.

The self check-in system doesn’t work. I was at the check-in twice within a week and noticed the same universal frustrations.

  1. Human help - The line greeter (who kept his/her job) doesn’t disqualify people. You’ll get into a long line and only figure out at the end that you have a passport which is not machine readable.
  2. Easy-flow - The kiosk software lacks a simple flow “what to expect” flow chart. You get peppered with non-essential up-sell questions about legroom or baggage home delivery. The result is that an easy flow to get your boarding pass and dispatch your luggage is lost. (And more thing, how is it that airlines are allowed to monetize on shorter lines to my tax dollars at work: the TSA.)
    The software forgot to let me know what would happen with my luggage before it got back to the first screen. A simple message “Thank you for checking in. Please wait for a friendly baggage handler to pick up your luggage and give you your baggage stub” would avoid many standing there confused and frustrated about what next.
  3. The system might be great for frequent travelers. But the computer illiterate, or many senior citizens can use a little help. There was one representatives for 30 kiosks. It lacks sufficient personnel to get you going. “Welcome, let me help get you started. Call me if you have a question.” The automated checkout machines at Home Deport or Lowe’s have one person for four machines. The difference here is that United already has your money.

It’s time for me to consider a different credit card and not lock in my miles with a single airline. That’s the only way to avoid United Airlines check-in #fail.

Image: courtesy of Chicago Breaking News center in an article about similar United check-in #fail.

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