May 23, 1993

United Airlines, Inc. Complaint Department P.O. Box 66100 Chicago IL 60666

Dear United Airlines Customer Service,
Twice now I've had the distinct displeasure of having to deal with your ticket counter at San Francisco International Airport. My frustration has to do with the apparent combination of disinterest and inability to deal with customers shown by your staff. On my latest visit (3:00 PM Friday, April 9 ) I landed in the queue with about seven already disgruntled passengers ahead of me. They were rolling their eyes and making subdued growling noises like those one hears from injured animals. Having heard myself make similar sounds just weeks earlier in the very same line, I quickly surmised the cause of their irritability was your counter-agents. During fifteen of the twenty minutes that I stood in-line, four of the seven agents occupied themselves with the same customers! It wouldn't have been so galling if they seemed busy solving the problem. Instead, some stared blankly into terminals while others stood with an air of insouciance with something that looked like a telephone receiver in their ear. I say looked like because I normally associate telephones with two-way communication. Nothing of the sort seemed to be taking place.

Not only were the problems seemingly so intractable as to require the agent and invisible minions in some far off basement scheduling facility, but also what I gathered to be the supervisor who would pass by, offer some words of encouragement and move on. During all this were the agents engaging the prospective passengers in quiet discourse and reassuring words? No. Instead, stony silence was interspersed with nods and winks and cheerful exchanges with other agents.

By the time I had moved up to number one in the queue, several agents had already retired and rotated their open signs to closed even as the line swelled behind me. You were now down to four agents. Instead of speedily leaving their post and disappearing, the departing agents lingered for a few laughs even as the rest of us poor slobs wept over the increased waiting time. Luckily, two of the agents finally solved whatever ticketing difficulty they had and were ready for me.

Even more bizarre would be the occasional opening of the invisible door in the wall behind the counter, out from which would pop a head that would look around and then disappear. These reconnaissance missions didn't seem to result in any improvement in our situation and I had to wonder what was someone doing back there when they could be up front helping.

Finally, lets discuss the queue itself. True to form it was organized for maximum inefficiency. The line paraded in front of the counters with the head of the queue located at the far end of the servers. Thus the diminutive agent at the opposite end near the tail of the line had to stand on the luggage scale and wave frantically for the next person. In some cases she had to traverse half the length of the counter to get the attention of the next customer. Meanwhile a fire-brigade of anxious passengers would form, passing word of an open window up the line, racing against the agent for the passengers attention. This agent was also one of the most efficient (or in United's TQM terms, "lucky") and so serviced a great many more people. This achievement of finding the maximum average distance for any passenger seeking any agent also left many baggage laden passengers with a fine aerobic workout as they lugged their bags first up the line and then back down.

At the entrance to the queue United Airlines, The Friendly Skies, had placed a kindly agent who queried every passenger as to whether or not they really needed to stand in line or could they continue with their journey without really having to stop here. Given how bogged down things were, expending 10% of your personnel on such a trivial task, rather than put another agent behind the counter, seemed wasteful.

I have the following suggestions based on my experience: 

I'd love to tell you more, but I don't have time to run an airline and with United I almost don't have time to fly. By the way, in my experience, this doesn't happen with other carriers.