United Airlines flubs response to computer outage

Airline’s computer system went down Friday, response still lackluster days later.


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Another crisis, another airline.

Following Delta’s debacle in which it charged soldiers returning from Afghanistan $200 for their fourth bag and mishandled the response, it was United Airlines’ turn.

United appeared to be caught flatfooted when its computer systems went down for nearly five hours Friday night. Many passengers were furious that there was no information available. Lines at airports were long, especially in Los Angeles where they stretched out the doors. A reported 2,500 passengers were impacted at LAX.

Press reports note only brief tweets from United providing apologies for delays, but little else. News media reported calls and e-mails to United went unanswered.

Looking at United’s Twitter site on Sunday afternoon, not much information had been added, although it did want to talk to @richardmarx for a video he posted in which he blasts the airline about the 4:33 mark.

On Friday, United initially tweeted “UA experiencing computer outage interrupting departures, airport processing and reservations …working to resolve the issue.” After that, it tweeted multiple times that it was working on the issue, apologized, but offered little else.

On Saturday, it tweeted that it “issued a waiver for travel plans impacted by the computer outage on June 17 and 18. Details on United.com.” It then provided a link that takes you to a page that defines what a travel waiver is. Incredibly, on Sunday afternoon, in bold on the page, it says, “There are currently no travel waivers in effect.”

In fact, I could find no information at all on United’s website. An article in the Los Angeles Times recommended checking under “News and Deals” but nothing about the computer outage is listed.

An AP article posted Sunday afternoon read:

“Mary Clark, a United spokeswoman, said she couldn’t say how many passengers were delayed or how many still needed to reach their destination by midday Saturday. About the outage itself, she and other airline personnel said only that it was caused by “a network connectivity issue.”

What the heck does that mean and why don’t they tell us more? The airline must have an idea about how many passengers were impacted more than 24 hours after the event.

Lessons learned

Like Delta, United (and other airlines) could learn some lessons from this.

Airlines now rely so heavily on computers that they must have a back-up plan. Several stories reported United employees were as confused as the passengers about what was happening. Other reports said United employees disappeared and did not issue hotel and food vouchers. This is a time to bring extra staff to speed up passenger processing. Instead, passengers complained there weren’t enough United employees available.

Only 36 flights were cancelled and 100 delayed out of 3,000 or so daily departures. This is a relatively small event (unless you are one of those affected) and should be put into context by the airline. The way to do that is to be responsive. Twitter may be a good way to get information out but many people don’t have access to the social media site. The media does have access, but needed more information.

And that brings us to the most important recommendation: be responsive to all media. The frustration of e-mails and calls going unanswered can be significant. If the problem was a lack of personnel, its crisis plans must include available spokespeople 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If it chose not to answer those calls and e-mails immediately, shame on United.

It is popular to find fault with airlines these days. It’s up to the airlines to work hard to give people new reasons to start appreciating them. It starts with honest, effective and efficient communication.

One final irony: Before I could watch the ABC news story on United, I had to watch a commercial—from Delta.

Tripp Frohlichstein is founder of MediaMasters Inc. His firm specializes in media and presentation coaching, along with message development and message mapping. Contact him at www.mediamasterstraining.com or e-mail tr3@aol.com.

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