“You’re all set, see you next time, kid.” Just as he has said for the past 20 years.
The aged barber shuffles over to the mechanical cash register, slowly pushing the buttons. Instead of $14, up comes $0.14.
a) Jump up and down shouting, “Ha ha, screw you, here’s your 14 cents!” And then next time show up expecting to cut in line, get a warm towel for my face, hot coffee, and a nice, safe haircut?
b) Shrug it off, joking, “Still fast on the trigger, pardner, here’s the $14.”
Reading about the United Airlines 4 mile one-way award trips to Hong Kong yesterday was fun, I even joked about it on twitter since the number 4 is inauspicious in China and that it would actually be something I have enough United miles for, but thinking it over last night, this one crosses the line for me.
There seem to be two strains of rationalization:
1. The “airline companies are big faceless corporations, which makes it okay” rationalization popularized in a classic Simpsons episode about stealing cable. This case with United is not stealing, but the rationalization is the same.
2. The airlines are implicitly in a wink-wink game with customers, each trying to outwit the other. Airlines impose many restrictions and penalties related to the services they provide, so it is only fair for customers to try to game the system back. Airlines know this and implictly tolerate it as somehow contributing to customer loyalty and their long-term bottom line.
I don’t buy either.
Rationalization 1 falls down because there is no justifiable way to draw the line. I am not going to stiff my barber. How big and ‘faceless’ is needed for a company to be fair game? Many of the people booking these tickets are probably small business owners that would be aghast if their customers nailed them over an obvious error.
Rationalization 2 I do not have any insight into the internal machinations of airlines. Do they think this is all a fun game, and more importantly, have they made this explicit to their customers? The issue here is that, however flawed, the US airlines in particular have moved to tremendous openness. How would this go if in response they announced that award bookings are now only bookable by phone or subject to 72-hour audit review before issuance?
I lived in China for eight years, it is a wonderful place is many ways, yet is filled by consumers who seek to game the system in every conceivable way. The result? Try returning something to a store.
Closer to home, every morning in my commute on the PATH train to World
Train Trade Center, I pass through a station with one turnstile large enough for luggage. This turnstile is slow to close so people do not get crunched. What happens? People try to sneak in behind a paid traveler. The result? A PATH employee is now dedicated during rush hours to watch the turnstile and check swipes rather than help riders; when not available to monitor, the employee turns off the turnstile and trots out an “out of order” sticker. What a delight when I am heading to the airport with a rollerboard or for parents with baby strollers.
The thing about this ‘game’ is customers expect it to be one-way, especially the elite status customers. Late for my flight? Put me on the next. Bad weather? Do something about it. Unhappy about a fee? Make an exception to keep my ‘loyalty.’
I don’t think the customer would be laughing next time trying to check a bag 59 minutes ahead of departure and told, “We have a 60-minute rule, no exceptions to our rules, as you know from your recent trip to Hong Kong.”
The most preposterous aspect of this whole matter is the ritual trotting out of the argument that United should honor the tickets for the sake of ‘customer loyalty’ or at least to make some reparation if they don’t. There cannot be a single person booking these tickets that thought it was not a mistake, heck the same screen that displayed the mistake price even displayed the correct price above. If honored, that ‘customer loyalty’ will last exactly until the next interaction with United, when the sense of righteous self-entitlement wells up afresh.
Ethically, this one is so clearly an error, and so egregious, that for me, however fun it would have been to play it like a video game, I draw the line. I want the airlines to treat me fair when I mess up or need help (which they do not always do), and I want them to be more and more open with their tools. The openness that makes booking easier for all travelers is the same that allows for these public mistakes. If cutting them some slack on the occasional error is the tradeoff for 24/7 online booking, I think that is fair. If, like China, the population trying to game the system grows large, airlines will react correspondingly, and everyone loses.
If United chooses to honor these tickets, enjoy the trip, I studied in Hong Kong and it is one of my favorite destinations, even try my 24 Hours in Hong Kong Itinerary or get out to Hong Kong’s splendid outlying islands and nature trails. Or spend the time doing charity work in exchange for the gift of the trip. A United fliers charity campaign in Hong Kong would actually be of value to the community and trade good publicity for honoring the fares.
If they don’t honor the tickets, move on. It is a tortuous route to argue that the customer has the moral high ground on this one, not even 4 inches worth, let alone 4 miles.