Airline customer service

An exasperating conversation

In March of 2006 I tried to book a trip on the Continental Airlines website. I’d get to a screen that looked great, with my name and contact info, all the flight details, and so on. (Let’s call it "The Screen.") I'd click, and then be told that the flights were no longer available, and to please try again.

So I’d start over, and see the same flights, pick them, get to the same promising screen, click, and … same message.

So I’d start again, pick *different* flights, get to The Screen, click, and … same message.

Then I phoned Continental and here, truly although not verbatim, is what happened.

Me: [I describe the experience above]

Agent: Must be your choice is sold out. Try another one.

M: I did that. Same problem. And if a flight is sold out, why does your website show it?

A: Our website is not up to date. I can see current information; you can’t.

M: Isn’t it a problem if the information on your website is wrong?

A: Websites aren’t perfect. No website is perfect. You’ll find that other airlines and Travelocity and Expedia have the same problem.

M: But I’m not on those websites, I’m on your website, and I’m trying to buy a ticket from you, and I can’t.

A: Hmm. I see that your itinerary begins with a partner codeshare. That flight must be sold out.

M: Can’t you tell for sure?

A: It’s like any partnership, you don’t really know what your partner is doing. You wish you did, but you don’t.

M. If you were me, what would you do?

A: I’d travel on another day.

M: I can’t do that. What else would you do?

A: I’d try Travelocity or Expedia.

M: That doesn’t solve the problem I’m having with your airline.

A: I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for you. If you had reached the screen with your name and details and so on, then I could help.

M: You mean The Screen? I told you already that I did reach that screen.

A: If you reached that screen then I’d find your reservation in my system, and I don’t. You must not have reached The Screen.

M: Let’s walk through this together. [I go through all the clicks, get The Screen, describe it to her.]

A: Yes, you definitely got The Screen.

M: So you believe me?

A: Yes, you have described The Screen exactly.

M: Then you can help me?

A: No, your reservation is not in the system.

M: Is that my fault? You said The Screen was good enough for you to help me.

A: Ordinarily The Screen would have created a reservation. But in this case there’s no reservation. I can’t help you.

M: Why is your website not working the way you say it should?

A: It must be because of the partner airline. You see, if the first flight of your itinerary were on Continental, then everything would be fine. The Screen would have created a reservation, and I could help you. But the first flight isn’t on Continental, so no reservation. The Screen didn’t work.

M: Am I supposed to notice that the first flight is not a real Continental flight and then to deduce that that’s the reason I can’t buy this ticket?

A: I’ve explained everything to you. I can’t help you.

M: Does this happen to many of your customers?

A: Yes, often.

M: How are we supposed to feel about your airline?

A: I’m sorry, I’ve explained everything and there is nothing I can do for you.

M: Can I speak to a supervisor?

A: I am a supervisor. All our agents are supervisors.

M: If you were me what would you do?

A: You could try calling back. You might get another agent. But they’ll tell you the same thing. And we’re all supervisors.

M: Well, even supervisors have supervisors. Do you have a supervisor?

A: No, I have a manager.

M: Can I talk to your manager?

A: No, managers don’t talk to customers.

M: What would you do if you were me?

A: I might try Expedia or Travelocity. Or you could try calling again and maybe another agent could help.

M: How about this. If I tell you what to say, can you then say that to your manager, and then can your manager answer you, and can you tell me what your manager said?

A: Yes, I can do that.

M: Ok, please describe my complaint to him or her.

A: Ok, please hang on. [A long time passes]

A: Sorry for the wait. Here’s what they did. Since they can’t book you on our partner carrier, they built a similar itinerary using our own flights. Then they manipulated the fare for you. Would you like to accept this offer?

M: It’s a little more expensive than what your website says.

A: Yes.

M: [Tired and resigned] Can I get a refund within 24 hours if I change my mind?

A: Tell you what. I’ll hold the reservation for 24 hours for you.

M: Ok, thank you. I will think it over.

A: Thank you for choosing Continental.

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