We are all getting a big laugh – with a side of outrage – at the incident in which a paying customer was literally dragged off a United Airlines flight in Chicago in order to make room for a non-paying airline employee.
Even more outrageous (and amusing) were the stumbling efforts of the airline to deal with the public relations ramifications of such a dumb move. CEO Oscar Munoz at first was defiant, then somewhat apologetic. By week’s end we may expect to see him dressed in sackcloth and ashes on a street corner pounding his chest and chanting “mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!” if United’s stock continues to drop.
Not many of us have been thrown off an airplane, but all of us have experiences with outrageously bad customer service. Here are a few of mine, by category.
Food Service: Many years ago, at a Sambo’s restaurant (remember them?) on Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove, a group of us went in for lunch. We were sent to a circular booth, and as the lead diner sat down, he found that he had landed on a half-stack of pancakes, smeared with butter and such on the seat, which had a) not been cleared away by the busboy or b) noticed by the hostess or the waitress. The response? “I can seat you somewhere else.” No apology. No contrition. No, thanks. We walked out, with one of our number with maple syrup all over the back of his trousers.
Education: Seventh grade math class. I’m sweating through a math test (never my strong point) when the teacher walks over, picks up my exam paper and pronounces that he has caught me cheating. This junior high Sherlock says he saw me copying answers off the paper from the boy sitting to my right. Not only was this not true, but he hadn’t bothered to check to see if our answers in any way matched, a bit of due diligence I pointed out to him. Truth be told, if I were going to cheat, it wouldn’t have been off the paper of my seat neighbor, because he was known to be even worse at math than me (he eventually became a minister, which I guess does not involve algebra). With a grunt – but no explanation or apology – the teacher returned my test to me and walked back to his desk. I assume he eventually gave up teaching and went into public relations for an airline.
Retail: Marilyn and I went with then-young Michael to a CompUSA to purchase a laptop computer for his college work. The salesman suggested that we also buy an extended warranty. “No, thanks,” I said. You really need this, he said. “No, thanks,” I said. You need to buy the warranty, he insisted and then once again.
“Look,” I said finally said. “You are this close” – finger and thumb a quarter-inch apart – “to losing this sale.” His eyes grew wide and he wadded up the order form, threw it and stormed off muttering what seemed to be a string of profanities. The manager came over and said “He gets like that sometimes.” Meaning he’s done that before and you kept him as an employee? We bought the laptop from the manager eventually, without the extended warranty. CompUSA is now out of business.
Utilities: Moving into the office of the old Garden Grove Journal, we had an appointment with AT&T – whose regional office is about a mile away – to install phone lines. A technician showed up, looked at his order form and announced that he couldn’t put in any phones because there was some problem with the paperwork. We would have to make another appointment. Wait, we said. We’re here. You’re here. You’ve got the stuff. Can’t you call the office and straighten this out? No, he couldn’t. We would have to make another appointment. He had to leave. Somewhat cheesed off, I demanded his employee number and told him I was calling his office. He left and angrily threw his aluminum clipboard across the parking lot. He got points for distance but not for customer service. To AT&T’s credit, they sent out another tech guy who quietly did the work the first guy refused to do.
Social: You’ve heard of a walkoff home run in baseball. How about the walkoff standup? Twice – back during my dating days – girls got up in the middle of dinner and just left. There was no argument, no insults, just an abrupt exit, leaving me with the check. The second girl muttered “I don’t know what I’m doing here” and bolted for the parking lot. People stared. I kept eating. After my other mishaps, this sort of thing just fit with everything else. You might say it “United” my experiences.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears every Wednesday, if he can catch the right flight.