The Traumatic Parenting Workshop went international this past week as my day job took me to Toronto.  By the time I was able to get back home, traumatic parenting was in full force.  Was this unexpected shift in focus due to my special snowflakes or lovely red headed wife?  Nope.  Credit for the extra no-expenses paid extra evening I spent north of the border goes entirely to United Airlines.

Two years ago, Special Snowflake #1 asked me to speak to her elementary school during Career Day.  As I detail elsewhere on this site, immediately after volunteering I received a call from the school counselor inquiring whether “selling a cloud-based development platform” was something I could make interesting.

“I’ll be fascinating,” I assured her, and when the day came, I had little difficulty fulfilling both my promises to my daughter and the school counselor.  When Career Day rolled around this year, the school counselor called to enlist me before my daughter had the opportunity to do so.  Apparently kids can’t enough sales talk.

What made my presentation so effective?  Talking about my love of Batman and Star Trek certainly didn’t hurt, but I spent the majority of my time in front of the 1st and 4th grade classes explaining what a sales position actually is… and how there’s not much in life that actually ever sold itself… and how if you want people to buy what your selling you need to establish a relationship of trust and respect.

And so as I write this, I want to explain some fundamental principles that my daughter and her classmates had no problem understanding while United Airlines appears to have been unable to grasp.  Perhaps quite a few people from United Airlines should go back to school.  Special Snowflake #1 would be an eager tutor.  Snowflake #2 would be a friendly classmate.

I can recount my ordeal based on the evening’s tweets.

“Hey @United, I want to applaud your customer service. If I ever experience some, I’ll [let] you know.”
 – me, last Thursday evening as my flight was mysteriously cancelled ten minutes before boarding was due to begin

Not only was my flight cancelled, but my fellow passengers and I were required to go back and talk to a desk agent in order to be rebooked… in other words, rather than bring an agent to the counter, they made the passengers go back to the booking desk… and because this was an international flight, it meant having to back through Customs.  The added delay?  At least an hour… and it was made worse by the facts that (1) there were alternate flights leaving that would also be missed, and (2) international checkins in Toronto aren’t possible after 9:00 pm.  So the hapless woman who was “helping” me at the counter at precisely 9:02 was “powerless” (her word; and surprisingly accurate) to help me get home that evening.

I once had a client that used to passive aggressively berate his employees.  “I have no doubt you’re doing the best job you’re capable of,” he would mockingly compliment someone. At times it’s tragic thinking that one human being would talk to another that way, but right now I do have to wonder if at least some United Airline employees are trying their best.  “Their best” turns out to be not very good for reasons beyond their control.

There’s actually a business strategy called “trained incompetence,” which involves training your employees with an incorrect or incomplete message.  The result?  Even when people are attempting to do the best they can (which I’d like to believe applies to most people most of the time, but perhaps a shockingly smaller percentage at United all of the time), they’re not actually equipped with the capability to assist people or provide quality customer service.

In the case of my flight, as soon as my fellow passengers and I were rerouted to the ticketing desk, there was obviously going to be no international departures that evening for us.  This might have been a strategic decision rather than simply a bad one—the majority of other DC and NYC-bound flights that evening were on other carriers.  I guess there’s no need for United to make an effort to get passengers home if it involves other carriers, even if some are alliance partners, but it also left those in charge of addressing the problem incapable of even attempting to deliver a more acceptable solution.

Incompetent, unwilling, unable, or evil, you can take your pick on that one.

“@United Did I forget to thank you for the zero expenses paid extra night in Toronto?  Nope.”
– me, when told hotels wouldn’t be provided because the cancellation wasn’t United’s fault

This was the most confounding part of the flight from hell.  Who’s fault was the cancellation exactly?  It depended on who was asked and when.  When my turn at the front of the line finally arrived, I was told the cancellation was weather-related, but I wondered aloud why other flights as well later flights were able to depart. I later informed the cancellation was air traffic related but this merely left me curious whether the cancellation of my flight so effectively addressed the problem that other flights were to depart with so much as a delay.

The point I made above about trained incompetence might also apply here but it might also be a good “strategy” to simply try to keep a lie straight… and maybe use one that makes sense.  I wanted to get home.  I was bound to ask questions regarding why that wasn’t happening and I’m sure others were doing the same.  Building trust actually involves believing someone is willing to assist you.

“@United Here’s a tip: waiting 2 hours to be rebooked on the next day’s flight pleases no one.”
– me again; just pointing out something that seemed pretty obvious wasn’t quite so obvious to everyone

Again… it would’ve made so much more sense to bring agents to us rather than send us to the agents.  The proverbial “cherry on top” was the fact that the gate agent who sent me back to the ticketing agent was now standing two terminals to her right… so when she told me, “It wasn’t her fault I had to go back through Customs.”  She was correct.  I agreed as I literally pointed out the guy I held responsible.

My agent looked worried as she appeared to wonder if I might go across the desk and grab this person and although I’ll admit I considered it for a moment, I quickly realized I didn’t want to be the reason America would go to war with Canada.

(On my trip, I learned poutine is delicious, but the prison version is likely of lesser quality.)

“@united I’d explain why I’m unhappy, but I need to go get 3 hrs of sleep so I can come back and go through this ordeal again.”
– me, apparently on a roll pointing out the obvious

United promised assistance with lodging by providing a number to call for support with travel accommodations, and this was rather unambitious as far as untruths go.  It would be no different if I offered to assist with DC travel accommodations and merely pointed to Priceline and walked away.

“@United On a positive note, thanks for not dragging me off your plane.”
– me, forever trying to look on the bright side

Enough said?  Probably not, but I’m getting tired of reliving this experience.

“Later today my daughter will tell me about the last day of 1st grade. I’ll tell her about the last time I ever flew @United.”
– me, making a point in case my unhappiness wasn’t clear

I will walk before I willingly fly United again.  I’m not kidding.

At least the 6:00 am flight kept the possibility of getting to the last day of school alive.  I walked into my house at 8:30… hardly fresh and definitely not relaxed, but able to drive Snowflake to her last day of first grade.  Again, I didn’t forget to thank anyone.

“Hey @SonsofMaxwell, thinking of you today as I fly @United for the last time.  I’ve always enjoyed your video:
– me, referring to a case study in how not to treat your customers and the best possible response to poor customer service

The offending party in the above video?  Believe it or not: United Airlines.

As for what future options truly are, I don’t have any answers. I’m open to suggestions however.