See UPDATE 6/11/07 at bottom of posting – IT GETS WORSE
Interesting experience just now booking domestic award travel with United — via their India service center. I’ve been flying around the US for a long time, and in the United award system since it began. Thank goodness.
Traditionally, when a customer calls a company we expect the company’s representative to know more than we do. Agency theory deals with how we put ourselves in others’ hands, trusting them to act appropriately on our behalf. Agency, as philosophers use the term, is about who is the active participant, the originator. Of course, like most savvy travelers, I never trust the agent completely — but in this case I had to not just monitor their work but direct the agents in their work.
I dealt with two agents. The first clearly did not know US geography, and so it was immediately apparent to me that he neither understood my request, nor why I immediately knew that his answers were impossible. I disconnected and called back.
The second agent was more helpful, but if I had left the transaction in her hands I would have been in trouble, since she knew less about both air travel and her company’s policies than I did.
I rarely use mileage awards for domestic travel, but this was an expensive enough itinerary, and I have enough miles banked, to make it worthwhile. The helpful agent told me there were no award seats. I had to explain to her that United has 2 levels of awards and to check again, for the more “expensive” awards. Then she booked me on a series of flights that included a flight with a US airline which United does not share its award program. That one caught her when she tried to finalize the bookings.
In verifying my record, she asked if my phone number was still 94703 (my zip code). Then when I asked her to make seat reservations I had to remind her that I needed seats for each flight when there were connecting flights.
We are hearing that this is going to be a crazy summer for air travel, with airlines running at capacity. Summer is also when we get the rare travelers, the people who don’t understand the system.
More generally, any complex system depends not only on everyone knowing their role, but on taken-for-granted shared knowledge. This shared knowledge not only makes things run more efficiently — which is why frequent travelers are annoyed by rare travelers, who don’t know how things work*– but it helps prevent and correct errors: a domestic agent would immediately recognize a zip code mis-categorized as a phone number. Overt usability arrangements may be undermined by the usability failures caused by differing cultural expectations and knowledge.
UPDATE 6/11/07 IT GETS WORSE. I called United back today to see about making a change in the reservation and was told that it was on hold, not ticketed, and that I had 24 hours to ticket it, or it would have been automatically canceled. The agent had told me the transaction was complete. I wondered why no confirmation had shown up in my email. Had I trusted the agent, and/or not known to expect an email confirmation, I would have shown up at the airport on the way to my niece’s wedding and had no reservation, no ticket, nothing.
I called and spoke to a supervisor (still in India) and told him the whole story about both agents. He apologized, of course — but fair warning: United’s agents are poorly-trained and cannot be trusted.
*Someone should do an ethnographic study of Southwest Airlines’ boarding lines. At some airports the seats in the waiting area have become part of the line to such a degree that people will argue over whether newcomers are allowed to sit in the empty seats that are in the informal line area — sitting in an empty seat is treated as breaking into line.