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On the Spot: United’s unfriendly customer service

Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Question: In September, my wife and I returned to LAX from the East Coast. The zipper on one of our bags was torn, and about $600 worth of stuff was missing. We reported the problem to the United bag counter representative. She told us to fill out a form at home once we could determine what was missing and substantiate our loss with receipts. We did all this within two days and were subsequently told in a letter from United that we had not reported the claim within 48 hours so they owed us nothing. We pointed out that we had reported the loss immediately, which is how we obtained a loss form. The form itself said we had 21 days to submit our claim. When I called, one agent offered me a $200 voucher and said the claim would be reevaluated. I called a couple of weeks later and another agent said our claim had been “concluded” and that the $200 voucher offer had been rescinded but that we should expect a check soon. Since then I’ve spoken with two or three other United agents, and no check has arrived. Each United agent I’ve spoken with has dismissed what another one said. What am I to do?

Jeff McCain

Diamond Bar

Answer: After we contacted United, the airline resolved McCain’s issues. “We misplaced Mr. McCain’s paperwork and are fully reimbursing him for the missing property,” Charles Hobart of United communications and public relations told me in an e-mail. “As an apology for the inconvenience, we are also offering Mr. McCain and his wife two $100 travel certificates. We have contacted Mr. McCain directly to explain the situation and offer our apology.”

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If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, that should be the end of it.

But consider this: Through the third quarter of last year when the McCains flew, United collected $239.84 million in baggage fees. For the full year of 2009, United was paid $269 million in baggage fees, so by extrapolating, we can see that United was on pace to collect more than $300 million in fees for 2010. (United, by the way, ranks No. 5 on the baggage fee chart; Delta is the leader.)

My point is not to gripe about bag fees. They make sense because weight is the enemy of fuel consumption, so paying more for taking more seems fair.

What doesn’t make sense is the underlying presumption in the customer service process. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I stumbled on Michael Aun’s new book, “It’s the Customer, Stupid.” Here’s what he writes: “Many so-called customer service reps launch the complaint process with the belief that the customer has a hidden agenda; that is, they are simply looking for something for nothing. Why not go ahead and just flat-out call your client a liar and a thief?”

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So go ahead, airlines. Charge us for our baggage. Even make us show proof after we’ve suffered some loss. But don’t treat us like crooks. We’re not the bad guys, and you shouldn’t be either.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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