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New customer service adventures

In the first few months upon our arrival in England, I occasionally ranted about what I perceived as inadequate customer service prevalent in British business. (Various older articles filed under Customerography make mention of our aggravating experiences in that regard; one of the best examples was in this article.)

With time, we sort of gotten used to how Brits approach customer service. Or, maybe, just stopped finding ourselves in circumstances that bothered us. So, when a situation of the kind flares up, it feels all the more exceptional and worthy of an angry – or, rather, amused – rant these days. Except that the latest example involves not a British but an American company, USAirways, and its customer service.

This is a fairly long story with quite a bit of stage-setting. Feel free to skip if you belong to the category of readers who are not very interested in this stuff.

I used to go on very regular business trips to Charlotte, North Carolina. Because something like 90% of all air traffic in and out of Charlotte belongs to USAirways – and USAir is a “preferred provider” as far as the corporate travel policy is concerned – I flew them on practically every occasion. Collected frequent flier miles, of course. Even though a round trip between Newark and Charlotte only gives you around 1100 miles, I eventually racked up over 50K of them, a moderately usable amount.

I never particularly liked USAirways service, planes, on-time record, anything. Nor were we frequent customers for its affiliated airlines, such as United. By some time in early 2006, I pretty much stopped accruing any miles on my USAir frequent flier account; when we moved to England, any chance of us selecting USAir for our air travel was effectively dead.

Sometime in the fall of last year, USAir advised me that my 50000 miles would be expiring at the end of the year due to inactivity in my account.

Natasha immediately looked into redeeming the miles for some useful product, but the terms for anything non-air-travel-related were completely ludicrous. We could basically get ourselves no more than a $100 purchase for the lot. We were almost resigned to having to do that, when my Mom expressed desire to come to visit us over Thanksgiving. Natasha changed tack and set to getting my Mom a ticket for my USAirways miles.

Remembering full well our general dislike of the service on the airline, Natasha was particularly happy to find that USAirways allowed to redeem our miles for flights booked with Virgin Atlantic. We, of course, once traveled in the heavenly Upper Class on Virgin, but we also have enough of personal experience and that of our friends to rate even Virgin’s main cabin service quite highly. The booking still needed to be done through the USAir customer service, but we were issued confirmation emails that looked like they originated with Virgin Atlantic, for my Mom to fly from Newark to Heathrow on the day that she desired. There was still a small amount of out-of-pocket expense, $220 or so, which still meant that we saved good three or four hundred dollars on the price of the ticket.

This is where the fun starts.

A couple of weeks prior to her flight, Mom asked Natasha to check that everything was in order. We normally do this anyway a few days before the departure, but this time, it was truly a serendipitous move.

Because, you see, when Natasha called Virgin Atlantic with the confirmation number, she was told that such reservation did not exist.

She called USAir and was assured that the reservation was valid. The representative kept her on hold for a long time, while supposedly discussing the matters with Virgin reservation desk.

Natasha was not satisfied and called Virgin again. Not really surprisingly for her, she was told again that such reservation did not exist and a passenger with my Mom’s name was not scheduled to fly on any of the Virgin routes in the foreseeable future.

Natasha called USAir again. Another representative kept her on hold for at least half an hour, while supposedly discussing the matters with Virgin reservation desk. When he came back online with Natasha, he informed her that there was, in fact, some technical disconnect between the two reservation systems, and even though USAir’s one showed my Mom confirmed for the Virgin flight from Newark, Virgin’s system knew nothing about it. The proposed resolution was quite satisfactory: We would cancel the earlier booking and re-book again; the out-of-pocket cost would be only $90, as the pricing changed, and the earlier charge would be fully refunded. Natasha agreed, made the agent assure her that he would not rest until the reservation was properly recorded in the Virgin’s system, waited for the email confirmation arrive – which again appeared as if originating with Virgin – and called it a night.

The next day, she called Virgin again to confirm. No, there is no reservation with either this number or this name.

Natasha was mightily exasperated by now. She called USAir one more time, not so much to try to figure things out anymore, but basically to make sure that anything USAir did was cancelled and the 50K of miles returned to the frequent flier account; we would then book Mom on a flight with someone else, and to hell with the expenses.

The customer service agent whom she got on the phone still insisted on doing some checking. She then produced a different take on the “our two systems cannot speak to one another” problem. In a nutshell, she said, it appeared that it was not possible to actually book a flight on Virgin for USAirways miles. Sincere apologies, and all that. But we could still book a flight with USAirways for that same quantity of miles, if we wanted. Not from Newark, but from Philadelphia (which is not by much further away from my parents’ house than Newark). Not on Sunday morning for evening arrival, but on Sunday night for Monday morning landing. For $130 additional charge (with the earlier $90 again fully refunded).

Three different agents producing three different stories in the span of less than 24 hours were probably a bit too much for our usual tolerance levels. But Natasha thought back to the prospect of paying for a full-price ticket elsewhere and still being stuck with soon-expiring miles, and reluctantly agreed. The new confirmation email had a distinct USAirways look and feel.

Just to be on the safe side, Natasha called USAir again the following day and re-confirmed that Mom was scheduled to fly on the USAir on such and such date. All hunky-dory!

Mom visited with us and returned home after a week. All air ticket charges were made to her credit card, so the refunds should have been made there as well. Mom informed us after some time that she had two refunds, of $40 and $50, made to her credit card, but was still short the original $220 refund. Around Christmastime, it was time for Natasha to call USAirways one more time to figure out the refunds.

The rep on the phone first tried to convince her that all refunds have been made.

“I see two refunds issued to the credit card, on this date and this date, which should have settled what we owed you.”
“Can you tell me the total amount of those two refunds?”
“Uhm… $90.”
“Which is the amount that should have been refunded to me for the charge made on November 10th, correct?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Where is the refund for the amount charged to my card on October 6th, the $220?”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but nothing was charged to your card on that date.”
“What do you mean? I’m holding my credit card bill in my hand and it clearly shows a charge from USAirways on October 6th in the amount of $220.”
“Can you please hold?”

Several minutes later.

“I’m sorry for the delay. Yes, I can see the October 6th charge in the system.”
“Ok. Why has it not been refunded if the cancellation was made more than a month ago?”
“Ma’am, no one requested that this money had to be refunded.”

If you’re still reading this, let me stop you here for a second, so that what you just heard can sink in.

The service was cancelled, cancellation charges were not part of the equation, but the company thought it was ok to keep the money since, you know, if the customer does not expressly demands refund, the customer must not care. Either that, or the representative was a complete dolt who tried to wing her way out of a confrontation with dissatisfied customer by coming up with an outlandish – if properly procedurally-sounding – excuse.

While Natasha was struggling to recover her ability to speak, her phone handset battery went out (I keep telling her that we need to buy a better phone set, but she keeps resisting mainly for reasons of not wanting to acquire any new 230v electricals at this stage in our lives). She picked another handset, dialed USAirways yet again, got to a different and brighter – by the sound of her voice – rep, and was able to eventually elicit a promise of a refund to be processed within a few days (“one-to-two billing cycles” as far as credit card is concerned).

We have not seen it yet, so the story may not be over.

Natasha swears that she will never ever ever EVER deal with USAirways again for the rest of her life. Which could be a problem if I have to resume my business trips to Charlotte at some point in the future. And all of that miles redemption activity has extended the life of my USAirways frequent flier account for 18 months. There are about 800 miles left there…


  1. mama

    If I know that Natasha will have so many troubles, I am better to pay full cost of ticket.
    But not cancel my visit to you. I am still continue to be happy to see all of you.

  2. Cheryl Sligh

    Sounds like a Better Buisness Bureau complaint should be coming soon. I can’t remember if there is anything like Watchdog over there but I am sure there is.

  3. Jeri

    It’s just amazing how hard it is to find marginally decent customer service. I’m not talking about stellar, intuitive, go the extra mile kind of thing – just getting the basics right consistently.

    It’s really sad because this has become the face of USAir to you – probably one of their lowest paid types of employees, with the least systems and customer interaction training, not to mention authority.

  4. Ilya

    I sense from your comment, Jeri, that you have a much higher opinion about USAir than I do. As I mentioned above, I never rated their service very high, and this mis-adventure is just the last proverbial straw. Do you normally fare well with them?

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