AOL Mystery Flyer: United Airlines Report Card

Simon_sees, flickr

No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?

Read on to see how United Airlines scored on Tuesday evening's flight from Chicago to Florida:

How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
4/5: I called United several hours before my flight and asked the agent what seat I had been assigned; I was told that it was a window. When I asked if I could change to an aisle, she put me on hold, returned after a minute, and said I would have to make that request at the airport. When I asked if beverages would be complimentary, she again put me on hold for several minutes, then informed me that beverages were not complimentary, but would be available for purchase. As the agent was speaking, I realized that she thought I meant alcoholic beverages, but I didn't clarify my request as I didn't want to be put on hold again. The agent was friendly, and before we hung up, she thanked me and wished me a good flight.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
4/5: Check in at O'Hare was quite busy. Most of the kiosks were self-check-in, with agents staggered between them and behind the counter to help. I feigned ignorance after using my credit card to bring up my reservation; an agent explained that if I pushed certain buttons, I could change my seat. When she saw that I was struggling, she came over to help me through the process. A message on the screen informed me that I could not change my seat and would have to do that at the gate. The agent was hurried, but helpful, and friendly throughout.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
5/5: The agent at the gate was extremely friendly when I approached the gate to ask for a seat change; he greeted me with a smile and a "How can I help you?" He warned me that it was a full flight, then checked the computer to confirm that a seat change wasn't possible. He was apologetic, smiling, and patient-and said I could try again shortly before boarding to see if anything freed up (it didn't). I asked about drinks during the flight, and he assured me that water, soda, and juices were free.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
2½/5: When I first boarded, the flight attendant who greeted me and other passengers was very friendly. She had a warm presence as she smiled and said, "hello." I proceeded to the back of the plane, and since I was in the second boarding zone, there was plenty of overhead space for my bag.

I walked a few rows back to the rear galley, where a flight attendant was standing. I politely explained that I had a cough (true) and asked for a glass of water. (There was a bottle and a stack of cups on the service shelf just behind her.) She replied: "Well, the galley is closed right now," and paused, as if waiting for me to walk away. Then she decided to give me the water, but in an unfriendly manner, as if to let me know I was putting her out. She did smile, however, as she passed the cup to me.

I walked a step over to get out of the main aisle, tucking myself behind the wall to wait for the lavatory (which was occupied). The FA said: "No, you can't be here; catering needs to get in here." Catering wasn't there yet, and the flight was still in the middle of boarding. Perhaps she didn't realize I was waiting to use the lav; she put her hands on my arms lightly to turn me back toward the aisle and usher me back to my seat.

When I told her I needed to use the bathroom, she let me wait but said: "Well, you'll have to stand over here," pointing to the other side of the galley. I thought her handling of the situation was efficient for her own needs, but rather unfriendly toward me. Another passenger was waiting for the lav, and he, too, had to stand his ground to avoid being shooed back to his seat.

I had a few other interactions with this FA during the flight and came to feel she must have been having a bad day. During the beverage service, she smiled at the man in my row but just nodded her head at me instead of asking what I'd like. Then she thrust the cup of ice and can of juice in my direction without actually looking at me.

I was determined to give her another chance to be friendly, so when I later returned to the lav, I asked about ground transportation in my arrival airport. I think she was annoyed by the number of requests I'd made, but she answered my question patiently and with a smile. Yes, I thought, she must have been having a bad day.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
4/5: Overall, the three FAs on my flight seemed to be quite friendly to the other passengers. One was doting on a pair of siblings separated by a row from their parents, and she in particular flashed many smiles and was generally cheerful throughout the flight. The other two worked as a tag team, delivering snacks and beverages and collecting trash; they were very efficient and made a point of smiling at passengers when delivering drinks and answering questions.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
N/A: I arrived on the last United flight of the night, so there was no one giving gate information. None of the other departure gates were staffed, so I was not able to interact with anyone.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
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