Earlier this month as I was returning home from my honeymoon, I experienced the dreaded predicament that so many travelers eventually face: flight cancellation. I travel by air a few times a year and I’ve been handed every combination of delays, missed connections, luggage issues, and unhelpful customer service, but this was the first time that I had a cancelled flight. United Airlines worsened the situation by failing to provide basic recourse that I could manage on my own, which left my fellow passengers and me waiting for a substantial amount of time. Of course this is a design problem!

Flying is already stressful, expensive, and time-consuming. When you have an unexpected problem or setback – and you will – not knowing what to do triggers unnecessary anxiety, helplessness, desperation, and self doubt, all leading to explosive frustration affecting everyone around you.

It was about 30 minutes prior to my boarding that Mirna and I were just finishing our stroll around the concourse as we made our way to our gate. An unusually long line had queued up in front of the service desk – never a good a sign. Our flight was cancelled, confirmed by the monitor above the entrance to the jet bridge. I did a double-take to verify that I was indeed reading everything correctly, and then I looked back at that line. Every person scheduled to be on the plan was in that line! So what do you do when you see long line? Do you get in place? With no more information aside from the fact our flight was cancelled, I suppose there’s no other choice.

Now, the airline might have announced that our flight was cancelled over the loudspeaker. In fact, I’m sure they did because that’s pretty much a standard operating procedure. However, that announcement failed to stand out against the cacophony of other passengers, aircraft engines, and competing announcements emanating from other gates. Even if we did hear it, all that would have done is gotten us a spot a little further up in line. I want to eliminate the line.

Infuriating as disruptions may be, they are a fact of life. My dissatisfaction stems from United's lack of a human-centered approach to handle the ordeal. Every facet of airline customer experience can be improved, but I’d like to examine a few specific touchpoints based on my particular case. You can say I'm discussing UX design or service design. I feel the two disciplines are intertwined.

Let the people be capable

My wife, Mirna, and I are both enrolled United Airlines' mileage program, and we both use their iOS app. We never received any push notifications or emails about the cancellation (well, Mirna eventually got an email, but it was about an hour or so after the fact). News apps do a fairly decent job of being timely when it comes to breaking news alerts. United’s inability to do the same is a missed opportunity.

Push notifications can get annoying if left unmanaged. But they can also be incredibly helpful. What if swiping the icon initiated the rebooking process? What if it provided all the information that I had waited an hour and a half in line to get? Where to pick up luggage, why the flight was cancelled, and what the hotel options are; any additional information that might be useful. If the app performed those tasks, there would be no need to visit the service desk. For non-English speakers, the content can even be localized to remove language barriers between the traveler and the customer service agent.

App concept
This would save passengers hours

At one point, the service desk announced that they’d assist people more quickly if everyone could call the airline to rebook from there. I couldn’t make out the phone number they provided, but someone in line next to me did so I called it. Singapore Airlines. Super! I gave up trying to find the customer service number on my United app and just Googled it.

Rebooking over the phone was fairly painless with the exception of figuring out how to talk to a human being. The rep. was friendly and provided me a number of flight options, both direct and with connections for me to choose from. I asked her if there was anything the airline would do for hotel accommodations or my checked baggage. She said the airline doesn’t provide hotel rooms to cancellations due to weather – which is maddening, but whatever – and that I’ll have to check with the desk to find out if and how I can reclaim my checked baggage.

Again, much of this can be solved within an app as I’ve outlined above, but that information and ease of attaining it needs to propagate to other consumer touchpoints. What about those who don’t own smartphones? Or never downloaded the airline’s app? Or are traveling internationally? Wifi isn’t always free. In fact, it’s quite expensive in places like South America. Forget data roaming, it’s for the 1%. Even so, having a smartphone and the app and a free data connection doesn’t necessarily guarantee an online resolution in this scenario. Not everyone feels comfortable using their phones for big transactions. The experience has got to be provided offline as well. When there’s a problem with the flight, people will congregate around the customer service desk. Anything the customer service desk can do to get people out of line and on their way benefits everyone.

The screen behind the desk is a prime location for messages. Call such and such number to rebook. Get your bags at baggage claim X. Pick up a hotel voucher coupon at the desk – on top of which there should be a stack. If, for whatever reason, that is an impossibility, a cardboard sign will suffice. At this point, most people should be able to help themselves booking new flights. For those who really need to speak with someone in person, the line to do so will be substantially shorter.

Airline monitors
Image on the left is all passengers had to read about the cancellation. The alternate image on the right could provide useful information.

Messaging and Context

A person’s mental state might be worth consideration when sending certain types of email. When I received the confirmation of my rebooked flight, there was a charge noted at the bottom. I wasn’t sure what it was for. The customer service rep. didn’t mention any charges, or that there wouldn’t be any new charges. I was stressed, I was tired, the email was wordy, and I failed to notice the fact they simply reused the email template from when we originally booked the trip. I called the airline again. “Help! Agent. Agent. Agent agent agent.” I must have sounded like a crazy person.

A different template would have made a world of difference - something with simple, concise language and structure that can be easily processed under tense conditions. If I’ve rebooked a flight, just show me information about that flight. Throw in hotel reservation instructions for good measure. Previous flights in my trip are irrelevant. Displaying credit card charges that already happened without any indication of when they occurred is going to lead me to believe they are new and I’m going to freak out.

Can it be done?

By the time my ordeal was over, I waited in line for about an hour and half and spent over twenty minutes of that time on the phone. People behind me waited much longer. At times, I didn’t know why was waiting or what I was waiting for. My feet were killing me and I almost gave up. In the end, it did prove fruitful to stick around because I found out where to get my luggage and managed to get a coupon for a discounted hotel room. This was information that should have been readily available but required a tremendous amount of time to get.

In the time we waited, a passenger could have rebooked and boarded another flight to their destination. But long wait times make that more of an impossibility. It is within the mutual interest of both the airline and the customer to cut wait times with customer service and limit those interactions to when they really matter. Every passenger in line needed to rebook their flight, find their luggage, and if necessary, stay in a hotel room. Customer service spent a great deal of time repeating these details to each of those passengers. If time is money, United was hemorrhaging.

From an application’s capabilities to human contact to the messaging, each of United Airlines’s touchpoints had some gaping flaws and missing information. These customer experiences are ripe for a redesign. Customer service at the gate needs the capability push information out to passengers both online and offline so they may easily move forward with their travels.

Increasingly within the past decade or so, our devices have ditched the instruction manual. Likewise with our software. That is because design has played a crucial role in empowering us with the confidence to do the things we need to do on our own. In my experience with United Airlines, I feel like I had to ask for the instruction manual.

While there a number of technical and organizational considerations to be made in order to implement the things I am exploring, I don’t think they are out of reach for a multi-billion-dollar company. The airline industry’s reputation is in the gutter, worse than Congress. A little innovation to improve customer experience can reduce administrative costs and cultivate loyal customers. Things go wrong, that’s inevitable. How well you manage the situation counts, and that is designed.