United Airlines

Now airline customer service is going virtual at the airport

COVID-19 is bringing new technologies and workarounds to airports.

And customer service desks are riding that wave.

Recently, StuckatTheAirport.com reported on several airports now offering virtual information desks.

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Denver International Airport (DEN), and Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) are on the leading edge of this trend.

And now airlines are joining in with assistance from a distance.

First up is United Airlines. They are rolling out virtual, on-demand customer service at their hubs.

United’s “Agent on Demand” program lets passengers use their mobile devices to call, text, or video chat live with an airline agent.

So this means you can deal with a flight-related issue anywhere in the airport. And you can avoid lining up at the gate or at the airline service center.

United’s “Agent on Demand” service is up and running at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Houston’s George Bush International Airport (IAH). And the airline says the service should be live at its other hubs later this month.

To use the program, passengers scan a QR code or access the platform through self-service kiosks at some gate areas.

Like the in-airport staff, the remote agents are able to deal with tasks such as seat assignments, upgrades, standby lists, flight status, and rebooking.

And a nice added bonus, there’s a translation function in the virtual agent program. So if a customer types in one of 100 available languages, their messages are transcribed and sent to the agent in English. And the agent’s responses are returned in the language selected.

In this age of contactless everything, we expect other airlines to offer this type of service soon as well.

Airports and Airlines offer COVID-19 Tests

 Organizations representing airports and airlines, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), are calling for rapid COVID-19 testing for passengers at airports as an alternative to quarantine measures or bans on international travel.

“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure, said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel,” he adds.

Most groups are calling for some sort of government agency or coordination for this tests. But in the meantime, airports and airlines are coming up with testing programs on their own.

United Airlines’ offering COVID-19 tests for Hawaii-bound passengers. Brace for the fee.

Starting October 15, customers traveling on United Airlines flights from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Hawaii will be able to take either a rapid COVID-19 test at the airport or a self-administered mail-in test at home.

This pilot program is timely and welcome because both residents and visitors arriving from out-of-state to Hawaii are still subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. But starting October 15, arriving travelers will be exempt from the quarantine if they have written confirmation of a negative test result secured within 72 hours from their final leg of their departure.

How will the tests work and what will they cost?

The test at SFO airport will be a rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test administered by GoHealth Urgent Care and partner Dignity Health. Passengers can make an appointment at the testing site in the international terminal on the day of their flight. Testing site hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The cost is $250. Certainly not cheap. But results should be available in about 15 minutes.

The mail-in test option is less expensive – $80, plus shipping. Still not cheap. This test is offered by a company named Color. They recommend customers order the test kit at least 10 days before their trip so they can send in a sample at least 72 hours before they fly. Results are delivered via email or text.

COVID-19 Testing by Dog

Meanwhile, Finland’s Helsinki Airport now has a team of specially-trained dogs on duty whose job it is to sniff out passengers who may be infected with COVID-19.

Tests conducted by University of Helsinki find that dogs can smell the COVID-19 virus with almost 100% certainty, according to a statement from the airport. The trained dogs can also identify the virus days before the symptoms have even started and from a much smaller sample than tests used by other methods.

“The difference is massive, as a dog only needs 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.”

United Airlines axes change fees. Delta, American, Alaska follow.

United Airlines dumps the change fees permanently.

Unless you’re flying “basic economy”

Travelers hate change fees. Airlines love them and make a lot of money from those fees.

At least they used to.

With the arrival of COVID-19, most airlines have been temporarily waiving ticket change fees.

United Airlines has been temporarily waiving change fees too.

But on Sunday United Airlines announced that is dumping change fees permanently for all standard Economy and Premium cabin tickets – but not for basic economy tickets – for travel within the U.S. 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Customers will not be limited in the number of times they adjust their flights,” the airline said in a statement.

“When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request,” said Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, in a video message.

We hope and expect other airlines to do the same.

But wait, there’s more.

United also announced that, as of January 1, 2021, any customer can stand by for an earlier flight for free. “If a seat is available for that flight, we’ll assign you one before departure,” the airline promises.

Mileage PlusPlus Premier members will be able to confirm a seat on a different flight on the same day with the same departure and arrival cities as their original ticket if a seat in the same ticket fare class is available.

Delta and American Airlines nix change fees too.

As expected, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines joined United in ending the $200 fee for ticket changes.

Each has their own take on the policy.

Southwest Airlines never charged fees for changing tickets in the first place.

Wear a face mask at the airport & on the plane. Or else!

Most every airline now requires passengers to wear face coverings in airports and on airplanes.

But now the failure to do so may result in denied boarding or a ban on future travel.

On Monday, the airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A) announced that for the duration of the COVID-19 health crisis its member airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United, are stepping up enforcement of face coverings.

The airlines will also now impose “substantial consequences for those who do not comply with the rules.”

Each carrier will be determining its own set of consequences for passengers who do not comply. But those policies may now include being banned from flying on the airline.

United Airlines says in a statement that starting June 18 and for at least the next 60 days, “any passenger that does not comply when onboard a United flight will be placed on an internal travel restriction list. Customers on this list will lose their travel privileges on United for a duration of time to be determined pending a comprehensive incident review.”

United has been requiring passengers to wear masks on board aircraft since May 4 and most passengers have been complying.

But not all. So the new rule “is an unmistakable signal that we’re prepared to take serious steps, if necessary, to protect our customers and crew,” said United’s Chief Customer Officer, Toby Enqvist in the airline’s statement.

United says flight attendants will “proactively inform” customers not wearing face mask of the rules and offer masks, if needed.

Then:

If the customer continues to be non-compliant, flight attendants will do their best to de-escalate the situation, again inform the customer of United’s policy, and provide the passenger with an In-Flight Mask policy reminder card.”

If a customer continues to not comply, the flight attendant will file a report of the incident, which will initiate a formal review process.”

Any final decision or actions regarding a customer’s future flight benefits will not occur onboard but instead take place after the flight has reached its destination and the security team has investigated the incident.

American Airlines says its updated policies will go into effect June 16. Customers who do not comply with the requirement to wear face coverings at the gate will be denied boarding.

“American may also deny future travel for customers who refuse to wear a face covering,” the airline said in a statement.

Other airlines will likely spell out the consequences for not complying with the face mask requirement in the next day or two.

United Airlines is making its own hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is in high demand around the world as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. In many cities, it is almost impossible to find hand sanitizer and keep in stock.

To address the shortage, many liquor and perfume companies around the world are using their distilleries and production facilities to make sanitizing solutions of their own. Some of it they sell; some they give to hospitals and health care facilities and first responders.

Now United Airlines is doing it too.

San Francisco-based maintenance technician George Skoufos came up with the idea.

In late March he enlisted chemists and chemical engineers at the maintenance center at San Francisco International Airport to use chemicals they have on hand to whip up a sample batch of sanitizer.

They then got the recipe registered with the Food and Drug Administration.

In just a few weeks, employees at the center produced 550 gallons of hand sanitizer. That is enough to supply the entire base.

Now production is being ramped up so that the airline-made sanitizer can be distributed to United facilities worldwide.

A United spokesperson said the in-house sanitizer helps take the pressure off buying hand sanitizer from the open market. It also means more commercially made sanitizer is available for those working on the front lines of the healthcare system.

And it means there’s work for some of the idled United’s technicians and other employees who usually fix planes and plane parts at a time when few planes are flying.

(All photos courtesy of United Airlines)