Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When an express line is not

United has this new feature on united.com to allow international travelers to check in and print their boarding pass online. This is really common for domestic flights for years now, so I was excited to find out I could do this for my SFO-FRA flight yesterday, too. ...

Yeah, things are never that easy. I got suspicous when the printout for SFO directed me for domestic flight to the "united.com BagCheck kiosk", but for international flights "proceed to the International Terminal".

We arrived in the International Terminal to the tune of a LONG line waiting for check in to United Economy. They had a whopping TWO counters serving that line. However, there was one counter with a separate line labeled "Express line, United.com BagCheck". Only 5 people were waiting there, so I got into that line. ["Pheww, thank God I only need to print the label for my suitcase"]

After 10 minutes the woman at the counter was finally done with that one passenger there, and moved on to the next. 10 minutes later she was done with that one and moved on to the next. ["What the heck, this is supposed to be an Express Line???"]

When the couple ahead of me got to the Express counter, she briefly talked with them and then GOT UP AND LEFT. This was after I was waiting for about 30 minutes in the Express Line.

Next thing that happens is the baggage guy walking up to me and said, "I'm making a single line. Please use the other line. " - "no, I'm in the Express Line. I only need to get the baggage label printed." He shrugged and walked away. Meanwhile there were about 10 people waiting in the Express Line behind me.

Nothing happened for 5 minutes. There are still only 2 counters serving the Economy class line. Eventually, a couple passengers from the Express line get antsy. One of the agents behind the counter complains to the baggage guy, "I told you to form one line!" and to us, "you have to get into the regular line", turns off the Express Line sign at the counter, and starts to walk away. We see "Counter Closed", which is met with instant and loud protest from the folks in the Express Line.

Finally, one of the agents from the Economy Line comes over, asks how many passengers. Closes the Express line behind us (HALLELUJA), removes the extra BagCheck sign, and starts processing the line.

"You have to print your baggage tag", he tells me, points to the little kiosk in front of me, and "I'll be back". The kiosk scans the printout from the online check-in, and prints the baggage tag behind the counter. When the agent finally comes back he takes the tag, puts it on the suitcase, verifies ID, and we are done. Less than a minute of actual work. He stayed at the counter for the other passengers behind me. They got processed similarly quick and the line was gone in no time. Overall I was waiting 45 minutes in the "Express Line".

I'm still puzzled by what that first agent was doing that took her 10+ minutes per passenger.

If I had this experience with US Airways, I wouldn't have been surprised. However, United usually has their act together at SFO and I've never seen them this disorganized before. Bad day? Or a sign of the continued strain on their operations and profit margins?

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