Monday, February 23, 2015

United We Fail...

Okay. It's been a few days. I think I can relate this story without sputtering incoherently. Much.

So, a week ago I flew out to the west coast to visit with some industry folks (keep an eye over at the work website for more information on who I saw and what I did). It was a straightforward itinerary, at least I thought: fly out Monday, visit Tuesday and Wednesday, fly home Thursday. I had an ambitious flight out, but an easier flight home.

Now, I'll stop right now and admit that, yes, under an hour between flights is cutting things extremely close. I'm very reluctant to book any series of flights that doesn't have at least an hour in between stops. A lot can happen, and a lot can go wrong, and if there's not enough time you really wind up scrambling. However, when someone else is booking your trip, you have to roll with what you're dealt.

I should have known things were going to go badly when we were 20 minutes late leaving Dulles. I hoped we'd make it up in the air, but given that we were flying out ahead of a storm and into Denver, where there had recently been a storm, that didn't happen. We arrived at Denver airport late, and I missed my connecting flight literally by minutes. They had just closed the door when I got off the plane from Dulles. This would be the ONLY flight that left on time this entire trip...

Okay, this sucks. Trudge over to the customer service booth for United, and I was greeted with this sight:

An hour and a half later, they had me on standby for a 7 PM flight to Portland (my destination). That was literally the best they could do, and there was no talk of other airlines, or early morning flights, or anything. Just "here's a standby ticket for the next flight to PDX".

Well, the 7 PM flight was delayed until 8:30.

Then 9.

Then 9:30.

At ten minutes 'til 10PM, the gate attendants loaded everyone onto the plane - including two people who had been bumped from the flight but were now able to make it - and informed me that the flight was full. I waited from 4:30 PM until 10:00 PM to find out that there was no way I was making it to Portland Monday night. Bear in mind, I missed a planned dinner already.

Back to the customer service line:

After an hour and 45 minutes, I talk to customer service. I explain that I'm traveling on business, that their delay has already cost me a dinner, and that I have a meeting at 9AM in Portland; is there any way they can help me out? As it turns out, there's two morning flights: an 8:05 AM that is full, and an 11:15 AM flight that has seats available.

I ask if they can book me on the 11:15 AM flight but also give me a standby ticket for the 8:05 flight; they respond in the affirmative. Great. I have two tickets now (this will be important later). They did give me a voucher for a hotel room for the night and cab fare to/from. Get to what can only charitably be considered a motel at 1 AM MST, pass out for 4 hours, then back to the airport by 6 to re-check in for (hopefully) the 8:05 AM flight.

The 8:05 AM flight did, in fact, have two available seats, and I was able to get to Portland only a couple hours later for my meeting. Since the folks that I was meeting were the ones that booked the flights, I wasn't too concerned, and the rest of the time was productive. Right up until my contact tells me that United contacted the travel agent with the news that they had canceled my seat on the return flight.

At some point, I was flagged as a "no-show". I don't know if it was for the original connecting flight to Portland or the second flight the next day, but I got flagged and my return seat was canceled. The travel agent contacted United Wednesday morning, and while I didn't get my requested aisle seat (that was already confirmed), they confirmed a window seat for me.

Of course you know what this means: When I went to check-in for my flight, I had a middle seat...

When I got to the airport Thursday morning, I went to the ticket counter. I explained the whole chain of events, even showing the agent not one but two "confirmed" seats. There were no aisle seats left, so they did upgrade me to one of the "extra room" seats for no additional charge. Okay, great. The story's done, right?

Wrong. Now, on my itinerary, here's what it said:

United Airlines Flight Number: 1528 Class: T-Coach/Economy

From: Portland OR, USA Depart: 11:20 AM

To: Washington Dulles DC, USA Arrive: 09:01 PM

Stops: 1 Duration: 5 hour(s) 45 minute(s)

Chicago O'Hare IL, USA

Seats: 38C Status: CONFIRMED Miles: 2334 / 3734 KM



That, to me, indicates that the plane lands, discharges passengers, takes on new passengers, and I stay on the plane. I've done this before. If I need to change planes, I'll get a second ticket for the second leg of the flight. This is how it has happened every other time. I had one boarding pass from PDX to IAD, one flight number, etc. No indication whatsoever that I needed to change planes.

You know that voice in the back of your head? The one I've said you need to listen to? Well, I listened to it. I approached one of the flight attendants and asked if I needed to get off the plane (I was the only person left), as I was staying on through to Dulles. She looked at me like I had three heads and informed me the plane was going to Tampa. I grab my stuff and hit the ground running, and make my way over to the departure board to find out where my return flight is located.

Of course, it's at the other end of the terminal. And it's currently boarding. I do my best OJ Simpson routine and literally run through the airport, arriving at the gate as they're boarding the last group. I think if I had missed that connector, I would have rented a car and driven home at that point. I had never heard of a flight that required you to switch planes where there wasn't SOME indication on the boarding pass - and every other time, I've gotten two boarding passes.

So, beware if you're flying United. At no point was there anything even remotely resembling customer service. When the first plane - the one that was late leaving Dulles - landed, I asked one of the flight attendants about my connecting flight. I was told that someone would be waiting at the terminal to help - the terminal, mind you, was empty. I ran to the terminal where my flight to Portland was, and they had closed the door - the plane was still at the gate.
  • Over three hours waiting in line for customer service.
  • Two hours and 50 minutes delayed on the connecting flight that I was waiting standby.
  • 18 hours late arrival.
  • Seat on the return flight canceled with no notice (I never got an e-mail or a text from United, despite leaving both methods of reaching me when I checked in).
  • Despite a single boarding pass and flight number, had to change planes with no indication.
As I stated several times over the course of this trip: United Airlines has done the impossible - they've made me long for the competence and customer service of JetBlue...

That is all.


firedigger said...

United is to customer service as Nanny Bloomberg is to guns.

The Big Guy said...

Welcome to my world...
In over 26 trips over the last year United has screwed at least one, if not all segments at some point.
If I didn't have so much invested (points/FF miles etc) I would transfer to American- (although coworkers with AA as their preferred have similar issues..)


The Big Guy said...

Welcome to my world...
In over 26 trips over the last year United has screwed at least one, if not all segments at some point.
If I didn't have so much invested (points/FF miles etc) I would transfer to American- (although coworkers with AA as their preferred have similar issues..)


al said...

I fly United 8 to 10 times a year. My one experience with customer service was in SLC a couple of years ago when my checked bag was mangled. I had a new, nicer suitcase 15 minutes later (although I did miss out on the free upgrade to a Mercedes SUV at the Hertz counter...). Flights are usually on-time (I don't count weather related delays). I hope my good luck sticks with me.

Roy said...

Other than safety, it is my experience that air travelers want two things above all - comfort and reliability. The airlines are not delivering either of those two things.

Comfort: In coach, unless you are a ten year old girl, forget about it. Those seats just do not accommodate a normal adult male body. I can barely tolerate the aisle or window, but woe be unto the poor slob stuck in the middle.

Reliability: I haven't made a single air trip in over ten years that at least one of the legs weren't screwed up - either late or worse, cancelled at the last minute. United is the worst of all of them. It's gotten to where if I can get there within a day or so by car, I'll drive. Also, just say no to any connection through Chicago O'Hare - especially during winter. If I must go through Chicago, I'll either drive or not go at all.

zuk said...

I've got about 750,000 air miles, mostly on United/Continental, AA, and a mix of others. One year I flew Monday and Friday for 45 weeks, another I had 90k plus miles all in single segment domestic flights, so I think I have some experience of flying. The 650k on united/continental was mostly continental. I dreaded what would happen to Continental after the merger. You would be hard pressed to find 2 major players in the same industry that were more different in their culture. United hates their customers. They hate their management. They hate each other. They are bitter, money squeezing scrooges with a long history of adversarial relationships. Continental had a solid customer focus, few labor issues, and great clubs and FF benefits. Unfortunately it is easier to pull a culture down than to raise it up. The only people who seem to love United are frequent fliers with enough points to avoid most of the issues with their staff. United would charge for AIR if they thought they could get away with it.

AA has had some real ups and downs over the years, but seems to be making an effort at real change.

Over time the others have mostly faded into oblivion.

If you fly enough, you will have plenty of stories like this. Less often, you will have moments where everything goes exactly right, everyone is helpful, and the food tastes great. The bad has a greater emotional impact though. The vast majority of the time, it's barely tolerable, exhausting, and alienating.

At the end of the day, hug your wife and kids, take joy where you can and be glad you didn't have an engine fire, run out of fuel, or have to execute a missed approach because there was a plane where you were trying to land...all things I've had happen (or have the pilot tell you that you will be going around again because he couldn't find the airport in the storm). I've also seen a triple rainbow off the wing, sunrise thru the clouds off Reykjavik at 40k feet, and tasted the water in the pacific, atlantic, north sea (from both sides), and persian gulf.

better luck on the next trip...


Will said...

You may find this tutorial useful:

The blogger is a ~30 yr airline pilot. Interesting blog!

Old NFO said...

Welcome to my and Jay's world... What you encountered is one of the reasons I pay for club membership every year. I can tell you what happened on the cancellation, you were booked on the 1105 flight and no showed, because you were already there. Lesson learned is if you change flights, call reservations and let them know. The system is automated and tied into their load balancing system.

DocRambo said...

Unless they are the only game in town, NEVER FLY UNITED! They will always mess something up, and their idea of customer service is laughable.

Sailorcurt said...

I also travel a lot for work.

When I have a choice, I choose Delta. All airlines suck when it comes to customer service.

I would agree that AA and US Airways are trying to do better since merging, but the merge has created some issues in and of itself, especially when booking flights through a service. You can book the flight through AA and have an AA confirmation number, but the have a US Airways flight number. The end result is that it can be difficult to check in online. The AA web site says the flight number isn't valid and the US Airways site says the confirmation number is invalid. Doesn't always happen, sometimes when the AA site transfers you to the US Airways site, the confirmation number transfers properly...sometimes it doesn't.

Anyway; in my experience, Delta seems to suck the least (as far as US based airlines anyway).

Unfortunately, Delta also tends to be more expensive than the other airlines so I often can't use them because my company won't accept paying $200 or $300 more for a ticket just because I prefer that airline.

Even so, I still can get Delta flights most of the time. That's the airline I recommend...although beware if flying to Canada on Delta, they often have connecting flights contracted through WestJet, which is another airline that sucks...and don't recognize Delta's skymiles program so your "elite" status won't get you any perks on the Westjet connector.

And, yes...I really wish I didn't know these things.

Sailorcurt said...

BTW: I was in Seattle last week...just got back on Saturday. The trip out was United: First flight was cancelled, second flight was delayed, missed my connection, ended up getting to Seattle at almost midnight after about an 18 hour travel day.

Return (redeye) flight was US Airways. Flights were uneventful, but I checked one bag when I checked in for the flight and gate checked my roll-aboard upon request before boarding the first flight.

Neither bag made it to my destination (luckily I was coming home so it wasn't that big a deal) and had to be delivered after they finally found them.

I will say they got them to me relatively quickly (about 10pm that night after arriving home at 11am Saturday morning).

Welcome to the wonderful world of business travel.

0007 said...

Lesson learned? NEVER. NEVER. Let someone else make your reservations - unless you tell them what flights you want. I was a field engineer for almost 20 years and early on figured out that I could call AmEx(my personal card), make my reservations, and THEN call the company travel agent I ask them to reserve those flights. Never had a problem with the company people because I saved them the trouble of working out the reservation.