Friendly is not something you say about yourself unless you weren’t friendly to begin with. The latter statement would be a closer description of the check in lady who was on a bit of a power trip making me consolidate two bags when I just came off a connecting flight literally minutes ago. She blamed it all on federal regulations – which she must have confused with an airline policy – which, based on my personal experiences, isn’t that friendly after all.
But let’s go back to where it all started. I’ve been flying for many years – but some of the worst experiences I’ve had were with United Airlines ranging from missing a crew to countless cancellations and delays. I’m not one of those people who randomly says “well I never fly United again”. Statements like that are usually made in anger by disgruntled customers who usually come back the week after when the next sale or promotion kicks in. I’m not like that. I might fly United again at some point when an itinerary requires it. Like most airlines, things go wrong at times. I just seem to have had an above average share of those misses on United – and less on the other airlines I’ve flown on.
Here’s a summary from the last trip – a relatively simple round trip from Calgary to Miami:
- During booking, the rate sold out resulting in a $200 more expensive fare. I know they all say in the fine print this can technically happen if you’re not fast enough confirming your booking, but there has to be a better way. When I’m making a reservation and progressing through the necessary steps and in the end the fare isn’t available anymore I would go as far as saying that’s false advertising. Then again, I’m not a lawyer.
- In the weeks following, the schedule changed several times reducing the available stopover time in Houston to a final 51 minutes. That’s cutting it really tight if you want to have any chance for your bags to make it – assuming you didn’t miss the connection in the first place
- The night before the anticipated early morning departure, United cancelled the first flight. Proposed alternative was to leave a day later. Who cares about prepaid hotel accommodations? United sure didn’t. When asked they referred to travel insurance, because clearly it wasn’t their fault. Of course not. I still think there is a pretty obvious liability here, but I’m not a lawyer, remember?
- After a lengthy phone conversation with their customer “service” department the flight got rebooked via Newark, where we stranded several hours later when there was no pilot scheduled to fly the fully boarded aircraft. The entire plane deboarded and people tried to get as comfortable as possible. A select happy few got a dinner voucher – but for the measly seven dollars you can barely afford a slice of pizza (in the United-dominated/owned restaurant), which I would classify as a “snack”, not dinner. The gesture was nice and surely well intended – but the service agent was quick to comment her shift would be done soon so she wouldn’t have to bear with this for much longer. Another agent was hiding behind the podium, seemingly in tears over the way paying travelers were treated.
- Despite the mixed messages it became clear the new departure time would be at 1am. After several uncomfortable hungry hours in an almost abandoned terminal, the announcement was made, shortly before 1am, that the flight was cancelled anyway. The official reason listed “weather conditions”, not a missing pilot. I’m sure that white lie satisfied some corporate performance indicator, but it sure left a lot of travellers stranded as hotels are generally not provided when a flight is cancelled due to weather reasons. I don’t see why not, but that’s the rule.
- A special mention for the comments from the customer service reps over the intercom. They demanded passengers to remain calm or “we will not be able to help you”. While I don’t condone any abusive behaviour I think keeping people starving on a leash for over 6 hours is asking for trouble. Personally, I would not be able to work for a company that has such a low opinion of their paying customers time and time again.
- A 99 minute wait at the customer service counter followed – where unwilling employees provided “stand by” tickets for most passengers. To get a confirmed seat required some serious arm twisting with the supervisor on duty – who eventually not only rebooked us on business class but also provided a nearby hotel room. It’s now 2.30am and I’m tired, stressed and very unhappy.
- The few short hours of sleep surely were beneficial, and helped with some clearer thinking capabilities the next morning, which helped process of the fact that surprisingly the luggage had made it to the Miami airport on a supposedly “cancelled” flight. My assistant helped get our travel plans back on track (where would be without one?) and got us rebooked to a nearby airport. United claimed to be unable and/or unwilling to do anything about the now separated bag which was waiting in a different airport until arrival the final destination.
I could go on. This open letter to United will be sent in a more formal version by our legal staff to help recover the additional expenses and wasted hotel nights. It might be me taking things too literal, but it’s a tough pill to swallow when all signs say “thanks for flying with us” when you don’t actually fly.
Meanwhile – it begs the question if all this optimization is justified, and improves the customer experience. It ruined mine to the point of no return. While I understand that sometimes things like the weather just happen, not having a pilot available in what is one of United’s main hubs is something I don’t even have a word for (I’m undecided between laughably amateuristic to appallingly disguising). I have a long background in management process consulting – and there is a point where you have to be able to rely on good people doing good work, instead of over-processing (aka restricting) everyone’s every move and managing people by number in spreadsheets invented by corporate bigwigs.
If you have any horror (or better) experiences worth noting, please include them below. Meanwhile, I’m considering the idea of writing my next book with the title “Running an airline 101”. The first chapter will have a strong recommendation to hire sufficient pilots. Until then, my current #1 bestselling book on travel hacking “The Freedom Project” is already available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and many finer book retailers all around the world.
Update: It took over four months but I just got a letter from United with a cheque that’s enough to upgrade my Cuba flight to business class and requires me to make some additional travel plans this year with the travel voucher they finally provided. I regret United remains unwilling to cover monetary damages with cash – but since I fly all the time anyway I’ll take the voucher and spent my energy on things more fun than fighting big corporations.