The Year of Moving Forward

The Year of Moving Forward
At our 4 person wedding reception in DC

Thursday, December 27, 2007

United Air Hell

I really should say “United Ground Hell” because the flight attendants and the crew were great. But their agents at the check in kiosk could care less. And as I found out yesterday, their telephone agents who deal with customer concerns could care less also.

United Airlines has problems that go beyond my little episode, as this story from Chicago tells us. Yesterday they were into their third straight day of cancellations, angering thousands, if not tens of thousands, of customers over the Christmas holiday period. But contrary to what the Chicago story says, yesterday made at least the fourth day in a row for concellations, because our flight on Sunday was cancelled as well.

But that wasn't even the problem. Because our flight home was actually scheduled for Saturday. We arrived at the Ontario, CA airport one hour before the time our ticket said our plane would leave. Slow downs on the interstate from Palm Springs delayed us a little bit, but not much.

We did not know that United had changed our flight time, so when we tried to check in at the kiosk we learned the flight was closed. No more check ins. According to my cell phone, which I think has pretty accurate time, we were 34 minutes before takeoff.

Now I know it is recommended to get to the airport two hours before scheduled take off and all, the fact is that on the United Airlines ticket envelope it says "Reservations and seat assignments are subject to cancellation for any customer who fails to check in and obtain a boarding pass at least 30 minutes prior to sceduled departure..." and on their website it says the same thing.

I would later learn that the web site "recommends" (not requires) you be there 1-1/2 hours before departure if you plan to check baggage.

They would not relent. Now, the Ontario airport is about like Birmingham's. It was not busy, there was no one in front of us when we arrived to check in, and no one behind us while we tried to negotiate entry onto the plane. We were right next to security, and there was no line there. So we could have easily made it on to the plane.

Over the next several minutes I heard a man at the next kiosk arguing with the agent becuase he was being bumped from a flight. His flight was overbooked, he had tickets, and he was arguing that he was being bumped because he had acquired his tickets by using miles, rather than purchasing. The agent denied this was the reason, but regardless, he was bumped from his flight due to overbooking.

Around that same time another agent who was trying to find flights for us for that same day finally said "There is nothing. They are all overbooked."

My conclusion is that our flight was overbooked as well, and since we were (almost) late, they had already allowed someone else to board in our seats. Grrr....

Before I go on, I assure you that others have had bad experiences and are spreading the word.

Here is Lono, for instance, who takes a little time each day to hate United Airlines. Not so much for problems with overbooking and such, but because of this. A couple of years ago, he wrote:

Guess what United decided today, with the company still failing in bankruptcy, and still nowhere near ever making a profit?

United CEO could get $15 million in stock

Three executive vice presidents at United would pocket restricted stock and options worth $6 million each, and four senior vice presidents would each receive equity grants worth $3 million. Thirty-one other company officers would each get $750,000 in grants, and 366 other managers would receive $100,000 in equity.

Wow. I mean, just... WOW. The company went teets up, laid everyone off, went into bankrupcy, reneged on the retirement for all their employees... then gave the suits millions.

Here is Kent's experience Here

Here is Olivier's experience Here

So it's not just me. Anyway, we were rebooked for a flight on Sunday (same flight number, same flight time). But on Sunday, we arrive about 2 hours ahead of departure (the only thing within sight of our cheap hotel room was a Circle K and a Jack in the Box, so not much to keep us from shuttling the quarter mile to the airport), only to be told our flight had been cancelled. Bullhockey.

So they scurried around and found us and another guy seats to Denver on a flight out of Palm Springs (had we known...) and promised to get us there to make the flight, which was leaving in less than two hours. Now, it is impossible to make the trip in less than an hour, so we could not get there one and a half hours ahead of time, but I guess on Sundays at another airport that does not matter.

We entered the airport about 10 minutes before departure, and were told at the counter there was "no guarantee" we would get on the plane and there was "no guarantee" our luggage would get loaded, and that we needed to "run" to the gate.

Well we ran, and I was still getting dressed (I had to remove my belt and of course, my shoes in security) as we crossed the gate (with the gate attendent saying "Go, go,") running.

But we were on a plane to Denver, and
already had boarding passes for the flight to Birmingham.

In Denver we went to the gate where the monitor said "If you have a boarding pass you do not need to check in again." So we didn't. Mistake.

Instead we went to a pub and ate nachos and fries, and headed back to the gate at the scheduled boarding time. We were in the middle of the pack, and when we reached the gate the agent said "Uh-oh, something's not right." Someone was in our seats. She got the 20 second version of my frustration of the last two days, and assured us we would get on the plane. She would just have to remove someone else from the plane so we could have seats. In the meantime, please go to the end of the line.

Well, we got on the plane, those two other people are probably ticked off and blogging about it right now, too.

Here is what United told me yesterday. We were late, and because we were not there 1-1/2 hours before departure, we were denied. They said the flight was not overbooked (even though the agent at the counter said they were all overbooked). I don't believe them.

They told me that "recommended" (1-1/2 hours) on their web site means "required." Really, that is what she said. They made up their own definition. But if that were true we should not have been able to board in Birmingham, or in Palm Springs, so that is bull.

They told me that the 30 minute rule on their ticket envelope and on the web site refers only to travellers without checked luggage. Really, that is what she said. They told me I was supposed to know that is what it meant. Really, even though it does not say that in print anywhere.

They will not pay for our cheap hotel room, and offered a pittance compensation equal to about 1/4 the cost of our ticket. In the form of vouchers. And there is another example of their ineptness.

I was told that with the vouchers I have two options.

Use them to purchase (well, part of a purchase) a ticket to anywhere in the continental United States by phone, or in person at the airport. You can not use the voucher for purchases over the internet. If you use the voucher at the airport, you have to have a reservation "on hold", made by phone, of course, before you can use the voucher. Also, the voucher has to be mailed back to them to make the purchase. I wonder how long you can have tickets "on hold" before you lose during the time the vouchers are in route by mail to United. How archaic.

But that is how they explained it. I asked if the terms would come with the voucher, she said yes. I hope the voucher is written in better "English" than I heard over the phone, and maybe it will make sense.

Dave (and his commentors) says it all, in few (not so nice) words:
I hate airlines

And like
Stan I wonder what United is thinking. I told the agent on the phone, that after talking to her I was convinced that United does NOT care about customer satisfaction, it is all about feeding the corporate officers and managers.

I hope Ron Paul adds the airlines, United in particular, to his list of corporate fascists that he says is ruining this country. More on that later. For now, I have to think about where to fly on my final United flight, paid for in part with their "travel certificates." After that, never again.

Update: A reader alerted me to this site through a comment, and it is worth sharing.

Untied Airlines (spelled that way on purpose).


Anonymous said...

I haven't flown United since they lost my luggage in 1998 and then offered me a cheap little bag with a disposable razor, tooth paste (generic) and a tooth brush. A pox on their house!

Anonymous said...

And here is a lot more of United mishaps and mis-steps.