Molt Be Blog

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Dear United Airlines,

warning: I'm about to whine for the next 10 or so paragraphs. Don't like whining? Planning on thinking to yourself, "what is this guy whining about?" If so, just skip it.

Dear United Airlines,

I wanted to drop you a line to let you know that you completely decimated my plans for New Year's. Your ineptitude has left me infuriated and with a head cold. Allow me to elaborate:

For the past four years, my wife and I have met up with the same group of 6 friends (3 other couples) for New Year's. The couples tend to be spread out all over the world, but we manage to find each other during this one time of the year. The first year, two couples were living in New York, one in Spain and my wife and I in DC, but we all managed to meet in New York city. The next two years found couples flying in from as far away as France and Florence to meet in Maryland near where we live in Washington, DC.

This year, one couple from New York and another from Florence were both going to be in California for the New Year, so we bought our own tickets to San Francisco for the four day weekend to meet them there to celebrate. We arranged for hotel rooms for all of us in downtown and made dinner reservations for Saturday night (12/29).

My wife and I both had to work a full day on Friday, so we got tickets for San Francisco on Saturday morning with a connection in Chicago, O'Hare. We got the tickets via miles, otherwise I would likely have avoided Chicago, given its prominence towards latency. Initially, we were worried about only having an hour between flights in Chicago, but before we took off I found that the flight had already been delayed by half an hour, giving us a little more time.

By the time our flight from DCA landed in ORD, our 11:35am flight to SFO had been delayed until 2:15pm. If all went well, we would still make our dinner reservation, but might have to skip check-in at the hotel and take our bags to the restaurant. We noticed that there was an earlier flight to SFO at 12:35pm so went to that gate to see if there were any seats available. The line was already twenty people deep with no agents at the service desk.

Standing in line, we learned that the couple waiting behind us had been trying to get to San Francisco on stand-by since the evening before when their flight had been canceled. We decided that if anyone deserved to get on the 12:35pm flight, it was them and gave them our spot. We could wait until 2:15.

Around 12:30pm, the gate for the 2:15pm flight was changed to the other side of the terminal. While walking to the new gate, I saw the couple that had been behind us in line for the 12:35pm flight waiting at the United Service desk; they hadn't made it either. At our new gate, the time had been moved to 1:30pm. We then watched as it continued to fluctuate every 10 minutes for the next hour: 1:15pm, 2pm, 1:45pm, 1:25pm. The airplane eventually pulled in at 2pm and the passengers began to deboard. We were told to prepare to board ourselves, but then stood waiting for 15 minutes before learning that the plane was having mechanical problems that needed to be investigated.

Passengers gave each other worried looks that only got worse as crew members began to deboard shaking their heads and uttering phrases like "that plane's got problems". The pilots left and a new one arrived. Two hours and a "taxi test" later, we were told that the flight had been canceled and that the next available flight wasn't until 6pm the next day. We made our way to the United service desk and called to try to cancel hotel and dinner reservations while waiting in line.

After waiting half an hour with the rest of passengers from our flight, we reached an agent and asked about flights to California. Our friends could pick us up in San Jose or Sacramento and we could attempt to rent a car and drive ourselves from further away. The agent explained that there were no flights on United or any other airline going to the West coast before 6pm the next day. None. Zero. This was due to all the other canceled flights from the days prior.

At this point, the trip was a complete loss. Arriving at 10pm on Sunday night only to leave at 8am on Tuesday morning would give us 1 day in the city. We couldn't take additional dates of vacation to leave later (nor were our friends staying longer). What other option did we have than to just turn tail and go home? Even about getting home to DC, we had our doubts: while waiting for our own flight, we saw that the 2:30pm back to DCA had been canceled and its passengers would likely have been bumped to the 3:30pm flight to DCA.

"The next flight back is at 4pm tomorrow," the agent explained

"There are no flights sooner that that? To any DC airport? BWI? Dulles?"

"Oh yeah, let me check the other airports."

We ended up with a 6am flight to Dulles and a hotel voucher. No meal voucher. On top of all this, I could feel a head cold coming on.

Waking up at 4am on Sunday, I immediately checked the flight to find that it was delayed by 15 minutes. Arriving at the airport, we learned from the check-in kiosks that the agent who booked our tickets the night before had neglected to assign us seats. We were now sitting at opposite ends of the plane; both seated in the undesirable and unswappable aisle seat B. Despite a 45 minute wait to get through security and hearing the useless and infuriating instruction from one TSA agent that "you control the flow of traffic", we made it on the flight with no other hiccups.

Once aboard, I took out a book, placed it in the seat pocket and promptly fell asleep. I didn't wake up until the plane landed in Dulles. I got my bags and waited outside the gate for my wife. As we started to walk away from the gate, I suddenly remembered the book that I'd left in the seat pocket. I asked one of the agents if it was possible to get it back. He went to look, but after two attempts he explained that the cleaning crew must have already thrown it away.

Defeated, we left the airport and returned home. We arrived home 27 hours after we had departed. We had missed a tradition with friends, lost 27 hours of time, and a book (which, of course, I'd borrowed from the office and had to replace). I had also gained a cold that has only begun to relent 14 hours before I have to go back to work.

I could not believe the level of disorganization that I witnessed at O'Hare. What is United doing that they just can't get it together? How many times do you have to go into bankruptcy before you just give it up and realize that you're having trouble turning a profit because your product is terrible? Why would I book tickets on an airline when I have such a high chance of not reaching my destination on the intended day?

I will say that all the agents that we had to deal with were extremely kind and understanding. They can't help that they work for such an organization and I have a great deal of respect for their ability to deal with customers politely.

Per your policy, my reimbursement could not be handled at a service desk. Instead, I have to call a number. I do not look forward to what I imagine will be an hour on the phone trying to convince you to refund all my miles and costs for a ruined trip.

I will never fly United again.




Michael Harlan Turkell said...

You're preaching to the choir. Took the cat to Michigan, paid a pretty penny to do so. The rest is full of gripe. We should start a website called (.com was already taken), and let people post their airline woes.

bad apologies said...

Whatever happened when you called? I'm weighing the options of going to Phoenix this week, and seeing that United is my only option maybe I'll just stay put...

Greg said...

Oh, now that's a story that deserves a good blogging - I'll get to it one of these days.