United Airlines Gets a C+

Last year I gave effusive praise to Delta airlines for helping save the day on the Italy trip, both heading out there, and returning.    This year, United Airlines almost didn’t get a passing grade for the Chicago trip.

The flight out there was fine, but the problem was the trip home.   I met Jade at 6:15 (her hostel was only about five minutes from my hotel) and we took the blue line straight to O’Hare.   We got there plenty early, it seemed, and checked the board for our flight, finding out it left from terminal two.    We got there, but were told we could only check luggage in terminal one.   So we headed to terminal one, checked in and checked our luggage.   As we were heading back to terminal two, I realized that our gate was actually located in terminal one (they had changed departure terminals).   We quickly turned around and went back, and then had a delay as we went through security.   No problem, we got through, and then had to go all the way down to the end of the concourse, using quick people movers.   Our flight was at 8:13, with all the mix ups we still got there at 8:04.

Then, it got weird.   First, I tell the woman that we’re there for the Portland flight.   “Where were you,” she asks, and then ignoring our response turns and heads down the ramp.   She came back and mumbled something about someone from down there helping us, which left me a bit confused.   Then she disappeared.   I finally “found” her (she had gone to the other side of the counter and sat in the dark) and asked her if we were going to get on the flight.   She nervously said “no,” and that the guy would be up to help us.   She also muttered something about compensation.    Perhaps she had been shell shocked from too many complaints, or felt guilty for closing up the flight so early.    “OK,” I said, realizing she wasn’t going to help.

The guy came up and said matter of factly that the best we could get was stand by on the 2:09 flight.   When I asked, “shouldn’t we get priority since we were bumped…”  He snapped an interruption, “you weren’t bumped, you weren’t here!”  He then handed me our standby tickets.

OK, I have a firm rule not to argue with airport people, their lives are difficult dealing with angry travelers anyway.   So I bit my tongue, took the tickets, and went with Jade to find somewhere to sit down.    She has papers to work on, so she figured she could at least do that…until she realized she’d packed her power chord in luggage that assuredly had made it to the proper flight.    Her battery had about eight minutes left.   As I watched the flight leave the gate, I really found myself irritated with United.

First, we had just checked in.   They knew we were there.   We had luggage.    If we knew there was a risk that they’d replace us with stand by people, we’d have checked with someone to send word.    Second, even though their signs say “please be here ten minutes before departure,” it’s pretty crappy of them to replace people who just checked in with stand by people right at that moment.   We got there less than one minute late; an airline boosting of ‘friendly skies’ should be able to wait an extra minute or two.    And though the lady muttered something about compensation we weren’t offered a thing.

Well, I knew I wasn’t going to scream at the employees, though it also irritated me that they gave us no sympathy.   We either got the nervous guilty lady who hid away, or the aloof abrupt man who scolded me for using the word “bumped.”  Last year when Delta told us we might have our group miss our Rome flight and spend a day at JFK, I was exceedingly friendly and understanding to the workers, and they kept me informed, apologized, and showed that they wanted to help.    It ended up working out, but either way I would have been very happy with Delta’s show of concern.   This time…well…I didn’t want to sit and wait to maybe get a stand by seat at 2:09, so I went back to the guy at the desk.

I showed no irritation, smiled, and asked about alternative flights.   He looked at his computer and said finally, “nothing confirmed today, it’s all stand by.”   When I said it doesn’t have to be direct, he said he’d checked every airline and every possibility.  “Wow,” I replied.   I then had a higher opinion of him, he was at least trying.   I asked about Boston, and he said he could get us through via Syracuse, on a flight that left at 9:03.   I looked dubiously at my watch, which said 8:30, realizing the Syracuse flight was in the other terminal.   How could we get through security on time?   “You’ll get there,” he said, “there’s a shuttle bus at gate nine.”    He gave us our tickets, telling us we’d have find our way to Portland from Boston ourselves.

The flights went fine.    Jade was convinced that the problem was not United but O’Hare — in her mind, it’s an evil airport (she’s had other misadventures there).   In Boston we took an Enterprise shuttle to get a car rental for about $80, and on a gloriously sunny day the drive back was good.   When by mistake I got on I-90 and said “I’m going to have to turn around,” Jade said, “I have faith that a way to turn around will appear.”   Two minutes later there was an interstate U-turn to effortlessly shift from going West to East.  I have never encountered one of those before.  I accused Jade of simply making it appear through thought power.

In all, the day wasn’t that bad — just longer than it was supposed to be in terms of travel.   Jade sent her boyfriend a text message from Portland so he’d have dinner ready for her, and I got back home to my family by 7:00.

Still, while I credit United with on time quality flights there and back, it left a sour taste in my mouth that they replaced us so quickly, offered us no compensation, and with no sympathy.   I thought these were supposed to be the friendly skies!  In the end, the desk attendant redeemed himself by getting us at least through to Boston.   At this point, based on my experience, I’d choose Delta over United for future flights (though Germany is going to be via British Airways).

But perhaps I’m wrong.   Perhaps that’s just travel in a world where high oil prices and extensive competition lead companies to overbook, fly packed planes, and cut staff.   Maybe the staff is just so harried they have put up a barrier that prevents customers from getting to them, but also makes it harder for them to show sympathy and caring.   Perhaps the signs should read Get to the flight ten minutes before departure or you will lose your seat! I still am amazed that less than an hour after check in nine minutes plus was too late.   I guess we just have to get used to the nature of air travel in this new era.

  1. #1 by patrice on April 26, 2010 - 20:24

    I’ll never forget the time we were flying from Istanbul to Duluth. We had a short layover in Mpls, and we were late to boot. And we arrived in the “G” terminal (I think) and left from the very last gate in the “A” terminal. In any case, they were both at about opposite ends of the “U”. And those golf carts? They operate on set routes, it turns out, and we couldn’t find one that would take us where we needed to go! Not helping matters, I realized after we had hiked a fair way down the road, that I had left Annika’s coat on the plane (oooh, Esref was not happy with me!). So he ran back to get it, and meanwhile I was literally RUNNING through the airport (with a 1 year old baby and related bags in tow). Got to the gate (breathless, about to pass out), and they had JUST closed the door. I mean, I watched her doing it. I said “I’m here!!!”. And she wouldn’t open the door for us. Couldn’t believe it. Again, they KNEW we were coming and that our flight had just landed. They put us on standby for the next flight (for like 10:30 pm) so we waited around but didn’t get on. Had to go to a hotel and leave the next morning. Total hassle with a baby.

    The only saving grace was a very nice airport employee who saw me running with the baby and all my bags. She took a couple of the bags and ran with me.

    Anyhow, that experience wasn’t the only bad one we had with Northwest, but when my parents were still around we were stuck with them since they were the only ones that flew to Duluth.

    I was shocked last week when I heard that Ryan Air is going to start charging customers £1 to use the bathrooms! I mean, I can even sort of get past charging for luggage, but for the bathroom? Ugh. I used to like travelling (the actual process of getting there – not just being there), but have grown to really dislike it.

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on April 27, 2010 - 14:02

    “We got there less than one minute late; an airline boosting of ‘friendly skies’ should be able to wait an extra minute or two.”

    Well, here’s your problem, you went with a companyt hats boosting friendly skies….that way they are out of your reach, and you’ll have to settle for guilt ridden and pissed off skies!

    As for Ohare being an evil airport, I can’t say personally, I’ve never been there. My airport issues have always been with Denver, both the old Stapleton, and teh new int’l locations….never a single smooth landing (not even ONCE!!), half the flights (and this is back in the 90s) gave me a good 45 minute wait on the tarmac (when I only had at best 1hr 15min holdover!) before unloading and racing down to the opposite end of the concourse to catch the connector!

  3. #3 by Lee on April 27, 2010 - 15:56

    I had trouble w/ United in Chicago the year that we were there to adopt my youngest. They would not let us on the plane saying that she was legally too young to fly. We subsequently found out that there was no such legality and think it was likely that the staff viewed 2 women with 4 children who didn’t look like anyone else in the family with suspicion. We were also flying 2 days before Christmas. They did refund our tickets and luckily we had not turned in our rental car so we drove 20 hours straight to get home to MA before Christmas. Not a lot of fun but makes for one of those interesting stories in the family now!

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