United we Fall (An Airline Adventure)

Dear United Airlines,
Congratulations! It is not often that a major business organization is able to demonstrate core competency so conclusively and consistently in so many airports on so many flights. My last attempt to come home turned out to be one of the worst customer experiences in the history of commercial aviation. And, by the way, your core competency is generating queues: vast, long, slow-moving queues of annoyed and disappointed people. Saying that I am disgruntled is like saying Custer was not happy with the results at Little Big Horn.
My experience began in Geneva on July 19. (It seems very long ago.) Because I planned to return home in plenty of time for my wedding anniversary. I arrived at the airport and braved the expected line for check-in, security and immigration. (The last two are not your fault.) I made to the gate in plenty of time. Your flight was delayed. Then Delayed. And, finally:
Delayed! (I learned that three delays = one cancel.)
We were told that the pilot was unexpectedly ill.
Well,” I thought, “these things happen.”
Then we were told that you have come up a solution: the airplane would fly to Halifax where it would get a replacement crew. It was never clear to me how the airplane could fly to Halifax if the pilot was ill. It was more reasonable, it seemed to me, that the crew faced duty-time limitations. In any case, ‘boarding’ started.
I have placed quotations around ‘boarding’ because, the boarding passes were examined and passengers were sent toward the jetway. It appears that the crew refused to allow anyone to actually get on the airplane. Eventually, everyone trudged back, the flight was cancelled and the 200 or so passengers queued to receive hotel and lunch vouchers. The voucher line was long - but it moved slowly. The lunch voucher (15 francs) wouldn’t quite cover a McDonalds Big Mac meal (CHF15.90) in Geneva. Surprisingly (astonishingly, stunningly) the hotel, the Movenpick was perfect. (You’ll want to find out who made that mistake.)
I had arrived at the Geneva aerodrome at 9:30AM - I made it to the hotel at 2:30 PM - having traveled, while under your care, at an average rate of 3 inches/hour.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The next morning, although I remained disgruntled, I arrived at the crowded checkin desk in good spirits. I was willing to give you the chance to make things better. To, if you will, leave me merely gruntled. Overnight, you had efficiently rearranged my travel. Instead of going from Geneva to Washington to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, you routed me via Denver. I noted, with some trepidation, an extremely short transfer time for the Denver connection to a Santa Barbara flight. Had it been up to me, I would have chosen a routing via a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles that had lots of flights to Santa Barbara instead of a city like Denver that had few. I wouldn’t have scheduled a 36 minute connection time for last flight of the day. But, then, unlike United Airlines, I would have been concerned about whether I would get home.
The Washington leg (Flight 1472) on July 20 was smooth. (I had paid extra for a premium economy seat. Note: when people pay extra, it is not nice to put them in boarding group 5.) Our on-time arrival was clearly unexpected by the US immigration authority which had dispatched a single officer to process the entire planeload. I wasn’t worried, I had plenty of time: United had arranged my itinerary.
After clearing customs, rechecking my baggage and going through a totally unnecessary security recheck, I entered the spartan United gate area at the (misnamed) Dulles International Airport. (It should be the
Dullest Airport.) The terminal area induced nostalgic feelings of 1970’s covered malls. The architecture had the exciting ambiance of the Kalahari Desert - lacking only animals and beauty. The faded carpet reminded me of my High School just before it was torn down. None of the eating establishments had tables. Balancing a Dunkin’ Donut on my briefcase, I watched the departure of the first of three Denver flights, that left before the one that United Airlines had booked for me.
I wandered through the terminal thinking how nice it would be if someone had thought to turn on the air conditioning. The facility, to repeat myself, had the aura of a sweatshop. On the other hand, a sweatshop has some exciting moments: in the end a product is actually delivered.
Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing the best part of my journey.
Eventually my flight, the 5:02, departed. The routing that you, United Airlines, had arranged provided minimal time to make my Denver connection. I assume that rather than utilizing one of the earlier flights, you wanted to set a challenge for yourself. Hint: Do not challenge yourself.
The airplane from Washington to Denver had to dodge a few clouds and, accordingly landed a little late. To make matters worse, the Denver Airport has a unique design. The runway is in Wyoming while the terminal is in New Mexico. Taxi time equalled flight time. Eventually we arrived and I was disgorged. An agent met me.
“The Santa Barbara flight is running late, but if you run, you can make it. I will telephone the gate and tell them that you’re on the way.”
As luck would have it, the same architect that placed the runways and the terminals was responsible for situating my arrival (C-3) and departure (Q-93,212) gates. I arrived at gate (which felt like it was in the “Z” concourse together with Brad Pitt and the infected United workforce) just in time to see ‘my’ aircraft back away. The gate agent was sympathetic.
“You should have asked someone to call me.”
You don’t want to hear what I’d like to call you,” I thought. “What do I do now?” I asked.
“You should go to customer service.”
It was easy to spot customer service - I just looked for the longest line filled with the unhappiest people. After a lengthy wait, I got to speak to what appeared, at first sight, to be an actual person. However, as the conversation continued, the person devolved into robotic repetition: “I am not authorized...”
By 10:30PM on a day that had begun at 10:30AM (8 time zones earlier), I was rebooked on the first available flight - a convenient 6:00AM departure through San Francisco where I’d have the opportunity to sit on my butt for several hours. United Airlines had inexplicably learned from the Denver fiasco and decided to replicate the delightful Dullest drama: I noted with a clear sense of deja vu, that several flights would depart from San Francisco for Santa Barbara before mine.) I asked about assistance with hotels because of my enforced overnight stay in Denver.
“The delay was caused by weather, so United Airlines has no responsibility.”
“Weather?” I asked.
“And your connection time was too short.”
“United scheduled my connection - after they cancelled my first flight.”
“You shouldn’t have let them do that.”
“Them? Your airline screwed up my reservation. Which hotel have you chosen for me? And how do I get there?”
“United has no responsibility for a hotel. Your problem was caused by weather.”
“My problem was caused by United Airlines. I want a hotel.”
“My supervisor says ‘weather’. I am not authorized..”
“... to do anything,” I said.
“And, the hotels near the airport are all full. You’ll have to go to Colorado Springs.”
“That’s 100 miles away.”
“90 miles.”
Realizing that I’d have to leave for my 6:00AM flight at about the same time I arrived in Colorado Springs, I decided to try my luck on hotels in Denver. Imagine how surprised I was to discover, contrary to all experience, that your employee was correct. I called Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Hotels.com. There was no empty hotel room within 50 miles of Denver.
Careful exploration of the terminal convinced me that the chair design precluded horizontal sleep. Not wanting to replicate the discomfort of an international flight, I decided to rent a car, drive it to the terminal parking lot and sleep in the back seat. It was a good plan - until I remembered that someone had stolen my wallet just before I left Geneva. (I do not believe that United Airlines had anything to do with this theft because it was well-planned.) I had neither drivers license nor credit card. I curled up on the uncomfortable chair.
Newsflash: In an impossible feat, a designer has constructed a chair that is more uncomfortable than a United Airlines Economy-class seat.

And the evening and the morning were the second day.

It was very early as I worked my way through the vast security queue. Upon arrival at my gate, I asked about my luggage - which contained an anniversary gift for my wife. I didn’t actually expect the luggage to arrive with me, I was hoping that I’d arrive in time for my anniversary.
“Don’t worry, sir..” the agent assured me with the words that had come to generate uncontrollable fear. “the protocol is to route your baggage with you.”
“Great,” I replied. “
The protocol is to have a crew for the airplane,” I thought.
In another astounding, indeed serendipitous occurrence, I made the connection. The flight crew, unaware of the details of my ordeal, actually claimed that I had arrived: early’. (It was interesting that United Airlines described an arrival two days late as ‘early’). My luggage was not so lucky.
The baggage office in Santa Barbara assured me that the luggage had been located in Denver and that it would arrive that afternoon. I was further comforted when I received an email from your lost baggage group. I telephoned and was thrilled to hear that the baggage was located in Denver and was on the way. Two employees had independently confirmed an afternoon delivery.
However, the lost baggage page on your website painted a different picture. It said that you were working to locate my baggage. Was it possible that your staff had been misinformed? Unlikely! It was far more believable that they were simply lying.
So, I was home and ‘gift-less’ on my 41st anniversary. Thanks to United Airlines, I’ve seen the inside of a lot of airport terminals. I’ve been able to relive the hardships of early explorers: The discomfort of ‘sleeping’ in the DIA terminal is reminiscent of traveling by wagon train from St. Louis to Portland. The associated backache brings thoughts of the Pony Express to mind.
United Airlines managed to create an indelible memory of flight disaster. I have flown for 50 years. This was my worst experience ever. I’ve been in an airplane that flew by the tower so they could ‘take a look’ at an ‘actuator problem’ after which the pilot said: “Now would be a good time to reacquaint yourself with the safety card in the seat pocket in front of you.”
My flight from Geneva, on United Airlines, was worse. I arrived in Beijing without a Visa and had to deal with 12 different uniformed guards and the Red Army. My flight from Geneva, on United Airlines, was worse. I watched as a commuter plane that I had just stepped off of in Edinburgh was flipped over by a hurricane. My flight from Geneva, on United Airlines, was worse. (I will agree that if the airplane had be flipped before I stepped off, it would be a closer call.)

And the evening and the morning were the third day.

You must empower your employees to “do the right thing” and not hide behind the “I am not authorized” mantra. You must figure out some way to compensate me for this disaster of a flight, a night on the floor in Denver, a miscarried re-route and a series of misrepresenting luggage clerks. I look forward to hearing from you.
This unpleasant experience has turned me off of United Airlines. I realize that things can go wrong, but I expect honesty and understanding. I got neither from United. I have flown your airline for many years, but I am not sure that I can persuade my wife to get on another United flight. And, as for me, I will have to consult with my physician to see if my heart can stand the challenge.
(Not Especially Kind) Regards,


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