How United Airlines Lost My Family’s Business

Author’s Note:  I have never used this blog platform to complain about a consumer experience I have had.  Please know this is not an axe job on United, just a frustrated and worn customer who has had enough. 

It’s never easy to travel these days.  Add two children to the mix and it’s a wee little bit like going to the dentist — it might hurt, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.  At least the dentist gives you Novocain to dull the pain.  United Airlines gives you bupkis.

After a splendiferous, spectacular, amazing family vacation to Northern California, we arrived at San Francisco Airport last Saturday in plenty of time to catch our 4:20 PM flight to Chicago.  Bags were checked, car seat and umbrella stroller carried with us through the terminals.  Our five year old’s flight “distraction pack” was bursting with everything he needed to occupy the almost four hour flight.

We fly fairly regularly with children (2-3 times a year), so know the drill — the secret to easy flights are just packing what you need and keeping it within arm’s reach.  Formula, iPads, books, photo flash cards, snacks, diapers, head phones.  It’s sort of a science and it works for our family.  Knock on wood (or plastic in-flight tables), we’ve never had a serious meltdown on a plane.  Well, I have, but not the kids.

We learned fairly early on that our flight was delayed due to mechanical issues.  No worries.  They would be fixing the plane on site with updates every 30 minutes.  The updates did come every 30 minutes, but grew less encouraging as the time passed.  We heard that the adjacent gate’s flight had been cancelled, also for mechanical reasons, but not to worry, all flyers would be accommodated in a Honolulu hotel until they can catch the next flight to Maui.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It got harder to amuse our five year old at the gate.  There’s only so much to do at an airline gate and as two hours of waiting turned to three, well, yes, it was challenging.  Our little baby, too, who surely would have slept in flight, had way too much to look at and see.  New faces, carpeting, chairs galore.

Having been at the gate four hours at this point, we started to get nervous.  And there was the frequent message from the ticket agent over the loudspeaker, “We have NO NEW INFORMATION.  If you have other questions, you may approach the desk, but if you want to know the status of your flight, we have NO NEW INFORMATION.”

That voice was getting more hostile.

An hour later, at 7:30 PM, they cancelled our 4:20 flight for mechanical reasons.  No other airplane would be found and all passengers were told to approach a customer service desk in another terminal to make other arrangements.  Then the gate agents calmly (and with seeming relief) left the gate.

At this point, you have approximately 100+ passengers trying to make a MAD DASH to the assigned customer service desk.  None of us were welcome at the customer service desk at the end of our terminal.  Nosirree, folks, make your way to the customer service desk in an adjacent terminal.  This is how the line looked when I arrived:

Cattle call at the United Airlines Customer Service Desk
Cattle call at the United Airlines Customer Service Desk

There were four customer service reps.  Three were helping the premier class passengers that had appoximately four people in line.  One sad worker was left to handle the rest of us.  In the 45 minutes I stood in this line, it did not move.  That’s not true, about six passengers just up and left, so yes, it moved, but only by attrition.

Folks get to talking in a situation like this.  It’s a little “us v. them” mentality.  Passengers trade tips.  There was the old man who simply walked to a gate agent and got help without waiting.  There was the bright young man who re-booked using his mobile device and encouraged the rest of us to do the same.  There was the angry mom of teens who was trying to rally a social media campaign against United, #UnitedSucks.

I mainly kept my ears open and texted with my husband who was back at our original gate with the kiddos and luggage.  At this point it was 8:30 PM.  Both kids were well past their bed time.  The line, I’m telling you, had not moved, except it had grown considerably behind me.

I wondered how long it would take to get to the front of that line for our hotel voucher.  Friends outside San Francisco came to our rescue, offering to pick us up immediately and host us for the night.  The gossip going around was that a new flight at 7 AM had been created for two Chicago flights that had been cancelled that afternoon and evening.  Sure enough, we got mobile confirmation of that.  We called an audible and booked it out of there, leaving the airport not certain at all where our baggage might be.  I tried to ask two separate gate agents who both just referred me to the customer service desk I had just abandoned.

There comes a point with kiddos that you learn to just cut your losses.  A family member in the Mission was away for the weekend so we crashed at his place.  It was close and comfortable, but cab fare there and back still ran us over $90.

The next morning we learned just how very lucky we had been.  After returning for our morning flight, we learned from passengers we recognized from the night before that those who had stayed in the customer service line were shuttled to hotels in San Jose, almost a solid hour outside San Fransicso.  They didn’t arrive there until 1 AM and their return shuttle picked them up at 4 AM.

This, United Airlines, is where you really, really lost me.  If a 4:20 PM flight is cancelled at 7:30 PM, how on earth can arrival at a hotel not until 1 o’clock the next morning be justified?  Does it really take FIVE HOURS to work through the customer service cattle call you created?  Yes, apparently, it does.

Now all of this is terribly annoying to passengers, of course, but add a baby to the mix and all bets are off.  Babies need special things like formula and diapers, which we had packed in excess in case of delay, but certainly not for an overnight delay.  Had we been good and obedient little passengers, as we were told, we would have been carted off to San Jose with absolutely no access to drug stores or the formula or diapers our son required, and with only a three hour sleep under us.

No matter how I do the math, it doesn’t add up.

Mechanical things break.  Certainly I want my family to be safe and want those mechanical issues to be addressed and detected on the ground, but while those good folks are doing their jobs, United’s skeletal staff of customer service reps are hemmoraging any good will the passengers might feel towards the airline.

I am a Chicago girl, born and bred.  I have stuck with United Airlines my entire 44 years, wanting to support our local Chicago economy.  No more and not again.

Those 2-3 flights my family takes annually will now be through a different airline.  Those “friendly skies” United touts in its revived marketing campaign touting their return to customer service are not friendly.  Indeed, they are apathetic at best and hostile at worst.  Those friendly skies are overworked and understaffed, leaving employees who don’t give a fig about the customer experience as they look at you blankly with their worn eyes.  They too, you see, have been hanging out at the airport all day.

Huh.  “Fly the apathetic skies,” just doesn’t have a good ring to it.  And “Fly the hostile skies,” well, no thank you.  I will take my family’s business elsewhere.  Know any good airlines with better customer service?  I’m in the market.

Oh!  And did I mention that our 7 AM flight was delayed, too?  Yep!  Mechanical issues!

ADDENDUM:  How did I forget to mention that we had upgraded on this flight just so we could sit together.  Only available seats together when we booked were in Economy+, so we popped for the extra $.  Wouldn’t you know that when we were re-booked automatically, we were put back in economy.  When I brought that to the ticket agent’s attention for the morning flight, he demanded to see proof of having purchased Economy+.  Nothing like taking a customer’s word, especially when your own computer could tell you!

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