I have just returned from what was supposed to be an idyllic 12 days on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. But United Airlines ruined a lot of it for me.

Day One

We were supposed to fly from Knoxville (TYS) to Houston (IAH) to San Francisco (SFO), and finally to Crescent City CA (CEC). I had picked this route to give me at least an hour connect time at each airport. The route through Chicago (ORD) had just 45 minutes, and I was checking a bag. The flight to IAH in a regional jet (RJ) was on time. We arrived at IAH to board our 767 flight for San Francisco. Chaos ensued. United now (apparently) boards according to how much you pay for your ticket, and all the aisles were blocked, and many people were unable to find overhead space for their bags. This procedure is a large step backwards from the back-to-front boarding procedure, which  enforces order. Of course the issue here is that United wants to get more money for everything, but this is at the expense of customer comfort and ease. I actually prefer to travel in an RJ because they put carry-ons in the belly and you collect them at plane-side when you debark. Maybe they should do this for larger planes too?

Anyhow, after we were aboard, the captain told us that we would have to incur an hour air traffic delay due to conditions at SFO. We took half of this at the gate, and half at the far end of the runway. Then I could tell that something was wrong because I was listening to the airport traffic on my headset. Our pilot was unsuccessfully trying to contact United in Chicago. After about 15 more minutes, he announced that the valve that bleeds the air conditioning system was not working and that this was essential to our flight, so we were returning to the gate. By this time, almost everyone had missed their connection, so when we were told to debark, everyone lined up at the under-manned check-in counter to see about their connections. After standing in line for ovetr an hour, we were told that the problem was fixed, and that we should get back on the plane. It took another 30-minutes of chaos to reboard the plane. We taxied out to the end of the runway, and again the captain came on the PA system. "To add insult to injury" he said, "we have to wait here until the weight calculations are completed." This took nearly 30 minutes!  Why weren't these done for the first attempt at takeoff? Surely they woiuld not have changed? And why should they take so long?

Meanwhile, I received a garbled message on my cell phone that the flight to CEC was canceled and that we were rebooked for tomorrow.

There were three classes of people on our flight. Those terminating at SFO were merely disgruntled. Those on international travel were gathered together and led off to a bus. The rest of the 767 passengers (hundreds) were told to queue up at the Customer Service Counter. There were initially three United agents at the counter, but almost immediately, one of them decided to take his lunch break (a sign of United customer care!), so we were left with just two agents to handle the whole plane of misconnections. At one point, one of the agents yelled: "If you have a connection out of San Francisco that you can still make, take it because you do not want to be stuck here at an airport with just one runway. Figure out what you will do at the next airport!"

Two and a half hours later, I reached the counter and was told that the flight was delayed due to weather and that I was not entitled to hotel accommodations. But the idiotic woman agent did not know how to use her system, and I had to wait until the other agent could show her what to do. Then she agreed on the hotel, but by then all the hotel rooms were booked. No one answered the phone when she tried to call United for assistance. Another half hour later, we finally had a room for the night.

But the next hurdle was to obtain our checked bags. We went down to the United baggage claim agent. She was totally unhelpful and said to wait at carousel 6. But of course, she had never requested (and would not request) our bags. I found another United agent near carousel 6 and he knew what to do and requested our bags, saying that it could take up to an hour.  By this time it was 4 PM, and the whole first day of our vacation was wasted. I saw two women in tears at the United baggage agent stations.

Day Two

Our flight to CEC was at 1 PM. We got to SFO at about 10:30. Of course, one issue was that we needed to recheck our bags without paying an additional fee. So we queued up at the baggage check line, and waited 20 minutes, only to be told that this line could not handle such issues, and that I needed to be in the line that also handled ticket changes, which was even a longer line. However, most of the people at that counter are not United employees, so we had to get in another line to see a "real" agent. He checked our bags. Our flight was on time. We ate lunch and went to the flight gate. The flight was still on time. After waiting until about 12:45, someone on the flight to Eureka said that their flight was canceled, and sure enough, ours was too. There was never any announcement made about these cancelations! So we headed for the United Customer Service Counter again. This time it was at least properly staffed. Standing in front of us were two people headed for Eureka, and we discussed the possibility of renting a car to drive. We got to the counter, and sure enough, the flight later in the day to CEC was full, and we were scheduled for tomorrow, but United would not pay for a hotel because it was a "weather delay." The agent said that if it were him, he would rent a car and drive, and that we were due a refund for the CEC leg. So this is what we did, keeping the car ourselves, and having the other two pay for the first day's rental.  They were nice people and we had a fun time together during the drive. Nonetheless, this cost us extra money because there is a 16% surtax at SFO for car rentals, and the rate is also higher.

But then there was the issue of getting our bags again. This time I knew where to go, and while the bages were being disgorged, I went with the other guy to get a rental car, and the gals waited for the bags. The other gal was a nurse, and a woman fainted in front of the United baggage agent stand. The United agent refused to send for any medical assistance at the nurse's request!  United just does not care for its customers!

So, Our initial two days in Crescent City disappeared, and we had to start out vacation in Eureka. Our final two days were also ruined because we had to drive back to SFO and stay overnight near the airport. That is 4 days of vacation ruined by United.

The trip back

Our return flight via ORD was also almost a disaster. Although I had been observing SFO traffic from our room at the Westin, and seen no issues, at 1 PM, there seemed to be a traffic jam. Our 757 had to taxi 3/4 of the way around all the terminals, waiting for the flights from every gate along the way to merge in front of us. We were stopped at one location for a half hour. So we took off an hour late, which was a net 35 minute delay. Luckily I had a two-hour connection at ORD. When we debarked, we were told to go to gate 4 and catch the shuttle bus to terminal 6. There was a huge line, and just one shuttle bus. It took 40 minutes to get on the shuttle, long enough for most people to miss their connection. No one told us that we could walk to the terminal underground. Eventually (30 minutes later) United put a second shuttle into service.

We got to our next flight only to be told that the crew was not there yet. No one knew where the crew was coming from. But eventually they arrived, and we left about 35 minutes late.

The only bright spot on the trip was the exceptional performance of the cabin attendant on the United Express flight back to Knoxville. I was sitting in the back, and we noticed that she was apparently lip syncing (perfectly) to the safety announcement. When she came back later, we asked her about this, and she said that she was actually saying the announcement for several reasons: First, hard of hearing passengers could read her lips. Second, sometimes the CD jumped, so that she would fill in the gap and avoid replaying it. Finally, she noticed that people paid more attention when she did it, and she said that she wanted passengers properly informed because she might need rescuing herself. We were really impressed with this.

Refunds

After spending 20 minutes on hold with a United agent (apparently in India), I almost hung up. But she said that indeed we should get a refund, but that we had to call the refund department. They were only open from 2-4 PM central time! So I tried calling them from our lodge at 12:40 Pacific time. The only way to reach them is to go through the usual agent. That took 21 minutes, and the refund department was already closed. This is outrageous!. I asked to speak with a supervisor. After another hold, he told me that the rules had changed and I could not get a refund until after the trip was over. I will attempt this today.

I called today, and after another wait, I was told that I can only do this online. So I am trying. 

Lessons that United needs to learn

1. Customers matter. Most United personnel didn't give a damn about anyone but themselves, and ccould not even be bothered to call for medical assistance! There is no esprit de corps among the United employees that I saw. They point blank refused to help me, or walked off the job for a break when there were over 100 misconnected passengers in line. United needs to stop using their "friendly skies" slogan until they really are friendy again.

2. United switched to the Continental software in March. No one knew how to use it effectively in June.

3. Boarding by ticket cost leads to chaos. Selling every piece of a trip separately is not effective in the long run. I will not fly United again if I can help it.

4. Having a refund department you cannot reach, that is open for just two hours a day, and that will not answer after a customer has been on hold for 21 minutes is a clear ploy to prevent customers from obtaining a refund. Surely this is not "the Friendly Skies."

5. Apparently the flight to Crescent City rarely flies. I got two stories on that from locals: 1) It is canceled if it will be late, and 2) it is canceled if it is not full. United should have advised me of this when I made my reservations, and given the situation in San Francisco, United should have advised me to fly to Portland and drive from there. 

Comments

Submitted by jarome on Sat, 06/23/2012 - 13:34

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United issued me a $68.61 refund. But it cost me about $600 extra because of their inability to fly me to my destination.

Submitted by jarome on Wed, 05/15/2013 - 06:59

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I just took a trip to Scotland via United, and everything was uneventful. United even served two meals on each trans-Atlantic flight.

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