United Airlines Under Fire

It’s been widely remarked upon that passengers are unhappy with airlines, and that many passengers seem to be particularly unhappy with United Airlines. Deeply, particularly, bitterly unhappy.

I’m broad-minded enough to be unhappy with lots of airlines, although I have great sympathy for their long-suffering employees. United offends me mainly with its brutal seat pitch in economy class, which I view as an attempt to torture me into paying for its extraordinarily irritating "economy plus" category. Which I shall never do.

But that is as nothing to the complaints of many loyal United fliers who believe that customer service has tanked.

The husband’s recent experience with United may illuminate the matter a bit. He had reservations on United this past weekend but he didn’t actually manage to get on a United aircraft because, well, the airline just couldn’t seem to fly him anywhere.

First,  United canceled his outbound flight and endorsed him over to USAir – but failed to issue a new ticket. So he couldn’t check in online at USAir, and two calls to United’s customer service center got him nowhere. So on the morning of his flight, he had to wait in line at two busy counters at Bradley – United’s to get the new ticket, and then USAir’s to check in for the flight. The return trip wasn’t much better – United announced a one-hour delay in Charlotte, and again had to sign him over to USAir.

The real problem, in the husband’s view, was that United’s telephone customer service representatives were poorly trained and simply didn’t know how to get the information he needed. When he arrived at the airport, the agents at the counter were able to straighten out the mess in a few minutes. United has acknowledged some problems with its overseas outsourcing of customer service.

Still, it doesn’t help United that it had a massive computer failure that canceled all its flights nationwide for two hours on Wednesday.

Hey, at least the sewage plane was Continental’s bad.

Added 6/22: Not to rub salt in the wound, but the husband sent me a link to this YouTube video of a 1971 TV commercial for the United Airlines DC-10.


7 thoughts on “United Airlines Under Fire

  1. E-M

    UAL is on top of my S.H.I. list as well.
    Their frequent flier program ripped me off twice over the past couple of years … not crediting 1000s of miles while generally welshing out … even when proof is submitted … what a frustrating waste of time it is dealing with this crappy outfit.

  2. Jim McMahon

    You’ve completely ignored the biggest problem with United (and probably all the legacy carriers). The flight attendants are old, tired, surly, and completely disinterested in anything but getting to their retirement. The problem is especially true on the longest haul flights which the oldest flight attendants grab due to their seniority. So the highest yield flights for the airline (like LA-Sydney or Chicago-Shanghai) are stocked mostly with these angry and bitter employees who go out of their way to hide from the passengers after throwing meals at them as quickly as possible.
    Asian carriers like Singapore are stomping US based carriers in these markets, primarily because of their policy of one five-year contract for a flight attendant, and then out. Singapore doesn’t believe this is discrimination, they in fact believe that the job of flight attendant shouldn’t be anyone’s “career”. And they’re right. Now that US flight attendants have seen their salaries decline to what the job is really worth, they have no fallback plan and just end up being bitter at everyone. Including the passengers.

  3. Kelly Hattabaugh

    I am a disgruntled passenger of United, currently in Washington Dulles airport typing this comment. Thanks for your article, but it is understated compared to my experiences over the past 3 days.
    Tuesday, I was flying from Kansas City to Manchester, NH via Washington Dulles on United for an overnight work trip. There were reported ‘mechanical’ problems (so we were told) that delayed the first leg of my flight which would result in only 16 minutes to take the shuttle from Concourse A to Concourse D. I reassured myself that 6 minutes would be plenty of time to get to the departing gate. Not to mention, United would surely hold the plane for 1 minutes since they knew I was coming in on the originating flight (I know because they gave me my gate information before I even disembarked the plane). After all, it was their error. There’s no way they would let the flight leave without me, right?
    Wrong! As soon as the use of electronic devices was approved I took my phone off of flight status and, within seconds, heard the familiar voice mail beep. Lo and behold, 16 minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave, United had already taken the liberty to rebook me AND had time to call and tell me about it. In vain, I ran to my gate to see the door closing before my eyes. Without remorse or apology, the United rep rebooked me for a later flight and handed me my new boarding pass, my plane mockingly proceeding to the tarmac in the backdrop.
    After way too many hours of sitting around the airport it was finally told I could board the (yes, also late) flight that would take me on into New Hampshire. I settled into my seat and began fanning the sweat beads from my forehead that had formed since I’d gotten on board. This was just about the time the captain addressed us overhead with an ease that could only come with regular practice: “…we apologize for the delay… had to get a new plane… it’s been sitting in the sun all day… was not cleaned… oh, and due to air traffic we’ve been asked to shut off the engines and sit here on the runway indefinitely.” Huh? I attempted to comprehend what I’d just heard but couldn’t think over the screaming child in the seat next to me. The next thing I knew the stewardess was passing out ice water to keep us all from falling unconscious. A passenger request to open a door was met with a courteous “Sorry, we can’t do that. We recommend you use your safety card.” She later clarified to the confused gentleman she meant as a hand-fan.
    We were eventually transported New Hampshire and I managed to get to my hotel in time to catch a solid 3 hours of sleep. Against all odds, I was able to execute a successful client visit and get back to the airport in plenty of time to catch my 7:00PM flight back to Kansas City via Washington Dulles on United. With gate in sight I called my Project Manager to inform her flights were on schedule and that I would be boarding at 6:30PM. Having heard about my inbound fiasco she laughed and wished me luck. My next sentence will live in infamy… “Well, it sure couldn’t be any worse than yesterday!” With high hopes, I hung up and walked the balance of the distance to my gate.
    At 5:00PM (-ish) came the ill-omened announcement: “…flying to Kansas City… delayed…” Imagine my surprise when we were only a mere 40 minutes later than scheduled. I was elated! That is, until I realized that it would result in only a 15 minute layover. Why I took comfort in the fact that United knew I was on the flight and that I would just need to get from Gate A1 to Gate D6, I’ll never know.
    Here’s where it really gets good…
    After an uneventful flight we taxied into Dulles, I scurried off the plane, ran in my high heels to the tram, rode it to Concourse D, and ran in my high heels to Gate D6, arriving just in time to see the door to the jetway closing. Surely this couldn’t be happening again. It took the complaining of the other 4 discontented passengers suffering the same fate for me to fully understand that they really had deserted me again. I looked at my watch and realized it was now a quarter to 10:00PM. I had little hope of getting to Kansas City tonight but, for lack of a different option, I reluctantly headed to United’s customer service desk, the other victims trailing closely behind.
    I stood in line while ONE desk person helped the 14 of us in line, a collection of customers from various other thwarted United flights. After 36 minutes, and with knots of anticipation in my now empty gut, it was finally my turn to approach the desk. It took another 50 minutes for the united representative to tell me that 1) my only option is to go to Kansas City via Toronto, Canada. Oh, but wait! Sorry, you don’t have a passport, 2) we are plum out of hotel room allotments so you’ll have to pay for one on your own, 3) we may have a blanked or pillow left in C19 if you hurry, 4) I’m not sure you qualify for our [measly] $150 travel voucher for your inconvenience but go get in that other line and ask the manager, 5) oh, look, someone has rebooked you on a 6:00AM flight to O’Hare then onto Kansas City while we’ve been talking, and 6) have a good night. OK…..
    Well, needless to say, C19 was fresh out of blankets (and pillows) but there were no shortage of stranded, provoked, irate, confused, and even crying customers. There were elderly sleeping, cover-less and pillow-less across multiple seats, non-English-speaking passengers looking baffled, a baby in a stroller parked next to her mom who was sleeping on the floor, and dozens of other exhausted passengers being kept from slumber by lights, TVs blaring CNN, inconsiderate workers’ loud conversations, vacuums, and overhead announcements in 5 minute intervals.
    I was fortunate enough somehow manage a fatigue-induced 20-25 minute nap on a cold, hard floor in Gate C23. Oddly, when I awoke I noticed a message had been left on my cell phone. But who would have called me at 4:00AM? Why, United, that’s who! They were considerate enough to leave me a message letting me know that my flight from O’Hare to Kansas City had been cancelled and thanked me for my patience. Helplessly and hopelessly I headed back to the all-too-familiar Customer Service desk at C19, only to learn that the soonest flight they could confirm me on was not scheduled to depart until 5:10PM. It’s now 12:35. Wish me luck!
    Final score: United – ? / Me – XX)
    ▪$450.30 personal loss ($30 on airport food, $10 on flip flops for my aching feet, $19 on a t-shirt (don’t ask why), $4 on a magazine, $10 for internet service, $342.30 for a day’s work, $5 for toothbrush and toothpaste, $30 to take my neighbor to dinner for the emergency litter box cleaning, and $Lord-only-knows in punitive damages
    ▪$150 travel voucher that I’ll never use because that would entail giving United the balance of a ticket (over half the fare, undoubtedly)
    ▪20 minutes of sleep since 6/20/2007 @ 5:30AM Eastern time
    ▪I cancelled my United credit card
    ▪And, thanks to the Dulles USO, I made off with a free bag of baked chips
    Kelly Hattabaugh, Former United Customer
    Kansas City

  4. Steve Hanes

    I just returned home from a United Airlines nightmare that:
    1) Destroyed my vacation to Amsterdam…I never got there. My initial flight from DFW to O’Hare was over an hour late due, so I could not not make my connection to the O’Hare to Amsterdam flight.
    2) The UA representatives in Chicage were unable to provide me with an alternate flight to Amsterdam, so I was stranded in Chicago for 36 hours before I was forced to return to my departure point in Dallas.
    3) Forced me to stand in customer service lines at O’Hare for several hours before I was given a $30.00 voucher for a taxicab ride that cost $70.00.
    4) Forced me to endure waiting on the phone several hours to talk to United Airline ‘customer service’ representatives who did not speak English.
    United Airlines deserves bankruptcy…the level of indifference and imcompetence manifested by this carrier defies comprehension.

  5. Gary

    As a recently retired 30 year employee of UAL, I can identify with passenger frustrations. The workforce is way down, many important functions are being contracted out with apathetic employees. I lost nearly half my pension, while the CEO, whose only been with the airline for a few years, was compensated almost 40 million last year! The pilots recently picketed the shareholder meeting and threw their hats down at the CEO in defiance. I think the airline is at the brink of collapse from disgruntled employees, but the management continues to put their happy face spin on it. It’s sad to see this once proud carrier fall so far.

  6. withheld

    Responding to the “gentleman” who thinks that no one should have a career as a flight attendant. We have laws in our country designed to protect our citizens from discrimination. And according to those laws, it IS discriminatory in America for an airline to impose age restrictions on otherwise qualified employees. I’m sure you’d feel differently if the shoe were on the other foot. How would you feel if you were told at age 35 you were no longer an asset to the company you work for?? Not all of the best employees are 20 years old, female and a size 2.
    I’m so sick of people like this who rant on about poor service and blaming so much on the flight attendants. You want someone to blame? Then blame all of the executives and the government for their decisions that constantly create a hotbed of tension for flight attendants AND passengers. Not happy with the seat pitch? No meals? Broken planes? Lost bags? Flight delays? Cancellations? Stop taking it out on hard working people that are struggling to provide for their families and still maintain a decent lifestyle.
    And to say that flight attendants are finally making what their job is worth….I’m sure you’d feel differently if you were on a plane that encountered an emergency and the only thing that stood in the way of whether you live or die…was a flight attendant. The situation on the plane is often just above the level of bearable. We’re all trying to get through it. Most of you are nice and BEARABLE. But some of you I’d like to open the door and let your ignorant butts fall out. You want me to smile when I’m providing service to you? Then how about a smile from you and a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’? Some of you are so rude, I want to slap your mothers for not teaching you common courtesy. So many of you want something for nothing.
    Why on earth should we give you a free upgrade? Why should we give you free food?
    Why should we hold a plane with 50-400 other people on it, just for you. There are other people in the world besides you. Act like it. Whew! Glad I got that off my chest.
    Can’t wait to “welcome you aboard” your next flight…..jerk.

  7. Jim Robertson

    I won’t relate my own horror stories regarding United’s broken “customer service.” My concern is how this aging beheamoth plans to survive with no apparent stategies for acquiring next-generation aircraft. Their 767s are tired; their 737s are tired and noisy. Even if they submitted them, orders for 787s or A350s wouldn’t be filled unitl 2014 at the earliest. Despite an enviable route network, this company’s customers hate it; its employees hate it.
    My United flying preferences began decades ago with trips to and from Trinity College from my home in the midest. Somehow, I’ve managed to live close to United hubs ever since (Denver, Chicago, San Francisco). Despite surly flight attendants, clueless customer service agents in India who haven’t the foggiest notions of American geography, and my own personal agonies trying to fly my “airline of choice”, my primary emotion is one of sadness, because this is among the most tragic cases of opportunity squandered in the history of American business.


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