I know that everyone I’ve heard of is upset at United, especially after the botched merger with Continental which CEO Jeff Smisek glosses over when he intrudes on the Safety message every time the plane takes off. However, I was surprised at the virulence of the reports on everything from FlyerTalk to news articles in the Wall Street Journal to my hometown Baltimore Sun. Surprised until the wurst happened to me.
Wednesday May 23rd I started getting frantic messages via both phone and email from United indicating big problems with Flight 914 Dulles-Paris which I fly every two weeks. First the message was, it’ll be a bit late, then very late, then 16 hours late, then the next day. And first it seemed to be just delayed, then routed from Manchester UK and then in the shop.
So frantically I called the Premier Executive desk. The very nice agent offered to get me to Paris in time for my noon meeting if I either drove to Newark in 60 minutes (impossible from Baltimore, plus I’d have to take the dreaded Continental 757), connected through Heathrow, Brussels or elsewhere getting me in after my meeting or went first on UAL 932 to Frankfort and then Paris arriving about 10:30 AM. That seemed better than waiting to see what happened or taking the other options the 23rd or waiting until the 24th to take off and besides, aren’t I the guy who flew around Eyjafjallajökull via Madrid to get to Paris? I hate the Frankfort airport because of the huge up and down stairs/etc to make connections but hey.
So hopefully, I went out to Dulles, had a leisurely meal at the Tidewater and got on the flight right on time. As is my habit, once the cabin depressurized, I immediately fell asleep only to be awakened by the Captain, who revving up to take off said we had to return to the gate because of a miscalculation in the number of bags. Never heard that one before.
Q. But how long could it take? A. A long time. So long that the sun was almost rising when we took off. But the reigning flight attendant announced that because of the delay, we’d all get upgrades on our next trip if we went to united.com.
So I thought - OK, I’ll snare a later plane to Charles de Gaulle – they’ve got 8 hours to get the ground-staff ready to print us out new tickets and hand them out as we exit – right? Wrong.
First there’s no landing slot open due to our delay so we are bused in from the tarmac, unloading from one door in the back, so that the First Class, Business Class and Economy Plus folks missed out on the first bus and found ourselves at the back of an endless line mounting and descending the stairs.
So I, like everyone who faces these situations, immediately calls United and guess what, there’s no response. Indeed we’re told to go to the ”B” desk aka ordinary Customer Service where one overwhelmed agent was trying to deal with hundreds of angry folks. Three (3) hours later I get to said agent who says there is no space left on any flight to Paris that night, “Wilkommen in Frankfurt, have a nice stay.”
The Frankfort Sheraton has the longest corridors in the world, matching the McCormick Place or New Orleans Convention Centers for schleptimes. And while their wurst was the worst their breakfast was superb.
The capstone to this adventure, however, was on my return to Dulles in my favorite seat with good leg room which was spoiled when they cruelly seated an enormously, morbidly obese women next to me, who didn’t even belong in Economy Plus, this being one of the first flights she’d ever been on. She could not rest her arms and had to hug herself for 8 hours to keep from occupying more than 120% of her seat.
Did I feel sorry for her? Sort of. But I really was annoyed when I realized there were no seats empty on the plane for the harried stew-folks to reseat her and the Customer Complaint person at United told me that “We can’t discriminate against overweight people.” People who flow out of their seats onto yours are becoming more common I’m finding out. United has to figure out a solution. My daughter suggests they create a section in the rear reconfigured to give 150% room at 150% the cost – sounds fair to me.
Back a half century ago Holmes & Rahe figured out the levels of stress caused by various life events and loss of a spouse, imprisonment and loss of a job are right up there at the top. Certainly my experience doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy nor match my own experiences with suicides on my watch or kids killed in Viet Nam. But the fact that United’s policies are now so hapless that they preclude any understanding or resolve to fix things is upsetting.
PS. Customer Service said no upgrade for the inconvenience caused despite what the purser/international service agent/whatever announced. “It just is not done.”