Open letter to United Airlines

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 Leave a Comment

Dear United Airlines,

I don't often complain publicly about bad customer service, but when it is so bad it borders on traumatic, I feel compelled to do so. Where are your Customer Service people?  Do you care at all what your customers have to endure when they choose to travel with you, or do you figure you're the only game in town?

We've all experienced the United Airlines delay: we arrive at the airport and once our boarding time has passed, the board gets updated with the vague "operational difficulties." The flight departure time is delayed by an hour. The flight may or may not actually depart. It's usually delayed a couple of more times. We passengers get our hopes up, then they are dashed. The attendants don't give out real information. Eventually, they might get so harangued by angry customers, they'll tell a few of us the real reason - the captain didn't show up, the air conditioning isn't working- but they never announce it to the waiting area. Some more experienced travellers know to get rebooked on the next flight, or on the standby list, but by the time the rest of us figure out our flight will be cancelled, it's too late. The flights are all oversold, all the time.

For us passengers, all we know is this: we are being lied to. We don't know what the lie is, we just know it's a lie.

We call customer service, and talk to Rajeev in the Philippines, who doesn't actually work for United. He's nice, but has absolutely no helpful information. He can get us on a flight to Dulles tomorrow afternoon, though - for a $200 change fee. Never mind that we're trying to get to Syracuse.

It happens once, that's modern travel.

It happens twice, leaving us stuck on the plane with a 1 year old and a 5 year old, for eight hours, while the flight attendants are sneaking us juice and crackers, and it becomes a matter of real concern.

It happens to Grandma, who travels from Syracuse to Denver once a year to see her grandkids. She gets stuck in Chicago. Her flight is delayed, twice, before it's just plain cancelled. They cannot get her on a flight until the next afternoon -- 28 hours later than her original flight.

United offers her a $75 hotel voucher. All the nearby hotels are sold out. No taxi fare, no bus passes, no shuttles. She is on standby for the first flight out the next morning, so decides not to go to a hotel.

United offers her a $15 food voucher to last her the next 18 hours. There's a catch: you have to spend the entire voucher at once.

United does not provide her access to their Red Carpet area. They don't offer cots (she wouldn't take one, anyway).  She doesn't have a coat, and she's freezing. They don't offer blankets.

United, let me spell out for you the real life results of this kind of traumatic event: we, like a lot of Americans, live far from family. We have cut out fun travel. Our vacations are spent flying to see family.

It just takes one horrible experience- like being stuck on a plane with two kids, no food and dwindling beverage supplies- to convince us that travel is not something we are going to do often. Unfortunately, our family lives in a part of the country where United is pretty much the only game in town, so our choice in airlines is limited.

When the same thing happens to Grandma - and this is the second time she got stuck overnight in Chicago - it means Grandma will likely not travel to see us as often.

We're not the only ones- at least this ZDNet blogger found some good lessons in his bad experience. The same day Grandma got stranded in Chicago, our neighbors were stuck in Las Vegas an extra 9 hours due to the mysterious "operational difficulties."

The emotional price of flying United is high. High enough that we do not fly United unless we absolutely have to. Is this really the kind of branding you want?



  • NCnetHawk said:  

    My fiancee and I had a red eye flight from LA to Syracuse with United. It included a 1 hour layover at Washington-Dulles which we didn't mind, it would take almost that to get off our plane and to the next gate.

    Little did we know there was no plane waiting for us at the next gate....then to find out the flight was cancelled the night before!!

    No notification email, no prior warning, they simply cancelled a flight and left all the passengers to deal with it whenever they found out at the airport the day the flight was scheduled for.

    They were asking for "volunteers" to take a later flight from our original location; had we known the next flight was delayed, it would have been a no brainer, go back, get a good night sleep, grab the next plane in the morning.

    Instead we got stranded at Dulles for 13 hours, which began at 7am. Mind you our next flight would have landed at home by 9am) We would not end up getting home until 11 PM, a 14 hour delay that included breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the customer service rep argued with us for 25 minutes before giving us a meal voucher, saying we only give meal vouchers if you are here overnight.