Monday, October 3, 2016

Why I Never Want to Fly United Airlines Again

The morning of our scheduled departure, we received a text from United Airlines that our flight out of Chicago to New York City was cancelled. The reason given was "air traffic control." (I still don't understand this; it seems to me that air traffic control would be a reason for the flight to be delayed, but not to be cancelled entirely.) We were instructed that we would have to fly standby.

This was to be our weekend in NYC, a special getaway that we had been looking forward to for some time. We had planned to get out there early enough to have dinner and enjoy a bit of the city before turning in early to rest up for the remainder of the weekend.

Our original flight was to depart at 1:00 PM. I put our names on the standby list for the following flight, at 2:00 PM.

My wife and I picked our son up at school and drove to the airport. We found out that we were 13th on the standby list and that it was a full flight, meaning that our chances of getting on this one were small.

So it wasn't a big surprise when we didn't get on that flight. But I was hoping that we would get on the following one or the one after that.

But we never made much progress on the standby list. Some people at the top of the list were chosen for flights, but we didn't seem to move up much. When I inquired why, I was told that people with status had priority while we had none.

We were just schmoes whose flight was cancelled by the airline.

At least that is how it felt like from the treatment we received from nearly everyone with the airline. The gate agents were the worst; no apologies and very dismissive treatment when I politely tried to see if there was anything they could do beyond just rolling us over from standby list to standby list, from flight to flight. One man at the Customer Service desk was more sympathetic, but all he could do was tell us that the earliest flight he could put us on was 11 AM the next day. He suggested that we keep waiting and see what happens.

As we waited, I noticed that the gate agents sometimes made announcements asking for volunteers to give up their seat and take a later flight; in exchange they would be compensated $300 or $400. I asked an agent if we could be compensated for our troubles and she replied that those people who give up their seats had confirmed reservations. I explained that we did, too – on a flight that United cancelled. The agent just shrugged.

At about 6:30 PM, our name was finally called. However, there were only two seats so we would not be able to fly together. I told my wife to go on with our son and that I would hopefully get to go on the next flight. I was relieved that we were finally making progress in getting to our destination.

I went to the gate of the next flight and settled in for another wait. Over an hour later, I received a text from my wife wanting to know which gate I was at. It turned out that the plane she and my son went on had a mechanical problem – three oxygen masks weren't working so they asked for volunteers to get off the plane. One person did volunteer and received $500 compensation. When no one else volunteered, they told my wife that she and Kai would have to get off as they were the last standby passengers who boarded. And, there would be no compensation for them.

When they arrived at the gate where I was waiting, I spoke to the gate agent about the entire situation and explained how they should be at the top of the standby list because they had made it to the top of the list only to be kicked off the previous flight due to mechanical trouble. The agent told me they would be 10th, at the bottom of the list.

I tried to stay calm as I again went through the rationale of why they should be at the top of the list. The agent responded as if I was asking for some huge favor. She said that she could get fired if she moved my wife and son to the top of the list.

I asked to speak with a supervisor. When the agent got her supervisor on the phone, I could hear her say that some people who missed a flight wanted to be moved up on the standby list. She hadn't understood what I had been telling her at all.

The supervisor arrived at the gate as boarding began. I had to explain everything to him just as I had to the gate agent. He said he would take care of us but as he typed away at a keyboard, others were boarding the plane. Boarding group 1 was called, then 2 then 3 then 4. Still no confirmation that we would get on the flight.

During this entire lengthy process that began in the early afternoon and now extended well into the evening, Kai had stayed remarkably patient. For those of you who are familiar with kids with autism, you know that dealing with unexpected events and having to wait can be extremely difficult challenges. But Kai handled it all incredibly well. We were very proud of him.

However, as the agents called Boarding Group 5 and then some standby passengers, he got upset that we would be left behind. Frankly, so was I. Kai got a little frantic but I did not think it was to an unreasonable degree. But the supervisor asked to speak with me privately and told me that if my son didn't quiet down, we would not be getting on the flight. I explained how my boy has autism and how waiting was difficult for him, but the man didn't want to hear about it.

So I tried to reassure Kai that we would get on this flight while still wondering if we actually would, and trying my best to stay calm myself as well. As much as I had been extremely frustrated by this whole ordeal, I knew that this man was our last hope for flying out this evening.

Finally, after everyone else had boarded, we were given boarding passes. We would make it out. (I don't know if the supervisor had anything to do with our getting on the plane. It seemed to me that no one else was left so we were probably still at the bottom of the list and just happened to luck out that the flight had enough openings for us).

It was nearly 1 AM when we finally reached our hotel.

During this entire ordeal, the thing that infuriated me the most was the near total absence of caring by anyone associated with United. It is hard to tell if the airline hires people who have no aptitude for customer service, or if they just have become numb because this happens so often and they are given no means to help. Either way it is unacceptable.

I don't know that any other airline would have handled this situation any better. But to continue to fly United would be condoning this horrid service.

Just out of principle, I say "enough."


  1. The two worst airlines I have ever flown on was United and Southwest. Their service is terrible. The flight attendants were especially rude. Whenever I fly in Asia, their airlines are far superior in service.

    1. When we fly to Japan, we try to fly either JAL or ANA because there is a noticeable difference in service. Unfortunately, I don't know if any domestic airlines will be any better than United when we fly here in the US.

  2. Hello. Just found you blog via Betsy's at My Five Men. So sorry to hear your story of the horrible start to your trip. I have flown most domestic airlines and had superb customer service and poor service in all of them. Unfortunately, air travel has become a challenge vs. a convenience. Relaxation and comfort is completely out of the question. I hope to hear your trip recovers from this very bumpy start and you and your family have a good time.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I remember way back when we looked forward to air travel, but alas those days are long past. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! See you at Betsy's.


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