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Screams From Our Readers: The Very Unfriendly Skies

(September 2000)

Here we are, a record summer for airline travel, and the world’s largest airline, United, cancelled up to 16 percent of its schedule because its pilots refused to fly overtime. Thankfully, an agreement has been reached between United and its pilots; it appears the airline is getting back on track.

Nevertheless, our readers have bandied about some pretty strong adjectives regarding airlines, in particular United, this past month. Unfortunately, many are of the four-letter variety that we cannot print. Of the ones we can print, here are two of the more memorable tales of flying the very “unfriendly” skies.

Take, for example, the case of United Airlines frequent flier, Tom Owsley, a lawyer from the Washington D.C. area. In early August, he and his wife were returning home from Chicago to Washington National Airport on United flight 606. Their flight was scheduled to depart on time at 10:30 a.m. The flight boarded and left the gate; however, when the aircraft was in line for takeoff, a reversal of good fortune began for the Owsleys.

It all started when the Captain made an announcement stating that an engine warning light was on, and that they would need to return to the gate for maintenance. Once at the gate, the passengers were allowed to de-plane the aircraft, but were told to stay near the gate area so they could re-board quickly.

After an hour, the flight re-boarded, and the aircraft taxied out. True to the movie Ground Hog Day, where the same events happen over and over again, the Captain came across the PA stating that unfortunately, the warning light had come back on and that they would have to return to the gate a second time. However, unlike before, instead of waiting at the gate for the repairs, the passengers found out that the flight was cancelled.

With the other hundred or so angry passengers, the Owsleys promptly filed into the customer service line to learn about their options. As soon as they arrived in line, Tom Owsley called United's 800 number on his cell phone and tried to book two seats on another flight out of Chicago later that day. After several attempts to get through (and 30 minutes later), Owsley finally was able to book two seats on the 4:55 p.m. flight to Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Owsley also requested ground transportation back to Washington National (their originating airport), but the phone representative told Owsley that only the customer service desk at the airport could make those arrangements.

Determined to get free ground transportation back to Washington National, the Owsleys remained in the customer service line. Two hours after hanging up with United, the Owsleys finally reached the front of the customer service line and were able to speak to a customer service agent. Tom Owsley relayed the information to the agent about being rebooked on the 4:55 flight to Baltimore and his need for ground transportation back to Washington National. The agent stated, "you are not booked on that flight." The agent continued, "It has sold out, so we can’t rebook you on it. We will put you on an American [Airlines] flight to National, which leaves at 10:00 [p.m.]."

Frustrated, Owsley asked the agent about Rule 240. The agent replied, "We are not required to do that."

Knowing that the Owsleys had been through enough, the agent handed them one $200 voucher for future travel on United, plus four $5 meal vouchers to cover lunch and dinner at the airport. When their American flight finally left, it was three hours behind schedule. The Owsleys did eventually make it home, 18 hours later than orginally scheduled! And to top things off, their bags did not make the flight. (Their luggage was eventually delivered to their home the next afternoon.)

Another United Airlines tale of horror involved Michael Wertheim, a business director for a major Boston-based online company. Although Wertheim called United the day before his departure to confirm his flights, he missed an entire day of his much-anticipated vacation in Seattle due to cancellations.

During that first phone call, United told him his flights were fine. On a lark the day of his departure, he again called United to see if they could fax him his itinerary. Lucky for him he did. It was during this second call that the reservations agent informed him that his flight was cancelled, and that he was booked on a flight a half-hour earlier. This new flight would take him through Denver to Seattle rather than Washington Dulles to Seattle, only giving him a 45-minute connect time in Denver for his Seattle flight. Angered, he asked them, “Isn’t United supposed to call when a flight is cancelled?” The agent replied, indifferently, “We are not able to call everybody.”

True to United’s form these days, Wertheim’s Boston flight left late, and he missed his connection to Seattle, which was unfortunately the last flight of the evening from Denver. He was told to go to the customer service desk, which already had a line of 50 angry customers. To add insult to injury, a few moments later, a customer service representative made the following announcement:

“Folks, I have more bad news for everyone. All my agents have been working all day and are going home. Please use the red phones to rebook your flights.” She went on to state, “After you re-book your flights, you can pick up your hotel vouchers with me.”

“It was awful,” Wertheim says. “I did get the first flight out in the morning, but I still had to pay for a hotel room I didn’t use in Seattle.” He plans on writing to United to seek compensation for the expense.

Wertheim’s flights back to Boston were almost on time. However, United scheduled a tight 30-minute connection time in Dulles for his flight to Boston. His flight from Denver ran late and he barely made his connection. Although he made it, his luggage didn’t.

Unfortunately, for Wertheim the keys to his car and apartment were in the checked baggage. United assured him it was on the next flight to Boston, but it wasn’t. United then told him the bags would be delivered the next day to his office, again they weren’t. He then called United to find out when his bags would be delivered. United told him that his luggage had indeed made it to Boston and would be delivered between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Again, the bags were not delivered. At 2 a.m., Wertheim called United to find out why his bags hadn’t been delivered. They stated that they tried to contact him but couldn’t. Wertheim had his cell phone with him at all times and said, “it never rang between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.” Finally, the bag was delivered at 11 a.m., two days late. “It was the most awful experience,” says Wertheim.

Sadly, these types of stories happen on a daily basis with airlines, not just United. These customer service woes should serve as a cautionary tale for airline managers worldwide. Perhaps, now is the time for airlines to do some serious soul searching on how to do it right, rather than just slapping the product out there and hoping things go okay. Most airline employees are doing extraordinary work in the most untenable circumstances, including tight scheduling and an overworked air traffic control system.

Most consumers understand that labor problems will occur at airlines from time to time. They also understand that air traffic control systems can occasionally be overloaded. However, the current rate of labor conflict and air traffic control problems is more frequent and has reached an unprecedented level. It is obvious that things are coming to head, and the consumer is caught in the middle. The system is broke; it can no longer be ignored.

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