Rant: United Airlines, or the Art of Losing Customers

Airlines tend to be like banks: name any one of them in large-enough company and there is bound to be at least a few people with personal horror stories and imprecations never to use their service. Hard to tell apart the inevitable statistical occurence from true patterns of bad customer service.

Last week, however, I finally understood why all my US friends heaped so much scorn on United Airlines. And why I’ll be joining in on the chorus of “never again”, next time their name comes up in discussions:

Narita airport, last week, 10 minutes before end of check-in for my NRT-SFO flight:

Dave: Good afternoon! I wish to check in this suitcase for my San Francisco flight, which I successfully confirmed online a few hours ago.

United Check-in Employee: But most certainly sir. Let me get right on that…

United Manager Lady: Hold on a moment! (Leans toward check-in employee and whispers something)

United Check-in Employee: Just a second sir.

Dave: By all means take your time.

More whispers, coming and going and looking at computer screens

United Manager Lady: Sir, it appears that your flight is being delayed due to servicing and most likely cancelled. We are going to put you on another flight.

Dave: Really? That’s odd. It still shows as ‘on time’ everywhere. You are sure this has nothing to do with the flight being booked solid and my being the last person to check in? You wouldn’t have already sold my seat to someone else, by any chance?

United Manager Lady: Take our word for it. You’re much better off getting on another flight. But we need to move fast! Time is of the essence.

Dave: Well I suppose then. What alternative do you suggest?

United Check-in Employee: We will put you on the flight to LAX, with a connection to San Francisco in the afternoon. You’ll land at SFO around 4pm.

Dave: Wait a minute, that’s a whole extra day spent in transit. I’d really prefer to arrive in the morning, as I was supposed to.

United Manager Lady: That’s all we have. But we have to hurry: that flight leaves in 30 minutes.

Dave: Could you give me a minute: I’d like to look at my options…

United Manager Lady: No time! We need to change your booking now!

Dave: Err, well… I suppose you know best. I do need to get to San Francisco after all. Go ahead and put me on that flight to LA.

United Manager Lady: Attaboy.

United Check-in Employee: Oh, by the way, no more window seat on that flight: hope you don’t mind sitting in the middle seat for 10 hours.

Dave (walking to his newly-assigned gate, past the gate to his previously purchased flight): Strange, I could swear that these people are boarding their flight and that no delay is being announced…

A week later in Haneda:

Airport Employee:We are extremely sorry, Mr. Dave, but your suitcase appears to have been left in San Francisco.

Dave: Really? How is that even possible. I was on a direct flight here… and all other people checking in just before and after me seem to have got their luggage without any problem.

Airport Employee: Err. Absolutely no idea… [You must have seriously pissed off some people somewhere.]  United will do their best to get it to you in the briefest of time. In about 2-3 days. Hope there wasn’t anything too important in that suitcase of yours.

But it’s OK. Let it not be said that United Airlines doesn’t care about the well-being of the passengers it casually tosses off its flight: I did receive a very apologetic and personal robo-mail, leading me to an online form, where after 20 minutes of laboriously filling in flight details and personal information, I was elated to know that I was eligible for a $150 voucher, to be used on the next United Airlines flight I am of course dying to book with them.

Never mind that $150 barely covers the price difference between the direct flight I had initially paid for and the much less convenient indirect one I was tossed onto. Or the fact that their “compensation” is a transparent marketing move that even the most shameless business wouldn’t think of pulling elsewhere (“There was a cigarette butt in your pastry? We’re very sorry. Please have this 10% discount voucher on your next pastry purchase…”).

If United spent a fraction of the resources it spends on monitoring social networks, actually trying to make it up to the passengers it screws over, it might have retained me as a passenger. Me and every single member of my lab. Who will most definitely never book a United flight again.


  1. Just Monday, my ex-wife and daughter had their United NRT-DEN flight cancelled, after they’d sat on the tarmac for 6 hours. I checked that flight to see it had a 77% on-time departure rate. Never again…

  2. What about US AIRWAYS? They bought American Airlines and anyone who was a status member with US AIRWAYS has lost all rights with American. We can no longer book travel as status members. We do not get to pick our preferred seats when we purchase tickets and all preferred seats now cost, and are no longer free for frequent flyers.

    What incentive do we have to be loyal to any airline or to be part of the frequent fliers programs?

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