Screwed by United Airlines

April 3rd, 2012

I’m writing this from the home of a friend. I’m stranded in the San Francisco Bay Area. United Airlines cancelled my flight on Saturday afternoon, and they won’t take me home until Tuesday morning. For this, they offer no apology, no compensation, nothing. I’m screwed.

I’m lucky that I have a friend here who’s able to offer me a place to sleep; otherwise I would have had to spend three nights at a hotel near the airport (costing about $500), meals, and so on. I have already had to pay some transportation costs just to get from the airport to my friend’s house, and there will be more to return to the airport on Tuesday.

The greatest cost, of course, is the lost time. Yes, it’s great to see my friend; we’ve been hoping to get together now for two years and we both appreciate the opportunity that United Airlines’ screwup has offered us. But she has a life and things that have to be done, and I have a life and things that have to be done -- things that I can’t do here in her house. So I’m reduced to fiddling around with minor stuff, such as this little essay.

Had United Airlines fulfilled its obligations, it would have put me on another plane the same day. I arrived at SFO early enough to make a flight that was earlier than the cancelled flight. How it is that United can send a flight at 3:30 in the afternoon but has to cancel a flight at 6:00 because of weather -- when the weather was fine during the entire period -- is beyond my understanding. I understand that bad weather can screw up a schedule and force cancellations that ripple through the schedule. But there are aspects of this situation that reflect poorly on United.

For example, I arrived at the departure gate over an hour before the flight time of the earlier flight. There were two gate agents there, but one was helping some people with a baggage problem and the other was preoccupied with some other work. I waited for 20 minutes. One just walked away; the other left a few minutes later, promising that somebody would be there ’any minute now’. Ten minutes later, somebody showed up; he took about five minutes before finally responding to me. No, the flight was full; no, I couldn’t get a seat on it. No, he couldn’t re-assign me to another flight; I would have to go to the customer service desk.

At the customer service desk, there were 40 people ahead of me in the line, which snaked far down the hall. There was one agent helping one customer. I got there at 2:58 PM. The line wasn’t moving. I called my wife Kathy and asked her to try to get through to United via telephone and get me onto the last flight out that night at 10:00 PM. She called back 5 minutes later to inform me that the United phone line was saying that she would have a 40 minute waiting time. I told her to stick with it because she’d probably get to a service agent before I would. So she sat on hold while I sat in line. At 3:55 she called me back to say that she had secured a seat for me on a flight out of SFO on Tuesday morning. It was the first seat available. We agreed that this would be our backup plan. In the meantime, I would go to my friend’s house and we’d try to find some other way to get me home. We hung up at 4:02 PM. During the hour I had been there, they had serviced a grand total of six customers; I was now the 34th person in line. I left.

We looked into a number of possibilities, but suffice it to say that there was no decent option available; everything was either too expensive, too slow, or already fully booked.

I understand that weather conditions can snarl an airline’s schedules – but the bad weather was gone by the time my plane landed at SFO. I understand that this was the spring break holiday and the airlines were heavily booked. But I still cannot accept the excuse United Airlines offers that bad weather imposed a nearly three-day delay upon them – especially when the weather on subsequent days was nearly perfect. They could have booked me on another airline. They could have gotten me to Portland or Seattle, and then used Alaska Airlines to get me home. But they did not want to eat the extra costs arising from such a plan – they preferred to dump the costs on me.

By the way, the weather was beautiful during the entire time that I was stranded due to weather problems. When I went to the airport to finally go home, their computer first declared that my reservation was for Wednesday, not Tuesday – making the delay nearly four days! Fortunately, the ticket agent was able to access another record that showed that I had in fact, reserved a seat on the Tuesday morning flight. She overrode the computer and gave me a boarding pass. The flight that morning had eight empty seats on a plane with about 40 seats in total.

The central problem here is that United Airlines has attempted to improve its profitability by squeezing its capacity margins to the limit. Their overall capacity to transport people is just a tiny bit greater than the booking levels they get. If anything goes wrong, they have no extra capacity to cope. There are no extra aircraft, no extra flight crew, no safety margin. They run their airline at full capacity all the time, which is the most profitable way to run an airline. If something goes wrong, they shrug their shoulders and dump the costs onto the passengers.

I understand the fact that capacity costs money. Having aircraft sitting around doing nothing, simply being available in the event of a shortfall, is expensive. But stranding hundreds of passengers for days on end costs the passengers even more. United Airlines would have done better to have charged higher prices and preserved some operating margins so as to protect their customers from such disasters.

I’m not going to fulminate about this. United makes their own calculations as to the best path to profitability, and I must make my own calculations as to the likely costs of air travel. In past times, the cost of air travel was fairly easy to determine. Nowadays, however, I must factor into my cost calculations the possibility of a catastrophic failure such as I am now experiencing. For example, I am just now contemplating a trip to New York City in June, taking place immediately prior to a conference I’m hosting in Oregon. I now realize that being stranded for a few days in June would be catastrophic to the conference. It therefore seems unwise for me to make that trip to New York City – it’s just too great a risk.

Many years ago, United had a beautiful television commercial. It told the story of a mother in Chicago dropping off her little girl at kindergarten and taking a flight to New York City to make a sales presentation. The commercial followed mother and daughter through their separate days: the mother making her presentation while the daughter colors a picture with crayons; the mother engaging in a business lunch while the daughter eats her food with her little friends; the mother relaxing on the flight home while the daughter takes her nap. The voiceover kicks in towards the end: "United Airlines: dedicated to helping you make your most important meetings." It ends with the daughter joyfully running towards her mother at the end of the school day.

I wonder what they would have said to that mother this time?