Screwed Again by United Airlines

A few years back I was screwed by United Airlines. Although I was upset with the way they handled the problem — it is unacceptable that they could not get me on a new flight for more than 2 days, I figured that it was a fluke, and put it out of my thoughts. But last week they did it again, in pretty much the same way.

I had a seat on a flight from Houston, Texas, to Heathrow, London. That flight, it turned out, had mechanical problems that forced United Airlines to cancel the flight. It was an unfortunate development, but these things happen and I accept that. After all, UA loses money when flights are cancelled, so I knew that this wasn’t due to any fault on their part.

Now, if United Airlines were a properly run airline, they would have had a backup plane at their main hub in Chicago ready for just such a development. But keeping backup planes as insurance against the inevitable mechanical problems costs money. In the past, when United Airlines was a responsible airline, they would have done just that. But nowadays they are more attuned to the bottom line, and no such option was available. Instead, they would simply have to squeeze us into whatever seats were available on existing flights.

This too would have been an acceptable solution but for the fact that United Airlines schedules its flights to insure that each and every flight is at least 90% full. This maximizes profitability, but it robs UA of the capacity to handle problems. Rescheduling 300 people stranded in Houston when you have only a dozen seats free on each flight is not easy. I’m quite certain that there were people on that flight who were stranded in Houston for two days. 

Me, I was prepared for such an eventuality. I called Kathy, who immediately got on the phone to the main United Airlines reservation center and, after some finagling, got me on a flight 26 hours after the original flight. She was working fast; I’m sure the other passengers were delayed for much longer than I was. 

But United Airlines wasn’t done screwing the passengers. In such situations, airlines typically provide stranded passengers with vouchers for hotel rooms and meals. But golly gee, they just seemed to have so many problems making that happen. They had six agents busily moving around at the customer service counter, typing earnestly away at their keyboards, talking on the phone, talking to stranded passengers — but nothing actually happened. They made announcements every 15 minutes declaring that they were working hard on the problems and would be rebooking everybody and handing out hotel and meal vouchers “in just a few minutes” — but for some reason, this never happened. They printed out hundreds of voucher slips on their tiny, slow printer, but that took half an hour. Then they started sorting out all the voucher slips. I don’t know why, but each and every voucher slip had to be carefully examined several times by different people. They sorted them into little piles, discussed them earnestly — but they didn’t actually hand them out.

I waited for an hour and a half while they busily did nothing. Towards the end, I saw one lady walking away with some voucher slips. Four minutes later, another fellow walked away with some voucher slips. Five minutes after that, a third person walked away. I did a quick mental calculation: 300 people, five minutes per person: it would take at least 20 hours before they’d finish the job. Not wishing to remain in line for 20 hours, only to receive a hotel voucher for the Motel 6 thirty miles away, which has only one airport shuttle that can hold only 12 people, (OK, I’m making up this part), I decided that the only way I was going to get any sleep that night was to find my own damn hotel. 

I stayed at the airport hotel, paying $300 for the room. The 26-hour delay that UA forced onto me made it impossible for me to lecture at Bath Spa University as I had planned. There were also costs arising from useless train tickets, hotel room reservations that couldn’t be cancelled so late, and so on. All in all, I figure that I lost about $1500 because of United Airlines. My schedule had slack in it to handle a delay; had the delay been only 20 hours instead of 26 hours, I could still have met my obligations and lost only the $300 for the hotel. 

Ironically, when I began my trip Monday morning, the computer informed me that some of my flights were overbooked; it offered me $150 to voluntarily surrender my seat in exchange for a seat on a later flight. But when they denied me that same seat, without my consent, they offered me no compensation. Johns pay; rapists don’t. 

I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. United Airlines is so big that it’s almost impossible to fly without taking some of their flights. However, in the future I will calculate the true costs of flying United, not just the ticket price. Based on my experiences with United in the last few years, I figure that I should add about $500 to the price of any ticket with them. This will decide my ticket purchases. I shall also get rid of the United Visa card that we have had for over 20 years. The free miles we get with that card are worth less now. 

I have been a loyal United Airlines customer for at least 25 years now. I have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles with them; I held Premier status for many years. And they were a good airline for many years. But in the last five years the company’s quality of service has plummeted. I shall avoid them like the plague in the future.

United Airlines responded to my complaint, reimbursing me $150 of the $300 I spent on a hotel room for the night, and giving me a $125 credit toward any future ticket I might buy. Hence, my net loss due to United Airlines is reduced from about $1500 to about $1225.