United Airlines, First Class and some very Irregular Operations

United Airlines flight UA972 on September 17 turned into a
bit of a nightmare. First Class or not.

We have all been on flights where things go wrong; in fact, given the complexity of aircraft and their scheduling issues and the millions of passengers that travel each day, it is a wonder that things go wrong on a more regular basis.

But last night they did, and boy did the Air Traveller Gods send their thunderbolts down upon us.

I was flying on a United Airlines run from Chicago to Brussels with an onward connection to Toulouse; I was flying in First Class on an Aeroplan reward ticket. I had one meeting in Toulouse, and was then booked to fly to London on the 18th at 0850 on a separate British Airways ticket

United Airlines
United Airlines: I can’t complain about the food

Two hours after departing Chicago, a child was taken ill on the plane, and we diverted to Bangor, Maine to get the poor little tyke to hospital; this was unscheduled, but happens from time to time. We then departed from Bangor to fly the remaining six hours to the Belgian capital, and all was well. I fell asleep and dreamed of constructing tourist accommodation units in Georgia, a project that seemed to take on the most peculiar for as dream-projects are apt to do.

United Airlines, First Class
The bed in question

However, waking up some hours later I saw that the flight map had become corrupted or we were heading back to Chicago, which we were. A fault with the rudder, sufficiently serious to prevent a trans-oceanic flight, but not serious enough to prevent us turning around, was blamed, and that was that until we landed at O’Hare airport exactly twelve hours after we had departed.

And this is where it all started to tumble.

United Customer Service was absolutely and utterly dreadful; they sent a team of unqualified people to handle the rerouting requirements of 280 feisty and not unanimously jolly passengers. I was fortunate and reached the front of the line immediately and was presented with new boarding passes and curiously, a hotel voucher for a cheap hotel that lies $50 by taxi away from the airport.

I told the service agent that because of the delay, I no longer needed to travel to Toulouse, and could they simply put me on one of their three non-stops to London that day.

They could not because:

  • I had a ticket to Toulouse and not London
  • It was “free”
  • It was Air Canada and they couldn’t touch it
  • The agent hadn’t done any ticketing for over a year
  • She was actually a gate agent in charge of an 0630 departure, and would be “written up” if her dawdling in the customer service centre caused her to delay that flight.

I reminded them that:

  • Although I had a ticket to Toulouse, they had failed to deliver me there and some give and take would be appropriate.
  • It would cost them less to only send me to London
  • The ticket was not “free”; it was paid for in a currency to which they subscribe, and earned by doing a substantial amount of business with their “partners”
  • Air Canada and they were all part of a happy family called Star Alliance and she could, by a magical process called “fimming” reissue these coupons
  • Not much had changed in the world of ticketing in the past year, and if she had to get a flight out at 0630, why was she behind this counter at all?

She then left, giving the file to a delightful but terribly soft spoken agent, and as the volume audibly increased as the remaining passengers were beginning to get a bit peaky.

  • She now pointed out that:
  • There was no First Class space, and
  • Even if there was, I could not get it because award tickets had to be booked in a particular “bucket” of seats of which there were none.
  • Would $7 worth of meal vouchers suffice, and she could get a closer hotel.
  • And finally, how did I know what a FIM was?

I retorted that:

  • I could see on my handy United Airlines App that there was a seat in First Class at 1825 if she looked closely and that
  • I fully realised that award tickets were booked in a particular “bucket”, but so was everybody else’s, and these were not available either. So I would be most agreeable if she would simply rebook me in First and I would be on my way.
  • $7 would hardly quench my thirst, but if that was it, I would be prepared to overlook this slight.
  • and finally, FIMs are my trump card.http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N204UA/history/20140917/0225Z/KBGR/KORDHer defence was now tumbling and she pointed out that
    • It would be impossible to reroute my bags which were already tagged to London

    I pointed out that

    • A month or so previously my bags had been tagged to London, but that they went to Hong Kong instead, so I really didn’t have much faith in their systems anyhow; and in any case, I would go downstairs once that issued my new boarding pass and talk to the baggage folks myself.
    • I was still holding the seat to London that I had slyly booked as a precaution.

She now reissued my ticket, in First Class to London as requested, I went downstairs and arranged with a delightful baggage agent for mine to be “intercepted” and “redirected” to London. I am not holding my breath, but will report its whereabouts tomorrow.

However, I spent over half an hour at the counter, and getting what I had first requested after thirty wasted minutes of some corporate defence strategy. I have no idea how the remaining passengers got on, but I was told that the line-up was still in place five hours later.

Why oh why, United Airlines, do you send out such incompetent folks; they are all delightful, but only one that I could see, a gentleman reissuing tickets and dispatching passengers with a smile and click of his keyboard onto other carriers with no issue.

We are entitled to decent treatment from competent staff; we are not, after spending twelve hours encapsulated in a faulty Boeing 777 ready to be nickel and dimed to death on straight forward reroutes. Reissuing agents need to know the tools that that they have, and your corporate structure should not rely on the savings made by incorrectly applying guidelines (not rules) to already deeply inconvenienced passengers.

What possible savings do you make sending passengers to a $66 room in Glenvale (wherever that is) by spending $100 on taxis?

Mechanical issues are inevitable; how you rise to the occasion is an entirely different matter, and on the morning of September 17th, you failed dismally.

There are better ways to fly than United