Why never to fly with United Airlines.

Taken from a complaint email that I wrote to United Airlines, here’s my account of my journey back to London from Newark – possibly the longest 31 hours of my life.

Having arrived at Newark from Knoxville at around three o’clock, it was clear that the weather was causing some difficulty to flights at the airport – most destinations in America had delayed flights and some were completely cancelled like Chicago. Therefore when I saw that all three flights to London Heathrow at 5,7 and 9 were on time then I was less worried. I went to my scheduled departure gate (C 80) where there were two flights to Dallas and to Dublin which were scheduled for departure before my 9:05 flight to Heathrow. After the Dallas flight departed, the Dublin fight started to show delays. After some time an aircraft landed and people started to disembark. When passengers to Dublin asked whether this was their plane, they were told that it was an aircraft from Aruba which was simply using the gate to disembark passengers. These passengers were only told individually, indeed there was only ever one announcement made publicly about the flight to Dublin and that was to announce a gate change 3 hours after the scheduled departure time. This was the start of 24 hours of information that was either misleading, categorically incorrect or just non existent. The Dublin flight was moved at approximately 10 to a different gate and as a result all that had to happen for our flight to depart was for the plane currently in our gate to be towed away, and our plane to arrive at our gate. 

After an hour of no information, I approached the United worker at the gate (whose name I sadly can’t remember) and asked if he could tell me how late the flight was going to be or even if it would depart. I got the reply that he had no idea and couldn’t find out, as even if he asked operations wouldn’t tell him. After ten minutes of me pleading with him to ask when the plane in our gate would be towed (in our conversation he even stated that he “didn’t do aeroplanes”), he finally called operations and asked, and was duly informed that the plane would be removed in 45 minutes to an hour. I thanked him and asked him to inform the other passengers to London. He flatly refused and said that they “didn’t need to know.” When I told him that as paying customers they deserved to know what was going on with their flight he said, “if you think it’s so important why don’t you do it yourself?” I said that I was happy to do so and he promptly led me to the public address system where I explained to the other passengers what was going on with our flight. After half an hour he disappeared, and for at least 45 mins there was nobody from United at our gate. In that time, our pilot and cabin crew arrived. Our pilot told me that he was going to time out at 12:30 and so we would have to fly before then, and in the meantime he was going to try and find our plane. One of the members of the cabin crew spoke to all of the passengers and after politely apologising for the delay told us that we would need to board quickly when the aircraft arrived. The way that the pilot and member of the cabin crew interacted with us was the only positive that United should take from that evening – both were dignified, courteous and apologetic. 

It was then that Ellie arrived. Within two minutes of arriving Ellie announced that she was going to receive an update from operations in 15 minutes. I, along with other passengers, calmly asked her whether it would be possible to call operations and ask once again for either the plane to be moved (which was looking increasingly unlikely) or for our gate to be changed as soon as possible, as due to the pilot soon timing out we didn’t have 15 mins. Ellie irritably asked me “not to tell her how to do her job” to which I replied that I wasn’t trying to tell her how to do her job, I was merely trying to make her aware of the fact that 10 minutes ago our pilot had told us he was going to time out in the very near future. In response to this, Ellie said that she wasn’t prepared to work under such conditions, gathered her things and left. The phone then rang. The first time, we ignored it, but the second time, with no United representative in sight, I picked it up. It was someone from operations who wanted to speak to Ellie. I informed her that Ellie had gone off in a strop, and that she was speaking to a passenger and I asked her if she could possibly get the plane towed from gate 80. She replied that it would happen within 10-15 minutes and said goodbye. As taught by the first United desk operator I then used the public address system to announce to everybody else what I had been told. Ellie then returned and told everyone over the public address system what I had told them 5 minutes previously. After 20 minutes had gone by I approached Ellie and told her that despite operations telling me on the phone that the plane was going to be towed away, nothing had happened. She incredulously asked how I had spoken to operations on the phone, to which I told her that as nobody was at the gate I had picked it up. Her next response was to tell me I was duly going to be arrested for a breach of security. I told her that I was ok with that, as long as she asked operations to change our gate. 

Eventually our gate was changed, as with the Dublin flight, to gate 81. Our aircraft, which had been in the airport since 12 noon finally arrived, and the cabin crew and pilot boarded. As the pilot boarded we heard him telling the new gate staff that he was illegal to fly but this was apparently ignored. After half an hour and at 1:30 in the morning the flight was cancelled. One of the most frustrating aspects of this is that ten minutes earlier, another flight to London had departed and another flight was still scheduled to depart that evening.

I along with a few others from the cancelled London flight immediately headed for the nearest customer service area (by gate C90) which had closed at 12:30 and was due to reopen at 4 in the morning. It was there that I met some passengers who had endured a similar experience with their flight to Glasgow. A group of them had cleverly gone to the toll free phones and dialed the United customer helpline number, which everyone was finding it difficult to get through to, and when they finished, were holding the phone so that other passengers could try to rebook flights. It was then that I realised my best chance of getting back to the United Kingdom was back on a flight at 9:10 to Glasgow the following evening which United had created to try and deal with the backlog. I managed to book onto that flight along with a couple of passengers from the London flight and the majority of the cancelled Glasgow flight. 

Customer Care did not reopen at 4 as promised. At 4:50 in the morning, two United employees started to process all of the people that had been left abandoned overnight by United. It was about that time that we learnt that the proposed flight to Glasgow that we had been booked on for that evening had been cancelled due to the weather in Scotland. A quick check informed us that the weather in Scotland was completely fine and aircraft had been scheduled to depart and arrive as normal. Instantly we jumped back on the phone to the United hotline. Three of us managed to get onto the phone at the same time and we all asked the same question – “when is the earliest flight I can take back to the United Kingdom?” Sadly we all got different answers, I was booked on to a flight to London on Wednesday morning, and the others onto flights to London and Glasgow on Wednesday evening, and Friday respectively. We waited for another 2 hours in the customer care crew until we got to the front. One of the women directly infront of me in the queue told the customer care team that she had been in the airport for 3 days, and just wanted to get home. The response of the customer care team member? “Boo hoo.”

When I got to the front of the queue, I met Tunde. Tunde managed to keep me somewhat calm, and managed to put me on standby for a flight that evening and confirmed my booking for Wednesday. He was courteous, patient and one of the few good representations of United Airlines staff not only at the Customer Care counter, but also overall. He deserves commendation for his treatment of passengers when all around him were seemingly disinterested at best, and more often than not, outright rude. 

Another of the passengers had requested to speak to a manager, as all of our requests for accommodation provided by United were being denied due to the fact that our flight had been cancelled by the weather, and it was here that we met Sebastian. His opening gambit was to tell us that under no circumstances would we be receiving accommodation from United, that both flights had been cancelled due to the weather, and that we would be unable to see anybody higher than him. After fifteen minutes of argument, during which time he conceded that the flight had been cancelled to reasons other than the weather before quickly backtracking, I and the other passengers changed tack slightly and asked why we hadn’t been given food vouchers, or provided with water. Sebastian, to his credit, agreed to give everyone food vouchers and provide us with water by 10 in the morning. To his eternal discredit, no water arrived until one in the afternoon, by which time most of the passengers had gone. Whilst not all bad, the low light of our interaction with Sebastian had to be his continual persistence to try and portray himself as ‘only a human being’ and a victim whilst coldly telling us that if we had flights on Friday, there was no chance that United would provide us with accommodation and all that he could give us was 3 food vouchers a day. For future reference Sebastian, if you expect to be treated as a ‘human being’, then don’t expect your passengers to live in an airport for 5 days with nothing but their carry on, in most cases no clothes or toiletries and nowhere to sleep.

Not knowing what else to do, we waited for the water which Sebastian was apparently providing for us. Whilst we were all camped outside customer care, I noticed three United officials passing by. I caught them up and proceeded to ask the most senior women (whose name I unfortunately forget) what we could do about getting accommodation. She immediately apologised for the way we had been treated at customer services, and categorically denied that United would refuse to provide us with accommodation. Instead she said that she would send somebody above Sebastian down to customer services who we could speak to about getting accommodation, although due to the lack of hotel spaces in the New Jersey area it would be likely that not everyone would be able to get accommodation. She also advised that it would be a good idea to email customer care and inform them of our situation.

As a result myself, and a couple of passengers drafted and sent the following email to United:

“Dear Janet Burnett,

I am currently writing an email to you on behalf of customers of your airline – by gate 90 at Newark International airport.

I am currently with a number of different passengers booked on your flights to London and Glasgow that were meant to leave last night. However, due to United Airlines failure to organise themselves yesterday and care for your customers – these flights remained grounded.

We have been told that the reason for these flights not departing was the weather, however this is simply not correct – flights to London departed before and after our scheduled time, and the primary reason for our failure to depart was our pilot becoming illegal (exceeding his recommended daily hours) which in itself was not as a result of any sort of inclement weather.

Amongst our group are elderly people, children, and those that need medical attention. Above all most have been scheduled flights for Wednesday or Thursday (with no change of clothes/minimal access to their luggage) and need a place to stay between now and then.

Please help us.

Your customer service up to this point has been a mixture of completely horrendous (having to argue repeatedly to secure more than one food voucher, per day, per person) and some very helpful advice. Please help to sort us out with accommodation and give us a reason to even consider choosing united airlines in the future.

Thank you for your time,”

Whilst this email did not receive a reply, within ten minutes a lady called Karen appeared outside gate 90, gathered us together and informed us that a flight had been created to Glasgow that evening at 7:40 which we could all book on to. After about 45 mins, most of us had booked on to that flight, whilst somewhat miraculously I had been booked on a flight to London that evening instead. My flight home was as good as any flight can be when you have been awake for 35 hours and stuck in an airport for 28 of them. When I finally arrived at Heathrow, no United representative told me that my suitcase could possibly be sitting in an obscure corner of baggage reclaim, and so I waited for 15 mins by the Newark luggage carousel before searching for myself – to finally find my suitcase ten minutes later. 

Moral of the story?

Don’t fly United – even if their transatlantic flight ticket costs £10 less than anybody elses….


New year, new me! Or more accurately, a new laptop….

After a reasonably sustained effort of blogging in September, my writing career came to an abrupt end with the death of my laptop. Whilst it may be a new year, it isn’t really a new me (just ask anybody who works for United Airlines at Newark aiport), however, having, very generously, been given a new laptop for Christmas hopefully I’ll be able to continue to update you from St Petersburg (until February 10th) and then Yaroslavl (from February 26th onwards). There are no promises though that the updates will be any better/more frequent that when I did/didn’t have a laptop last year….

 Due to the incompetency of United Airlines (more to follow next time – as you can probably tell by now they aren’t in my good books), I’m now rather frantically trying to get myself ready for my imminent departure to Russia on Friday morning, so when I arrive and settle in I’ll hopefully post a couple of updates about my wonderful Christmas and New Year in America, and my less wonderful journey home (don’t ever fly with United Airlines if you can possibly avoid it).

Watch this space.

Ice Hockey

When booking tickets to watch a sport that you have no idea about, it’s always good to watch the best teams. So Max and I did a little research and having established that our local team CKA were really quite good and made the playoffs last year, our next challenge was to pick an opposing team that would give them a good game. Having spent a good half an hour researching the KHL (the Kontinental Hockey League), we came to the conclusion that it would be great to see one of the Moscow teams, either CSKA (not to be confused with CKA – they get quite angry if you do that)  or Dinamo Moscow. Having looked at the fixture list we saw that the CSKA game was a while of and decided to settle for the Dinamo game. Wednesday 18th September, clash of the titans, last years winners, against title hopefuls this year, St Petersburg against…. Dinamo Minsk?! Apparently our half an hour of research had proven to be completely redundant as in our excitement, we apparently confused DMS and DMK, one letter proving to be the difference between Minsk and Moscow, 440 miles, and most crucially between a reasonably competent hockey team and one of the league’s whipping boys. Having had our excitement slightly checked, we hopped on the metro (actually a really poor choice of word – you don’t simply just hop on the metro, it takes about 3 mins to go down the escalators because it’s so deep!)  and headed to the Ice Palace. Here are just a few things I learnt about Ice Hockey in St Petersburg last Wedensday;

– To make your team seem more manly, imposing and terrifying its very important to spend what must have been the whole pre season filming a Viking battle seen where your key players are seen in chain mail and helmets vanquishing Barbarians. Oh and make sure the film lasts for at least twenty minutes and key scenes are replayed and various, seemingly odd points throughout the game.

– Don’t sing the Russian National anthem, or if you do make it seem very half-hearted and sort of look down at the floor when you do. Or conversely stare blankly ahead and hold your scarf above your head.

– Do however enthusiastically clap in time whenever pop music is played throughout the course of the three periods…..which is apparently every two minutes.

– Ice hockey itself doesn’t seem like a very exciting game without fights. There’s not much that can be said for a sport when it’s most exciting features are substitutions…

– Subsitutions in Ice Hockey are very impressive – the frequency and speed with which players interchange is absolutely breathtaking. I probably spent as much time watching the two benches as players skated in and out at manic speeds as I did watching the gameplay (which was just as well as our seats were right behind the opposition bench and most of the time they were obstructing our view of the game).

– It is perfectly normal in Russia to wear your wedding gear to an Ice Hockey game and as a result be rewarded with 20 seconds on kiss cam. Personally, I was surprised that only two such couples were at the game – I was expecting a lot more!

– Arsene Wenger and Neil Lennon would be very impressed with the Dinamo Minsk coach. Having conceded their fourth goal, he decided that instead of speaking to his players he would just throw water bottles around. Which had similar results to this…. http://www.whoateallthepies.tv/scottish_football/70793/snapshot-neil-lennon-one-ups-arsene-wenger-in-the-water-bottle-destruction-stakes.html

– Dinamo Minsk are absolutely atrocious, and CKA are really quite good. Or being perfectly honest, on the basis of the game that we saw, CKA could be quite average, but Dinamo Minsk are undeniably awful at Ice Hockey.

– Minsk were so pathetic that A) they didn’t even go down with a fight, and B) the CKA players felt too sorry for them to beat them up which was most disappointing.

– There can’t be much to do in Minsk on a Wednesday evening, as 20 naive people decided to trek the 489 miles from Minsk to St Petersburg to watch their team get absolutely stuffed. I genuinely think watching the same episode of ‘Loose Women’ on repeat would have been more enjoyable for them.

– Finally, whilst I am sure it is clear that I wasn’t completely enamored with the sport, Ice Hockey as a spectacle in Russia is superb. Mexican Waves, kiss cam, the Ultras, short films about Viking invasions staring hockey players, cheerleaders everywhere you look and Taylor Swift playing every five minutes is a very, very difficult combination to beat, and as a result, tomorrow I plan on buying tickets to the Dinamo MOSCOW game.

20th Century Life

Now that the complaints are beginning to stack up about the lacking amount of blog posts over the last week or so, I have at long last decided to write a new post. As it stands, I have homework due in tomorrow that I am yet to start and I’m already quite tired, so if you are one of the few inconsiderate people who have driven me to do this then please feel considerably dissatisfied with yourself.

One of the reasons that this has been a long time coming is the consistent effort that has had to go into trying to drag our apartment into the 21st century. After two and a half weeks, I now not only know the Russian word for oven backwards, we might even be getting a new one. I say might because as will become apparent, nothing is ever straightforward with our flat. As our accommodation is sorted out by the school, we have a lovely lady called Marina who sorts out everything to do with our house. Max, Robin and I first asked her for a new oven in our first week at Liden and Denz to which her answer was ‘it’s not possible.’ When we asked further as to why it wasn’t possible to get a working oven, the explanation we received was yet again ‘because it isn’t possible.’ This then became a theme at school, whenever one of us would bump into Marina we’d politely inquire once more about potentially getting a new oven to get the same answer once again….until last Wednesday morning. Beaming, Marina told us that we could expect a new oven by the end of next week.

It was here that the problems seemingly began. Max and I decided to push our luck and inquire about our bed situation – both of our beds are sofa beds and seem to develop a huge split down the middle about 3 hours after you go to sleep – between the mosquitoes (yes I am being serious – there are millions) and trying to sleep on a bed that seems to part like the Red Sea every night I am yet to get an unbroken night of sleep! After asking if there was anything that could be done to sort it we got a non-committal shrug of the shoulders and we thought that was the end of the matter. Two days later Marina came up to us and triumphantly announced that Max’s bed had been fixed, but mine hadn’t. I can only presume that this is either as a result of her intense disliking of my oven requests or my appalling efforts at speaking Russian to her, as Max’s bed is exactly the same as mine, and apparently it ‘only took five minutes to fix.’ The matter didn’t end there however. As much as I felt aggrieved at my situation I could only imagine Robin’s annoyance when two days later he was ill at home whilst we were in school. The landlady came round and took his bed away, not to be replaced and now he has to make do with a sofa bed which is worse than ours!

After the bed debacle the next issue to strike the apartment was the kitchen sink refusing to drain. No problem we thought – we’ll just wash up in the bath – how bad can it get? Apparently it can get a lot worse. When your kitchen sink is refusing to drain (and you have tried all the normal solutions like poking something long and thin down the plughole) don’t use your washing machine. Apparently it floods your kitchen and leaves your clothes sitting in the machine swimming in dirty water. Which to be perfectly honest isn’t that much worse than they were before….

All these problems combined with slight illness and a severe lack of sleep are slightly, but not completely, demoralising – we’ve heard from a couple of friends who are also in Russia, and our dramas pale into insignificance when compared with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgziK2jVrwQ (well worth a watch). 10 Kolomenskaya suddenly seems like a palace! Now only if our new oven could turn up sometime soon…..

Pants and Socks.

It’s now been over a week in to my Russian hiatus and I have a confession to make; I am loving every second of it. The unfounded sense of doom and dread that started to loom over me towards the end of summer has completely evaporated, and I feel like I need to apologize to everybody who tried to reassure that it would be absolutely brilliant whilst I blindly told them to shut up (Sam, Esther and Anna especially – I will only say this once, you were right). There are many reasons for my current state of optimism but I’ll try and pick out a few just to give you a bit more insight into what’s going on over here. 

One of the main reasons is that for the first time since school I am actively enjoying studying Russian (and also probably actively studying it for the first time). The way that Liden and Denz work seems remarkably simple yet thoroughly effective. I have 4 hours of lessons back to back each day with a ten minute break every hour all in Russian, roughly split in to a couple of hours of grammar and a couple of hours of writing and speaking. Occasionally we do some sort of listening exercise which I thought we would do more often; however even after only being here a week I have seen my comprehension of Russian drastically improve. Although you hear from everyone that there is nothing like being totally immersed in a different language, you can’t really understand what this means until you experience it. One of the massive advantages about studying Russian as well is that English is rarely heard/used and having to use Russian all the time, albeit rather challenging, is brilliant for my language skills!

Another reason for my optimism is the city of St Petersburg. Steeped in history, there are so many brilliant things to see and do here, and I haven’t even started! I’m sure there will be many more blog posts to follow focusing on some of the brilliant sights here like the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, but until I do them myself I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait to hear about them. One of the best things that I have come across in St Petersburg so far is how cheap the price of tickets are for culture and sport – we’ve already booked tickets to go to see SKA play (Ice hockey), and also plan to go and see Zenit, a ballet and a concert or two – all at about a third of the price that they would be in London. The variety of things on offer means that there is no shortage of things to do!

Finally, as previously alluded to it can be rather tiring/difficult having to do everything in Russian (especially things like organising a Russian sim card…!), so having a great house to go back to every evening is brilliant. Indeed the entirety of my Saturday was spent with the boys trying to find seemingly one of the rarest things in Russia – a SCART lead. Having exhausted all possibilities and realising that Sony are despicable ,and that apparently if you don’t have the original PS3 to Scart lead then you can’t really get one, we decided to take the hit and by a reasonably cheap HD ready TV. Whilst many people may (potentially correctly) point out that having FIFA will be detrimental to my Russian learning, it is just great to have when we need to switch off for a bit. 

And that leads me on to the title of this post. As many of you will have correctly assumed I have indeed ran out of pants and socks (sorry Mum) but that bears little relevance to the title, which in fact came from an anecdote from Max. Apparently when he used to play football at school he had a coach who would praise great goals and pieces of skill with the words ‘pants and socks’. When everyone stared blankly at him and he felt the need to express this odd terminology he said to the boys ‘it’s simple really, you keep your pants in socks in the top drawer‘. Apparently he also used to describe goals as ‘picture frame’ (on top of the top drawer) but Russia isn’t quite as good as Danny Rose vs Arsenal…..yet.



St Petersburg hosts some very important guests; Obama, Cameron, Marrow and Craft

I would say the excitement among the Russians in St Petersburg had been insatiable this week as the world leaders arrived on Wednesday, but that would simply be lying. The Dmitri’s and Vladimir’s that I see on the way to class every day still look as blank as ever. The only real excitement from anyone I have ever seen in this city is from a group of about 150 Chinese tourists going crazy when the Chinese motorcade came past all seemingly trying to push each other into the road in order to get a picture of a car with almost completely tinted out windows which flashed passed in a second. The ironic thing is that whilst they all seemed reasonably disappointed in being unable to secure a satisfactory photograph, had they followed me home and ventured just around the corner they would have seen the Chinese delegation get out of the cars and go into their hotel…

We’ve talked about the summit in lessons, the Russian perspective seems very straightforward. They don’t really care about Syria, they just don’t like the US – but more importantly they can’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about with Sochi and the potential boycott by gay athletes. Apparently Russia is a lovely and welcoming place. Or at least that’s what I think was said – my Russian is slightly limited after all.

On that last note about Russia being a lovely and welcoming place there are two things that strike me amusing. One is the welcome that was supposedly afforded to our delegation at the conference by Putin’s spokesman who allegedly described us as ‘a small island who nobody pays any attention to.’ Cameron’s response seemed vaguely reminiscent of Hugh Grant’s speech in Love Actually; “Let me be clear – Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience.” I’m just disappointed he didn’t mention David Beckham’s right boot. Also, coincidentally the day after my birthday (27th of September – do please send all your birthday cards now as the Russian postal system is apparently abysmal and I’m quite keen to beat last year’s total of 6 (six) cards), is Zenit vs Spartak in one of the games of the season and we are hoping to get tickets. Well we were hoping to get tickets until we saw how Zenit welcomed the Spartak fans last year….  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOtSsS-0VN8 (Jump to about 7:10)

Whilst it has been exciting to see all the different countries whizzing up and down Nevski Prospekt, always accompanied by a seemingly endless stream of police cars, it was even more exciting to spend a couple of evenings with Alex and Izzi, a couple of friends from Bristol who are also studying abroad in Russia, and are here for a few days in St Petersburg before flying out to spend the winter in Tomsk in Siberia – you can follow their progress here: http://alexmarrow57.blogspot.co.uk/ if you’re interested. It was great to catch up with them after the summer and also also share their ‘excitement’ about being in Russia for the winter. For those of you that don’t know, whilst St Petersburg temperatures in the winter hover around -15, Tomsk can regularly hit -30 and even -40! As a side note, for those of you who have just googled the temperature in St Petersburg and found it to be absolutely boiling, I must point out that there is a St Petersburg in Florida….

I’m going to finish with an urgent plea for anybody in the St Petersburg area who has any knowledge about where to buy a SCART lead to immediately contact me – or even if you have a spare one lying around we will pay good money for it! Robin bought his playstation over only to find that our TV doesn’t do HD (or probably even colour for that matter….) Even if it severely hampers my Russian learning, it would be superb to have FIFA in the house.

Have a great weekend!