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….