Friday, December 24, 2010

How United Airlines stole our Christmas

My teenage children and myself, living in the US, were going to spend Christmas with our family in France. We got tickets to fly from Boston to Paris via Washington Dulles, leaving on December 23, the last day of school, and arriving the next day.

On December 23, we arrived at the airport four hours early, ready to start our holiday. Our problems started when our airplane left the gate. It was bumped off its spot in the queue for taking off, and spent time off to the side. When its turn came back again, a mechanical problem, caused by a flap that wouldn't close, caused it to return to the gate. After mechanics had closed it manually while we waited anxiously, we finally took off, a little after 4pm (our scheduled departure time was 2:16pm). During the flight, one steward gathered information, told each person their connection gate, suggested we study the map of the airport in the flight magazine, and, upon arrival, pleaded for other passengers to let the ones in a rush go ahead and make a run for it.

"As soon as we become aware of a service interruption, we will relay information to affected customers, and we will work proactively to help them reach their intended destinations."

It was 5:09pm when we landed. Eight passengers were going on to Paris, with a connection at 5:25pm. After taxiiing, the door opened, we rushed out of the airplane and ran madly to our departure gate. Fortunately all of us arrived before 5:25. But to our great dismay, the door was closed! In fact the first two of the eight had arrived early enough to see the door closing in front of them! We stared at one another in disbelief. How could that be? Impossible! We begged the staff to reopen to door, but to no avail. They said that they had received a "direct order from Chicago" to close the door. One passenger, flushed by her run, got out her asthma inhaler and took deep breaths. A child was bravely putting on a good face, silently holding back tears. As our little group was standing angrily in front of the closed door, we were advised to go to customer service. We were told that we were just wasting time by staying there, diminishing our chances for a good alternative flight plan.

At United, the only acceptable customer experience is one in which you arrive at your intended destination safely, comfortably and on time. When events and obstacles beyond our control, such as severe weather or Air Traffic Control delays, prohibit us from achieving this standard, we strive to minimize customer inconvenience however possible.

At customer service, we joined the long line. The representatives were busy rescheduling people on flights for the following day. We would leave on Christmas Eve, on the exact same flight but 24 hours later than originally planned. We would spend the evening and night of Christmas on the flight, and arrive in Paris on the 25th.

The service representative gave us a hotel reservation and a $15 meal voucher for dinner. "What about breakfast and lunch?", I asked. "I'm sorry, but we can only give you one meal voucher", answered the United airlines representative. "What about our bags?", I asked. "I have already rescheduled them and you will get them when you get to Paris." Apparently other people were given the choice to wait for their bags and pick them up, but not us.

"In the air and on the ground, online and on the telephone, our customers have the right to expect — to demand — respect, courtesy, fairness and honesty from the airline they have selected for travel."

I left the customer service counter seething with anger. We waited in the cold for a shuttle, that took us to an upscale golf resort twenty miles away. Meanwhile I decided to calm down and try to make the best of it. "Life is a journey, travel it well", says United in their slogan. At the hotel, we spent a small fortune on ill-fitting swimming suits and relaxed at the pool for a while. After a dinner at the one place at the hotel that was still open (and where the cost of three sandwiches easily exceeded our vouchers), we paid another $15 to watch a movie before calling it a day. Since we had no toiletries with us, I asked the front desk for help, but theirs were only available for purchase. I noted that it violated United's written policy to provide stranded passengers with complimentary toiletries, but to no avail.

This year, for us, there will be no decorating the tree, no putting together the creche with our cousins, no singing carols, no midnight Mass. Instead, there is waiting in line in the hellish atmosphere of a crowded airport.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ. In the mayhem of holiday airport travel, when I think of United slamming its door to our face, it calls to mind the innkeeper in Bethlehem who refused to make room for a 9-month old pregnant woman.

And that is United Airlines's way: "Fly the friendly skies of United". Merry Christmas!


  1. Couldn't they have put you on another flight from Dulles to Paris, even if it was with another airline? I would think that that would be preferable to them than to have you wait 24 hours. I thought that was standard airline policy.

    Maybe they were happy to close the door without you because the flight was already full--overbooked or with other people who had missed previous days' flights.

    Anyway, always try to fly direct. That way you won't have the extra problems caused by missed connections. Also, you should write a letter to the airline explaining that they didn't do obvious things to accommodate you, like put you on another flight with another airline. People in the US tend not to complain directly (in written form) to the airline, and I think this can have a big impact.

  2. I was one of those people, I had to go to Paris and then from Paris to Milan. Me and another person arrived just 5 sec before the staff closed the doors. I saw them!..
    Because of that, I also missed the european flight.
    Unfortunately the day after (CHRISTMAS) all the flights from Paris to Milan were completely full. I found an available sit only at 5pm. I spent my Christmas Eve in Charles de Gaulle airport (from 6.45am to 5pm).


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