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Another United Airlines Customer Service Fiasco

10 Oct, 2009

You've probably seen the music video "United Breaks Guitars" by now. What struck me most about that story wasn't the fact of the guitar being broken (accidents happen, after all), but the story of complete indifference and runaround the protagonist got from United personnel.

Well, now I have my own story of United indifference and apathy. Something went wrong somehow--someone made a mistake somewhere--and the United people I talked to showed me complete indifference and unwillingness to help. Only concerted effort, begging really, got me anywhere, and it certainly didn't get me far.

The four United personnel I talked to were more interested in getting rid of me and blindly applying rules than actually helping sort out errors. They were rude, unhelpful, and at one point one person actually laughed in my face. Assuming this isn't an isolated experience--and the guitar story makes it seem like its not--something is seriously wrong at United. I'm going out of my way not to fly with United in the future, and I recommend the same to you.

The details aren't that important, but you're probably curious, so I'll share them: This week, I undertook a whirlwind tour of Scandinavia, speaking at three day-long events in three different cities, three days in a row. I knew this was going to be an exhausting trip, so although I normally fly coach, this time I took care to book business-class seats for my tickets from Portland to Copenhagen and back. I booked my tickets through Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), who booked me with United for North American portion of my trip.

The trip out was uneventful and SAS was delightful. The tour went very well and today I flew back. When I got my Copenhagen->Portland ticket, something didn't seem right--the seat number for the Dulles->Portland leg (operated by United) was unusually high for a business class seat. "No matter," I thought. "I'll straighten it out when I talk to the United gate agent in Dulles. I have a two-and-a-half-hour layover."

United Failure #1: "No problem," the man behind the customer service counter in Dulles said, after a cursory glance at my ticket. "It's a business-class seat." I had stopped at the customer service desk to double-check the seat assignment on my way to the gate. He didn't look the ticket up on his computer, which I thought was odd, but I trusted that he knew what he was talking about. He didn't.

United Failure #2: "You're booked in economy," they said at the gate. "I have a receipt here," I responded, pointing to the business-class line on my printout. "You're in the computer as economy, not even economy extra," they replied. "And it's not United paper, so there's nothing we can do." This refrain of "nothing we can do" was to become a familiar one. It was also a lie.

United Failure #3: "It's been a long day," I pleaded. "I've just flown in from Copenhagen. I've been up since midnight, local time, and I'm very tired. Isn't there anything you can do?" The taller lady asked me if I was a United Gold member, then typed in something on the computer. "Hahaha, no. There's no way you're getting an upgrade." She actually laughed in my face, then walked away.

United Failure #4: The remaining woman tried to pass me off to a customer service number, but there was no way I was going to talk to a faceless drone who had no power over seat assignments. I waited until she found a supervisor for me to talk to. "You're in the computer as economy," he said. "I don't care what your receipt says, it's just a printout. You could make it say anything." He had already checked and seen that the other three legs on my round trip ticket were booked business class. Yet he accused me of lying and forgery anyway.

United Failure #5: I resorted to begging. "I'm very tired," I said, "and it's been a long trip. Can you at least put in a more comfortable seat? Exit row, or economy extra, or something?" "There's nothing I can do," he replied. It was the standard response.

United Failure #6: "Isn't there any seat available?" I asked. "The flight is full," he said. Then, derisively: "I can't bump anyone out of their seat." "I'm not asking you to," I replied, keeping my calm more through weariness than willpower. "Is there somebody who doesn't have an assigned seat yet that you can move?" This finally seemed to spark some synapses. He typed a bit more and then printed an exit row ticket for me. I had finally gotten a little bit of help. Not much, mind you, but enough. Too bad I had to beg and plead for 40 minutes to get it.

United Failure #7: When I finally boarded, I learned two things. First, the seat next to me in the exit row was empty. The flight wasn't overfull as I had been told; it wasn't even full. Second, as I later learned, business class wasn't full either. They could have addressed my problem from the beginning, but they didn't even try.

Bottom line: Don't fly United. I won't.

(I'm still not sure how I'm going to get reimbursed for the business-class ticket I was bilked out of. Those things aren't cheap.)