Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Put your baby in a bag on the floor, don't stand up, you can't sit together, and no food for you: United International Business Class

On the flight to Israel, we had the privilege of enjoying Lufthansa Business Class. On the return, we took Swiss from Tel Aviv to Zurich, and United to Denver via Washington Dulles.

On Lufthansa, two flight attendants assembled a bassinet for our infant daughter, complete with fresh linens. On Swiss, a single flight attendant struggle to install a bassinet, and then asked us to use a blanket as linen. On United, we were given a heavy plastic sleeping bag to put our baby in, and told to put the bag on the floor!

United also has this bizarre habit of turning the "fasten seat belt" sign on for most of the flight. The moment the slightest amount of turbulence occurs, the light goes on, and stays on for up to an hour! The fight attendants make announcements that passengers should return to their seats for their own safety, however they themselves continue to roam about the cabin. Trash is collected, meals are served, and hot coffee is poured, all while it is too dangerous for passengers to leave their seats. It is as if they believe the laws of physics don't apply to themselves. We finally got up the nerve to ask a flight attendant why it is too dangerous for passengers to stand up, yet safe enough for the flight attendants. Frankly, I considered that we might be arrested for merely asking such a question. The flight attendant explained that they have to be up and about because that is their job.

There you have it. Either United is lying to their passengers about the danger of turbulence in order to allow the flight attendance a little elbow room while they server the meal, or they have a complete disregard for the safety of their crew, or both.

Upon arriving at Washington Dulles from Zurich, we noticed that our connecting flight to Denver had been cancelled. We proceeded to the gate of the next flight to Denver. We were told at the gate that the flight was already overbooked, and were referred to the customer service desk. While waiting in line at the customer service desk, I telephoned United and was told the following lies:

1. Flight 903 had been canceled due to weather.

2. We were not entitled to any vouchers for meals or lodging.

3. We would be denied entry to the Red Carpet Club as we were using a Frequent Flier Award Ticket. When I politely requested to be accommodated on an earlier flight or to be given hotel vouchers, I was repeatedly reminded that I was flying with an award ticket.

When we finally reached the “customer service” desk, four computers staffed by only a single person, we were told that we would have to wait a further 24 hours for the same flight to Denver the next day. Furthermore, the customer service desk actually claimed that they didn’t have the ability to print any vouchers for us there, and referred us to another service desk with an even longer line.

It was only after I was able to access the Red Carpet Club that a United representative admitted that the flight was canceled due to mechanical reasons. We were then ticketed for the same flight the next day and given vouchers for hotel, dinner and breakfast. Of course, the vouchers were for $10 each for dinner, an amount smaller than the least expensive item on the hotel's menu. The agent was unable to give us seats together, but assured us the staff at the gate would be able to resolve this matter.

The staff at the gate, asked us to speak with the staff on board. The staff at the entrance to the aircraft asked me to speak to the staff in the cabin. The staff in the cabin actually told us to ask around ourselves to see if anyone would switch seats with us! It was only the generosity of a fellow passenger that allowed me to sit with my wife and assist with the care of our infant child.

The pattern was clear, United personnel would only tell us to speak to someone else or refuse to assist us.

We understand that mechanical problems can occur, however United should have:

1. Been honest with us about the nature of the cancellation

2. Rebooked us on the next available flight automatically, or at least provide adequately staffed customer service counters with the ability to print out vouchers, especially at it’s Dulles hub.

3. Made some attempt to seat us together, rather than have us beg our fellow passengers.

Our final insult came shortly after takeoff, when a flight attendant singled out my wife to tell her that she could not have the lasagna she ordered. My wife, who is breast feeding our child, explained that this meal would be vital to her ability to feed our child, and that the salad would not be sufficient. I asked the flight attendant to at least ask some other passengers if they would prefer the salad, yet the flight attendant refused to do so and told us that “We have 100k travelers on board, and not enough meals.” Incredulously, I asked the flight attendant if 100k travelers take priority over a nursing mother, and was told point blank, “Yes, they do.”

Ironically, I was actually given the lasagna, presumably only because I was sitting in a seat assigned to someone else. Thankfully, United's consistent incompetence sometimes works in your favor.

In United’s marketing and description of it’s business class product, I have yet to see an asterisk denoting that travelers ticketed with award seats are not entitled to be treated like other international business class passengers, let alone with a minimum of service and decency. It’s service stands in stark contrast to the excellent experience we had in business class on United’s partners Lufthansa and Swiss.

It is outrageous that United personnel repeatedly went out it’s way to remind us that we were ticketed in business class with a mileage award, and are otherwise third class passengers.

From now on I will avoid United at all costs. Even if they are less expensive than other carriers, and that is a big if, I refuse to pay them to insult us.


Anonymous said...

The most suprising aspect of this blog is that well, it is completely unsuprising. Each of these events have sadly happened to me at one time or another. If you fly commercially at all you will expeirence this level of service w/ US airlines. It is a depressing and profitless industry where everyone is upset. The issues stem from the unions to the FAA and nothing is going to be fixed soon.

I think the biggest problem is the award ticket part - yes - i earned this so called award in YOUR program as a BENEFIT for my loyality - but they treat you like a second class citizen. I would say that often everything goes well, but I have run across this before as well.

The only way to travel well is on a private jet. That is the way i dream to travel....

Steele Street said...

Thanks for the comment. Fortunately, I am a private pilot and have traveled extensively on private aircraft, although not jets. I think my most recent post puts a positive spin on things.

Use Southwest, JetBlue, Airtran, and others like them domestically, and foreign carriers internationally, and hopefully we can still have a good experience.