Friday, August 21, 2009

Stuck in D.C./Never Fly United Airlines

I should have arrived in Argentina about an hour ago, but instead I'm sitting in a friends' living room in Washington D.C. What happened is that last night couldn't have gone any worse for someone who is traveling on a tight schedule or a tight budget. Things started badly on the way to the airport in Boston, with huge traffic delays close to rush hour. But there were no accidents and the lanes suddenly opened up by the airport as if there was never traffic at all. The first close call was narrowly avoided.

Once I was checked in and at my terminal gate, things seemed to be going along, yet there was still no plane at the gate. However, the board said that we were "On Time." Eventually a flight attendant spoke softly into the microphone to say that the plane we were using had just landed and there would be a little delay. This wasn't a good thing.

For whatever reason, STA Travel had booked me on the 7:26 pm flight from Boston to Washington Dulles. From Washington Dulles, I was scheduled on the 9:52 pm to Buenos Aires. This only gave me about a 45 minute window according to their itinerary, never a good enough amount of time. But there was little I could do about it, and it was the cheapest option. I was a bit nervous, but knew in the back of my mind that even if I missed my connection, United Airlines would help out because it wasn't my fault the plane was late.

After we all boarded we sat in traffic on the runway as the sky got darker, and by the time we took off we were delayed over an hour. I was pretty sure by this point I wouldn't make my flight, but was surprised how quickly we got to Washington. In only about an hour and a half we made it, touching down at 9:30 pm. The whole flight they were announcing information about connections, asking people (who in the end didn't) to stay out of the aisles unless they were connecting. We were cutting it close, that was for sure, but we were confident that at the very least the tower would radio that a plane had just landed with many connections.

We were wrong. We rushed off of the plane as soon as we could and ran from gate C7 to C12, which weren't close to each other. But no one was at the gate anymore. We ran to the next one to ask for help, and the man there simply told us to wait at the gate. Going back, we could see out the window that the plane was still there. Two women came from behind the gate and as we frantically explained our cases, they unsympathetically stated that the gate was already closed and there was nothing they could do. There were three of us from Boston: a woman trying to make it for her daughters' graduation tomorrow, an Argentinian on his way home, and myself, tyring to make an interview that would have been today.

I could understand at the very least missing a flight because of delays. Those things happen, and you can't change the weather that delays planes across the globe. But what United Airlines did to us after this was inhumane, and I've never seen such rude behavior by customer service representatives. We were told to go speak to someone, and after waiting in line a few minutes they started reading off our names with new tickets for the same flight at the same time tomorrow (today). 24 hours later.

Normally when the airline is at fault for your delay (anything other than you personally causing the missed flight) they will take care of your hotel reservations, fees, transportation, and food vouchers. Just earlier this month while flying home from Quito to Miami I was bumped without my consent from my original flight. LAN put me up in a 3 Star hotel, paid for gourmet meals, and put me in business class the next day, in addition to $170 added to my credit card. United Airlines, on the other hand, only offered 50% off on a hotel, no transportation, and no meal vouchers. Even if we went to the hotel we would have to check out hours and hours before heading to the airport.

Nevermind the fact that some of us just spend $1000 on a plane ticket, but I'm broke enough as it is. It should not be my responsibility to front the cost of a hotel when their plane gets me to my destination late. I got to the airport on time, I expect the airline to do the same. This is why you bother paying so much money for a plane ticket in the first place. But the man and woman from United offered no assistance. They had 50 other people missing connections to deal with, and no one was happy because of this policy.

The woman claimed that because it was weather and not mechanical delays, United didn't have to pay for our hotel. She said no airline does that, which is a lie. Last year I was on a flight on American Airlines which was canceled because of an imminent blizzard. Say what you want about American, but at least they put me up in a hotel with meal vouchers and got me on the next flight. United, in this case, wouldn't even try to reroute us another way. There's only one flight a day to Buenos Aires, and when I told them I couldn't afford a hotel, she suggested I stay in the airport. Really? For 24 hours?

Worse still, they couldn't even give us our bags. Jokingly, the woman said if we really wanted them we could wait in line for 3-4 hours and fill out some forms. So she was basically giving us the big "FU." I guess I'll just continue to wear the same clothes for another 30 hours, no problem since it's August and my deodorant is packed away. No toothbrush either. Luckily I had my glasses on, but if my contacts were in I would be forced to wear them for 2 straight days.

I've done a lot of traveling and a lot of flying with many airlines throughout my life, and I believe this to be my first, and last experience with United Airlines. I have never been treated so unfairly, and I recommend to any travelers out there to avoid this airline, which has made it quite obvious that they are not passenger-friendly. Even through flying with cheap airlines in Europe where I sometimes questioned whether I'd make it there or not, I didn't deal with this kind of trouble. And say what you want about LAN bumping me without my consent, but at least they took care of me.

I'm missing an interview in Buenos Aires as a result of this, and the other woman from Boston is missing her daughters' graduation, as well as losing 1 of her 2 days in the city. Luckily I have friends who went to college in Maryland and still have friends in Washington, D.C. I was able to get in touch with them, and after a $35 airport shuttle, I got to my friend Kerry's apartment, where I'm spending the day until heading back to the airport.

The thing this all reminded me of was dealing with corrupt officials or backwards policies in Latin America. There, I've said it, United Airlines is as efficient as a corrupt company in a developing country. And I hope that someone from this company will read this and see that in a time of a shaky economy, where you really need to go that extra mile to win over the customers, they have failed. I heard at least 5 people say they will never fly United again. I will continue to travel and move on. If United continues these policies, I can't say the same for them.


John Bardos - said...

Hi Jon,

I definitely agree with your assessment of United, an absolutely terrible airline. Did you see the United Breaks Guitars video on youtube? It is a great video highlighting United airlines incompetence.

Good luck with your trip!

Jon said...

Hey John,

I haven't seen it, but I'll check it out. After two long travel days, I've finally arrived in Argentina. Now I just need to get over some jetlag.