Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

United Airlines – it’s not time to fly

Posted by shannonclark on May 25, 2007

I will never, if I can avoid it, give another dime of my money to United Airlines. And I encourage all of you to avoid them as well.

This is the tale to date of my problems with United Airlines this Memorial Day weekend 2007.

This weekend I am in Madison Wisconsin for a convention. I planned to fly here yesterday from San Francisco on one of the few airlines which fly into Madison, United (well via their United Express division which flies to Madison from O’Hare in Chicago). My flight from San Francisco to Chicago was fine, very full but left on time and even arrived a few minutes early (though I did have to pay a lot to sit in almost the last row and have only a few cookies to eat – not being willing to pay $5 for the offered boxes of random food).

However the problems arose after I arrived in Chicago. I went first to the gate for my next flight, though I had a couple of hours before it would leave. I checked two things – one if there was an earlier flight which I might catch (since we had arrived a bit early) and that the 2:45pm flight I was supposed to be on was on time. At a bit after noon I was told that there was no earlier flights and that my flight was running on time. So I went and got lunch.

I then returned around 2pm, only to overhear the gate agent very quietly telling people that the flight to Madison was canceled (note that no public announcement, at least that I heard was made to this effect). I waited in line for the single gate agent, growing increasingly annoyed at this point. I finally reached her, only to lose my temper a bit as she seemingly refused to give me any information or good options (she was telling the other passengers that the next flight was already full and on standby, but would probably go – our flight having been canceled for wind sheer problems), she mentioned a bus as an option but would not (or perhaps could not) tell me when it was or how to both catch it and get United to pay for it. Nor could she tell me what would happen with my bag which I had checked (more on that in a bit).

I lost my temper. She refused to talk further with me and directed me to “customer service” at Gate 18. As I was racing off there and picking up my bags which were on a nearby seat, another United (I think) employee approached me. Tried to answer some of my questions – but mostly threatened me with the Chicago Police if I remained not calm (though at this point I was calm, was not cursing at him but was definitely not using a quiet tone to my voice – I was angry with United).

I broke off with him and went to Gate 18, calling my family who live in Chicago (and who could look up the bus schedule on a computer) as I walked. As I got to the line for the customer service my father called me back with the bus details – in the parking lot in 10 minutes there was a bus leaving for Madison.

I gave up on the literally over 100 person long line for United Customer Service (apparently not just the canceled flight had caused that – but also other flights which had been late causing lots of people to miss their connections) and ran, literally, to the bus. I got there with about 30 seconds to spare, paid my $25 and got a seat next to friends who it turns out were on the same bus.

On the bus about an hour later United Airlines (well their computer) called me to inform me that I had be rebooked on the 8:30 AM flight on May 25th from Chicago to Madison. The voice then gave me an 800 # to call and promptly hung up, having only said the phone number once – and very very quickly at that (why it could not at the minimum repeat a phone number more than once I do not know and the call had come in from some other very random number).

At this point I started trying to call United Airlines using the numbers on the claim envelope for my bags. (noting that their tickets as printed from my computer do not have any phone numbers on them at all, so if you need to call United and only have your e-tickets you are just out of luck).

I spent almost an hour on the phone with United on that bus. Trying to determine when (and if) my bags would arrive in Madison, and what (and if) I could do to get my money back.

Upon arriving in Madison, checking in to my hotel, getting dinner etc I then resumed calling United.

Among the problems I found with their “customer service”

  1. Each type of issue MUST be dealt with via a different phone number. One for baggage, one for tickets, one for refunds.
  2. Each person on the phone cannot then transfer you to another one of their numbers directly – they can only give you the number
  3. Though they are well scripted and speak clear English, it is clear also that all the customer service folks are in India (probably) and cannot, for example, connect you directly with the actual people on the ground in O’Hare or Madison.
  4. United apparently makes it very hard to get them to deliver your bags to your hotel in cases such as mine. After spending hours on the phone with them, and having repeated assurances that “I’m sending a message to the agents in Madison and O’hare about your bags” only some of those messages seem to have made it through.
  5. I was, in fact, told I might (they could not say one way or the other) be charged for the delivery of my bags – however they could not even tell me what, if any, such charges might be (I’ve since learned from the doorman at my hotel that the charge is, he thinks, $100!)
  6. Though the agents on the phone told me repeatedly that to deal with my refund I would have to “go to the airport” when, in fact, I was at the airport (in Madison) I was told, again repeatedly, “No you have to call this number, and then given a small scrap of paper with the address and phone number for refunds – and the generic URL)
  7. At no time did anyone from United EVER offer to do anything for me. No offer of compensation for my additional costs to get to my final destination, no offer of a hotel room in Chicago had I needed one due to being rescheduled on a flight the next day (and note this was at a city I was connecting through, they had no way to know that I probably could have stayed with my parents had I really needed to). Nor any compensation for the hotel room I had reserved in Madison (or even worse the potential problems had I missed checking in and lost my reservation for the whole weekend!)
  8. Not to mention anything for my time and the many hours delay (and nearly day+ delay) in getting to Madison. I was traveling (mostly) for personal reasons, however I had planned on spending most of this morning on work – not on getting my bag from the airport or phone calls with United. Likewise I had planned on attending some events in Madison last night (which I mostly did manage, though only barely, to make) and I had planned on then spending much of the evening working – now I’ll have to do that work at other points in the weekend – diminishing my enjoyment of the convention.

So needless to say, I am annoyed with United.

And I think this gives a number of lessons for what not to do around customer service.

First – have ONE number for customer service, not more than three. Make sure that ALL agents at that number can, at a minimum, direct any call to any other agent so that in one single call ALL of the issues of a customer can be dealt with.

Second – delays in getting to an agent, especially by a time-sensitive business such as an Airline – of nearly 15+ minutes are just unacceptable (more than 5 rings really is unacceptable). And though the automated systems are, at times, useful, hiding the “agents” options is just annoying (and “operator” or selecting 0 should get you there as well)

Third – Never ever ever have the automated system finally get you to a human only to have that human before you can get a word in edgewise transfer you BACK TO THAT SAME AUTOMATED SYSTEM! I’m serious, that happened to me when trying to get to a human to understand where my bag, in fact, was.

Fourth – Do NOT ask customers for any code which is NOT LABELED AS THAT CODE on the documents in front of the passenger. For example “baggage claim code” when the bar code label has no sublabels and lots of different numbers printed on it. Further when what apparently is the number, does not in fact work as the computer asks).

Fifth – instead of waiting for a passenger to ask for things they do not even know might get covered (like say the costs I nearly incurred to get toiletries this morning so I could shave, moisturize etc) MAKE AN IMMEDIATE OFFER to all of your customers whom you have just failed. And don’t wait to speak with each person individually, make it publicly and use contact information to reach out proactively to each person (United did, for example, have my email and phone numbers – but beyond one phone call have not used either to contact me further – an apology via email would be appreciated for example).

Sixth – threatening your customers is not a good tactic. I was threatened with the Chicago Police. Later, I was threatened with the risk of having the rest of my travel canceled if I did not proactively call and contact United (since I was not going to fly on United to Madison my return flight home from Chicago in a few days had the risk of being automatically canceled. I have, at this point, been told it would not be canceled – but until I am back home safely in San Francisco I will not rest easily.

And my pain though bad could have been less than that of a friend of mine with nearly the same problems (he was supposed to be on the next flight at 4:30 which was also, it turns out, canceled just minutes before board – like me they did not tell him at just after 2 that it would be canceled – so instead of getting on the same bus I took or preparing to take the 4:30pm bus he went and got lunch). In his case, he had a bit more time in O’Hare then I and tried to get his bags which had been checked. They refused to get them claiming not to have enough people – even when he told them that the contained his blood pressure medicine and other supplies – that, apparently was not sufficient cause or emergency for them to get a passenger their own bags when they need to use alternative transportation due to the airline’s cancellation of flights (and in his case he was told that not just every other flight yesterday but all of the flights today were already completely full so he might not be able to get to Madison via United before Saturday. However in his case the flight he was on was codeshared with US Airways so his phone customer service problems included the problem of one airline not acknowledging that his canceled flight had, in fact, been canceled – and then the only refund they have offered him is not cash back but a credit on a future US Airways flight (which after this experience he does not really want to use in any case).

So in rather long form that is where things stand now. I have, finally, managed to get my bags. So far I have wasted a few hours on the phone with United, had repeated promises from them broken (they promised to deliver my bags to my hotel, they promised to get them here on various flights which each were either in turn canceled or left without my bags). Directly I have spent over $40 in other costs (bus fare, food on the bus ride, etc). I also spent 2 more hours on that bus than I had planned in my travels (the flight was less than a hour), and then spent another 30+ minutes today going to and from the airport. Last night instead of catching up with old friends, I spent hours on the phone. Today instead of 4-5 productive hours of work, I spent most of the day worrying about getting my bags – and spent the morning unshaven and looking and feeling like a slob (though I was lucky that I had, in fact, packed a change of clothes, had I not, I would have had to early this morning find someplace in Madison to buy a shirt and clean underwear)

I am tempted to send United a bill for my time & expenses. At my regular day rate they would get a bill for much more than I spent on my tickets to Madison (and those cost me more than $500). A lot more than that in fact.

I think if all companies such as United were liable for their customers lost time & expenses when the company was at fault many more companies would take a much more proactive approach to customer service (and for anyone who does not have an established day or hourly rate some minimum yet high rate to be used – or perhaps a minimum liability of at least what the customer spent with the company). I could see setting a cap here as well – perhaps not to exceed 5x what a customer has spent.

I do not think I will take United to court, but nor am I done with them. I will still have to fly home with them in a few days. And I will have to spend likely another hour on the phone with them to figure out how to get a refund from them for my flight they canceled (as well as reimbursement for my costs – at least the $25 bus fare).


Do not use United Airlines (or US Air) if you can at all avoid it. And I’d even suggest looking at non-air options whenever possible.

UPDATE May 31st 2007 – the return

So I did get back to San Francisco, but not without some hiccups along the way. I was unable to check-in online OR at the computer check-in terminals at the gate – apparently my ticket was flagged as “itinerary  changed” (online it showed my reservation but said “no electronic ticket found, go back to where you purchased the ticket and then try again…”).

At the gate the agent, without any explanation or discussion of my options issued me a refund of about $84 for the canceled flight (this on a total ticket which was about $500 for the whole round trip). Unclear where this number comes from, when I had priced one-way tickets from Chicago to Madison earlier they were showing up as over $200. But as it is higher than the cost of the bus I spent, I’m not fuming – just puzzled and still annoyed at United and very disappointed.

10 Responses to “United Airlines – it’s not time to fly”

  1. John Crocker said

    Hello Shannon,

    It sounds like you had a fairly normal flying experience. I applaud you for getting on the bus. I hope you got your bags.

    My wife had a parellel event with American. She has a friend who flies for American and he got her the number for the VP of customer relations. She took copious notes…names, employee numbers, and very directly asked for a supervisor and did NOT let the line progress until a sup arrived. Two agents were fired.

    If you want to get someplace with your bags, on time, fly Netjets.

    John Crocker

  2. John,

    Thanks – netjets is indeed something great – but alas, as a bootstrapping entrepreneur for the moment probably outside of my budget. Perhaps in the future. Thanks for the comments.


  3. Swoop said

    This sort of treatment is what everyone seems to get with United. In my experience, they cancel more flights for more sketchy reasons than any other US airline. If your time or your timely arrival means anything to you at all, then United is not the airline you want. And as you note, the customer service is in name only.

    I stopped flying United years ago because of their unreliability. Continental and Delta give much better service, as does Southwest.

  4. Phill said

    Sorry to hear you had a bad time of it. I can’t remember the last time I had a good customer service experience with any major company, it’s kind of sad really.

    Hmmm, must find web 2.0 answer to problem.

  5. Amy said

    Sorry about your issues with United, I have a friend undergoing same such issues right now! I highly recommend, Southwest, although no assigned seating, GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE! Good luck getting home, I only hope my friend can get herself back to Alaska SOON!

  6. Amy,

    I do fly Southwest (and JetBlue) a great deal, however in this case I was flying into Madison WI where only a handful of carriers fly and neither Southwest nor JetBlue are among them. I could have flown Southwest to Chicago and then taken a bus – however that would also have required me (currently) to have gone to the Oakland airport – which is much much less convenient for me, takes over 1hr, and is nearly impossible from my house via public transit any earlier than an 8am flight – I was taking a just after 6am flight so as to be able to get an afternoon flight to Madison to get to an event that evening. When Southwest (as they have announced will be later this year) start flying from SFO directly I will probably make greater use of Southwest – and I’m very happy and eager to try JetBlue from SFO (until just recently they too only flew out of Oakland). From where I live in San Francisco (and my lack of owning a car) my best option by far is SFO (reasonable taxi fare, very doable public transit options) while Oakland takes me multiple trains (by MUNI then BART) plus a shuttle bus (and the shuttle just by itself takes nearly 20 minutes!)

  7. Eric Hochstein said


    Great seeing you in Chicago this noon. I enjoyed our lunch and your story about the trip out. I trust that the trip back was somewhat better. I know how tough the short hop connections can be.

    I’ve posted a link to your blog post on, a frequent flyer hangout that is the home of travel experts. Perhaps someone there might have a constructive comment for you regarding compensation – or at least what not to do the next time it happens – either on United or any other airline. Here’s the link to my post on FlyerTalk….

    I hope to see you again soon.

  8. PTravel said

    I’m one of those FlyerTalk folks who saw the link. I’ll try to be brief.

    Some of your complaints are justified. However, some are not. Specifically (and in no particular order):

    1. Irregular operations due to weather are common and beyond the ability of the airlines (any airlines) to address. No carrier will compensate you for a weather cancellation — the most they will do is rebook you on the first available flight out. Because most carriers operate quite full these days, it can be very hard to get rebooked when this happens. Wind shear is serious — it is dangerous to operate in shear conditions, so the cancellation was done for everyone’s safety. That later flights were operating merely means that the shear conditions resolved. All flights are given a departure window by air traffic control in which they must leave; if they miss the departure window, they must wait for another one to be assigned. O’Hare is the busiest airport in the world. It doesn’t surprise me that, particularly when there are irregular operations due to weather in the area, an alternate departure slot was difficult or impossible to obtain.

    2. You were, almost certainly, flying on United Express. UX flights are subcontracted by UA to various regional carriers. It is they who provide the service, not UA. It doesn’t excuse poor service and, of course, as far as passengers are concerned, it’s all United. However, there is a distinct difference between mainline service by UA and the service provided by its subcontractors.

    3. As I indicated, in irregular ops due to weather, no carrier is obligated to make alternate arrangements, including finding buses for passengers. An airline’s contractual obligation to you is to get you to your destination. It is not to get you there timely (read the Conditions of Carriage). You may not like this fact, but all airlines have the same provisions in their C of C.

    4. Losing you temper accomplishes nothing, other than to ensure that you’re going to get poor service and, possibly, a visit with the police. Airline personnel have gotten extremely touchy due, in part, to raw deals given them by the airlines (not an excuse, just the reality). Some look for the opportunity to give a little back to passengers. Next time, take advantage of the time you are on line to research alternative flights, including on other airlines. Instead of demanding that the agent “make things right,” suggest alternative bookings. Most tickets can be endorsed from one airline to another (one notable exception is Southwest, which does not have interline agreements with other airlines). If you tell the agent, “Frontier has a flight in one hour and there’s space available,” they’ll usually be able to endorse your ticket so that you can use it on the other airline’s flight.

    5. Consider working with a travel agent, particularly if you’re not a frequent flier. Instead of having to wait on a 100-person line (again, not unusual when there are irreg. ops due to weather), you could make a quick phone call on your cellphone and get yourself rebooked with minimal fuss.

    6. United’s India Call Center (ICC) is notorious for providing incompetent service; the people who staff the ICC are poorly trained, work from scripts, and have virtually no discretion when it comes to fixing problems. Fortunately, I rarely have to deal with them — I have Premiere Executive status with UA, which gets me a different number to call that gets answered in the U.S. If I had to deal with the ICC on a regular basis, I’d fly another airline. As I don’t, I find that UA offers perks and benefits that aren’t available on other legacy carriers, e.g. E+ seating. At any rate, next time if you find you’re not getting anywhere with the ICC, hang up and dial again. Sometimes you’ll get a good agent. Don’t yell at them or insult them — they’ll put notes in your PNR (the record for the ticket on one particular flight) that will discourage other agents from being helpful to you.

    7. As I mentioned, departure window reassignment is at the whim of the ATC. Airlines are extremely reluctant to pull bags off planes because it means that the flight might miss a departure window. Your friend who packed medication in checked luggage was, sorry to say, extremely foolish. I can’t imagine anyone, these days, who knows that you shouldn’t pack valuables, irreplaceables or things you can’t be without in checked bags. If your friend is a very occasional flier, I would think he/she would, at least, have read the flying tips on the United website. I’ll bet money that it says exactly what I said here. So, sorry, I have no sympathy for your friend.

    8. You have absolutely no basis to take UA to court, and I say this as a lawyer as well as a frequent flier. You have very little basis for demanding compensation. UX canceled a flight due to weather and rebooked you on the next available flight out. What more would you have had them do? Welcome to the world of air travel in the 21st century — your experience is far from unusual, and reflects, not on UA, but on the entire airline industry. You won’t find any other US carrier that would have handled the situation better or differently.

    9. By far, the best thing you can do is learn how the commercial aviation industry works. Learn about cancellation procedures and how best to address them. Learn about the airlines’ individual Rule 240 policies (which address involuntary denial of boarding). Learn which subcontractors provide UX service in which market (some are worse than others). Concentrate all your flying on one airline so you can earn elite status. If you fly enough, consider purchasing a membership in the airline’s club room (UA’s is the Red Carpet Club). The agents in the club rooms are, usually, more accessible, less busy, and, almost always, more helpful than the concourse customer service reps or gate agents.

    I certainly intend to continue flying United, your related tale notwithstanding. UA focuses, to a greater extent than other legacy carriers, on business travelers who are sufficiently experienced that they know how to cope with irregular ops. As I indicated, UA offers a lot of nice perks and benefits to frequent flier/business travelers. E+ seating offers the most coach seat pitch in the industry. UA has separate check-in, security lines and boarding for its elite fliers. UA (usually) has professional and efficient in-flight crews who provide good service without being intrusive or annoying. UA offers FF miles that can be redeemed for great international destinations with relatively little fuss (if you’re flexible — this is a huge point for me). In fact, if your blog discourages casual fliers from traveling UA, you’d be doing the rest of us a favor as, no disrespect intended, it is the infrequent and/or family flier that causes the most disruption in the process. 😉

  9. Angry Soldier said

    Could anyone tell me the best way to get my luggage back from United. I flew from Chicago O’Hare on Sunday June 3, 2007 back to my Army post in California. I checked in a bag and a box with my 22″ monitor. The gentleman that checked in my luggage was very nice and friendly, however after I checked in I saw him walking down the hallway with my box.

    With all the crazy changes with baggage handling requirements since 9-11 I did not think much of that. My first flight was delayed by 2 hours because to a flight plan difficulty but that is not a big problem. When we got to LAX, I had to rush to my connecting flight to Monterey, because there was only 10 min left for boarding. After I boarded the flight, I asked the flight attendant if she could check to make sure my luggage was on board also. She confirmed to me that the baggage crew confirmed both items were on the plane.

    When I got to Monterey my monitor was not there and the agents were rude and abrupt with me when I asked what happened. It has been over 3 days now and they have yet to call me back at all, even though I have called and spoken with them about 8 times now. The only thing I’ve found out is it was checked in at 10:26 am Central time. Which is when I arrived at the airport, no idea about anything since then. They refuse to give me the number to the baggage people at O’Hare and I feel that they are stone walling me. I’m getting very frustrated because I was told by the people in Monterey that they will not reimburse me anything because it is electronic equipment and that I signed a waiver of liability, with I did not do at all.

    Please help or give suggestions, or even the phone number of the baggage people in Chicago.


  10. Lisa Montgomery said

    I am sorry you had a poor experience, Unfortunately weather happens, which is what wind shears are. They are also very dangerious. I have had nothing but wonderful experiences on United. ITs Southwest that sucks

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