An Open Letter to United Airlines

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing this letter after 26 miserable hours in Pittsburgh airport.  Despite the cost and 36+ hours (each way) of travel, I decided to fly back for a 4-day weekend from my current home in Hanoi to Pittsburgh for the wedding of one of my best friends.

I booked a United flight because I’ve always trusted their maintenance/safety (important for an anxious flier like myself), enjoyed the pleasant flight attendants and in-flight entertainment on long-hull flights (personal TV and new airplanes), and wanted to support their growth after 9/11 brought the company to its knees.  I  have flown United internationally 2+ times a year over the last 7 years I have been working and living in Asia.

Fortunately, I managed to avoid the problems that plagued other travelers on Friday night.  On Sunday morning, however, I arrived at the Pittsburgh Airport with my girlfriend 2 hours early as requested at 8AM for my 10AM flight to Chicago (ORD).  In order to make this flight, we had to take a $97 taxi from North Pittsburgh.  Upon arrival, we were told the flight was cancelled – the representatives had no reason fo the cancellation.  We received no email, SMS/text, call or notification (as United and other airlines typically do) prior to leaving our hotel 30 minutes earlier.  Had we known, we could have saved quite a bit of money.

The situation only deteriorated from there, as the customer service representatives tried their best but could not make alternative arrangements for either my girlfriend or I to catch our flights to Hanoi.  I really appreciate their work and I think they were doing the best they could under the circumstances.  I imagine many of your customer service representatives were worn out dealing with angry customers all weekend, so I did not raise a fuss when I was told I could catch a flight to Washington DC at 8PM that evening, connect to Pairs and then on to Hanoi.  Despite a much longer itinerary, a 1 day delay in getting back to life and work in Hanoi, and missing a rare chance to see my father during my layover in Chicago on Fathers’ Day, I accepted this since there were no other options.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, was told that her flight could not be rebooked since it was with another airline on one leg (Korean Airlines from ORD to Seoul).  She was given a flight Chicago and told to talk with Korean Air when she arrived.  Unfortunately, Korean Air was not operating their telephone lines (even the “emergency lines”) and closes their service desk at airports each day after 11AM.  She arrived in Chicago and one day later still has been unable to connect with anyone at Korean Air.  More importantly, United didn’t make any attempt to contact the airlines or rebook her tickets, despite the fact that their error made her miss her connection.

I spent the entire day in Pittsburgh airport.  At around 6PM, United announced that the Washington DC flight would be delayed by 1-2 hours, which would mean I could not make my connection to Paris.  The customer service representative was an angel and worked on my case for nearly an hour.  I do not remember her name, but she absolutely deserves a raise for helping all the other reps on their cases while simultaneously managing my pretty tricky schedule to Hanoi.  We finally settled on a flight from Pittsburgh to San Francisco to Seoul to Hanoi early the next morning.  United give me a first class ticket all the way to Seoul, a hotel for the night and a $15 meal voucher.  I would arrive Tuesday night, but could at least get a semi-decent night’s sleep for the first time in nearly a week.

This morning I woke up at 4AM and boarded my flight to San Francisco at 530AM.  We sat on the tarmac until 630 and the pilot announced that there was an issue with the landing gear.  Finally, about an hour or so later, the pilot announced the part had to be shipped in from Chicago and the plane wouldn’t leave until at least 11AM or early this afternoon.  Passengers were asked to get off the plane and rebook their flights if needed.  We were also told that there were no other flights available on United or other airlines.

The customer representative cancelled my third itinerary (in the last day) and has just put me on a flight this morning from Pittsburgh to Washington DC to Beijing to Hanoi.  The good news is that I will get to Hanoi very late on Tuesday evening.  The bad news is that I lost my first class tickets and have to fly on two other airlines that have  spotty records and brand names (China Southern and Colgan).  Instead of breakfast on the plane, I have to shell out $5 for another poor quality, unhealthy meal at McDonalds (I am on my Vietnam-salary budget here…).  And, I had to wake up at 4AM for yet another delayed/cancelled flight.  I’d like to thank the customer service representative again, as she tried her best to quickly get me on any flight out of Pittsburgh today.  Most people will be stuck here for one night or will have to spend the evening in San Francisco.

I will let you know if my flight ever even makes it to Hanoi – I fully expect another delay with the Washington DC flight.

After this weekend I do not plan to fly with United Airlines unless the company makes at least some gesture to 1) show they care about the massive inconvenience personally and professional these incidents have caused, and 2) assuage my fears of the same issue coming up again in the future.  While I understand some flights are delayed and missed connections happen, United has shuffled me around on 3 different ill-fated flights over 24+ hours and has not done so with much empathy or focus on making the customer feel valued.

From my position,

  • I lost the rare chance to see my father on Fathers’ Day during my layover in Chicago.  I had been planning on this for weeks, as I do not get to often see my parents.
  • I lost one full day of work running the business I work for in Hanoi – I am not concerned about how much money I lose.  Rather, this delay causes stress and annoyance personally as the top manager and certainly for my direct reports and colleagues.
  • I lost at least one day, perhaps multiple more, with my girlfriend in Hanoi (she’ll only be there briefly for vacation).  United still has made no attempt to resolve her dilemma.
  • Monetarily, I spent $97 on a taxi that was not necessary, $20 in the airport for three small meals (in addition to the $15 meal voucher for dinner), and will have to spend $40+ on extra taxis in Hanoi since my girlfriend will arrive at a different time/day (if she even arrives).  Yes, this is not a huge sum of money, but I am not receiving an American salary and my ticket for this trip was $1,500+.
  • I will be taking a lower-quality air carrier for the final leg of the journey that does not match United’s service quality.
  • I lost my first class seats, which were given as an apology and kind gesture for the inconvenience caused on my first day of 2 cancelled flights.

Again, I want to wholeheartedly thank the customer service representatives who were calm, personable, and empathized with my situation.  All three (!) of the representatives that rebooked my flights really tried their best to help me get to my destination.  I appreciate that they were probably working overtime all weekend and had to deal with many customers that were substantially more angry (and vocal about it!) than I.

I am putting the ball in your court now, United.  I have always recommended you to my friends and family flying to and from Asia – and even defended you against US airline-bashing Europeans.  However, after this incident, i do not feel inclined to fly United ever again.  I feel bad for the excellent customer service representatives, pilots, and other low-level staff that have to deal with United’s systemic issues.

I write this not to close the door on our business relationship, but rather with the understanding that mistakes happen and can be corrected.  What counts is how one learns from those mistakes and responds.


Timothy Rann


~ by responsiblenomad on June 20, 2011.

2 Responses to “An Open Letter to United Airlines”

  1. Anything yet? I am sitting at SFO, fuming mad at being screwed by UAL tonight.

    • Nothing from UA yet… in the process of booking a flight home in September for another wedding. Might shell out $200 more just to not fly on United Airlines and go for American instead.

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