We’ve had a lot of trouble when dealing with United lately at Cranky Concierge. Problems have ranged from severely delayed mileage redeposits to incorrect flight status and even failing to pay a client after involuntarily bumping him. But today I wanted to write about an experience we had recently that started when a client’s flight was canceled by United. The odyssey alone would probably be an interesting read, but there are some great lessons in here as well.
We had a client traveling from Traverse City to Copenhagen via Chicago and Brussels. This was a United ticket that we issued for travel on United aircraft except on the last leg from Brussels which was on SAS. (We chose this routing because the availability of lower fares saved our clients a couple hundred dollars per person on 5 tickets.) When the day of travel arrived, the weather forecast for Chicago was not good. You can probably guess what happened next.
United did indeed cancel the flight to Chicago, and that’s not a surprise. Regional flights are often the first on the chopping block when weather snarls airport operations. Our first shot was to look at other flights out of Traverse City that day to see if we could still get them to Chicago. We couldn’t. Everything was full, but even if it wasn’t, nothing would have connected to the original flight out, especially since the connection to Brussels was still showing on time.
Tip: If you’re flying into a congested airport on a regional flight connecting to a mainline flight, be prepared for pain.
Looking at the other flights to Europe, the rest of the day was packed. There wasn’t any hope to get them from Traverse City to Europe that day, unless…. We asked if there was any chance of them making the 5 hour drive to Chicago. They thought they could make it, so they rushed to get ready. By the time they got in the car, it was too late. Time for plan B.
We knew they weren’t getting out that night, so we called United on one hand then looked for available seats on the other. Remember, we needed 5 seats so it wasn’t as simple as finding one open seat. Traverse City didn’t look good at all, but our clients decided to drive to Chicago to make it easier. The United agent we spoke with on the Executive Accounts desk couldn’t find anything for two days even from Chicago. We got more creative and found an option that would connect through San Francisco and Frankfurt. Sure, it was out of the way, but it meant only a one day delay instead of two. Perfect. United gladly reissued the tickets, and we thought all was well.
Tip: I sound like a broken record, but be creative when looking for alternatives. Even if you go out of the way, you may get there a lot sooner.
Things were going smoothly until it came time for an airplane to actually take off when it was supposed to. The flight to San Francisco was first delayed due to weather – the usual low clouds in San Francisco. But there was still plenty of time to make the connection… until the airplane broke. Yep, it went mechanical and soon they were bound to miss their connection. They walked off the airplane so we could find another solution.
Tip: If you’re going to miss your connection, decide whether to take the original flight or not depending on where you’ll find better connections. In this case, Chicago was better than SFO, so we had them get off the airplane. If they were going to Asia, we may have told them to go anyway and then we’d find options there.
At this point, the rest of the day to Europe looked shot, but that didn’t mean we were giving up. We saw some availability on American over to a couple cities in Europe, so we called United to try to send the ticket over to American. No dice. American said they wouldn’t give them the seats. But our client wasn’t willing to take that answer, so he walked over to American. There he found the gate agent on a flight to London who said she could get them on. United just needed to send the ticket over. But that flight showed no availability, and United said that since it couldn’t sell a seat in its system, it couldn’t reissue the ticket. They watched the American flight depart.
We continued to look for availability but the day was running out of options. Then we saw 5 seats on SAS open up. We immediately grabbed them and put them in the reservation. Then we called United to see if we could actually have those seats. See, even if there are seats to sell, it doesn’t mean the airline will let other airlines use those seats to reaccommodate passengers. In this case, the SAS reservations office was closed, so the United Exec Accounts desk couldn’t do anything. We still showed the seats confirmed in our reservation, but United didn’t even see that. Somehow, they decided it would be ok to just reissue the tickets anyway, so we sent our client over to Terminal 5 to get onboard. United assured us that everything was set except for one person who was on standby.
Upon arriving, our client was greeted by a very angry SAS agent. He went on and on (I spoke with him on the phone as well) about how United is terrible at communicating with them, and they never would have accepted these passengers, etc. He immediately canceled their confirmed reservations and told them they could go standby if they wanted. With no other options that night, standby it was. And incredibly, they made it on. Their luggage wasn’t anywhere in sight, but it did make its presence known a couple days later.
Tip: Again, just because there are seats to sell on a flight doesn’t mean that an airline will offer those seats to other airlines for reaccommodation purposes. SAS could have used an attitude adjustment, but they weren’t wrong in what they were saying. Still, with no options left that night, it was worth it to take a shot at this to avoid another night stranded in Chicago.
That should have been the end of the saga but it wasn’t. Things had been so messed up on the flight out that I went back in to check on the reservations for the return. Uh oh. All the return segments had been canceled because United showed that they had not showed up for the flight out. I immediately jumped on the phone with United to find that the flights they were on were now completely full. Fortunately, the Exec Accounts desk was able to force them back into their original reservations – minus seat assignments.
This meant that the family, which had seats all together, was now scattered throughout the cabin. The agent was willing to put the mother and youngest son together in Economy Plus without a fee because he was so young. But the other children would have to do with scattered middles throughout the cabin. What a delight.
Tip: In general, when things go wrong on the way out, it’s always good to double check the reservation to make sure nothing on the return was messed up. Had the client just shown up at the airport for a very full flight, they may not have been able to travel.
While this may have been a fairly extreme example of something going wrong, it is pretty symbolic of many of my United interactions lately. The systems just don’t work as they should, and we’ve seen a lot of delays for our clients. That creates a ton of extra work for us and for United’s agents. I appreciate the work the Exec Accounts desk did, but it never should have been this difficult for everyone. Most of all, it never should have been this difficult for our clients. I shudder to think how this would have turned out if they were on their own. United might not have gotten them out for days.