On United, Canceled and Delayed Flights, Lost Bags, and Deleted Reservations Create Ill Will (Tales From the Field)

Tales From the Field, United

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 United Tales from the Fieldshot 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.

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50 comments on “On United, Canceled and Delayed Flights, Lost Bags, and Deleted Reservations Create Ill Will (Tales From the Field)

  1. As an aside, I was wondering what you thought of the Delta app that rebook you at a touch of a button? If that expands to other carriers, would that not cut into your business?

    1. Sean S – Some airlines have tried hard to automate the reaccommodation process, but it’s just really hard to do. Usually you’ll just get the most obvious options. That system isn’t going to think to send you to SFO and then Frankfurt to get you from Chicago to Copenhagen. So it works when flights are plentiful and it’s a simple issue, but that doesn’t always happen. And then when things get all messed up in the reservation as they did here, it can’t help with that.

      It may very well cut into our business as those things get better, but there’s always a segment of the population that will just want someone to handle it for them.

  2. off topic, a Southwest flight BNA – LGA had macanicle issues yesterday evening apon landing, the NTSB is investigating.

    Wow what a messy situation, at least the family got there. United needs to improve it’s comunication practices regardless of how extreme this problem became.

  3. I travel out of the midwest US as well. GRB is my home airport with service to ORD, DTW, MSP & ATL. If there is a snowflake, raindrop or lightning bolt in a 5 state area in the midwest, ORD is the first to go down. MSP & DTW handle weather much better just like this morning when T-storms were roaming around DTW. We made it from GRB-DTW only 7 minutes late. I realize ORD has many more flights than DTW or MSP but the percentage of cancelations at ORD for your flight is much greater.

    1. I agree. when I fly out of Appleton (ATW), any hint of bad weather and United Express flight to ORD is canceled. DL has flights to 3 hubs and re routing is alot easier

      1. Northwest also built MSP and DTW fabulously to handle the worst weather. Even 2 ft of snow will not shut down DTW that easily … the infrastructure, lengthy de-icing pads, and general congestion-free layout is just remarkable.

        I heard PIT used to be the same in the hub-heyday.

        1. At MSP, you’ll face delays because of all the de-icing, but when I lived there, it was rare to see things get shut down. They are very efficient at keeping the runways clear and open. Of course it helps when the 2 main runways have a large terminal in between them to give planes a lot of space. ORD’s runways are a nightmare, and it’s going to be awhile before they are reconfigured

  4. I am seriously getting tired of United’s issues – it’s like they took the bottom 50% of Continental and old-UA’s employees and retained them, and let the better ones go.

    I will say, though, that depending on the older kid’s ages, I can totally see having them scattered away from mom and dad on the return portion of the trip might be a plus.

    1. TimH – Good point on the kids. But these kids were still young, just not young enough to be considered unaccompanied if they were separated.

      1. Several years ago my wife was flying LHR–MXP–TLV on Alitalia with our 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son as a lap child (I was to fly with them on the first leg but get off in Milan, then join them in Israel a few days later). The flight was delayed by several hours so Alitalia proactively put them on the nonstop on British Airways (for whatever reason they had to write out the ticket in pen). We rode the Heathrow Express to Terminal 4 together (I had plenty of time to kill), but at check-in we found out that mother and infant were separated from 2-year-old by something like 10 rows… the agent didn’t have any other seats available, but when we raised the child to the counter she understood the gravity of the situation and put them in premium economy :-)

  5. By rights if you don’t take a flight the airline should cancel downline space, but it’s amazing that most of the time that doesn’t happen. Maybe with five people and all the calling you did flagged their reservation or someone alone the line at UA just happen to ‘wonder’ what happen to those people and checked then canceled the return.

    Doesn’t help that if you talk to a ex-CO worker and their mind set is the CO way, then you talk to an ex-UA worker and their mind set is on the old UA way, it can not work out for the good at times.

    1. @David – I take issue with the phrase “By rights if you don’t take a flight, the airline should cancel downline space…”. I think the airlines should no longer have that “right”. With the prevalence of one way and non refundable fares – for which they charge outlandish change and cancel fees – it is time for the traveler to have more control over their reservation. An example of how the rules are outdated: My family of 4 had reservations on US. One traveler had to return home early – we bought a new ticket with the plan they would rejoin us; they did not – thus one of the 4 seats would be empty on the original return. US wanted $200 for the change, $20 more than the value of the ticket. I wanted the space for ourselves. I paid to rent the space, US got the money they wanted for the space originally, all in all a fair business transaction. When we arrived at the airport, I told the counter agent that I wanted the space, and she said no – if the traveller is not on board 10 mins. prior, then the space is subject to forfeit. I pointed out that if the space were for my cello I could have it – answer no. Ultimately, the airline gave that seat to another traveller – so they were able to double dip, and I received no compensation (yet) – that is an unfair business transaction. The rules need to change due to the changing paradigm of how the seats and services are sold (thanks for the space to rant :o)

      1. agreed. If airlines can oversell a plane, then pax should be able to no show as they wish and not screw up future flights (especially on another day). I understand disallowing people from making fake connections for a price advantage (i.e. book ORD-EWR-MHT instead of ORD-EWR and get off at newark), but cancelling “return” direction segments is wrong. Forcing a change fee to keep the return is ridiculous.

      2. Tickets are only valid in the order the coupons were issued. And yes even with etickets they are still called coupons. If you don’t take a flight it’s believed you would not need down line space since you didn’t fly as booked, so it can be canceled. If you know you are not going to take a flight, you need to have your ticket reissued for the flights you will be using, which could mean a higher fare and not even having space available since you have to rebooked for fares for the flights you will be taking which may use a different booking class that you were not booked in originally, and is now sold out.

        1. David, you make a clear explanation of how it works, but I think the point many are making is that is presumptuous and puts the onus on the pax. I’ve had two instances where I skipped the first segment and got in the car and drove to the hub only to have my downline segments canceled (in both cases I explained to agent at originating airport what I was doing in order to make it to my final). It’s a policy that serves the airline and it’s very one-sided. The fact is, I paid for the seats, and if I choose not to use one of them, it shouldn’t become my issue to fight for the remaining seats.

  6. I am concerned for my parents, they booked an ATW fare directly with Star… If they have issues who do they talk to?

    1. It depends on which airline issued the ticket(s). Star didn’t issue them, as they aren’t an airline, they are more acting as an agent for their member airlines. But an airline (or airlines) issued a ticket for each segment or segments. So you will need to speak to the issuing carriers if issues arise.

  7. Had an issue with united on Saturday. I checked in my mom and fiancé for their flight to Orlando upgraded them to economy plus and 1 bag each. They got to the airport and the check in agent said their luggage wasn’t paid for. They argued and they let them through with out paying again. Very irritating!

  8. I fly out of TVC all the time and am amazed that there aren’t more flights and bigger airplanes as every flight is sold out. It is a tough place to get to and out of.

    On another note, I was trying to book a Lufthansa ticket code share on United – FRA to SFO – the other day and when I looked at the web site it was available but when I called the 1k desk (twice) I was told they can’t book on another airline.

    I ended up just using the web site. The sad part is it is just easier these days to avoid speaking with the United phone people. I know more about their operations than they do.

  9. R.J.’ s Get canceled if there is a cloud in the sky
    or a flock of birds nearby.
    Sorry but, as a 1 k member we have
    a 24/7 dedicated reservation line. After
    30 years of flying rarely ever have had a problem
    changing- dates-times or flights..unless airports closed.
    When dealing with regular reservations desk
    usually that is a whole different story…

  10. This is part of the reason why I hate originating at a small airport for a feeder flight on an international routing. Two legs with limited frequencies spells disaster in the event the first flight gets canceled or severely delayed. Growing up, we had a small regional airport about 40 minutes away, but we always preferred to suck up the 2 1/2 hour drive to either DFW or IAH, even if it meant an overnight stay near the airport, rather than take a risk with a connection on a puddle jumper. At least if you’re already at a big hub, you have a lot more options at your disposal if something goes wrong.

    It’s also distressing to hear that UA still doesn’t have their act together. It’s what, 16 months post-merger integration now?

  11. The past 2 times we’ve flown w/ United have been nothing but a bunch of changed schedules, changed aircraft (resulting in no seat assignments), and unreasonable connections (35 min in IAH – not that tight when we booked). I’m not sure at this point if I’d choose them over Spirit or Allegiant. Thankfully I’m in ATL and have other choices.

    1. Jonathan Reed – Well the problem is that they never actually missed a leg of the outgoing flight. Something happened in United’s system where it thought they had missed a leg for whatever reason. We had canceled the seats every step along the way. In these cases, it can often take some time before the airline runs the process to cancel the space, so doing it immediately won’t always catch it.

  12. I received a completely random and unexpected call from UA the other day. The agent was just checking in to see how I felt things are going with UA and if I had seen any improvements over the last few months. While I appreciated the effort UA is making to check in with frequent travelers, I had to tell him that I didn’t see any improvements. Every interaction with UA feels like a chore these days. I’ve had some nice flights and exceptional crews, but most of the time from making the reservation to updating it to the airport experience and onboard product all the way through to claiming a bag things just seem…out of whack. I had to explain to one agent on the phone she needed to rebook me because they swapped out a 787 for a 739. She kept arguing the reason was the flight was oversold by 126 people. Sigh.

  13. Cranky – Just goes to show how invaluable your services are. I’ve used them myself when flying UA, but fortunately didn’t have any disasters.
    UA creates many of their own problems from the get go. They start when Joe Public goes on their website looking for a deal on his vacation and books one of the many 35 to 40 minute connections he finds published there. He doesn’t know any better because he’s not a frequent traveler. He has to buy four tickets so he’s just looking at the fare.
    Then one delay and sadly he and his family are treated like cattle by the overworked and underpaid staff as their vacation plan unravel.
    Really a sad state of affairs at UA these days!

  14. SAS chap sounds a joy.
    First rule of customer service: the customer does not, and should not have to listen to the internal issues of UA and SK!

    The incident reported on sounds like UA is ruled by their systems, not the other way round. Which might work if the systems are up to the task. Or if UA was a low cost airline!

    1. Maia – The funny thing is that they only ended up losing a day of their vacation (and a couple more days while their bags were lost). So the vacation went well for them despite the hiccups. On the return, they wouldn’t have even known there was a problem if not for us telling them about the seat assignment issue.

  15. I can only imagine how distressing must have been for the mother to receive no personal help from employees at the airport where the flight was cancelled to be placed in an alternate itinerary, while re-assuring minors to prevent anxiety getting out of hand. The SAS gate agent apparently received training from the Gestapo school of airline customer service. To your valuable travelling tips I would add: always write down date, time, place of interaction with employee, name, badge number, summary of information given. Even better, use your phone video camera or audio recorder to replay later to the customer service manager who always try to get away from taking ownership for employee’s behavior by saying he/she was not there to witness the offensive act.

  16. I had a recent experience not unlike this on United, although far less dramatic. I showed up at DCA to fly to CLE. There was weather at DCA. Although all airlines were affected that night, United, by outward appearances, handled the situation the poorest–the line at its check-in counter was forever long (unlike others), poorly managed (chaos as to which line was what), and inefficient (all of the self-service kiosks were either blocked by that line or malfunctioning–for instance, the boarding-pass-only kiosks were all frozen). This meant I struggled to check-in for my flight to CLE; several people on flights that hadn’t cancelled faced an hour-plus line simply to check their bag, because UA didn’t think to separate the line by those needing assistance and those needing to simply check-in/check bags. I opted to check-in on my mobile, despite a nearly dying battery, figuring I’d get a paper boarding pass at the post-security kiosks. Fail: the post-security kiosks weren’t even turned on! Shortly thereafter, my flight to CLE cancelled entirely. I then called United to rebook. I was put on a flight out of IAD the next morning. When I went online to check my reservation, I discovered that my return segment, CLE-DCA, had been cancelled entirely during the rebooking. I called United back, and they re-ticketed me again, but I thought to myself–what if a less-experienced traveler hadn’t looked to double-check that the return was still in place? They would have shown up at CLE to fly back home and been in for a surprise. On Saturday, I was reminded what a sh*thole the UA concourses are at IAD, and was treated to two regional jet flights leaving from the same gate at the same time, with inadequate signage and confusing announcements. Boarding then consisted of my favorite exercise: walking down a jetbridge…that brings you to a staircase you descend at the end of the jetbridge to walk onto the tarmac and board. When we arrived in CLE, it was raining. The baggage crew unloaded all of the valet-tagged carryons onto the ground instead of a cart, so they sat in the pouring ran until everyone’s was unloaded. It was really nice to end the journey with a sopping wet carry-on.

    1. I think you would find problems like CP’s at any hub of an airline when flights get cancelled/delayed. There is minimal staffing levels due to labor costs, and even though we see delays due to weather/mechanical all the time, the airline plans as if all flights will leave on time as planned.

      I see it here in MIA with American Airlines and issues with flights late at night to/from Latin America. Passengers are accomodated by sending them to hotels/transportation/meals, but it takes hours to issue these accomodations and by the time they get to the hotel, they may only have time for a one hour nap. You would think, with MIA being an AA maintenance hub, a change of plane could happen with a reduction of delay time versus taking the plane out of service completely until repaired. Also, the flight crews service hours would be used up, so now you are waiting for a new crew that needs to be brought in to work the flight (and the return). You wonder how that flight even makes money when it seems to me to be the same destinations all the time.

    1. Singblue – I try to reserve Cranky Jackass awards for broad policies that impact a large number of people. This is just a big ole’ nasty service failure.

      1. Brett,

        While I can certainly understand why this doesn’t qualify for a Cranky Jackass award the issue does raise an interesting question. You began the post by noting that you’ve had repeated and ongoing CS issues with UAL. So at what point would the repeated failure of an airline to deliver acceptable customer service constitute a systemic failure that would be worth a Cranky Jackass award or something similar? I strongly suspect that UAL isn’t any happier with its CS failures than you or it’s customers so its not like they are doing this on purpose. But at some point the ongoing nature of the problems moves from a failure they are trying to correct to one that they obviously aren’t willing to apply the required resources to fix and would I think be worthy of something along the lines of a Cranky Jackass.

        I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject.

        1. 121pilot – Well it’s a good question. I think the problem is that it’s a bunch of different issues that just roll up into general “customer service suckage.” I’ll continue to report on these things but it probably won’t get a jackass award because it’s all different things causing problems.

  17. Cranky,
    How do you get access to the Executive Accounts Desk? Is this for any travel arrangers or does your client have to have a special status with United?

  18. Rule of thumb is to have first flight of multi-leg journey, such as the one you describe, as first departure of the day, or preferably, leaving the night prior. To do otherwise is to risk CHAOS when a hiccup, which may be beyond airline’s control takes place.

    Sure, costs are extra, but you get what you are willing to pay….. In the long run, can you honestly say your clients saved $200 per ticket??? Airlines operate at the pleasure of Mother Nature and mechanics – not against them.

    Seems to me a case of trying to save a buck, yet got caught. Sometimes it works and at other times, oh well……bite the bullet.

    Sorry, I fail to see how United is solely at fault.

    1. howdy – So let me get this straight. You’re suggesting that because they booked a flight that United sells and it wasn’t in the early morning, it’s their fault and not United’s? Maybe you have the ability to shift your schedule like that, but not everyone does. People have to work, there are school commitments with kids, etc. While the specific itinerary that went through Brussels saved money, that has nothing to do with the time of day. If you’re going to Europe, you’re going in the afternoon with very few exceptions. And some people can’t just spend 10 hours waiting at a hub because they have other commitments.

  19. Prediction: Problems with UA ain’t going to end anytime soon. They didn’t just start yersterday, either.

    Every few months, I fire off a letter to them. Copy to DOT. “Dear Customer Care.”

    I explain that some things are are just getting out of hand, so do something and fix it. [Tomorrow’s letter–13 pages.]

    “Dear JayB, You have us confused with someone who cares. OK, we’ll run another code-share; get some more regionals; yes, we did have a seat in inventory bucket “ZZ,” but darn it, we lost it somewhere over the Grand Canyon. Hope you enjoy a few “courtesy miles” at our expense!”

  20. Ouch. CF Really earned his fees for this trip. And congratulations to Mrs. CF and the newest team member, Molly.

  21. I hate to say it… But I’ve had many experiences similar to CF’s customer with United lately. I’ve flown them for the last ten years… Through two bankruptcies. Lately, they just plain suck. From taking away FF benefits to chopping flights to poor customer service. Like many here have said, I usually check the web for alternatives (had to more lately) and know more about United’s operations than their employees.

    They have FORCED me to look at other airlines, which are limited in my burg. They have apparently forgotten they are in a customer-service business (they really don’t manufacture anything). Since the merger, it has been “You will fly us because we are the biggest”.

    I started flying AA again, after swearing them off a number of years ago (for other bad experiences). They seem to have remembered (at least lately) the reason to have those larger winged things…

    Why is so hard for airlines to remember that we are the customer? It seems as though many have to go into bankrupcy before they remember the reason they fly (especially since not as much mail/freight moves by plane anymore!).

    As I tell people, flying (and traveling) isn’t as much fun as it used to be!

    But I guess the bigger issue is why can’t United come to grips with the fact that they are getting worse???? And we have choices…? They “used to be” a good airline that wanted our business… Now, like others have said, it is EASIER to go somewhere else! (My travel agent pulls her hair out every time I mention United!).

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