Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

United Airlines Sucks: The Day of the Flight

Yes, this series is still going. Ugh. If you'd like to read the rest of the story, check out the tag unitedsucks.

If you've been reading along, you know that last night, the night before my flight, I was assured that United would ticket my flight overnight, and I would blissfully awake to find my ticket in my email, ready for me to use at the airport. And, again, if you've been reading realize how big a joke that was.

There was no ticket in my email when I woke up.

When my alarm went off, I grabbed my phone, hopefully looking for the fabled ticket that I had been promised. I was sorely disappointed, though honestly not surprised, when I discovered zero communication from United. Luckily, I anticipated that the night before and got up an hour earlier than I needed to so I could arrive at the airport with time to spare to get this sorted out. I got ready for my flight and rolled for the airport.

When I got there, I was relieved to see that the United ticket counter wasn't super busy. I told the ticket agent what had happened, he typed a few things on the keyboard and - pop - out comes my ticket! I couldn't believe it! How could it have been so easy to just tap tap tap on the keyboard and print my ticket? I assumed that the United folks had finally gotten their act together and prepped everything for me so that all the agent had to do was print the actual ticket.

Of course, all was not as it seemed. Since I doubted that United could've done it right after their epic failure over the past month, I asked the guy at the counter to check and see how the ticket was paid for. Of course, this guy works for one of United's little subsidiary airlines called ExpressJet, so he's basically a middle man. He has no actual way (or authority) to make anything happen with my ticket. He looks up the account, makes a comment about the length of the notes there (hahaha) and then says it looks like a gift certificate was used along with a credit card.

That's exactly what I suspected. And, of course, that was wrong. United had told me earlier (via a supervisor on the phone, whose employee ID I have) that compensation in the amount of my entire ticket was reasonable and would be appropriate. This was back when the agent told me she would email United Customer Care on my behalf and CC me the email (which, of course, she never did.) I had hoped beyond hope that United had come through on their promise and issued my ticket for free, but, no, they just decided to go ahead and charge my credit card. United sucks.

Since I had about 45 minutes before takeoff, I called United again. I knew that if I went ahead and got on the flight, there would be no going back. United would say that I had used the ticket, and they were certainly not going to refund me for a ticket I had already used. By some stroke of luck, I was connected with a reservations agent in the North Houston Center - a southern lady, judging by her accent. I asked her to read the notes on the account and then try to help me out. She got caught up and then, as is protocol at this point, put me on hold for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking toward my imminent flight departure.

About 15 minutes before departure, when the gate agent began making the announcement for final boarding, the agent in Houston finally got back on the phone and told me that there really wasn't anything she could do, but she suggested I call Customer Care to get it resolved. CALL CUSTOMER CARE?! What is this alternate universe to which I've called? You'll recall from a previous post in this series, I was told by multiple reservations agents that it was quite simply impossible to call Customer Care. I was literally told that not only do they not accept calls, they literally cannot accept calls. And now, I'm being told I should call them!

If you're reading this blog because you're experiencing problems with United as well, United's Customer Care hotline is 1-800-932-2732. Given to me directly by a North Houston Center phone agent. As if it was public information! The agent with whom I spoke actually made the off-hand comment that, according to the notes on the account, every call I've had with United has been routed to their out-sourced phone center in Manila. That explains a lot.

I thanked her for her help and got on my flight. When I arrived in Houston, a major United hub, I decided to seek out some help from a real-live human being at a customer service counter. The staff at the customer service counter were super friendly and quite sorry to hear about my miserable experience with United. They confirmed for me that there were a ton of notes on my account about the massive failure. And, of course, they directed me to Customer Care. They said there was really nothing they could do for me, because only the Customer Care department (which, apparently, is different from customer service. bizarre) can issue refunds and/or compensation. And, of course, Customer Care has no offices in one of the largest United hubs in the world. Sigh.

I called the Customer Care number that the phone agent had given me earlier that morning. I only waited about 5 minutes on hold this time, which was pretty good, considering the past few months. The kind, American agent who answered my call seemed sympathetic and read through all the notes. She asked me what specific compensation I would like to have, and I told her that I had been promised a full compensation for this flight. She told me that she'd have to check with her supervisor. I was put on hold. Again. Seriously, at this point, the hold music for United's phone system makes me want to kill myself at this point.

After about 15 minutes, the agent came back on the line and said that her supervisor was willing to give me the most compensation she could give - $75. Really? $75? I'm asking for way more than that. I know, some of you may say that I've already pushed enough, and I'm not being grateful. I actually agree with you.

I suggested that perhaps, instead of a gift certificate, they could just refund the money they charged me for this flight. That would be the same effect. The agent put me on hold, again, to talk to the systems department to see if that was even possible. She comes back after a while and tells me that since I've already used part of the ticket to get to Houston, they could only refund me the half I hadn't used (which is exactly what I was worried about that same morning). The kicker, though, is this next part. She tells me that they could refund the unused portion of my ticket but that would cancel the rest of my itinerary - leaving me stuck in the airport in Houston! Unbelievable!

The problem is that I'm just really frustrated at this point, and I'm determined to get some good customer service. I thanked her for her assistance and asked to speak with her supervisor. She said that wouldn't be a problem, but her supervisor was on another call. She said it would only be a "three to five minute" wait on hold. Twenty minutes on hold later, I hung up. I had to catch the second leg of my flight, so I just gave up.

And that's where I find myself now. I arrived at my destination (by some kind of miracle, I'm sure), but without resolution. I intend to call Customer Care one more time - just once - after about a week or so. I intend to ask them to give me the $75 that was offered to me yesterday, and then I plan to let this go. I have fought it for over a month without a really acceptable resolution. But that's ok. You can only try to get good customer service for so long before having to simply admit that you just won't get it.

Until next time...peace.


  1. Your snide comments about the nationality of call center employees are unbecoming.

    Also: this is not just a problem affecting you. From yesterday's Washington Post:

  2. I originally replied, but then updated it. This is the update:

    Diplodocus: Thanks for your comment. Just becuase I mention the nationality of the phone agents working in the call center doesn't make the comment snide. It was factual in nature. In fact, you'll note that, in all of the posts I've made thus far on this topic, the only time I mentioned their nationality was after it was told to me specifically by a United agent who worked in Houston. The part I'm assuming you have a problem with (where I say "That explains a lot") is also not snide. I agree the sentence could appear that way out of context, but in context, it explains my frustration with the call center, who clearly does not/did not have the authority to promise me a certain amount of compensation (which is exactly what Customer Care told me later.) It does not in any way express anger or frustration toward the foreign nationals working there.

    I'm sorry, but I don't believe that to be snide in any way; I certainly apologize if it offended you, though.

    As for the WaPo article, thanks for that as well. I've been reading quite a bit about United over the past month. I understand their merger problems, but that doesn't excuse their poor customer service in my case.

  3. Wanted to tell you of an amazingly good story ending when my mother and I -- ages ago -- missed our flight from Paris to New Delhi---a misunderstanding about the flight departure time---and our carrier (Pan Am?) took care of us immediately and we board an Air France flight to India that same day.... (this happened in the nineteen sixties). I mean, has customer service deteriorated that much?? Perhaps there are too many computer connections and no real human being with any authority to make a difference. Andrew, it has been neat reading your blog so far and I hope you have a satisfying career in the Foreign Service -- as my father did.

  4. I just found your blog...(searching for diplomat blogs since I'm going to take the exam in October), but I also happen to travel a LOT and know some of the tricks of the trade. What used to work (and might still) is posting your experience on -- or at least linking to your blog if they'll allow it. The Continental Customer service guys would tell the frustrated people to PM them, and then would work to resolve it. I don't know (because I haven't been on the boards since the merger) if the United folks are continuing this practice, but, it's worth posting your story to get feedback from the gurus on Flyertalk...

    And, in the fwiw department, would love to read more posts!

  5. no, this 'series' of posts don't make you sound like a spoiled little twit. no, not in the least.

  6. No, your anonymous post doesn't make you sound like a cowardly little twit. no, not in the least.

    I'd be happy to debate the merits of your insults if you were willing to identify yourself. Otherwise, move along, please.

    1. if my insult has any merit, which i'm not sure it does, it would be something akin to: i hope folks working for the foreign service have much more important items to deal with and a much greater perspective on world events than to pine over the harsh injustices of customer service. for a blog that bills itself as a perspective of a globe-trotting bureaucrat my hope of hopes is that your sucky series bears no resemblance to what occupies the minds of your cadre. although a creeping suspicion is that it indeed embodies it oh-so-well. your government pays you well to engage the world, it's too bad much of what you put out there is simply self-engaging.

    2. Hi Anonymous - I'm delighted you chose to return, once again, to comment on my blog. I really enjoyed the part about my sucky series (thanks for reading!) - I do my best to suck it up to the fullest extent possible. My government does indeed pay me well for the hard work I do, in oftentimes undesireable and flat-out dangerous corners of the world. Of course, that payment comes, in part, from taxpayers like yourself, so I suppose I should be thanking you, instead.

      So, thanks again for coming to my personal blog to offer your negative, disrespectful, and unsolicited opinions about my life. Next time you're overseas (assuming you travel), and you accidentally lose your passport; or get arrested; or have a child; or get scammed; or get assaulted, robbed, carjacked, kidnapped, or - God forbid - die; don't worry. Me and my cadre will be there, with a smile on our faces and great customer service, to help you out. Yes, even people like you, who choose to anonymously disrespect others online.

      After all, that's what we do - we serve.

  7. Andrew, I totally should be doing laundry at the moment, but I find myself surfing the internet in search of viewpoints on the FS and weighing my choices about if I should try to apply or not and came across your blog.

    Thank you so much for the information you have provided here, its very informative, engaging, and entertaining stuff.

    Now that the thanks have been said I wanted to two thumbs up and a smile for your replies to Anonymous above. "I do so enjoy watching a good intelligently handled set down (a fake British accent would say this the best), tea?"

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. What happened to you?

  10. Hello Andrew- I just stumbled onto your blog. Definitely helpful in deciding what the next step is for my career. Hope all is well with you. Curious as to what location you are currently employed at. Would love to continue to follow your career adventures. Thanks- Marisa