Dear United Airlines,
It has taken a few weeks, but I have finally composed a letter I can in good conscience send to you. I almost mailed my first draft, but it was twelve pages long and splattered with tear drops and profanity. In this draft I have done my best to recount our saga in a more concise, civilized manner.
Honestly, who would actually read twelve pages about our family’s little travel delay? That would take almost as much patience as standing in your customer service line for six hours with two young children, and trust me you don’t want to do that.
It all started when you cancelled our flight from Chicago to Anchorage. Apparently you couldn’t find your crew? A few hours later it started to snow in Chicago, prompting many weather-related cancellations. Before we knew it we were buried in an avalanche of cancelled flights. We tried every possible method of rebooking: waiting in line at the airport, visiting your web site, and calling your 800 number. It was misery at every turn.
Eventually we gave up on everything but your toll-free customer service line (which isn’t easy to find on your web site, by the way). I was on hold so long that my cell was nearly dead when a weary agent from your Philippines call center finally took our call.
She was the one who delivered the news: it would be five days until we could get out of Chicago. No, there was simply nothing sooner. No, there were no extra flights being added. No, no, no to every question we asked.
No, this could not be happening. But what could we do?
We took a few deep breaths and headed downstairs to baggage claim, because we travel frequently enough to know that bags don’t fly without their passengers these days. I must admit, this was the shortest line of the day: only one hour! Imagine our relief when we finally got the counter, only to learn that you sent our luggage home ahead of us. Possibly on another airline!
At this point, we took some deeper breaths and tried not to scream. If you knew luggage for all cancelled flights was being sent on, why didn’t someone PUT UP A DAMN SIGN? And the bigger question: If Alaska Airlines could get our luggage home, why couldn’t you get us home?
But why dwell on such minor details? Honestly, we didn’t want to haul our suitcases around for the next five days anyway. Lightened of that load, we headed outside to wait for our hotel shuttle.
A whole new level of chaos awaited us on those snowy curbs. Everyone had just been spit out of some eternal customer service line, rejected from flights and refused their luggage. People were hungry, children were crying, and all the mommies needed wine. There were about 75 people waiting for 22 seats on a shuttle that arrived once every 45 minutes. And that was just for our hotel. When a seemingly normal grandfather threatened the shuttle driver’s life, we decided it would be best to hike a few blocks to the taxi line instead.
Finally, the hotel. We had the luxury of paying the distressed traveler rate of $70 for what was clearly a $200 room. The only food was a fine dining restaurant on site, where our hungry young children enjoyed yet another opportunity to sit down and be quiet. What’s more, 2 oz. bottles of contact solution only cost $12 in the gift shop.
We had just tucked the kids into the stiff hotel sheets when my now recharged phone gave a familiar chime. It was an email from you, announcing that our rebooked flight had been cancelled. You know, the one we waited in line and on hold for hours to book? So much for sleep.
Suddenly I pined for the time I spent on hold with you, because now your phone-bot did nothing but hang up on me. The first 10 times I called we followed all of his directions: enter 6 digit reservation code, enter flight number, enter first three letters of last name, confirm first name of one person in our party, explain purpose for call, narrow purpose for call. It was a good 5 minute process before Mr. United would say, “I’m sorry. We can’t help you right now, call back later.”
If by “call back later” you meant in three seconds, we certainly obliged. By 2 AM I was ignoring your every request and jamming the “0″ on my phone, so the robot started getting snippy with me. Eventually it dawned on us that your call center was closed for the night.
The United-bot kept disconnecting us the next morning as well, but we did receive a call from some fellow stranded passengers. They had waited in line at the airport for seven hours the previous night, and for their patience they were rewarded with an 800 number that was answered by a human instead of a robot.
I’ll admit – this was one bright spot in our hellish experience with your company. A lovely Ms. Powers answered our call on the third ring. No hold music, no robo-prompts. But sadly, still no way we could get home in time for work on Monday. However, she delivered the news with empathy rather than disdain, and that went a long way.
It turns out our quickest way out of Chicago was driving. We offered to rent a car and drive anywhere within a 12 hour radius, and mentioned we had family back in Omaha where we could avoid hotel fees. She laid out our options: stay in Chicago for 8 days, or drive back to Omaha and fly home in 5 days.
So off to the car rental agency we went.
The man behind the desk at Hertz Rent-a-Car was quite possibly part robot. He clanked away at his keyboard for all of 10 seconds – without making eye contact – before declaring that a 24-hour economy sized rental to Omaha would be over $300. When I showed him deals I could book online he nearly rolled his eyes at me.
We were desperate enough to pay his rate if he’d shown an ounce of compassion, but the fact that another human could be so utterly and overtly indifferent made us turn around and march out of that business.
The snow was blowing sideways as we traipsed through the back parking lot, over traffic spikes and around a malfunctioning traffic arm, which was the only way to liberate ourselves from Hertz. The next closest agency was Budget Car Rental, but we may as well have landed on another planet. A nice one.
We walked in the door to a chorus of welcomes. We approached the desk and said we’d found some deals online, and the young clerk tried to match them. She couldn’t find a fare quite as low, so encouraged us to book with our cell phone. When my out of state cell didn’t have enough bars to complete the transaction, one of the employees actually whipped out his personal cell phone to help us. He pulled up the same deal we had been trying to book, and passed the phone across the counter. “Just enter your name,” he said.
Thank you, Budget Rental Car guy, for giving us enough hope to get out of Chicago.
A few seconds later we had a confirmation number, and for a mere $126 we got this compact cruiser:
Now I don’t want to appear ungrateful to Budget, but in hindsight renting this car was a big mistake.
It’s a Ford Fiesta, but it may as well have been a coffin. It was white knuckle driving across both Illinois and Iowa in this tin can without snow tires. We fishtailed across black ice, prayed through blinding white outs, and bottomed out every time we switched lanes. The wind could have easily whipped us under the tire of a passing semi, where its driver would think he had run over nothing more than a wayward rabbit. Looking at the road ahead was paralyzing, so I spent most of this journey staring out the passenger window with tears of panic streaming down my cheeks. The kids, on the other hand, were oblivious. They happily entertained themselves by scraping pictures in the ice that continuously formed on their backseat windows.
The only good thing about this car is that filling its gas tank cost less than the 2 oz. bottle of contact solution we bought back at the hotel gift shop. So that’s something.
The drive between Chicago and Omaha usually takes seven hours, but it took us over twelve. When we finally pulled into my parents’ driveway I wasn’t sure which to kiss first: the ground, or my husband for putting up with me the entire way.
Now that we were safely out of the Ford Fiesta, our five day compulsory bonus vacation began. We spent much of it dialing into work, especially since my absence was unpaid and my husband was being charged vacation days. We treated ourselves to new underwear and a few toiletries, but for the most part relied on free laundry at my mom and dad’s. We also called our special United number daily, but had no luck booking earlier flights.
Through it all we tried to keep a sense of humor. “Nice outfit,” my husband would say to me each morning. Funny, he is.
I kept my sense of humor pretty well until we got a call from our fellow stranded passenger friends who had stayed in Chicago. It turns out they got out on a flight after only two days. And the kicker? The plane was less than half full! Imagine that!
We made the most of our travel delay, but it’s not easy to miss so much work and school. We were all stressed. Even worse, our itinerary home entailed 26 straight hours of travel time. We woke at 3 AM Central time to fly to Denver and then Seattle, where we had a twelve hour layover. Maybe we should have embraced Seattle for those twelve hours: Space Needle, Pike’s Market, museums, all that fun stuff. But it was raining, we had all been wearing the same clothes for five days, and our only shoes were snow boots. I just wasn’t in the mood.
The final leg of our arduous journey was booked on Alaska Airlines, one of your partners. It was with high hopes that we approached their customer service counter in Seattle to inquire about all the earlier flights to Anchorage. The agent chomped her gum as she made a few obligatory clicks on her keyboard. “I’m sorry, all of our flights to Anchorage are full. Overbooked. My advice is to take the train downtown, grab some lunch, and enjoy a day in the city.” We must have looked pretty dejected, because she quickly added, “But I can print you boarding passes for your 11 PM flight!”
How sweet of her.
I pouted as we rolled our carry ons toward the train station. On the way we passed another Alaska Airlines service center, and I couldn’t help but get in line. Maybe a seat had opened in the past 5 minutes? My husband agreed to humor me with this last ditch effort.
And again, we got someone who didn’t care. She didn’t care that we had originally been booked on United. She didn’t care about ticket change fees. She didn’t care what anyone else had told us. You know what she did care about? Getting us home as soon as possible. And guess what? Because of all the delayed travelers, Alaska Airlines had added a 6 PM flight to Anchorage that evening. She could confirm us on that flight – a full 5 hours earlier than our scheduled departure – if we didn’t mind sitting in the very last row? We assured her it wasn’t a problem.
She didn’t stop there: she also put us on standby for the noon flight, which departed in only 2 hours. She told us to grab some lunch and get to the gate as soon as possible, and promised she would have her fingers crossed for us. Oh the kindness… it was almost too much!
It’s not very lady like, but I wanted to march back to that awful other agent and shove our 11 PM boarding passes right up her ass. I envisioned something like that moment in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts confronts those snobs on Rodeo Drive and says, “You work on commission, right? Big mistake! BIG!”
…Except airline ticketing agents don’t work on commission and my children are still young and impressionable enough that I only think these horrible thoughts, I don’t actually act on them. So instead we grabbed some lunch.
And guess what? All four of us scored seats on the noon flight.
Finally, we were home. Five days late, but ten blessed hours early.
So, dear United Airlines, maybe it isn’t fair to single you out. We encountered good and bad employees with a number of companies throughout this ordeal, and we know that customer service is a tough job. We’ve been on the other side of the counter, dealing with toxic customers. It’s not fun.
But here’s the deal: when polite people are propelled into bad situations – in our case, one that cost over a thousand dollars in lost wages and travel expenses – it’s nice to be acknowledged by a human. We don’t expect you to control the weather, but we do expect you to answer your phone. We don’t expect you to tolerate abusive customers, but we do expect you to accommodate the displaced ones. And when customers take the time to write, we do expect a response. We hope to hear from you soon.