After my recent travel experience with United flying from Indianapolis to Nairobi, I am still in disbelief at the number and level of issues we had traveling, both going and coming. As an outlet for my frustration, I began composing this letter on the delayed flight from Zurich to Newark, and finished it after I got home. I share it here as part venting, part warning. 😉
This note is to let you know it’s over. Ours was a relationship of convenience built on cheap and empty promises, and I will not suffer your abuse again.
I should have known from the very beginning that our relationship was ill-fated. While planning a trip to Kenya in support of a non-profit, Village Project Africa, I spent hours searching for the best price on flights so that more money could go to those efforts and less to the cost of a flight. After several months, yours were the best fares I could find by a few hundred dollars. And, in Kenya, a few hundred dollars can do so much. So I decided to book. I decided I would connect with you directly to book my flights because it felt like the best thing to do. But you rebuffed me. When I called for assistance with an error in my profile, the agent asked me to log out and log back in. When I logged back in, the flights I had selected were no longer showing in the search. I called your 800 number again for help. The agent was happy to help book us on the flights I had originally selected, but the cost had suddenly gone up several hundred dollars and a booking fee was being charged. As the agent talked, I found the same flights I had just been booking on your website on Travelocity for the original price. I told the agent I did not want to pay the extra fee, and would just book on Travelocity instead. What I should have done is said this was more trouble than it was worth and pay the extra money to fly Delta. If I had known what was to come, that is exactly what I would have done.
Weeks before our scheduled trip in mid-May, I received notice that one of our return flights had been cancelled. Travelocity worked for days to rebook us, and I spent more hours on the phone with Travelocity and United than I cared to do. Like a love-sick girl, I pined for confirmation that you would take care of me. It came to the point that Travelocity even offered to refund my trip entirely, but like that foolish, love-sick girl, I pressed on, hoping that you would come through. After several attempts, you finally rebooked me, and I thought this was the end of the troubles. I had to rebook regional flights to accommodate the change in our departure, at a personal expense of $60. But, I thought that was the worst that could happen. Now I could sit back and be confident knowing that the worst was over. Ha! So naive of me.
The day of our departure, we were packed and ready to go to the airport when we received notification that the first flight on our journey was delayed by an hour. Maybe we could still make our connecting flight? We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to make our flight, thankfully, because after contacting us about the delay (which I confirmed with yet another call to United), we arrived at the gate to discover boarding was already happening. They decided they would leave sooner than was communicated. Great for us, but bad for anyone who planned to arrive at the gate only an hour before their flight.
We arrive in Newark, ready for the next leg of our journey. Please, United, be kind to us; this trip has felt like a disaster already. But, instead, you abused us further. We could not make the flight to Zurich as originally planned, so we were put on a flight to Frankfurt. We had high hopes that we’d make it to Frankfurt and all would be well as we boarded the flight. Then we sat, waiting, on the tarmac for more than three hours while you toyed with our emotions, promising a departure time twenty minutes from the announcement time just about every twenty minutes. I sat on the plane trying in vain to work with an agent on the phone to find a way to get us to Nairobi as scheduled. The best they could do was fly us from Frankfurt to Cairo to Nairobi with an arrival time of 3 a.m., 9 hours after we were supposed to arrive. Never mind that we had hotel reservations and people waiting for us in Nairobi. Out of desperation, I looked to an intermediary to try to solve our inability to connect. My mother and husband spent the next four hours on the phone with United trying to find a way for us to get into Nairobi at a reasonable hour and without missing our ride from Nairobi. Alas, that was not possible according to your representative. The final outcome was that we extended our stay in Frankfurt, booked a hotel room there at our own expense, cancelled our hotel in Nairobi without refund, and had to rebook our regional flight at another $60 expense to ourselves. You offered no comfort or help at all.
The only flight that went smoothly in our entire journey to Nairobi was the one with your partner, Lufthansa, from Frankfurt. They could not have been more kind, and we appreciated them so much. They made our frustration with you, however, increase.
Because we had learned to distrust you, we were constantly checking for any change to our return flights. We worried that you would cause us more frustration and hurt. We had friends back in the states call to confirm our flights, and even confirm my special dietary request (which had not been provided on the outgoing flights, despite THREE calls to confirm the request). We prayed that the worst was behind us and we would arrive home as scheduled.
Our flight arrived on time from Nairobi to Zurich, and our long layover meant that we had plenty of time to make our next flight. Only two more flights and we would be home! And yet again, we were like an abused animal, kicked by a careless master. We boarded the plane in time for a 10 a.m. departure, only to sit on the tarmac again for almost two hours in Zurich because of a small mechanical issue. With only two hours to make our flight from Newark to home, I knew we were yet again going to miss our connection. I texted my husband back home and asked him to call United again (for the tenth… or twentieth… time). Could he please try to find a way for us to get home? I told him I didn’t care what you had to do, you would get me home on the day I was supposed to get home.
Flash forward to our arrival in Newark. The pilot made up about an hour of lost time, so we had one hour to get through customs and make our original flight. We sprinted to customs and ran to baggage claim. As the time ticked by, I encouraged my traveling companion to run on to our gate and see if she could catch the flight, and I would follow behind after I rechecked our two bags.
The baggage carousel stopped and I only had one of our bags. I asked a United employee if I could just abandon my other bag and leave. At this point, I didn’t care if it had made it or not, I just wanted to get home. She spent time looking up my bag, and told me it had not arrived. Another agent looked over her shoulder and said, yes, the bag was in the terminal. Now we were scouring the baggage claim area for my bag, which we found had been set separate from the rest of the bags. I grabbed the bag and ran to recheck the bags, only to have the man there tell me I had already missed my flight, and would have to go stand in a long line to rebook.
In the meantime, my travel companion had made it to the original flight and was on the plane waiting to take off. As she sat at the gate, I was standing in a line. At this point, my frustration and exhaustion took over, and I began to cry. And this is where the only up-point of my entire United experience happened: a flight attendant by the name of Ivana Maine saw the tears streaming down my face and came over to talk to me. She had been a flight attendant on the flight I had just completed, and she was compassionate from the start. She stood in line with me as I walked to the desk, and promised she would not leave me until I was at a gate for a flight home. At the desk, she told the agent that I was emotional, and that she hoped she could help me.
The agent at the desk was the opposite of Ivana Maine. She was instantly curt with me, as I calmly explained that I had not been able to check my bags for my flight, but that my husband had called and rebooked me on a later flight. She pulled my name up in the system and immediately told me I was not booked on either flight–the one I just missed or the later flight my husband had booked over the phone with United. I could catch another flight more than three hours from that point, but that was the best she could do. I pulled out my cellphone to call my husband to see if he knew why I was not on the rebooked flight, or if he had a confirmation number, or anything that might help. At this point, the agent snapped at me that if I wanted her to help me, I needed to get off my phone. I was still making dialogue with this desk agent a priority as I was trying to figure out with my husband, and her complete unkindness and lack of compassion nearly set me over the edge. I hung up with my husband and told the agent, as calm as I could be, that all I needed was a little patience and compassion from her. Suddenly, a seat on the flight my husband had booked mysteriously opened, and she confirmed me on that flight. (I now recognize that my travel companion’s arrival to the original flight may have caused the confusion with my booking, but it’s still no excuse for the agent’s treatment of me.) The roller coaster of emotion my interchange with her caused was unnecessary and almost cruel.
Sweet Ivana Maine had been standing at the side, and she rejoined me, walked with me all the way to security, and then met me on the other side at the gates. She told me she had stopped at the airport chapel to say a prayer for me, that I might smile again and arrive home. Had it not been for Ivana Maine, I think I would have completely fallen apart.
Before I left, Ivana said she wouldn’t blame me if I never flew United again, but she hoped I’d give United another chance in a few years. The only reason I might consider it is truly because of Ivana Maine at this point. And it would be years before I would consider it even then. I’m not sure what you can do to counteract or erase my experience, but I wanted you to be aware of what a nightmare experience I had to at least give you a chance to respond in some way. I travel internationally at least once a year, so I know that travel is never perfect, but it’s never been so consistently imperfect as my experience with you on this trip. After the bad publicity, I thought perhaps the service would be overly accommodating to counterbalance, but I was instead left to wonder if United was in a tailspin.
A month later, I’m still in disbelief over my experience, and it overshadowed the experiences I actually had in Kenya. When I tell people what happened, they can hardly believe the terrible luck we had, and many have voiced their doubt in booking with United because of my experience.
If and when I receive a response from United, I’ll be happy to update this post. I told them I’m not vindictive, just frustrated!