UA: “We can’t.”
I have never written a review of anything in my life; I do this because the flying public deserves to know. I am going to skip most of the details of the trip and focus on the bad parts, because they were so bad, I will never willingly fly United Airlines again.
First, about me: I am a 31 year-old white American male. I have lived overseas for 10 years and have traveled extensively, with experience on nearly every major carrier. My wife, whom is Japanese, has also lived abroad and traveled extensively; between the two of us, perhaps 30-40 countries visited. We are a Star Alliance Gold family.
I consider myself a very easy person to deal with. I served in the Marine Corps, have a college degree, speak a foreign language, work in marketing and product management in the insurance industry…I have met and know how to get along with just about every “type” of person out there. I’m a loving person, too—I don’t give people trouble, and I have a pleasant demeanor.
My wife had not yet met my family, though we’d been married 1.5 years. We decided to visit them in the US, and also take our honeymoon trip, which we had been putting off. I also hadn’t seen my family in 2 years. This was an important trip, but we decided to go with a US-flag carrier, against our better judgment. My experiences with United throughout the years had been lukewarm, not terrible, never better than just OK, so I rolled the dice. We purchased Economy tickets from NRT-IAH-FLL-SCE-IAD-NRT but I later upgraded to BusinessFirst, with cash. The cash upgrade cost $1,400 each. We aren’t cheap customers.
On the NRT-IAH leg, the first thing that I found odd was that the FA literally threw the tablecloth to/at me, at the beginning of dinner service. He was grossly overweight, so it’s possible he didn’t have the flexibility to bend down, reach across my wife, and hand it to me. That's not really an excuse—think about it: Unless throwing a tablecloth is to be considered acceptable service, why would a company employ a person physically incapable of performing a very basic dining-related service task, in a premium service capacity? I think he just didn’t care, because throughout the flight, his demeanor was that of, “Here, take this;” cold, he seemed like he didn’t really like us. I wonder if this was intentional, as a way to discourage customers from asking him for things. Small things like my wife’s request for water without ice (she was freezing) were met with the glass of water with the biggest piece of ice in it, etc. I’ve eaten at my share of Michelin stars, and compared to that flight’s BusinessFirst, I’ve had better service at a Denny’s. The seat was great, the food was about what you’d expect at a family restaurant, and I’m OK with both of these things, but I really had to wonder, don’t people who pay to fly premium deserve at least “not passive-aggressive” service? I guess not.
The NRT-IAH departure was about an hour late, due to weather. We were not able to make our connection at IAH. We had three days scheduled in South Florida with my grandparents; my grandmother won’t live much longer; this now becomes two days. I bet United Airlines could have helped expedite passengers (through immigration/customs/re-checking) with tight connections; I’ve had similar assistance before, but I won’t hold it against them. Our IAH-FLL departed while we were waiting for our bags. I informed the UA rep at the baggage claim and he told me they’d rebooked us on the next morning’s 0640 IAH-FLL. He was pleasant enough. I asked him if I could get a meal/hotel voucher, but he informed me that since it was a weather delay, UA couldn’t take care of us. He gave us blue slips of paper with a toll-free number that promised discount rates for nearby hotels. I attempted to call this number with my Japanese iPhone; it didn’t work, even though it was roaming on the local network. The airport courtesy phone couldn't reach the number, either. Think about it—that was the international arrival area--what percentage of arriving passengers have non-US mobile phones? None of them would have been able to call that toll-free number. Frankly, it’s comical, so long as you aren’t depending on UA to take care of you. We were able to laugh it off.
We had travel insurance, and in order to receive a reimbursement for the hotel I booked for us at IAH, I needed proof of delay. This is now about 2 hours after landing, and I’m starting to get tired (still on JST). I went to the UA Premier Access service desk, but before reaching it was intercepted by a man with a very cold, blank stare on his face, flat, baritone: “Can I help you.” His voice reminded me of Ben Stein, with an added element of annoyance. I explained the situation, exceedingly politely, and asked him for some sort of proof. “We can’t do that.” I again explained the situation and why we needed it, and he asked me, “Are you in the military.” I told him I used to be, but what did it matter? He told me that the UA website shows flight statuses, and I should use that. He started to walk off, but I pulled out my phone and asked him to show me where, and asked, “How long are they kept in history? We won’t be settling this claim for a few weeks.” He sighed loudly, pulled out his phone, found the section of the UA website that showed my flight arrived late, and told me “use this.” I thought about it for a minute, and realized it wouldn’t work. I told him that I work in insurance, in product management, and it’s very unlikely that an insurer would accept a screenshot of UA’s website. I basically started to beg him to give me an official piece of paper. Again he sighed deeply, looked at me like I was the worst person ever, told me to wait, and walked off. I waited at least five minutes. He returned with a piece of paper with airline code on it for the flight’s departure and arrival information. I could have made it myself; it had no official UA marking. I explained this to him and in his “You annoy me, go away” voice, he explained, “I can’t. This is all I can do.”
Funny, isn’t it? At first, he couldn’t give me a piece of paper. When I pressed, he did give me a piece of paper. I decided not to deal with him anymore, because he really made me feel bad, but I am quite sure someone could have at least signed and stamped it, or printed it on UA letterhead. I really felt like he hated me, so I was glad to depart from him. Upon returning to my wife, she informed me that she would call Japan UA customer service later.
In the hotel, my wife called Japan UA customer service, and was told that they could give her official evidence, and she worked out the details. Here is a good way to get basic customer service from UA: Be able to speak Japanese, and call the Japanese UA service center.
We feared that we might oversleep the 0640 flight, because of the jetlag. I called UA to ask for another booking, and though there were 4 IAH-FLL flights that day, our only options were 0640 or 2000 departure. Their website revealed open seats on all flights, but the rep explained to me that those were first class seats, and we weren’t eligible for them. I’ll stop short of saying this delay was UA’s fault, and thus they should have given us the first class seats, but consider this: The weather delay on departure was caused by a typhoon. Japan has a typhoon season every year, at the same time. There is sufficient history to be able to forecast the likelihood of typhoon/inclement weather on any given day, as well as the expected impact on travel. IAH is also known to be quite poor at handling international flights. UA made the decision to sell NRT-IAH tickets with a 1.5-hour buffer, nonetheless. Maybe it’s my fault for buying it, but at any rate, rather than stay up all night or lose yet another day with my family, we accepted a better-timed flight to MIA. My grandparents only had to drive an additional hour (as compared to FLL) to pick us up.
Our business with UA resumed two weeks later for the SCE-IAD-NRT return to Japan; we took another carrier for our FLL-MBJ and MBJ-ATL-DTW-SCE trips. I mistakenly placed a bottle of honey in my carry-on, which was picked up by TSA at security. It was a souvenir from Jamaica, something my wife was very excited about; I decided to go check it in. I figured that if I couldn’t get to my bags, I could box and check it. I saw my bags were already gone, so I waited at the side of the check-in line, and figured I would wait until they announced last call for SCE-IAD. The desk rep soon did so, and I politely explained, “I’d like to get this in to my checked bags.” The man was the portrait of hypertension and stress. He nearly yelled at me. His hands were shaking. He acted as if the world were about to end. What then played out was, honestly, the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen as a customer, I saw a rep lie and get caught in front of a lot of people. (By the way, there were a lot of people waiting because the total three desk reps were not informing customers about the self-check kiosks. Those kiosks were not in a separate location; they were at the desk, not easy to spot. I can’t really understand why they didn’t tell people about the kiosks. My only honest guess is that it somehow would have made their jobs more difficult if people were checking themselves in.)
At the counter:
Me (Smiling, cheerful): “Oh, ok. Well, let me just get a box and I’ll check it.”
Rep: “No! You can’t! The flight’s closed out!! We aren’t taking bags!!!”
Me (Firm but polite): “No it isn’t. You were just asking for SCE-IAD customers and if you’re still checking people in, that means you’re still accepting bags.”
Rep: Unintelligible guttural sounds, avoiding eye contact
Me: “I checked two bags. My wife checked one, and she is entitled two, so we still have one left.”
Another rep, who knew I was right, nicely asked me to go get a box from the store across the hallway, and I did, and when I came back, the stressed-out rep acquiesced, and while printing the tape/tags, repeated over and over “The flight’s boarding/you’ve got to get on it/it’s leaving.” He did show me some kindness there at the end, his gestures slowed down a bit, and he lowered his voice. I politely thanked him and left. He continued checking other IAD-SCE passengers, and accepting their bags, and I went back through.
The flight was just starting to board.
I felt bad for the rep, he must have been so embarrassed, being caught lying like that, in front of about 20 people. I didn’t try to “beat” him, but thank goodness someone did. Maybe he won’t lie to customers again. Maybe a few couples’ mistakenly placed honeymoon souvenirs will be saved from the TSA trashcan.
I am writing this onboard IAD-NRT. We’ve decided that we won’t can’t fly UA again. We’ll pay more to avoid it. This trip was an almost perfect snapshot of UA across locations and operations---we were treated poorly in a BusinessFirst 767 over the Pacific, at IAH, on the phone, and at SCE. I’m sure UA doesn’t care, but consider we’re moving back to the US next year, we’ll be traveling to Japan regularly for the rest of our lives to see family (in addition to other places-we’re explorers) and usually in business or first...UA is probably going to lose a pretty big revenue stream from us.
I mean UA no ill will in writing this, but this was one of the most important trips of my life, and they made parts of it very stressful and disheartening. As such, I felt an obligation to share this experience with the flying public. Think carefully in your choice of airlines.