United Airlines Customer Service and the Story of Flight 1121

Author: admin
Category: Business Blog


If there is one airline that can ruin a family’s Christmas Holiday, it is United Airlines. The story I’m about to detail was so noteworthy that the local news covered and aired it.   The details are long, but I think they are important for someone of authority to hear. This is not just a story of a botched ticket refund, this is a significant amount of repeated opportunities to make things right and to adhere to what should be basic policies and procedures.

United Airlines customer service should be ashamed! I tried calling 312-997-8000 but no refund was given.

I purchased my youngest child a plane ticket, two months in advance, to depart on 12/24/15 From Kansas City, Missouri to Seattle, WA. We were attending the Christening of the first grandchild born into the family.  About 9am on the morning of the day he was to leave, he found out his 8:20 PM flight was canceled, confirmation number DTMFPV.  He contacted me immediately very upset, since he tried to find an alternate flight, but was told there were no flights leaving that evening. 

The reason the flight was canceled, as reported by the United representative was, “weather related”.  I intervened by calling reservation/customer service and spent three hours on the phone, trying to find a way to get my son to Seattle for his niece’s christening. I also was told that my son’s flight was canceled due to weather. My confusion was how can we cancel a flight due to weather 12 hours in advance? 

When I began to question this, I was told that perhaps it was due to mechanical troubles. I still questioned why can’t a flight leaving at 8:20pm (it was 9 am) can’t be fixed or replaced in this time frame.  The United representative stammered, and said perhaps they couldn’t get a crew together, or there wasn’t a captain to fly at the time the flight was scheduled.  It became obvious she wasn’t stating the real reason why the flight was canceled.  I later asked her point blank as to whether or not the flight was canceled due to not having enough passengers to make the flight profitable. 

She stated there could be many reasons as to why the flight was canceled, that she didn’t know. I was transferred to a supervisor, Alex, and I explained my situation. My concern was not only the cost of the ticket, but the important Religious family event that was planned in Seattle. In all reality, I was adding in my head the costs of rescheduling the christening so my son could attend. Those costs include: catering, photographer, additional family travel, and hotel stays.  This was, after all, the grandchild’s godfather.

As a resolution, I was told if I wanted a refund that I needed to request it at this time or risk losing my purchase.  I authorized them to refund my purchased ticket.  Nothing more was offered in recognition of the inconvenience I had experienced.

The billing department ignored my repeated complaints. Is this how customers are treated by United?

Later, that day, I called again to find a way to fly my youngest child to Seattle at least to join the family for Christmas on Christmas day.  I was quoted an exorbitant price for a next day flight and was told since I canceled my earlier flight for the refund, I would not be eligible to use the earlier ticket to offset the price of a new ticket. Again, remember it was the United representative who told me to cancel and request the refund in order to assure I would not lose my original purchase.

Bottom-line, our family was unable to be together, celebrate in the way that had been planned for months, and christen my granddaughter.  The spirit of family, servicing the customer, celebrating the Holidays with loved ones was not part of United’s organizational mission of providing unparalleled customer service.

This is only half the problem that I am bringing to your attention.  My partner and I started our way home to Houston, TX from Seattle after the Christmas Holidays on 12/28/15.  Our flight made the local news on KPLCTV. 

This should have been a simple straight flight from Seattle to Houston in four hours.  Leaving at 6:40 AM and arriving in Houston at 12:53 PM. We ended up spending 12 hours on this plane and were forbidden to get off throughout this horrible experience (confirmation number H6XJMD). During these 12 hours we were diverted to two different airports, twice, then had to land in Lake Charles, LA because we ran out of fuel.

We waited two hours on the tarmac until a fuel truck serviced us.  Then after we were airborne again, we attempted to land in Houston twice, once having to abort a landing when only being a few feet from touchdown.  There is too many unforgivable events that occurred after we were again diverted back to the same Lake Charles airport where we had refueled hours earlier.

It was the horrible customer service once we landed at the Lake Charles, LA airport that is beyond inconsiderate. 

I will say however, while in the air, the flight attendants attempted to do the best they could under the circumstances.  However, while on the ground, I believe there were several FAA regulations that were violated, to be discussed at a later time. Due to the turbulence, and sudden drops in altitude due to air pockets, passengers were throwing up.  When you mix that with babies who ran out of diapers after 12 hours, bathrooms that were over flowing with waste, it was an awful smelling mess.

What was unbelievable is that we had to remain on the tarmac waiting over two hours for the ground crew to push over stairs for us to depart.  Once we walked across the runways to enter into the airport through a fire exit doorway, there was no one available to assist or communicate what was to happen next. Again, I believe FAA violations occurred based on the comings and goings of passengers through the exit doors.

Hundreds of people were without phone services because phones had died being onboard for over 12 hours, so no one was able to call for travel assistance, hotels, cabs, etc.  There were no restaurants that were open at the airport. Passengers, including babies, had not eaten for over 12 hours. We were told that no other flights were leaving the airport which meant no one from TSA was available. 

We overheard that because this was a larger jet, one that this airport doesn’t usually service, there was no one to operate the area where luggage is stored under the plane, so therefore our luggage would not be taken off the flight tonight and would remain on the flight until the morning.   There was only one United representative trying to manage the crowds unsuccessfully.  No one made any announcements over the intercom, letting people know what they should do, etc.  Rental cars were not available, hotels were booked, cabs were not running, and no United representative was attempting to make any accommodations, or assist with people’s situations.  When asked if they would be putting people up for the night, or providing cab vouchers for transportation to hotels, etc., they stated, “no because this was due to weather, which is beyond their control”.

I finally got the one Untied representative to make a general announcement over the intercom letting everyone know they had to make a reservation this same evening by calling the 1-800 number where they would transfer the names from flight 1121 originating from Seattle over to a new flight that would leave at 9:00 AM the next morning.  She told us that was all they could do for the night and there was no reason to remain at the airport.  With that announcement, many people starting leaving, cots were set up upstairs, cabs starting coming to the airport, etc.  

Once I arrived at my hotel destination, I made a phone call to make the reservation I was told to make.  The reservation agent was not seeing the 9:00AM flight on her system to make a reservation, but instead told me she had made us a reservation for an 8:00AM flight which would guarantee us a flight to Houston, if there should be a problem with the 9:00AM reservation. 

When I asked this United Airlines customer service agent about any compensation for the expenses incurred for this evening, she was quick to say there is nothing United Airlines can do when it is a weather related incident.  After explaining my ordeal from Christmas Eve and this most recent monstrosity, she had no compassion, regret, or empathy for what my family had gone through and just continued to process the 8:00AM flight reservation for the next morning.

The next morning when we arrived at the airport at 6:30AM, we were met again, by one United Airline ticket agent, who was servicing a long line by herself. Again, where was the planning??  She was unfriendly, irritated, and impatient with the questions people were asking about their reservations.  Later while we were in line, what appeared to be a supervisor arrived and when the one United Airline representative that had been managing the line alone asked for help. The supervisor said she would help in a minute, she wasn’t on the clock yet and would come out when it was time.  

When it became our turn with the ticket agent, she was unaware of the flight status of the Seattle flight that had diverted to this Lake Charles airport.  She saw that it would be leaving at 9:00, but it wasn’t in a rotation with a flight number, so she couldn’t check me in. She just told me to head upstairs to one of the two gates.  When I asked about the 8:00 AM flight I was booked on and if I took this flight, with my luggage still being on the flight from last night. I wanted to know how my luggage would be handled.  I was told the luggage was taken off last night and was being reloaded onto the larger jet this morning. 

This is the time I saw my luggage being hoisted onto the conveyer belt to be loaded onto the aircraft.  I was surprised by this, since we were told our luggage couldn’t be provided to us the night before and would remain on the plane.  When I asked more about the flying option at 8:00 AM to Houston, the flight I was reserved for, the ticket agent checked her system and reported that I had no reservation for an 8:00 AM flight.  She indicated their system may have erased things from not only last night, but this morning, and unfortunately the flight was full and I would not be able to depart on this flight.  This apparently happened to others as well.

I noticed the local news station was filming the chaos of the morning and was asked if I would provide a statement, which I did.  Several passengers heard my interview and informed us that vouchers were given out the night before. Understand, there were passengers that were upstairs sleeping on cots that were unaware of these vouchers now being given out.  No attempt was made to announce over the intercom about paying the hotel and cab expenses.  I also learned that pizza was brought in, but because most of the people were gone, United Airline employees took them home.  Also, I heard about others that were provided with Limo buses to be shuttled, free of charge, to Houston and compensated for their hotel expense when they arrived in Houston.  

It is very disconcerting to me, that most of the passengers heard that no compensation would be provided because this incident was weather related, but as the crowd lessened, United quietly provided various expense vouchers to try and settle those that were still there. 

Some of these passengers had children and couldn’t just wait around, not knowing what would happen next and when we were told there is nothing more United would do to help us and we needed to go.  This seems very discriminatory; the question therefore becomes, is there a policy about not issuing vouchers if it is weather related or not? Or do United representatives pick and choose who they want to provide these accommodations to?  Again, why were the masses of people told no vouchers, assistance or compensation for inconvenience and yet small pockets of passengers were offered these accommodations?

The attempt to organize the departure of the larger jet, flight 1121, from the previous night from Seattle was beyond insane.  It seemed as if the ticket agents were confused how to process the tickets and organize the passengers to the correct flights.  It HAS to be against FAA regulations to allow passengers on a flight without boarding passes.  There was essentially one person working the gate area and it was chaotic. 

I began videotaping the process at which time the ticket agent yelled to inform me that with her credentials, she could not be videotaped. I discontinued filming her, but continued to film the area around the gates. Passengers were being yelled at by the United agents for wanting information about how they were going to get to their final destination.  This agent would not respond because she didn’t have the information to provide. But this left many passengers frustrated because there was no direction.  

We were told many times to follow this procedure, to line up and we would be provided new boarding passes. Then we were told we didn’t have to get new boarding passes.  Next, we were told to go to a different gate just to be instructed to return back to the original gate. This happened at least three times.

It was evident that everyone was angry and didn’t know how to communicate their complaint.  I did initiate conversations with passengers to see if there was interest in reporting to United Airlines what they saw and how they were treated. I asked if they would be willing to go public with their stories by signing a petition to have their names and contact information shared with someone that would advocate for them.  I was able to obtain 50+ signatures with contact information.  This was an effort that everyone wanted to rally around because of the way we were treated by United Airlines and their representatives. There was a complete lack of preparation in handling such a situation professionally, within regulations, and with customer service in mind.

There were many more mishaps that I could cite before we finally left the airport heading to Houston.   What I want to accomplish with such a long posting/letter, is that you should be aware that this wasn’t one isolated “weather related” cancelled flight. It was a continuous series of events that portray incompetent practices by such a large organization. This was one missed opportunity right after the other.

Where is the customer service in today’s business world?  This situation most likely could have be adverted with some empathy, good communication, or a friendly compassionate attempt to find solutions and some service recovery efforts to show that United Airlines was willing to make up for a bad situation.  Understandably, we cannot control the weather, and no one in this situation expected that, but it was the lack of customer service, honest friendly communications, direction, professionalism that could have adverted this horrible situation.
I hope United Airlines responds to this posting and me personally as I believe there were FAA violations that could have led to more serious problems.