The general role of an airline is to provide safe, comfortable, and efficient transportation of passengers and their baggage from one city’s airport to another.
United Airlines fails at all of this.
Here’s my experience with flying United.
I arrived at Miami International Airport at about 3 AM for a 5:40 AM boarding to an early morning flight. At 3:30 AM, the TSA checkpoints were supposed to open. They didn’t open until 4 AM. Thankfully there was no line. This opened out into MIA’s concourse G… which had no air conditioning at all. The temperatures inside the concourse were over 90 degrees. Thankfully, my flight began boarding on time…. but some passengers were already showing signs of heat exhaustion.
This overheating condition would turn out to be a curse on every leg of this trip.
I had a flight from Miami to Sacramento, California. I won’t really bother with digging out my small mountain of old boarding passes (I call them Broken Promise Slips) to find exact flight numbers, but yeah… The first flight was going to be Miami to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, O’Hare to Denver, then Denver to Sacramento. Sound ridiculous? Well, it was too ridiculous to…. * drum roll * fly.
The first flight boarded, and then the captain came on the intercom— “Good morning everyone, we are now completed boarding and ready to push back, but we’re first going to try to resolve a problem with the electronics on this aircraft that have been acting up all morning.”
One hour later, they tried turning the plane off and back on again.
This did not resolve anything.
They tried it again and again.
Three hours later, they gave up and let us get off the plane if we wanted. However, the official status of the flight remained “DELAYED”, not “cancelled.”. NEVER cancelled, because this would force them to make good on our travel plans.
I called customer service at 1-800-UNITED-1 and got an agent in what had to have been the WORST Indian call center I’ve ever experienced. I could hear three different agents shouting in the background behind the one I was talking to, and the agent I was talking to sounded hopelessly uninterested. Upon learning there was nothing she could quickly do to just put me on a later flight, she hung up on me. I actually heard the receiver clatter into the cradle as it disconnected.
I went to a ticket agent who said they couldn’t do a thing because all flights out of MIA were full. He identified himself to me as being “the boss”, whatever that meant. However, he put me on a flight out with an itinerary that would have taken me to Houston then to Sacramento as standby.
I went to the gate and waited for that flight. This terminal had air conditioning. I was #2 on the standby list… with 30 passengers after me. They had room for only one standby passenger, so I didn’t make it. Right before boarding started, I saw a sight I’m sadly very used to with air travel — an exhausted horde of passengers who look like they’ve been stuck in a terminal without a shower for two or three days dashing to the gate to board after being screwed over and bounced from overbooked flight to flight with seemingly no hope of escape.
None of them made it on either.
I spoke to the gate agent after boarding completed and he called some other magic phone number, where he was instructed to concede and book me a ticket on American Airlines.
By this point I’d been in MIA about six hours. The airport just looked… third worldly. This would change very quickly, as American has their own terminal there, the “Super A” terminal. It’s beautiful. I could hardly believe my eyes. The flight had no standby list, boarded on time, got there on time, everything was perfect. It arrived at… I don’t even remember, O’Hare? Some airport that looked like a giant Habitrail hamster cage made of glass. It had a cool neon sculpture in an underground corridor. I dunno. I got up to waiting for the next flight out to Sacramento via United, and there was a standby list of 36…. for an Airbus A320. I had an assigned seat, luckily. It boarded and left after some weird delay and arrived in Sacramento just after midnight local time.
As the plane taxiied to the runway, the A320’s air conditioning stopped momentarily, which is perfectly normal. While you’re on the ground, the A/C is usually fed by “bleed air” from the compressor stage of the Auxillary Power Unit in the back of the fuselage. The APU is kind of a utility generator that provides a few vital functions before the main engines start. Its bleed air is diverted to air start turbines in the main engines to kick them into action, which is why the A/C will pause just before you hear the main engines spool up.
It never returned after main engine startup. An extremely weak pissing of warm-ish air pressurized the cabin just before the takeoff roll and that was it– the rest of the flight was at a cabin temperature of 86 degrees. (Temperatures measured using a small digital thermometer I forgot to remove from my bag when I packed everything. Oops)
As the drink service cart went by I saw Chinese bottled water on it. Yes, seriously – the water bottles were labelled in Chinese text and looked like they’d all been severely scraped up in handling. I declined anything from those water bottles….
Passengers were complaining, of course. The crew did nothing about this and didn’t even offer an explanation. Later, upon reading some technical info on the A320 I learned that 86 degrees is a magic number: it’s what you get if you grab the cabin temp knobs in the cockpit and just spin ’em to the right.
Adding in the time zone differences, this trip took just over 24 hours. Average speed: 124 MPH. This is not the kind of speed commercial air travel using modern high speed jet aircraft likes to boast about, for sure.
The time I spent over on the west coast was wonderful but all too short, and before long, I was starting out at the municipal airport in Redding, California, for a little puddle jump to San Francisco to continue back east.
As I was going through the security screening, a TSA agent called some Code Something and the metal gates started quickly rolling out of the ceiling, sealing off the checkpoint area and leaving about a dozen of us trapped inside as a scramble of activity began around a little old lady and her suitcase in the X-ray machine.
Agents swarmed around her and the machine’s monitors.
I saw a strangely familiar form—- wait, could it actually be— something I’ve angrily blogged about?
Sure enough, I heard both “Looks like an ear piercing gun…”
And “You’re better off just getting it done with a needle”. This came from a TSA agent. So they ARE there for our safety!
The metal gates began to roll back into the ceiling, freeing us to continue.
The little United by SkyWest CRJ-200 pulled in on time. Due to the tiny size of this jet, what would be a normal carry on bag wouldn’t fit its overhead bins, so they had us check our bags right next to it on the tarmac. It departed on time as well, and as soon as it was in the air, the cabin temperature was wound up to “FORGET IT!”. It went as high as 96 degrees during the flight. We all stumbled off the plane drenched in sweat. About the first ten rows worth of passengers were allowed to claim their bags right there next to the plane but then a gate in this little chute they used to keep us from wandering out onto the ramp was slammed shut and we were quickly herded into the terminal with the instruction to pick up our bags at baggage claim.
Our bags never arrived at baggage claim until several phone calls were placed. At this point I was running out of time for my connecting flight, or so it seemed.
The flight started boarding on time, on a beautiful new Boeing 787! This one was bound for Houston.
Maintenance crews were bustling around one of the aft lavatories for a bit, but about 20 minutes after scheduled departure they seemed to be done, and deplaned.
“This is your captain speaking. We’re ready to push back and take off as soon as we receive our maintenance paperwork.”
“This is your captain…. Sorry, we have received no updates, we’re calling a supervisor…”
My phone still gets a signal so I try 1-800-UNITED1. I’m hung up on again.
THREE HOURS LATER….
“We’re sorry about the delay, if you wish to deplane now you may, but do so quickly…”
Just before takeoff roll, the A/C becomes a warm trickle. Temperature would reach about 82 on this flight with very little airflow. The “gaspers” (see a picture of Airbus gaspers at the top of this post) above the seats don’t really help because they’re so far overhead.
The plane was HORRIBLY loud. When I took off my headphones I was treated to about the same sound and intensity as if someone had started a wet/dry vacuum next to my head. More Chinese bottled water on the beverage carts.
Landing at Houston took place long after my connecting flight would have ARRIVED IN MIAMI, so I went to United’s customer service desk. They gave me hotel and meal vouchers (an amazingly generous $30 in meal vouchers, wow!). I’d have to miss a day at work that I’d never arranged for previously and judging from my boss’s lack of reaction to this, he wasn’t pleased.
I spent the next four hours or so after arriving in the hotel and taking a shower trying to sleep but waking up in a feeling of total panic every few minutes. It was kind of a lost cause. The last thing clean in my suitcase was a black dress and a pair of leggings. I kind of cringed considering one of the recent well deserved pieces of press coverage of United. I checked out and the same guy was at the front desk as when I checked in.
Houston to Miami… Boarded late, there was a further delay, but at least this was nonstop – no way they could screw up but I was totally expecting them to. On this flight, none of the economy class seats recline – the feature had been REMOVED. The plane was filthy. There was a delay on takeoff because a seat belt broke off in a passenger’s hands and had to be replaced. Cabin temperature, of course, went right to 85 at the takeoff roll.
The plane arrived in Miami. This trip duration: 38 hours. Average speed: 81.6 MPH. Could have beat that shit in a single engine prop Cessna.
I was feeling totally beaten up at this point, suffering heat exhaustion, maybe a little dehydration, and felt totally unable to make the drive home from the airport. I sat down on a bench in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel where I’d parked my car and got up like three hours later like the time just disappeared. Finally I made the drive home and collapsed for the next 18 hours or so.
United Airlines was so pleased to serve me! And to serve their mystery Chinese bottled water that I wouldn’t trust, EVER. Holy hell.
I’m never flying with them again. NEVER. So that puts them, Spirit Airlines, and Delta on my FUCK NO list.
I’m putting this in the trafFUCKED category because, well, it’s apparently to get traFUCKED in the skies….
I later got a royal chewing out for being gone those days, and for an unrelated subject, also mentioned in this article, also occurring on my own time—- but that one’s going to be material for a rage post that’s currently on ice pending discussions with the union!