How long does it take for United Airlines to get a maintenance crew over to your plane so that they can “fix” something with duct tape? The answer is 45 minutes, not including the time it took to “de-plane” the passengers.
Reader Ryan writes to Graham Atkinson of United Airlines (from Dulles, where he has some time on his hands after missing his connection due to duct tape maintenance):
I appreciate your time. I wanted to outline for you the shortcomings and frustrations I’ve encountered on this, my final trip with United Airlines.
I was originally scheduled on a flight from La Guardia to Charleston, SC, connecting through Dulles on Thursday, August 9. I arrived to find an impossibly long line at the ticket counter, so I proceeded to self-check in. The computer informed me that my outgoing flight was delayed (it was eventually cancelled) and suggested I take the same flight on the following day as my only option.
I should say at this point the purpose of my trip was a personal one. While I do fly United on occasion for business, most of my trips with the airline are to visit my parents in Charleston. This trip was especially important – it was my father’s birthday, and we had arranged so I could be there for a surprise party in his honor.
The conditions of this trip made the cancellation of my flight doubly frustrating but hey, I travel a lot, and understand that every once in a while, these things happen. The way the situation was handled, however, is why I’m writing you today.
I called customer service to see what my options were, as the line at the airport made interfacing with a person impossible. I connected with a gentleman who brusquely told me my only option was to fly on the same flight the next day, or take a US Airways flight through Charlotte, NC that would get me in a little earlier. I took that option, thinking bypassing Dulles would be best, and got in a $40 cab back to Brooklyn.
That night, I called US Airways to confirm my reservation – they had no record of it. They suggested I call United back to get a confirmation number (I was never offered one) to locate it. When I did that, the woman at United discovered that I had indeed been booked on US Airways, but from DULLES to Charlotte, then Charlotte to Charleston. Being in NYC, this was obviously not going to work. I asked the woman what my option was, and she suggested booking me on a flight from NEWARK (a 1+ hour trip from Brooklyn) to Dulles, then catching the US Airways flight from there. That would have resulted in a 10-hour layover in Dulles, not to mention the two remaining flights to get to Charleston.
After I explained why this wasn’t going to work for me, she informed me the only option was to travel on Saturday, arriving in Charleston by noon (a full 36 hours after my original arrival time).
This delay and subsequent circus of customer service rebooking not only caused me to cut a 4 day trip down to 2 1/2, but to miss my father’s surprise party, the entire reason for the trip.
At that point I vowed not to ever fly United again, even before the issues with my return flight.
This morning I was scheduled on a 6am departure out of Charleston, back through Dulles to LaGuardia. We boarded our flight and got through the safety briefing before it was discovered that one of the overhead bin latches was broken, and we couldn’t take off without it being secured. As it was 6am, there was no maintenance staff present, so we deplaned to wait for them to arrive. At one point a passenger, clearly frustrated, suggested they just tape it shut with some duct tape. The flight attendant scoffed, saying it needed to be fixed securely and correctly for us to fly.
We waited in the terminal for 45 minutes for the maintenance crew to arrive. When we re-boarded the plane, we found the problematic bin door had been repaired with, yes, duct tape. (along with a handwritten sign exclaiming “DO NOT USE!!!”). We then went through the pre-flight routine and closed the cabin door, began to pull from the gate, and abruptly stopped. Apparently the maintenance crew had forgotten to return the logbook, and we had to wait for them to fill out the paperwork for their “repair”. The crew laughed through this By the time we finally arrived in Dulles, my connecting flight had left, leaving me with the messy cleanup of canceling my meetings for the morning (and writing to you). I am currently scheduled on a 12:30 flight to JFK, and I’d be amazed at this point if it goes off as planned.
I travel frequently, so I understand many problems and delays are beyond the control of the airline. What is well within your control, however, is your response to the issues that occur. This experience with United has stood in stark, stark contrast to my other dealings with customer service, including airlines like JetBlue and Southwest, whom are apologetic and sincere and offer some sort of rectification without solicitation.
When all is said and done, most airlines are the same, and it is the personal interaction that separates them, and what makes us, your customers, choose your brand over others when we book travel. That said, United has shown itself to be deeply flawed in this respect.
I do appreciate your time. I realize this is a long letter, but I thought you would be interested to hear how your company is working (or not).
I have also CCd The Consumerist on this issue, as they take special interest in the quality of corporate customer service . I will be sure to update them on your response, of course.
Let us know how it goes, Ryan.
UPDATE: Graham Atkinson writes:
Dear mr [redacted]
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write though I wa4 obviously very concerned at the contents.
Firstly let me apologise for the frustration and disappointment we caused to you and your family.
By copy of this , I am asking my Director Customer Service to investigate the detailed circumstances so we can learn from it and respond to you.
In the meantime , pse accept my apologies.
Chief customer officer
We think it’s cute the way British people spell “apologize.” Anyhow, it seems that Ryan is in good hands.
UPDATE 2: Ryan writes:
So I just received a call from Marcie at United’s Executive Customer Service team. She went through my complaints, line by line, and offered me explanations on each failure point of the trip. She admitted that their Reservations call center (who were, duct tape aside, responsible for the lion’s share of my frustrations) is a source of concern and they’re working to make changes. She also said they’re looking to smaller carriers like Southwest and JetBlue to how they proactively deal with problems.
In the end, she offered me a $250 Travel Certificate (less restrictive than a voucher) or 15,000 miles on my account. I took the certificate.
Thanks again for picking up the story. Here’s to the vocal consumer base.