United Changes Direct Flight To One With Stopovers, Doesn't Tell Customers, Customer Service Reps Cheer And Clap In Background

UPDATE: Executive Email Carpet Bomb, Consumerist Post, Prompt United To Solve Reader’s Complaint

“In February, my wife and I booked a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle to attend the Penny Arcade Expo, a major gathering of nerds and video game fans. Having traveled extensively on USAir I am aware of their history in Philadelphia and decided to use another carrier. I’ve had good experiences in the past with United (believe it or not) and decided to go with them and paid a little extra with a direct flight. Of course I get a code share flight on USAir. I know it’s not worth fighting and I’m just glad to have a direct flight early enough to get there, so I let it go.

Fast forward a couple of months. I called United out of the blue to check on my flights, and I’m told something about flights changing and connections and an arrival time after 4:00pm, much later than my original arrival time and too late to get to the convention when it opens. At this point communication broke down because I could not understand the customer service agent I was speaking to. He didn’t know how to pronounce the cities and he literally kept saying random city names and I had no idea what he was trying to tell me….”

I’m usually pretty good with accents, so for me to not understand this gentleman is saying something. The situation was made worse by the fact that people kept cheering and clapping in the background for some reason. I asked for a supervisor and was left on hold forever.

I then called back and got a woman this time. Again I could not understand her. I repeatedly asked her to speak more clearly and she proceeded to speak louder and louder, but just as fast. Again I could hear cheering and clapping in the background. I have no idea what was going on in the call center.

I called back a third time and got someone else who I could not understand. At this point I did some digging around and got a corporate number. It was an automated switchboard, but by pushing some random buttons I was connected with another operator at their corporate headquarters. I explained my situation and was told to call back the original consumer affairs number. I explained the language problem and was told in no uncertain terms that it was not the receptionist’s concern.

I then asked for their executive customer service. I was told there is no such thing. I answered, “Of course there is” and was told that the call would be disconnected because I was being “sarcastic.” I tried repeatedly to ask for help and appeal the receptionist’s sense of common decency and was told that she was instructed to never connect a call from a customer to management of any kind. At first she told me she didn’t have a number to connect me to, and then it changed not being allowed to connect anyone to the number she didn’t have. She eventually agreed to connect me to their legal department. I got a voice mail and explained the situation, but I don’t expect a call back from them.

I finally got someone at their consumer affairs department who I could understand and he found a flight that got me in earlier (with connections) but it’s still much later than I had booked in the first place. He also confirmed that they have my contact information on file and doesn’t know why I was never contacted with the changes to my flight.

I feel scammed because I paid more to fly direct and now I’m being forced onto a flight with a connection. I’m also bummed because based on their original flights I was able to fly in the day the convention started with plenty of time to get there before the gates opened, but now I won’t be able to. There are many perks associated with getting there early (30,000 people competing for 4,000 armbands for the concerts at night) that I will be missing out on. Even then, I’m very concerned about making our connection considering there’s only 40 minutes between flights and Philly is a nightmare with delays.

Most of all I am really taken by just how rude their corporate headquarters was. I politely asked for their executive customer service and was given a distinct “nah-nah, I have all the power and you’re helpless” attitude by a receptionist.

I’ve emailed Pamela A. Coslet, Graham Atkinson and Glenn F. Tilton but I don’t expect to hear from them either considering how their receptionist represented the corporation. My flight is the 24th, so it would be great to hear from them before then if they’re going to do anything for me.

I feel I’m owed money or an upgrade since I paid extra for direct flights and got a connection on the way out. What’s my next step? Small claims court? It’s not like I’m looking for something for nothing. I just want the difference refunded or an upgrade.

Next step is to send a letter by certified mail to their headquarters and make your complaint and request in writing, cc’d to the Department of Transportation. If that fails to get results, you could try the Executive Email Carpet Bomb tactic.

Also, for next time, you should know better than to call customer service in the middle of a staff birthday party.

(Photo: akaporn)

Comments

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  1. flicklives says:

    For one thing, you should know that a “Direct” flight according to Airline speak, is not the same as a “Non-stop” flight. I found this out the hard way a number of years ago. I tried to explain to the airline in question that the word “direct” already had a meaning in the English language, and it happened to mean exactly the opposite of their “new” meaning, but as you might expect, it had no effect on the outcome. This is no joke, a direct flight means a flight with stopovers. Non-stop means no stopovers.

  2. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    Wow – someone’s a little anal retentive. Calling 2 months before their flight to “check” on it?

    To be honest, you might’ve been better off if you’d found out the day before, because then you could’ve argued that nobody called you despite contact info being on file, but now because you Mr. Ants-in-the-Pants, they could argue that you had the time to find another flight on a different carrier and they would refund the flight to you.

    I don’t know what to tell you – except if you have this big of an issue, and the company’s being rude to you, then you deserve the right to good customer service, and do whatever you have to to get it.

    Again, who calls 2 months prior to a flight to check on it? I can’t even comprehend that.

  3. joeblevins says:

    This will happen a lot when you book that far in advance. Poster got a pretty good price, but flight schedules do change.

    The poster was treated very poorly. Should have been contacted and should have been treated better.

  4. trecool95 says:

    You could have completely avoided being late by flying in the day day before and springing for an extra night in a hotel.

  5. calvinneal says:

    First of all, my sympathies: My flight in September to Seattle from Detroit on Northworst has been changed 3 times. I am signed up for their emails on flight status so at least I know when the changes are made, You have the right to ask for your money back when the conditions or schedules of your flight are changed. At least Northwest has agents that speak semi-intelligible english. I even got a better fight back from Alaska which was 2 hours shorter after one of their schedule changes. I thought NW was the worst airline until I read your posting. Try calling at a different time of day; Most likely you will get a different call center.

  6. fluiddruid says:

    The cheering and clapping is a management tactic. Because they don’t want to actually hire enough staff to take someone off the phones to let them know they did good work, they’ll send the low level managers around to clap and cheer at their desk. For several months, in one case, we were forced to go to the person’s desk and play songs on kazoos. God, I wish I was kidding.

    Everyone hated it but upper management loved it. They thought we were encouraging people to do well but it just embarassed them. However, on the plus side it was free for the company. So there you go.

  7. MercuryPDX says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: Anytime I get airline tickets more than a month in advance, I check on the flight weekly and then daily the week of the flight. I use their website 90% of the time.

    It’s been my experience that airlines are not the best at contacting you in the event of a problem. I’ve had flights move up to two hours in either direction (earlier/later). Finding out about it ahead of time gives you some warning to reschedule connections and/or notify the car service.

  8. calvinneal says:

    I would like to respond to the” ants in your pants comment” by Pinkbunnyslippers. Checking on your flight status is one of the travel tips recommended by most travel experts. It seems that some of the posters to these forums are serial abusers. Nothing to offer except half baked invective and sardonic comments. Well, school starts in two weeks and most of these serial abusers will be back in Junior High.

  9. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: I’m not sure it’s all that weird if this guy’s a Consumerist reader. I’d be freaking out about flying too, with the news lately.

    I guess I just find it odd that people usually get criticized for not reading the fine print/double-checking/asking for updates, and you’re calling this guy anal-retentive and “Mr. Ants-In-Pants” for wanting to be sure he has the right information, which seems kind of disrespectful and unnecessary to me.

  10. hoot550 says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers:

    And if he had waited until the day before to check on his flight, then he would have been blasted here for not taking personal responsibility to check on his flight. There’s just no way to win, it seems.

  11. CreativeLinks says:

    Airlines don’t care.

    They gave up on Customer Service years ago when the public wanted cheaper airfare and “no frills”.

    So, I’m curious. I am sure most people here have had a bad experience with an airline.

    Did you stop flying with them? Honestly?

  12. emax4 says:

    I wouldn’t let the clapping and cheering get you down. Having worked at a call center myself, there were a few times that myself and other coworkers would be dealing with a difficult customer and a situation, and having everyone else laugh or talk in the background only made it worse for us. Only QA listens to calls individually or as a group, and their phone would be muted anyway, so you know they couldn’t be laughing at you or anything like that

    I haven’t flown in years (no vacation) so I can’t say anything about the flight issue.

  13. MercuryPDX says:

    @CreativeLinks: The only airlines I’ve successfully done this with are TWA (who are now out of business) and Southwest.

    We’re at the point where bad experiences seem to be the norm, and I would think that frequent fliers would soon run out of options if they started snubbing airlines one by one.

    Another added down side is the extra work it would take to try and get a cheaper airfare without using a travel agent.

  14. Slytherin says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: Meow! That time of the month again, doll?

  15. MalcoveMagnesia says:

    non-elite passengers flying United Airlines almost always (99% of the time) get routed to call centers in India or in the Philippines.

    Check out flyertalk.com’s Mileage Plus forum for plenty of horror stories about the incompetent, stick-to-the-script phone jockeys at the ICC (Indian Call Center).

  16. crnk says:

    The poster/commenter obviously needs to learn a little more about airlines. He wanted a flight nonstop but not on US…I’d bet that AS is probably the only other airline that MIGHT offer flights nonstop. So, he books on UA because they can sell the US ticket on a different name (in hopes they will change the flight, or what?). Lastly, someone just didn’t look at the schedule and assumed that direct and nonstop sound the same so they in fact are.
    Oh, and I’m 100% sure that UA told you it was a US flight BEFORE you purchased and not just a week after.

    Ps, I think the submitter gets my vote for stupid person of the week by “…pushing some random buttons I was connected with another operator at their corporate headquarters.”

  17. kimsama says:

    @CreativeLinks: Yes. I have not flown United for 7 years, and never will again. I always smile when I pay a little more to fly on another carrier. I hope that little extra money helps the competition crush United, however insignificant it may seem.

    I’m lucky, though, in that I usually fly internationally and don’t have to fly any U.S. carriers — lots of good international carriers to choose from (remember the Korean Air post? Ah! Lovely!) if you’re willing to pay a tad more for quality and no delays.

  18. crnk says:

    @MercuryPDX:

    Fly a private jet! Air travel is so cheap, yet everyone complains when they don’t “offer enough.”
    I’ve heard tons of “horror stories” about every bit of air travel, yet have not known a single person with any of these stories (just a handful of friends with 12 hour delayed luggage where the airline involved kept everyone in full contact about it)
    But, if people are really missing out that much on something, they should use private transportation (Just like when people hire a cab to get somewhere as opposed to taking a bus).

  19. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    @Slytherin: LOL in fact it is – thanks for bringing it to the front of the room!

    I just find it weird that someone “checks” on a flight FOUR MONTHS AHEAD. A month ahead, maybe. But he said “fast forward a couple months” meaning this whole checking thing started in April. It’s now August, and he’s STILL having an issue? You mean to tell me he couldn’t find something in the past four months?

    I’m not debating the airline’s crappy treatment of him. But rather his anality. ;)

  20. Kwummy says:

    While I understand your frustration, wny did you book your arrival time so close to that of the convention’s opening? Why not book it the day before, or even the night before?

    Maybe you couldn’t get the time off, or you had other personal matters to attend to, but I always give myself an extra day to half day when I’m flying.

  21. enm4r says:

    @CreativeLinks: Did you stop flying with them? Honestly?

    Like Kimsama, I do not fly United, and I never will again. I’ve had great personal experiences with ATA and Southwest, and those have the most frequent flights to the couple of places I regularly fly to. I’d willingly pay more to not fly United, and I have no problem with that.

  22. XopherMV says:

    Sounds like bait and switch. You bought one thing and they switched it to another. Considering the airline isn’t likely to give you what you actually bought, you might want to perform a credit card chargeback and go with a different airline. Of course, that other airline is just as likely to pull this same stunt, so you might not be better off.

  23. Itch says:

    Heh, I’ll tell you why they were clapping and cheering. They were all watching the cricket match! I know of a number of engineers that aren’t working abit a their jobs but watching Cricket on latops instead. Think of it being like the ACC or SuperBowl, you won’t be able to get squat from them right now.

  24. Framling says:

    I’m going to this expo. If nothing else, I might be able to get there early myself and get an armband for the dude, since I’m not really that interested in the concerts.

  25. TimSPC says:

    This story is too unbelievable. I mean, a guy with a wife going to the Penny Arcade Expo?? C’mon!

  26. bedofnails says:

    @XopherMV:

    This is not bait and switch. What is it with that term, where everyone attempts to apply it inappropriately?

  27. bedofnails says:

    @TimSPC:

    Yea, how is the guy even married?

  28. lizzybee says:

    @fluiddruid: Sounds like the call center management, like your employers, bought into the “Fish” mindset:

    [www.amazon.com]

    My sympathies!

  29. Snakeophelia says:

    I let United change my flight to Vegas this spring from non-stop to one with a connection. Barely made it on the way out, missed it on the way back. Never again. Give me a non-stop or give me my money back.

  30. Ickypoopy says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: They probably would not refund it over something like this. Most people buy non-refundable airline tickets. Usually, only a full-fare ticket is refundable, and often costs 5-10x as much.

  31. A few years ago, I bought a ticket on a flight to Mexico that was to leave 11 months later. I called monthly to check the flight starting at month six, and it changed EVERY TIME. It even changed WHEN I GOT THERE. So I know where this guy is coming from.

  32. XopherMV says:

    @bedofnails:

    Uh, yeah, this is bait and switch. He purchased a direct flight to Seattle. The airline then canceled that flight and replaced it with another that stopped in another city. That was not what he bought.

  33. grouse says:

    To elaborate on what flicklives said, in the airline industry a “direct” journey is one that has the same flight number all the way through. But the same flight number can be used by different planes. You may be on flight 9843 into Philadelphia and when you get there discover that flight 9843 to Minneapolis has already left.

    Always get “nonstop,” never use the term “direct.”

  34. bedofnails says:

    @XopherMV:

    No.

    Bait & Switch would apply here if the airline only offered/advertised one flight for this particular route, or day, (at a unbeatable fair) then when customer attempts to purchase said airfare the airline tells the customer the aforementioned flight doesn’t exsist, but we do have this flight at a higher fair.

    This did not occur, the customer booked a flight at the cheapest possible rate, and changes to the itinerary occurred. Read direct v. non-stop

    A bait & switch this does not make simply because the itinerary or plane changed.

  35. cryrevolution says:

    Although sucky treatment by the call center reps and receptionist, I have to kind of agree with the other commentors about the direct v. non-stop. With the way airlines are going nowadays (and the way customer svc is going too ugh) one has to EXPECT difficulties when booking anything MONTHS in advance. Does it excuse the treatment? Hell no. But it does happen so frequently that those kind of things have to be taken into account ahead of time. If I was in this situation, I would’ve booked to arrive A DAY in advance, not the same day within hours of the Convention’s start time, and if they gave me difficulties, I would’ve went somewhere else. And, if the ticket was non refundable, I would’ve read each and EVERY fine print they spit at me. Because you shouldn’t agree to anything non refundable without reading everything.

  36. lestat730 says:

    I do feel bad for him, but with the way airlines are today it’s almost always a good idea to get there the day or night before whatever event it is you want to go to. Leaving only a few hours between arrival and the beginning of the event is just asking for trouble.

  37. sleze69 says:

    You’re flying out of Philadelphia, why NOT use US Airways? Although they suck, it IS their major hub and they have never changed a direct flight into a connecting flight as far as I have ever experienced (I am gold now).

  38. parrots says:

    I ran into a similar problem with US Airways going out to PAX next week with my girl friend. I had purchased tickets nontop from Phil to Seattle two months ago. About a month ago I got an email saying the schedule had changed, to times that got in the way of some of our plans (while we are getting there the day before, we had made plans to meet up with people before hand for the evening).

    I called immediately after getting this email and managed to get some flights that get us in close enough to the original time, but with a layover on both the departing and returning flights (and now we get back at midnight), much to our dismay. We went with US Airways specifically because they had a nonstop flight. Had I known, I would have done with a different airline.

    I’ve heard many stories about layover woes, I just hope we don’t run into them.

  39. aparsons says:

    Philly is one of the best airports in the nation. :sarcasm:

    Source: themselves.

    Philly Number 2!

  40. 3drage says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: Why so rude?

  41. cindel says:

    Does Rule 240 apply here? I would think so since they didn’t tell him of the changes.

  42. missmicrophone says:

    I used to work for an airline, please do not hold this against me. Just to clarify the types of flights.

    NonStop…point a to point b with no stops.
    Direct…point a to point b, to point c. you do not change planes.
    Connection…point a to point b, change planes, point b to point c.