How Long Does It Take United To Get A Maintenance Crew To Fix Something With Duct Tape?

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):

Mr. Atkinson,

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.
Graham atkinson
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.




Edit Your Comment

  1. faust1200 says:

    Very nicely written. Perhaps you should pursue a literary career during your flight delays??

  2. gibsonic says:

    tl; but read anyway.

    that really sucks. I am glad i don’t have to travel by air much anymore.

    “customer bill or rights” anyone?

  3. zl9600 says:

    I totally understand the frustration and think it’s an okay letter, and one worth writing. However, saying it’s “your final trip on United” pretty much just said that there’s nothing this airline can do to make you happy.

    Plus, it’s pretty hollow. What, you’re going to go fly another decrepit airline or buy a G5? My money’s on the former.

  4. JustAGuy2 says:

    One piece of advice – when talking to the airlines about rebooking you on another flight, know your options. If you’re in front of a computer, search (or something similar) for possible flights – if you’re in the airport, call a friend and have them search for you. That way, if they say “the best we can do is flight XYZ tomorrow,” you can say “how about flight ABC on carrier X – it leaves in two hours, and still has seats available.” They won’t always do it, but if you give them a specific itinerary, you can usually get it.

  5. ShadowFalls says:

    Next we will hear of another joke,

    Pilot: Our right wing has a giant crack!
    Repairman: Hold on! I will get the duct tape!

  6. JustAGuy2 says:

    For example, there are 10 daily nonstops from NYC to Charleston, were they all (Delta, Airtran, etc.) sold out? It sounds like they were trying to push you onto a partner airline (US Airways), which would cost United less.

  7. gafpromise says:

    Yes, it’s the handyman’s secret weapon, Duct Tape!

    Like the others said, it’s good to know your options. I book a lot of business travel and when something happens to the flight I’ve gotten requests to find some pretty crazy alternatives- including once, driving 10 hours rather than waiting for another flight.

  8. categorically says:

    This would appear to be the US Airways method of repair. Check out the new in flight entertainment screens on their international service 767s.


  9. Asvetic says:

    I got to this part, “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…”

    Then I wondered why a frequent flyer was fine with flights being canceled, ever?

    Why do people put up with this shit over and over and over again? The quality of air travel is on a never-ending nosedive and nobody seems to care.

  10. gibsonic says:

    What’s next?

    flight attendants showing up in street clothes

    BYO seat cushion

    BYO TP for the lavatory

  11. AT203 says:

    Well written letter.

  12. warrentrout says:

    Most of the time repairing aircraft is filling out government paperwork. Blame big government, not the airline.

    Airline Pilot.

  13. bluebuilder says:

    Allow me to point out, that while all you saw was a repair (I hesitate to call this a repair, as it clearly is only something in place until a real repair can occur) done with tape, that you feel could have been done much quicker.

    In reality there is a procedure that maintenance goes through, inspecting the failed equipment and making a decision on whether or not the plane can safely fly, the piece can be quickly repaired, or in this case, just take the piece out of service for now.

    While the rest of the experience is questionable, the problem with the repair, I believe, was handled appropriately, and 45 minutes is not an unreasonable amount of time for this.