Friday, November 04, 2011

United... in efforts to make you suffer for flying

I generally have a "no drama" rule for my life and have had a pretty good run of drama-free years. United Airlines recently ended that run in stellar fashion. I've put off writing it all down because doing so requires reliving the anger, frustration and lack of caring we dealt with from the airline.

On a side note, the drama aversion is reason #71 why I will never be a reality TV star. Other entries on that particular list include #29: inability to have a drink-throwing slap fest in a restaurant with new "frien-emies" (see every Real Housewives and Basketball Wives show ever) and #64: reluctance to refer to myself in the third person unless doing it in a very self-aware way as a joke. That aside, Natasha thinks you should read here is the United Airlines saga.

In August, I took the kids to visit friends - including my college roommate - in Denver. They'd never met Dylan, and Ava was barely talking the last time we went. Her husband remarked how verbal and polite Ava was now. I told Jason, who replied, “Then the beatings are working.” 
It's amazing that she was polite at all considering the ordeal we endured in getting there for the visit. Since I was traveling alone with two small kids, I opted for an early morning, direct flight in hopes that they might continue sleeping once we boarded and that we would get there as quickly as possible.
Because trying to keep a three year old and barely-verbal 20 month old occupied in an enclosed space is exhausting. It reminds me of an "Are you ready for children?" checklist I read once that suggested good practice for wrangling small childen is to try to stuff an octopus in to a mesh bag. Having now traveled with kids a few times on planes, trains and in automobiles, I would only amend that to make it "an octopus on meth."
How early is "early"?

Knowing the drill, we arrived 95 minutes early to check in and found a line of at least 75-100 people waiting to use the check-in kiosks at Seatac Airport which have replaced the old guys who used to allow you to check in curbside. I later learned the new kiosks were being staffed by a skeleton crew missing three staff, plus a "supervisor" (Joan) who was apparently tasked with telling new arrivals to the mayhem where to go (incorrectly), then castigating them for going where she told them.
As the minutes ticked by, I watched the line barely inch along as an overhead ticker warned that you needed to be checked in at least 45 minutes before your flight in order to board. Seeing the confusion around me, I knew it would be close. 55 minutes later, I made it to a kiosk and hurriedly shoved my card in for verification. It was rejected. I'd missed the cutoff by one minute.
When I asked a staffer what to do, she pointed me to the frazzled supervisor, saying, "You have to talk to her." I was joined at this point by a visually impaired woman whose friend had dropped her off in line just behind us when we arrived. She too had missed the cutoff and needed help.
Joan the supervisor offered none, too busy sending people to the far end of the line and trying to help the few staffers at the counter. Finally, after the other traveler and I followed her around for five minutes waiting to get a word in, I explained what had happened and she told us, "You'll have to be rebooked. You should have been here two hours early. Go stand in that line," she said, gesturing to the one that began at the far end of the check-in counters and that was already made up of people slumped on their bags in defeat.
Once there, I called United Customer Service for help. After 16 minutes on hold, I relayed the supervisor's two hour recommendation. Overhearing this, one of the other people in line said, "That wouldn't have helped. We WERE here two hours early and you see we're still here!" 
Tail end of line snaking through check-in area
Later, the supervisor came and angrily griped at me for standing in the line she'd sent me to, saying it was the wrong one. She didn't seem to notice that she'd sent several of us to that line. As she turned away, Ava looked up at me and said, "That lady was talking to us kind of crazy." People in line around us snickered. "She's got that right," one agreed. When a three year old can recognize that she's not being treated very nicely, it's pretty telling.
Supervisors conferring on the mess in their midst
As we waited, we turned as a military veteran became loud near the front of the line. He too was on the verge of missing his flight, apparently for the second time in two days, after being given incorrect information by the staff, driving home, returning and finding the same mess at the check-in counters.
I finally reached the counter again and was re-booked and told I was #1 on the standby list for next flight in about two and a half hours. Three-year old Ava and 20 month old Dylan (30 pounds of heavy cuteness in a carrier on my back all this time), were holding up well. But it had been nearly three hours since arriving, so I knew they needed food and exercise quickly. 

Food, frolics and failure

We hit the food court, then took the airport train and a very long walk to a far concourse where I'd found a kids play area on the airport map.
After burning off some energy and recharging my phone, we made it back to the new gate, energized and hopeful and checked in again. A staffer confirmed that we were at the top of the standby list, and told us to wait for more information or for our names to be called. Then, we waited. And waited. And watched, as passengers lined up, boarded the plane, the doors closed and staff began packing up the counter. We never heard our names called.

Hey! What happened to "Number one on the standby list?!" The unhelpful, indifferent United staff person at the counter shrugged, barely glancing up at me and a handful of similarly stuck passengers clustered at the counter.

"You might have been number one, but the list is fluid," she said. Then why is it numbered?! That's why you use a numbered list: to indicate who has priority. So we and others who couldn't make earlier flight due to their staffing problems got passed over again.
The staffer who'd instructed us to wait for more information returned to the desk after closing the doors to the gangway, picked up her things and left, never even glancing at us. I stood there with a toddler on my back, a fading 3 year old clutching my hand and no one from United providing any assistance of any kind. 
Two of the travelers who were also stuck there with me did offer to carry my backpack and asked if I needed any help carrying the kids. They also asked the visually impaired woman if she needed any help getting around. Again: no help from United staff. 
We again turned en masse (all five of us) to the remaining United staffer at the gate counter to ask if we were going to get any more help or information on our options or what to do next. Could we get on another flight? Another airline? The staffer shrugged. "I don't know. Next one is at 6pm tonight. But it's full too and so are all the other airlines." She never looked up from the paperwork in front of her.
"How is that possible?!" one of the guys next to me asked. He'd been stuck in the check-in line too and missed an early morning connection to the midwest. "Well what do you want?" she asked, annoyed. "The flight was full. Every flight is full. It's only been that way every August for 25 years."  

There's no crying in baseball aviation

Six hours after arriving at the airport, disappointed, tired and frustrated, I was trying not to cry in front of the children, because after all, that's their job.

"Well," I said, "Since we haven't flown every August for 25 years, and I don't work for the airline, perhaps you can tell me what I should do now since I've been here for six hours already." 
She huffily suggested waiting for another standby seat that evening, but indicated that we probably wouldn't make that one either and probably wouldn't be able to get two seats.

At that, we all turned and walked away to figure out our own options. I sat on a bench and called United's 800-number, where I gave a synopsis of our ordeal and received the same, "Sucks to be you" attitude from the agent, until asking for a supervisor. This one booked guaranteed seats for all three of us on a flight out at 5:35 a.m. the next day. Recalling the earlier supervisor's admonishment, I said, "Geez: so I'm going to have to go home and bring the kids back tomorrow at 3:35 in the morning."  
"Oh no," said the agent, "You only need to be there at least an hour early for domestic flights. An hour and a half at the most." Really. Really?! Aaaaagh. 
With my bags and car seats in Denver, my son asleep on my back and daughter curled up asleep in my lap, I called for a ride home, having expended one day of vacation in the Seatac Airport.
In the wee hours of the next morning, without bags or car seats, we arrived an hour and 45 minutes early after checking in online enroute to the airport, therby skipping the still-horrendous check in lines.

Again, we saw a mirror image of the morning before, with dozens of weary travelers queued up but barely moving closer to the holy grail of the check-in kiosk. The "process" they were part of again looked like an homage to a Rube Goldberg machine: "complex gadgets...[that] perform[ed] simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways." (Courtesy: Wikipedia - ). Unfortunately for them, the same staffer who'd sent us willy nilly the day before was again working her "magic." And by magic I mean "lack thereof" or "mayhem" - your choice. 
Day 2: Finally on our way!
This time, unencumbered by bags and pre-checked, we cruised straight through security to the gate, where a staffer on the overhead speaker said, "If you haven't been assigned a seat yet, we will get you one but we can only guarantee that you probably won't like it." Grrr.
I'm no famous, frequently-traveling New York Times writer like Steven D. Leavitt, who once wrote that United's stellar, personalized customer service had won him over for life.

But I don't think it's asking too much of airline staff to at least be helpful and considerate - meaning having consideration for the person with whom you're dealing. Meaning assisting the visually impaired traveler or the mom traveling alone with two small kids and helping them to navigate your suddenly broken check-in "process."
As someone now tasked with improving customer service for a government agency that is doing process review and improvements, I recognized a broken process when I experienced it firsthand. Unfortunately for me and thousands of travelers, United Airlines apparently still doesn't recognize it.
Later, as I thumbed through the in-flight magazine from the company, I read a story about a United staffer based in Chicago who is apparently renowned for her compassion and helpfulness to customers. Wow. That's great.

Just a thought: perhaps she could be brought in from Chicago to consult with the United staff in Seattle on how to improve the customer experience. Just be sure to remind her to arrive at the airport at least an hour early. 90 minutes tops. I'd hate for her to miss her flight and have a bad customer experience.

Home again, having survived Seatac-alypse 2011
Update: I sent this to United's Customer Service and they replied back a few weeks later, apologizing and saying they'd pass the info along to management in Seatac. They also offered a voucher for a small discount on future travel for the three of us. That wasn't the goal of sending the letter, but it was a sufficient gesture.

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