Wednesday, July 22, 2015

United Airlines

I have flown on many different airlines in my world travels. For the most part, these experiences have been unremarkable. Therefore, I don't write posts about airlines that often. However, this is a museum and travel blog and this particular airline experience with United Airlines definitely warrants a full post. 

My husband and I booked a flight from West Palm Beach, Florida to Dublin, Ireland for June 4th -12th, 2015. We had not seen his family in three years and had been saving money for a long time so we could go to Ireland for his sister’s wedding and celebrate his birthday with his family. We intentionally picked the flights with the most direct routes as possible and the least amount of layovers because I had been having some health issues which were exacerbated by stress and sleep disturbances. There were cheaper tickets we could have purchased but we paid extra for the sake of my health. The total cost of the tickets was $ 2,241.80.

Our flight from PBI to Newark was meant to leave on June 4th at 6:13 pm. The boarding time was 5:38 pm. We arrived at the airport and checked in with plenty of time to spare. No one informed us of a flight delay at check-in, no announcement was made at the gate. We did not receive an email about the flight delay until 5:39 pm, one minute after the scheduled boarding time. According to United Airline's customer commitment, 

“they will notify customers of known delays, cancellations, and diversions….from or within the United States within 30 minutes after becoming aware of a flight cancellation, a flight delay of 30 minutes or more…” 

We only realized something was wrong when a long line started forming at the gate counter. We were told that due to “mechanical problems” our flight would be delayed by more than two hours which meant we would miss our connecting flight to Dublin. Had an announcement been made, we could have been booked on the next flight to Ireland but by that point, it was already full. Again, I quote from United Airline's customer commitment: 

“In order to reduce any inconvenience you experience during cancellations and misconnections, we will: Do our best to contact you in advance regarding a flight cancellation using the contact information in your reservation; Work to confirm you on the next flight we operate that has seats available in the same class of service when rebooking is necessary; and Make available information about your rebooking through our website, at an airport kiosk, when available; and through our airport and reservations agents.”

Their employees booked and canceled us on other flights 7 times making a total disaster of the re-booking process. The gate agent told us that we could get on a flight from Newark to Heathrow and there were available seats on the flight from Heathrow to Dublin but then before booking us she turned away to chat and laugh with another employee and completely ignored us. It was total chaos and one agent whispered to the other that she needed help because she had no idea what she was doing. We explained that my husband’s sister was getting married and we needed to make it in time for the wedding which was the sole purpose of the trip. By the time she turned her attention back to us, there were no longer seats available on the Heathrow flight. Then she told us that we would have to stay the night in Newark and wait for the next flight to Dublin the following night. This would mean that we would not make it in time for the wedding. She said that we should go to customer service when we got to Newark and they would give us hotel vouchers, a shuttle to the hotel and a disgraceful $7.00 for meal vouchers. A $7.00 voucher would probably only get us a cup of coffee in Newark! Then she said we would not be able to collect our luggage in Newark “for security reasons” so we’d have to wear the same clothes for 3 days. Following that, she said that since we’d have to check out of the hotel at 10:00 or 11:00 am, “we’d have to find something to do with ourselves until our 6:30 pm flight.”

We contacted our family in Ireland and told them that we would not be making it in time for the wedding and they were devastated. My husband’s elderly parents were so excited to see us that they stayed the night in a hotel in Dublin so they could meet us at the airport in the morning and drive us the 2 ½ hours to his hometown in County Wexford. When they heard the news they drove home Friday morning since we would now be arriving on Saturday instead of Friday.

When our flight landed in Newark we went to the Customer Service desk as we were told to get our hotel vouchers but no one was there. We looked all over the terminal for someone to help us but couldn’t find anyone. Had it not been for the fact that my husband looked at the flight status display board and saw that our original flight to Dublin was delayed by three hours, again for “mechanical problems,” we would have had to spend our night sleeping in the airport until our flight left the next day at 6:30 pm. We raced to the gate and begged to be rebooked on the flight. We were able to get seats and asked that our luggage be diverted to get onto our plane. The gate agent asked for descriptions of the luggage and rolled her eyes at us when we said the bags were black. I do not see the point of putting tags with barcodes on customer’s luggage if they are not going to be useful in getting the luggage on the correct flight. Furthermore, I told her that one bag was The Northface brand and had two luggage tags on it with our address in Ireland and gold, silver and white ribbons on both bags. There was a three-hour window to get our luggage on the correct flight. Additionally, the flight time had been changed to 1:00 am yet we did not receive an email until 12:35 am even though we’d already been seated at the gate for two hours.

When we landed in Dublin our bags were not there. We went to the Swiss Air desk (partner airline since there was no United desk) to file a claim for the missing luggage and told them that we desperately needed the bags for the wedding the following day. The agent said he located the bags and that they were still in Newark and said they would be put on the 6:30 pm flight that night and “promised they would arrive by courier to our address in Wexford by noon the next day”. The man working beside him laughed and said, “good luck with that.”

Since my in-laws had gone home we had no ride back to Wexford and had to find a bus. Our coats were in our missing luggage so all we had on us in the 50-degree weather was the t-shirts we were wearing since we left Florida. It took us 3 ½ hours to get to Wexford by bus and then we had to spend another hour buying underwear, socks, and sweatshirts to get us by until we got our bags the following day so by that time we had lost an entire day of our trip.

The next day we called to inquire about our bag status and found out that the luggage had never been put on the flight from Newark and we had nothing to wear for the wedding. Again, as per United's customer agreement, 

“...If your checked bags are delayed or misplaced, we will make every reasonable effort to deliver your bags within 24 hours. If you have expenses resulting from a baggage delay and are eligible to receive compensation, we will compensate you for reasonable and necessary out-of-pocket expenses.”

We had less than three hours to run around town to rent a suit, buy a dress and shoes, and other basic necessities such as shampoo, soap, hairbrush, etc.. and then shower and get to the venue. We could have taken advantage and bought my husband a new suit but there was no time so he rented one instead; one that was ill-fitting and not nearly as nice as
the one he had packed. I couldn’t find shoes my exact size so I had to stuff them with toilet paper in order to make them fit. Furthermore, our wedding gift and my husband’s birthday gift were also in our luggage. Did I mention it was also his birthday that day?! 

We were late for the wedding, I had to show up with wet hair because there wasn’t even enough time to dry it and we had to leave the reception early due to the complete exhaustion and lack of sleep over the prior three days. Another day of our trip and an important family occasion was ruined.

The following day we had to wait around for our luggage to arrive (again). We missed a family breakfast with the bride and groom and yet another day was wasted. Had I known our bags weren’t going to show up until Sunday I would have bought a second shirt and a new pair of pants to wear rather than the pair I had been wearing for 4 days. When we opened our bags, we saw that someone had gone through them and tossed around their contents. Clothes that were neatly folded were bunched up and thrown around. One of my two luggage tags had been removed. I had attached it to the handle with a heavy-duty cable-tie and the only way to remove a cable tie is to cut it with a knife or scissor. Whether or not this was done to lay the blame of the missing bag on me I do not know.

The accumulated stress, sleep deprivation and frustration of those three days caused me to get sick again. I spent the rest of the trip in bed and I lay full blame for the decline of my health on United Airlines. If it were not for the fact that I kept all of my medication in my carry-on bag, I would have wound up in the hospital.

When we arrived back in the United States on June 12th our bags were not there!!! We went to baggage claim and spoke to an employee named Debbie who neither said hello nor even smiled. United's customer commitment states that, 

“We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.” 

Debbie clearly hates her job and does not like coming to work every day and surely would be happier doing any other job than the one that she is doing. United Airlines should be embarrassed at the rudeness and unprofessionalism of their employees as well as mortified that they lost both of our bags on both of our flights. When our luggage finally arrived at our home the following day my bag was damaged. In the past five years we have flown on roughly 25 international flights and 40 domestic flights with other airlines and not once have we had more than a 30-minute delay or a single piece of missing luggage. Yet United Airlines managed to accomplish all three in just one trip. They failed to meet their own Customer Commitment on so many levels. They call themselves, a “leader in the airline industry” yet the day after we returned from Ireland they put an entire plane full of passengers in unheated army barracks in Canada while their flight crew stayed in a hotel. 

So I wrote a letter to their Customer Care as I was sure they would agree that compensating us for the airfare and clothing we had to buy for the wedding was a pittance for a company with a net income of $1.97 billion. After all, it was the very least they could do to make up for the total ineptitude of their company, the emotional distress they caused to our family, and the complete disaster they made of our trip.

I had to send all of our receipts to them but we were eventually reimbursed for the clothing. I also sent them pictures of the damaged luggage. In case you're wondering, here's what the law says about damaged luggage:

Destruction or Loss of or Damage to Checked or Unchecked Baggage
Both the Montreal and Warsaw Conventions provide: “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of destruction or loss of, or of damage to, checked baggage upon condition only that the event which caused the destruction, loss or damage took place on board the aircraft or during any period within which the checked baggage was in the charge of the carrier.” Montreal Convention, art. 17.2; accord Warsaw Convention, art. 18.1.

The damage was reported in writing within 7 days of receiving the luggage. Pictures of the damage and documentation indicating the $300 value of the luggage were included. The suitcase was delivered on June 13. The letter was written on June 17th and shipped via 2-day Priority Mail.

I received a reply from J. Wilson from the  Baggage resolution Center dated July 15th (almost one month later) stating that “all damage claims must be reported within 24 hours of receiving the property." This is the Contract of Carriage for Domestic flights. According to the Warsaw Convention Chapter 3, Article 17 & 18 and Rule 28, E of United Airlines Contract of Carriage for International flights, a complaint must be made to the carrier within seven calendar days. Our flight was International and their letter is in violation of their Own contract of Carriage and both the Warsaw and Montreal Convention!!!

Not only did they not compensate us for the damaged suitcase but they made no apologies either. Adding insult to injury, I also received a letter from Annette Nielson in Customer Care on July 8th stating that United Airlines “does not refund used tickets...However, as a gesture of concern, I have included a travel certificate for each of you.” The travel certificates were in the amount of $100. There are no United Airlines flights that cost only $100 so to use these vouchers would give more of our money to United. You can't even fly from Orlando to Miami for $100!!! And the statement that they don't refund used tickets is not true. After the news of their army barracks stunt hit newsstands and social media, they issued refunds for the cost of the used tickets to all of those passengers. 

I wasn't happy with what they considered to be a resolution and I wanted to get in touch with Annette Nielson but this was impossible since there was no contact information for her in the letter she wrote. No email, no phone, nothing. I wasn't even given a claim number that I could reference. I doubt Annette Nielson is even a real person. With the help of a lawyer, we drafted another letter sent on his letterhead, informing them of their violation of the Warsaw convention and their very own contract but I never received a response.

I have flown on so many airlines that I couldn't even name them all. Needless to say, United is by far the worst airline I have ever flown with. If you want to be United with your loved ones and if you expect to be United with your luggage, then whatever you do, Do Not fly with United!!! Ha!

Update September 7th, 2016: Here's a fun article about 2 United Pilots that were arrested for trying to fly drunk!