Saturday, August 20, 2011

United (Airlines) We Stand

Dog tired. Dehydrated and feverish. Too exhausted to think and too eager to get home. The long journey had not exactly been a smooth ride. Occasional air pockets. The chicken for lunch at the airport that could be mistaken for leather. The constant fear of dying midair after reading a book about the exact mechanism by which people die during an air crash. The well built man on my left, whose occasional and unintentional brush of the femur sent faint shivers down my spine.

Long flights were not my forte. I would be too glad to reach home, ensconced in the familiar comforts of my bed. After a wait of a few hours, I was only too happy to be able to catch the last leg of my flight back home. I heard an announcement that didn’t exactly ring warning bells first. The flight was overbooked, and they were looking for volunteers to take the flight the next day. In exchange of wasting my time, they would compensate me with a travel voucher of $400, plus free accommodation for the night. Naah, the offer did not seem lucrative enough to tempt me. Spending the night in a hotel, with the knowledge that my luggage had reached somewhere before I did, and was lying unsupervised, and the hassle of clearing security again, wasn’t good enough to tempt me to volunteer to take the next flight. Why did you overbook your flight dear United Airlines? Don’t you always do it? Last time, you were going around offering almost double the amount, begging people to stop their work and be jobless enough to spend nights in hotels. Why were you so greedy?

No one volunteered. Which responsible person with work commitments would? The boarding started, and I confidently walked toward the aircraft. They scanned my boarding pass, and there, the familiar beep of the scanner was playing out of tune. This is not exactly the chord you sing in, dear scanner. They asked me to step aside, as if I was a convict. It seemed I was a few of the “chosen ones” who would not be allowed to take the flight that day. Since I did not volunteer to miss my flight, the system did a random search to see who had paid less for their tickets, or who had booked their flight long back. I was paying a price for planning my trip early enough, because that is how I paid less for my ticket according to them. This wasn’t good news.

To cut a long story short, they did several things that did not seem right. The women at the counter were curt and rude, and cared least about my work priorities. They did not oblige even when repeatedly asked about what was happening, and why was I picked not to board the flight. Wait, this gets even more interesting. My luggage was already in the plane, and the lady looked at me accusatorily when I asked if I could at least have my luggage, because I did not have any change of clothes with me, and because I was not comfortable with the idea of my bags lying unsupervised for the night. She rudely asked me if she wanted to stop the plane, take out all the suitcases, and find mine, as if I was responsible for my luggage making into the flight, when I was not allowed to. Then she just asked me to sign somewhere, and gave me a gift voucher of $400. Note, when I asked if I could have cash instead, she refused, with her “take it or leave it” tone. Basically, she was giving me a voucher to be redeemed within the next 1 YEAR ONLY on another UNITED AIRLINE FLIGHT ONLY. So if I had pneumonia and could not fly for a year, or if I decided to fly somewhere United Airlines did not fly, for example, directly to Kolkata, my voucher was doomed. I later came home and did some reading, only to understand that the customer has the right to information. Here is what their website says,

If you are involuntarily denied boarding and have complied with our check-in and other applicable rules, we will give you a written statement that describes your rights and explains how we determine boarding priority for an oversold flight. You will generally be entitled to compensation and transportation on an alternate flight.

Another website claims the following:

“The airlines are obligated to offer you either a travel voucher *or* cash compensation (in the form of cash or check) up to a certain value … Most people are unaware that the airlines have to give you that compensation in cash if you so wish. In fact, most gates leave off that little nugget of information in hopes you’ll simple take what they’re offering as a voucher. And most do.”

No wonder they did not bother to explain me my rights, and I would obviously not be reading stuff off the internet the moment they denied to board me.

They offered me a hotel voucher too, a hotel outside the airport. How I got to the hotel, and how much I spent on transportation, was not their headache. Thankfully, I was a few hours driving distance from home, and sometime during my life, I had done myself a favor by learning to drive. Hence I politely declined their hotel voucher, and rented a car out of my pocket. It was more important that I reached home, than stay at a hotel or at the airport for the night. I drove for the next few hours, picked up my luggage abandoned at the airport (unlike their claims that someone would keep an eye on my bags, they were lying unsupervised at the airport), and reached home long past midnight.

United Airlines, you were not flying me in for free, were you? What kind of a service was this, especially after I was denied boarding? I had heard the story of United Airlines breaking guitars (do watch the very enlightening video). If I was creative enough and had the time, I would not just write a song, I would make a movie out of the episode.



Abhishek Mukherjee said...

Not exactly the same, but somewhat similar feelings here:

Biddu said...

I had similar experiences, but nothing of this dimension, with United...I had two consecutive cancellations. The first flight was in the evening, Newark to Sacramento via Chicago. It was cancelled because of weather and then i was booked in a flight the next morning which was again cancelled because the pilot was missing ! I still had another option to fly after waiting 2 hours in the queue!

By the way, where was the flight from?

jestingjousts said...

That's horrible! I've had bad experience with United, but nothing compared to yours. Now I try to avoid United as much as possible. Hope you reached your destination soon after, without further trouble.

~ Krishanu

sunshine said...

Abhishek, that was another interesting episode.

Biddu, they actually do not compensate you if there are weather related issues.

Krishanu, I wonder if there is an airline far more better in its services, or if United alone is notorious in doing such things.