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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A letter to the CEO of United Airlines

Jeff Smisek
CEO, Continental/United Airlines
77 West Wacker
Chicago, IL

Dear Mr. Smisek

I recently flew with your company on a trip from Denver to Frankfurt. It was the big leg of a trip I often make, from Boulder, Colo., to Berlin, where my family lives. Usually I fly with Lufthansa, but this time I opted for the home-grown firm, and I thought you might like to hear about one of your customer’s experiences.

First off, let me give a hearty and sincere “Thank You!” for getting me across the Atlantic Ocean in one piece. I do realize things could have turned out a lot worse, and I’m grateful that your pilots kept the plane in the air. They are to be commended.

I wish I could go on to say how you put your German counterparts to shame in other departments. I cannot.

In hindsight, I’d have to say that my problems began in Denver, while I waited to board and one of your employees asked that passengers volunteer to check their carry-on luggage. Since only a few of my compatriots stepped up, I decided I should pitch in. It worried me a bit, because my carry-on had all my clothes for the next five weeks in it, including my only winter coat (it’s cold in Berlin) and a brand-new camera. But I figured if you could get a multi-million dollar jet over the ocean, you should be able to do the same with my bag. Besides, I was less than enthusiastic about participating in the battle for the overhead bins, which almost never ends well.

The Denver to Dulles leg went splendidly, thank you. And the movie wasn’t even half bad, despite the fact that the censors dubbed “jackhole” in the place of “a#@hole,” which really doesn’t work well. I did have a fairly tight connection, so I got a nice jog in through the Dulles terminal -- always nice to stretch the legs during such a trip -- arriving at the gate just in time to board the flight to Frankfurt. I settled into my seat, and prepared for the long ride. Then I noticed that everyone else was watching movies on their video monitors. I also noticed my monitor was producing a never-ending stream of gobbledygook. At first, I figured it would fix itself as soon as we took off. Except we never took off.

After we had waited for about 45 minutes, the pilot announced that there were mechanical problems with the plane and we would have to wait another hour before takeoff. I’m 100 percent in favor of fixing mechanical problems before takeoff, even if it means a bit of a wait. After all, a few days earlier, one of your planes had an emergency landing in Grand Junction on its way from Denver to L.A. because of a bad engine. Such a landing in the ocean or on a Greenland glacier would be decidedly less pleasant, especially since I did not have access to my aforementioned winter coat. My building anxiety (flying scares me in the best conditions) would have been eased had I been able to watch a movie or, even better, have a nice, stiff drink. Yet my video monitor was still on the fritz (everyone else’s still worked fine), and the only alcohol flowing was among the plutocrats in first class. I pushed my flight-attendant call button repeatedly, to no avail. Finally, after the hour was up, the plane was fixed and we were getting ready (again) for takeoff, I hailed a passing flight attendant. He looked at my monitor and said, “Well, it might work later.” I explained that it hadn’t worked for over an hour. “Okay,” he said, already a bit impatient, “I’ll try to reset it.” He did. It worked, and I got to see the first part of Contagion, a movie I have been wanting to see, even if it is a questionable choice on an overseas flight filled with germ-carriers. 

Or at least it worked until the PA sparked up with another announcement: The problem with the pressurization/air-conditioning was not fixed, after all. The wait would continue. I tried to get back to the movie, but my video monitor was broken again. I flagged down another flight attendant. She reset the monitor. Back to Contagion and a now-building anxiety, on many fronts. Instead of handing out free cocktails, as they should have done after we had sat in the plane for nearly two hours, the flight attendants handed out free pretzels.

The PA kept kicking in to tell us that we would have to continue to wait, sending my video monitor into gobbledygook each time. Finally, after we had been on the plane for approximately three hours, we were told that we were switching planes. We de-boarded. We waited at our new gate for another hour and a half. We were told we had to board very orderly, and quickly, or else the flight would be cancelled. Yet we were also forced to wait until all the first class folks leisurely made their way onto the plane. We took off, a mere 4.5 hours late. This time my video monitor worked, but Contagion, the movie I had made it halfway through, was not a choice. I did note, with relief, that the delay gave the baggage folks plenty of time to get my luggage onto the correct plane.

I paid $1212 for this flight. Typically, I pay about the same for the Denver nonstop-to-Frankfurt (and then to Berlin) on Lufthansa. On Lufthansa, even those in the coach-class are offered warm, wet towels before meals to wash their hands and refresh their faces. Then the pre-dinner drinks -- including a variety of cocktails and wine -- come, free of charge. The food is airplane food, but it’s usually quite edible, even tasty. Wine is offered, free, during meals, and flight attendants are always happy to top off your glass. After dinner, they bring around Calvados and Bailey’s. Yes, it, too, is free, or rather, it’s included in the price of the ticket.

On United, I received a meal that would have violated the Eighth Amendment had it been served in a maximum security prison. The “pasta” was mushy, covered with some sort of pea and tomato sauce that could only have been concocted from the plate-scrapings of last month’s first class offerings. It was so lacking in flavor that I used my entire salt and pepper packets to make it edible, and even still I barely choked it down. The bread roll was styrofoam-white and cold; the “spread” some strange dairy/soy stuff that made margarine seem like a delicacy. I ordered a wine to try to wash it down, and to her credit, the flight attendant offered me one free glass (normally $7 for some cheap swill that pairs best with beans and weenies heated up in a can under a bridge) “because of the delay.” Now, I know it’s not easy to run an airline in these hard times, and you’re just cutting costs where you can. But I also know that you got paid $4.4 million last year; it just seems like maybe you could put, oh, I don’t know, $.1 million of that into coming up with at least quasi-edible food for your customers. Maybe?

My original plan had been to get to Frankfurt, collect my luggage and make it to the train -- where a first-class berth awaited me courtesy of a special online offer -- just in time to zip off to Berlin. I wanted to use the opportunity to use the aforementioned camera to shoot some video of the German landscape sliding by for a project I’m working on. I got to Frankfurt alright (4.5 hours late). The former-carry-on-but-checked-at-the-gate luggage, containing aforementioned camera, clothes and winter coat, did not.

I staggered out of the baggage claim (22 hours had passed since I embarked on my travels) and found a credit card pay-phone on which to call my wife to tell her how late I’d be. My repeated, very expensive attempts at the call (I had the wrong number) apparently alarmed my bank back home, which triggered the deactivation of said credit card. Not knowing that, I headed to the train ticket counter, where I was told that my special offer ticket was invalidated since I missed my train and I’d have to buy a new ticket, for 194 Euros. My sanity continued to falter, but I took hold of myself, made my way to the United counter, and begged the woman there to put me on a flight to Berlin. Not possible, she said, but United would reimburse me for my new train ticket at some later date. I’m still hopeful this will happen.

I went back to the train office, and told them to put me on the fastest train to Berlin. They ran my credit card. It was declined. I started to see blue spots everywhere I looked, and pressure built in the back of my skull. You see, I needed the credit card to pay for the phone call to my bank to get the credit card reactivated, yet the credit card, obviously, did not work.

Luckily, I had a few Euros left over from my last trip, and started stuffing them into a pay phone at a horrid rate while my bank put me on hold once, then again. Then I was cut off because I ran out of change. I went to a fast-food sausage joint for more coins, and on the next call the customer service rep hung up on me (perhaps because I sounded slightly dangerous at this point?). None of this is the direct fault of United, of course, but had I arrived in Frankfurt on time, none of it would have been necessary, either.

Finally, I reached the correct person, my credit card was fixed, and I got on the train, which turned out to be relaxing and quite enjoyable (and the light was perfect for video but, alas, I had no camera). I arrived in Berlin eight hours later than planned. Too bad they don't run trains from Denver to Frankfurt.

I do want to thank you for the bonus miles I received for my troubles. I am booked on another United flight next month to get back to the States (oh how I wish it were on Lufthansa again), and I thought that I could maybe use those miles -- in addition to others I have -- to upgrade to business class to make the trip tolerable. When I tried to use your website to make the upgrade, however, it told me that I don’t have any reservations (despite the fact that other parts of your website confirm that, yes, indeed, I do have reservations). I’m guessing that when I call, I’ll be told that my reservations aren’t the right kind to upgrade, which happened recently when a friend with a lot of miles tried to upgrade my ticket on the troubled flight I've been going on about.

In any event, I won’t be volunteering to check my luggage at the gate. Assuming I have any luggage that is -- though I'm hoping it's on its way, it remains lost, somewhere between Berlin and Denver. (UPDATE: The luggage arrived intact, 24 hours late!)

Thank you for listening.


Jonathan Thompson