Sunday, June 29, 2014

Farewell United, it's not me, it's you.

About 1 week ago, I tweeted this message:

Dear airlines. I think it's time we decided to break up. It's not me, it's you....

I have decided to elaborate on the circumstances behind this. Let me start by saying:

I fly a lot…

In the past 4 years, since I started traveling a great deal more for my own business, I have racked up a couple of hundred thousand miles, mostly with United Airlines. Last year I flew around 80,000 miles (which makes me Premier Platinum for those keeping score) and this year I have already racked up over 46,000, and would have likely been 1K by the end of the year. I won’t be though, because that was my last flight with United.

For anyone from United who is reading this, it’s not just the frequent flyer customer that’s disappearing. I also have 2 credit cards (one personal, one business) through mileage plus -- no point in keeping those any more if I am not collecting miles to use. I also have membership in the United Clubs, another thing I will be dropping as soon as I can since I will not be flying out of United terminals most of the time any more. In short, I think I was a pretty good customer.

This is a pretty jarring change - after 4 years of building up loyalty with United, surely I would have to be crazy to walk away from that, and believe me I have had that same thought, but I think by the time you finish reading this, it will be obvious to you, as well as to me, that it is the right thing for me.

Let’s start with the primary reason, when you cut through all of the rest of the long story(ies) below, what is the one reason to walk away?

I can’t rely on them to get me where I need to be, when I need to be there!

That’s it. Reason one of many. Let’s face it, the reason you have a relationship with an airline is for travel, first and foremost, and the service they provide -- to get you there, when you need to be there -- is the only really non-negotiable requirement. Since I travel a lot, getting there comfortably is a pretty close second on the list, and another reason I am leaving.

And it’s not a one-off incident that has prompted this. In fact I have been on round trips with United 5 times since February of this year, and 3 of them have been pretty much disastrous in at least one of the directions (2 while coming home, 1 while flying out). All three are detailed below, but let’s start with the worst (and most recent) since it is freshest in my mind.

Trip 1: UK and Germany

I flew to the UK and the Berlin for 3 different conferences (Java Posse Roundup UK, Devoxx UK and Scaladays). The trip out was mostly uneventful, the single leg ones usually are because frankly there isn’t much you can screw up without a connection in the mix. However, flying back from Berlin Tegel to SFO requires a connection.

A bit of background, I (did) have a lot of air miles accrued, and since I gain them so quickly on business travel, I try to use them for upgrades to make things a bit more comfortable. The trip back from Berlin was no exception - I put up the miles and the co-pay to try and get business class, particularly for the second leg (EWR to SFO) since I knew I was going to be traveling for about 17 hours and that makes for a long day - the hope was to get a bit of sleep on the long internal flight from EWR, and sure enough I got notification that I was going to be upgraded for that flight a couple of days before I returned.

I have global entry and am a pretty practiced traveler, even so when offered the choice of flights I chose to leave myself a full 2 hours in Newark - it was one of the longer connection times offered when I booked the tickets, and since 1 hour is usually sufficient when arriving for an internal flight, 2 seemed generous - however this was not my first “United rodeo” so I figured, play it safe, leave at least an extra hour.

On the morning of my flight back (BTW - if someone with United mojo is reading this, booking code DGJK9D -- Flight from TXL to SFO via EWR on June 19th 2014 - you should be able to verify this and the other facts presented here by backtracking through my mileage plus account). Scheduled to take off at 9.35am from Heathrow.

This is the first recommendation for United. Stop lying to customers. If a plane is going to be late, just ‘fess up and say it’s going to be late. When I see a board saying the flight will be 15 minutes late leaving, but I can see that the incoming plane is over an hour late on the flight tracker, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the 15 minutes delay is a lie.

When that 15 minutes comes and goes, and the departure time on the board has passed but there is still no news coming about the new departure time, that’s just sloppy customer relations.

The reason for the delay? The incoming flight was delayed due to a mechanical problem. This was the case for two out of three of the serious schedule issues I have had this year. It’s not reassuring to think of this many mechanical issues in the fleet either - surely this is above the average across other airlines (I would be interested in stats around this).

We left over an hour late, spent another good few minutes waiting for a place in the takeoff roster, and a quick calculation told me that I was going to be very, very tight for my connection in EWR, if I could make it at all.

Again, this was not a weather delay. Weather can always cause problems (although how you deal with it also matters, United) but this was a mechanical, pure and simple.

When we landed in EWR I had just 25 minutes to clear immigration (which fortunately was quick, thank you global entry), claim my bag, carry it through customs, re-check, go through security screening again, and find the plane.

I saw the flight status changed to departed literally just as I reached the gate, and I was one of many customers in the same predicament, flying from TXL to SFO through EWR - it wasn’t just me, there were several of us.

Second recommendation for United (and perhaps everyone else in the airline industry). It seems that there are a lot of stats games to play around on time departures, arrivals and so forth. The statistic that really seems to have dropped through the cracks, in my experience, is how late you get an individual to their destination when you have promised to do so, through all of the various connections. My flight in to EWR was late, the one going out left bang on time despite there being many people arriving at the gate just as it closed up. Unless I am on that flight, my personal delay time goes way up when that happens, even if the second flight is “on-time”.

It used to be that one of the advantages in having Airline loyalty and indeed booking all travel through an airline, was that if a few minutes delay could make the difference between several customers making a connection or not, the airline would actually hold that plane. Not any more though, all three of the screwups this year are exactly the same: a plane arriving late (2 of them mechanical delays, one was weather into ORD) and in each case I was at the gate at the time the plane was supposed to depart, and in each case it had just closed that minute. Also in each case I left around 2 hours for the connections, so it shows just how regular this pattern has become.

So, my next recommendation: Instead of individual flights departure and arrival times, how about we start gathering booked journey arrival times for the entire journey? After all, once you book a flight and make a business arrangement with a travel company, you are at their mercy for them actually fulfilling their end of the bargain. United seems to be particularly poor at this part of the bargain.

Anyway, I arrived to see my gate status change to departed. I veered off and went to the customer service desk. Here’s where the story really starts to get good (thanks for reading this far).

The customer service rep said there was another flight leaving late that I had a seat on, but I would have to run (it was on the other side of the terminal - a big terminal as it turns out). I wanted to get home, so run I did (with approx 30 pounds of backpack on my back - 2 laptops, long story).

I got to this gate on time…

And the door was even open…

And as I went to swipe my ticket through the reader, breathing heavily and sweating after a 10 minute run through the terminal, the gate attendant, somewhat rudely, said “you can’t go in there!”.

Actually she really was quite rude throughout the interaction. I had already scanned my ticket and I don’t think she liked that - perhaps it shows up as a black mark against her or something. The reason I couldn’t board was that my seat had been given away moments earlier.

I just received my ticket 10 minutes ago! I ran as fast as I could, the plane was still there, but I no longer had a seat.

I was quite annoyed. I don’t know who screwed that up, but it’s clear someone did. If I was too late for the plane, why was I given that ticket and told to run? If I was marked in the system after getting my ticket mere minutes before, did the gate attendant screw up by giving away the seat without looking? (My guess is, that one since she really seemed to be quite annoyed with me - more on that in a moment).

So, I couldn’t board, I was hot, tired, already been traveling for 16ish hours (including time to the airport that morning, etc.) and I asked “what now?”.

Another ticket, another aircraft, another run across the terminal in the other direction because that one was already boarding too.

Originally my plan had be to have a nice little break in EWR, grab some food and drink, read and relax. Instead I sprinted first to one side of the terminal and then back to the other.

Here is where things get speculative. I certainly can’t prove anything, but then again it really doesn’t matter as I will explain below.

I had the absolute worst seat on the plane.

For those who know these things, the very back row in the aircraft is the narrowest. It’s an extra row of seats crammed in to maximize those carrying capacities - the seats have less width than regular seats and I was in the middle one.

Fine, I thought. Bit of a comedown from the upgrade I had originally received verification of about 2 days before, but at least I would get home. I could stand this for 6 hours.

The speculation part is that even though (as time went on) the plane emptied out, people left and boarded other planes, seats became vacant in economy plus and first, and I spent miles on an upgrade (plus, you know, premier platinum, top of the upgrade list, etc.) I still ended up in that last narrow row for the whole flight. I believe that this was some kind of retribution from the gate agent for the flight where my seat got given away but I can’t prove anything of course. Perhaps I really did get her into trouble when I scanned that valid ticket for a seat that was no longer there.

Next recommendation, something really has to be done about the gate attendants. I have met good ones while traveling, but for the most part the attitude that the customers are simply a nuisance to be borne by the long suffering employee is too prevalent to dismiss.

So I sat in 38 B for the flight.

Which turned out to be longer than the international flight from TXL to EWR…

We then sat at the gate for 4 hours due to weather disruption.

I know, I know, weather happens. However, it’s worth remembering that I should not have even been on that flight. The flight I should have been on was already well clear of the weather and on time. Instead we waited at the gate with occasional updates from the pilot for 4 FREAKING HOURS. During that time, the attendants came through the cabin just ONE time with water - I got a half measure through some fluke or bad karma or something. People on the plane actually cheered when the attendants came through with the water - I think that should be a noteworthy item for any crew that maybe they should have acted earlier.

I had run through the terminal twice, and was pretty thirsty. At no point did United tell us the delay would be as long as 4 hours, nor did they indicate that it was OK to get off of the plane. I am pretty sure there are some rules about this now. Consider this a complaint and if anyone knows the rules, let me know.

At one point I did get called forward in the plane - I thought “great, at least I might get a drink as a result of my upgrade”. In fact I got to the front, directed to a seat, then 2 minutes later told that the seat was not mine after all, and was sent back to 38B again. I didn’t get that drink either.

4 hours late we finally pushed back. I did get a lot of my book read, thank goodness for my kindle. When we finally got up in the air, I waited about another hour before bothering my row mate to let me out so that I could go and ask for another cup of water. The attendants were talking in the back. I asked for, and received, my second small cup of water after 5 hours on the plane (and after running through EWR twice).

Because of weather we were originally redirected to Salt Lake City for a refuelling stop. That changed to DEN halfway through the flight because there also needed to be a crew change due to the now extra 4 hours on the flight from its original plan. The pilot explained that the delay would be just 30 minutes to refuel and continue.

At no point did anyone, pilot or other flight crew, allude to anything more than this being a refuelling stop and a change of “one of the flight attendants”. The implication to everyone I spoke to on the plane was this was a stop and go.

The in-flight service finally started about 5 hours after we boarded, probably due to my getting up and asking for water. This was already scheduled to be a long flight (6 hours, one of the longest internal flights) and was now running 4 hours longer (in fact, all told it took about 13 hours from the gate in EWR to the gate in SFO in the end - longer than the international leg).

And of course, there was not enough food on the plane for everyone for a 13 hour flight.

By the time they got back to me well over an hour later, I was at least able to get a couple of extra cups of water, which I drank down immediately. I was also able to buy a very small food bar which was the last thing they had in the inventory - unsurprising as it tasted like cardboard, but after 6 hours on the plane, I would have taken anything.

We landed at DEN, at which point the pilot once again said that this was a quick refuelling stop and a single crew member change. No estimated time was given, but the last we had been told was 30 minutes so I think everyone thought that still held.

One of the flight attendants then came on the PA and said that if anyone wanted to alight the plane to get some food, they should, since there was no more food being loaded on to the plane for the last hop from DEN to SFO.

I decided at that point that I was more tired than hungry (24 hours awake at this point) and so I just thought what the hell - I would wait for the refuelling and read my book some more, maybe doze.

After about 20 minutes, during which the same flight attendant said several more times that there was no more food on the plane and that anyone who wanted food should leave and go to the terminal, it slowly became clear that in fact everyone had to leave the plane. It was apparently not optional, but no one had actually come out and said it.

One of my fellow travelers lost it at that point (wasn’t me, I was too darn tired). He started yelling that United was a terribly run company, no one had said at any point that everyone had to get off which is why half the plane was still sitting there, waiting. He also said that he would never fly United again. Sage words…

So, I got off the plane, and walked around a bit to try and stay awake. Almost everywhere in the terminal was closed (this was around 10.00pm at this point - originally I was supposed to land in SFO at 6pm - there’s that stat about promised vs. real time to eventual destination again). I did find a sandwich, and more importantly a liter and a half of water which I bought to take back on the plane with me - I wasn’t taking that chance again.

We finally set off at about 11pm (I can’t remember exactly but we were in DEN for at least 90 minutes for that quick 30 minute refuelling stop). I returned to my very back seat, enjoying the prospect of my last 120 minutes ever flying with United, because I knew it would be by that stage. I actually looked at whether I could get a southwest flight out of DEN while waiting to get back on board. Even if it was later, I would have paid for it because I really didn’t ever want to fly with them again that much. Unfortunately the SW flights only had standby left so I decided not to take the chance.

I eventually did make it home, and resolved to write this article. I am writing it now for a couple of different reasons.

Firstly, United occasionally sends me feedback requests. In fact they send them every time I fly EXCEPT when they screw something up (so they clearly know when things have gone wrong). No doubt this is another stats thing - send out feedback forms for the success to pump up the good reviews section, and then don’t send out anything for the horrendous failures. For that reason, it seems that writing a public review is about all I have left.

Secondly, I waited a week because we have (or had) lots of air miles earned and I didn’t want them getting canceled out or something as a result of this review. I don’t think it would happen, but it says something about my confidence in United that I thought there was a chance. I simply won’t fly with them again, but my wife volunteered to take them all for a visit to the UK over Christmas, so we spent the lot in one go. Of course, something could still happen to the tickets, but if so, I will be following up here…

Thirdly I want my motives understood (well, in as much as I can understand them myself). I am not doing this to try and get something, be it free travel, miles, compensation or anything else. I am simply not flying United again, so miles or other travel would be useless. I hereby pledge that if any money is involved, it will go to charity - I have strong opinions on money earned vs not earned, and not earned needs to be turned to something good, like charity).

I write this because I feel something needed to be done. This was a pretty poor experience and I wanted United to feel some of the discomfort and annoyance that I did. I am sure this is a drop in the bucket, but maybe someone will read this and do something about it. Maybe that someone will be in United and try and make a change for the good, alternatively someone who is thinking of flying with them and might reconsider for their own peace of mind.

And again, it’s not that this was just a one off. The decision is easy after this last flight: I can’t rely on them for travel, and apparently all my status is worth less than nothing anyway. That makes the decision to start again with another airline very easy. I doubt they could do worse than this flight even with someone with zero status so I will be winning straight away.

Here are the other two screw ups this year, just for completeness. Don’t worry, I will keep these shorter.

SFO <-> AMS -- March 5th and 6th

I was keynoting at a conference in Rotterdam, so booked a ticket through ORD to AMS. This one was a weather delay, so while waiting at SFO, I got off the plane and once again ran (there is a lot of running with United) to the customer service to make sure that I would be able to connect in ORD or to make other arrangements. I had left about 16 hours clear before I was supposed to be speaking to be on the safe side, and as it turned out I needed all of that.

At customer service I was assured that all other flights out of ORD were similarly delayed so there was no problem. I double checked and they once again assured me there would be no trouble.

The flight had wifi, so half way through I decided to check the status of the outgoing flight to AMS.

It was not delayed.

I missed it by 3 minutes…

Now weather can happen, but the point is I tried to recover with an alternative plan and was assured that everything was fine. There is really very little you can do in this situation apparently.

I did get an alternative through my phone moments after I missed the flight. The details were (I kid you not):

ORD to Houston! Later that same evening, then
EWR to Amsterdam the next day a flight that would have got me in too late for my talk.

There was no flight from Houston to Newark in the automated alternative I got!

I made my own arrangements, partly through my wife’s company - a commercial flight planning company, and partially through standing at the gate and explaining that I absolutely had to be there on time. Instead I worked out a route from ORD to LHR, then to Frankfurt and finally to Amsterdam. Certainly not an ideal flight, but at least it would get me there (barely) in time for the talk.

The LHR flight was then delayed for 2 hours with -- you guessed it -- mechanical delays (not weather - it was clear by that time). In fact whatever was wrong with the plane was serious enough that they had to swap planes.

I arrived so late into LHR that I was handed a direct flight on KLM to Amsterdam so at least someone must have heard that I absolutely had to be there by a certain time. Total delay was 12 hours though, very close to the 16 I had left as padding (and sleeping) time.

SJC <-> GUC -- Feb 2014

Through Denver, this is a well known trouble-route for us - it can be weather so I always leave extra time for the connections. We left 97 minutes for the connection on the return flight (United offers connections as short as 40 minutes, we know better than to take those after a few years of doing this route).

Again mechanical delays plagued the incoming flight from DEN to GUC and the messaging was appalling. At one point we were told that the incoming flight was due to leave 15 minutes late. Almost an hour later, just when the plane should have been coming in to GUC, we got the next message that the plane was “finally in the air”. No other messaging in between those two. The flight crew showed up about 20 minutes after that, so clearly they knew the plane was very delayed, but no one at United saw fit to tell the customers.

We boarded, and once again arrived late but with minutes to spare. We got to the gate at 3.22pm, the time of departure, and the gate was closed - there were 15 people that arrived at the gate as a group. The plane was sitting there but the door was closed and the gate attendant would not budge even with 15 of us there. As we waited the status display above the gate proclaimed that the flight in fact would take off 25 minutes late, delayed due to incoming flights! But they still didn’t let us on so I don’t know what kind of stats game was being played there.

I had booked for a group of us traveling together. The automatic rebooking had us flying out the next day, which would not work for the rest of the group (2 had kids to get back to, jobs for the rest, etc.).

The gate attendant was pretty rude in that situation as well…

In the end, 4 of the group booked Southwest flights out that night and just swallowed the extra expense. Jackie (my wife) and I took standby and after 2 other flights, got seated standby on the third (mostly because of my status I think). Upshot is that we were 5 hours late back to SJC.

In Closing

On the three flights described here, I accrued 24 hours of delays reaching my ultimate destinations. There are other incidents I have had as well - last year United went through a phase of losing my bags, in fact they lost them 3 trips in a row at one point, and the customer service rep suggested I start flying with hand luggage only to avoid it happening again. Seriously? That’s your answer?

But ultimately, despite the fact that the last trip was a purely miserable 27 hour ordeal, one that was quite unexpected given my loyalty numbers with United, it comes down to the fact that I simply can’t rely on them to get me where I need to be on time. The crappy trip makes the decision easier, since I can’t imagine travel with another airline being worse than that even without platinum (or equivalent) status, so thanks for helping me make the decision United.

I also won’t miss running through airports, which seemed to be a startlingly common occurrence over the past few years (at no time was it my fault - well - OK it was one time, but I was flying southwest that time and I made it on the plane even though I was 2 minutes late - thank you Southwest!).

If anyone else wants my business, in particular if you are open to transferring status, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, bye bye United flights, bye bye United credit cards and bye bye United club.