United Airlines’ 1994 misstep multiplied

The less than stellar reputation of United Airlines doesn’t surprise me. (see article) I decided back in 1994 the airlines wasn’t for me. As missteps go, it wasn’t major, but enough to lose two customers that I like to think have snowballed into the airline’s woes of today. Generally, I’m not spiteful, but If the service back then is any indication of what has transpired since, I’m sympathetic to anyone who has flown United.

My story started with the 12 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to Singapore via Tokyo. I was in a buoyant mood at LAX. I had on a new outfit and we had just finished a wonderful three days with friends in who live in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Orange. We were heading back to Singapore for our second year as teachers after a summer of travel and regrouping. We were well-rested and fit.

The warm fuzzy feeling began to wane over the Pacific as soon as the pilot announced an engine had failed and we were heading to Alaska, but soon after changed this to San Francisco. I had just finished lunch and the movie had started. Alaska sounded intriguing. San Francisco–not so much. Besides, my mother would soon be getting on a plane in New York on a flight through Frankfurt, Germany to Singapore.

After we stood in line for six hours, getting re-booked on a flight through Hong Kong for the next day, it was clear to me that my mother would be arriving in Singapore before us. Originally, we were to arrive 12 hours before her. Making the best of a bad situation, I phoned a good friend of mine who lived in Livermore close to San Francisco. He was thrilled with the idea of meeting for breakfast.

The bad situation got worse when one of United’s personnel stood up on the ticket counter, waving a toothpaste/toothbrush kit, shouting to the 30 of us left waiting for our hotel vouchers. “There aren’t any hotels left,” he said. “If you want us to put you up, you have to fly back to L.A.”

Say, what? It was 9 p.m. My stomach was rumbling; the food from lunch long gone. “But you have to hurry,” he shouted over the din of protest, pointing us to the direction of the gate where a plane was waiting. The two Polish women who had somehow become separated from their tour group heading for China after the Tokyo transfer, recognized sympathy in our faces and decided we were the ones who knew something. Their English wasn’t the best, so my husband had to explain to them that we weren’t going to Tokyo at this moment, but to LA. The rag-tag group of us clutched our toothbrush kits as we found seats on the last United flight back to L.A.. So far, the kits were our only compensation.

The flight back to L.A. was accompanied by wine–lots of it. The flight attendants walked the aisles pouring from regular sized bottles. The stewardess pressed the remainder of a bottle into my hand before I got off the plane, patted me on the back, and said, “Good luck.”

By that time, my mother was halfway to Frankfurt. The sour woman at United customer service told me that there was no way they could let my mother know at the airport in Singapore where we were. “Great.” I pictured my mom in a country where she hadn’t been before, wondering where we were and unsure of how to find us. If she followed the directions to our apartment, I fretted that she might not find the key where we left it or know how to turn on the air conditioner. Singapore in August is BLAZING hot. There she would be in our living room dripping sweat with no food in the refrigerator wondering when we might show up. These were the days before cell phones.

Back at LAX, we looked for an airport shuttle to take us to the hotel, arriving there 15 minutes before room service ended. The restaurant was already closed. With the $5 phone card, the airline gave us, I started making calls to Singapore to find someone to meet my mom. The assistant principal was home and was more than happy to offer his help. Barely able to down soggy French fries, and a hamburger, I took off my new outfit so it might look halfway fresh in the morning. Our suitcases were who knows where.

The next day, there we were back at the LAX airport for the 12 p.m. flight. Could we get bumped to First Class after all we went through, we wondered? No! Any travel vouchers? No! Eventually, there we were once again flying over the Pacific eating the exact same food we ate the day before–same menu. The movie was also the same. Since I was wearing the same clothes, it felt like the same day, although this time we did make it all the way to Tokyo where we said goodbye to our Polish women friends who didn’t have a clue about when or how they would meet up with the rest of their travel group to China. No one at United was helping them out.

There was my mother and the assistant principal waiting for us at the other side of customs in Singapore.

What was United’s response to the letter I wrote as a complaint? We were each given a $200 voucher, good for any domestic full-fare price over the next year. These were totally not usable given that we were living in Singapore at the time.

The result of the fiasco has meant I haven’t flown United since. Where the airline made its first mistake was not helping me contact my mother–particularly since those of us who flew back to L.A. were not enjoying a hotel in San Francisco with the other passengers and dinner at a reasonable hour. It was the least they could have done. Since that didn’t happen, something else needed to have occurred to sooth our nerves. I can’t imagine what the decision makers were thinking when they sent us back to L.A. and didn’t bump us to First Class at least on the LA to Tokyo leg, even though there was room. These were two easy solutions that would have kept me coming back. Instead, my alliance switched to Northwest and I’ve never looked back.

The photo by Alan Light is a United Airlines flight in 1987. Things sure have changed.