Airline Customer Service
United Airlines hell, first-class style
For every United Airlines flight, United CEO Jeff Smisek offers a welcome video greeting to customers onboard. In that greeting, Smisek talks very highly of the company’s customer service efforts. But, that all went down the drain for me on May 19, 2012, when not only was my first-class seat sold, I was forced to go on stand-by for the next flight to my destination!
I have been flying United for years and am even a member of its frequent-flyer program. The way I was treated on that day is beyond words. As a seasoned traveler, I am aware of airline rules and regulations - when to be at the airport and what time to be in the boarding area for a flight. In my years of flying, I have never had any problems except one incident in London detailed here: http://www.eturbonews.com/6399/air-travel-bluesy-not-always-groovy .
So what happened? On May 19, 2012, I was scheduled to fly from Cancun to Las Vegas via Houston on a first-class ticket. I arrived at the airport way ahead of my 12:30 pm flight, so I was asked if I wanted to take the earlier flight, which was leaving at 10:50 am, but there was a charge of US$75 for a same-day change fee. I was fine with it, so I took the earlier flight. I then received a boarding pass with seat assignments for both legs of my itinerary - 4A for Cancun to Houston and 3B for Houston to Las Vegas. I knew I had to clear customs in Houston then re-check my luggage. I then asked the check-in attendant if there was anything I needed to do in terms of my flight to Las Vegas from Houston and was told, “No, you are all set. Just show up at the gate.” I had over 3 hours to kill in Houston before my flight to Las Vegas, which gave me ample time to get out of the airport and have lunch with a friend who lives in Houston. I arrived in Houston as scheduled (at 1:10 pm), cleared customs within 10 minutes, and I was off to lunch.
I got back to Bush International at 3:40 pm for my 4:08 pm flight to Las Vegas. I had entered through Terminal 1, Gate C, and my flight was to leave from Gate E, so I jokingly asked a TSA agent whether or not I was going to make my flight. “You have plenty of time” is what I was told. Security was a breeze (thankfully, and strangely, there was nobody in line). I got to the gate at 3:45 pm, and the door was closed, but the airplane was still there. I showed the agents my ticket, which had my seat assignment, but they turned me away. I went as told to the Customer Service Desk across Gate E and upon speaking to the agent there, I learned that I had been put on stand-by for the next flight. But, I had a confirmed first-class seat on my boarding pass, then pointed at the plane, which was still at Gate E. She then gave me a flyer, highlighted certain sentences with a marker, and I was told to go wait at the next gate. I got there within minutes and sat down to read the flyer. The highlighted areas stated that for a domestic flight, I had to be at the gate 15 minutes before the flight’s departure time. What? I was well within that time period! I then proceeded to the closest Customer Service Desk to inquire why I was not put on the flight.
“I don’t believe you” were the exact words uttered by the agent within the first two minutes of our conversation. I said I was well within the 15-minute rule, and I had a confirmed seat. The words “I don’t believe you” was again uttered. She must have said it at least five times prompting me to ask her, “This is how you treat your Premier Members with a first-class seat ticket?" It was absurd and made no sense. She then said, “What do you want me to do? Issue you a refund?” I responded, “Yes!” She took my ticket and then gave me the bad news: “Your ticket is non-refundable.” What? Why did she even asked me if I wanted a refund if it was never an option in the first place? Then I asked her to look into the system to check if the flight was overbooked. She glanced at her computer and then she couldn’t give me an answer. I then told her that I needed to get our conversation on video. I told her that I was going to take it up with Jeff Smisek (United’s CEO) and asked for her permission for me to record our conversation. She shrugged and said nothing. I started videorecording, then continued my inquiry. “Was the flight I was scheduled to take overbooked?” You can watch the rest of the “conversation” in the recorded video below:
As to whether that flight was overbooked, the official answer from the the second agent was, "it went out full." Simply put: United sold my seat.
Smisek has been contacted for a comment, but he has yet to respond. ETN will publish his comments if and when they arrive.