My wife booked us two tickets to Sydney, Australia for what was to be essentially a long weekend (3-1/2 days on the ground). Yes, it’s a long way to go for a relatively short time, but she found decent airfares, and the miles would give her 1K status with United for the coming year. Those of you who travel a lot for your job (as she does) understand the importance of this.
So, the original plan was to fly from O’Hare to San Francisco, have a 5-hour layover, and then go to Sydney. The ORD-SFO flight was scheduled to leave at 3:05 PM, getting into SFO about 5:20. SFO-SYD plane was scheduled to leave at 10:40PM. We got to ORD at about 1:15 PM, and were through security and walking to gate C16 by 1:40 PM.
Somewhere around 2:20 or so, we noticed that the monitors said our departure would be delayed, as the inbound aircraft was delayed. This is precisely why we left a long layover in SFO; this time of year ORD is a mess. Close to 3:00, we were told that the inbound aircraft was going to be diverted to a different gate, to be used for a different flight. Another 777 was coming in from Frankfort; it would arrive in at the international terminal, discharge its passengers, get the usual customs inspection, then get towed to our gate where it would be cleaned and reprovisioned. New estimated departure, approx. 4:15 PM. Still leaves us a 4-hour layover in SFO, so I’m not too worried.
Due to the usual efficiencies of the airline industry, this process takes longer than expected. New departure time - 4:50 PM. No problem. Due to Cheryl’s status, we get to board the airplane in the first group, so there is room for our luggage (all carry-on; at least we didn’t have to deal with checked baggage). We settle into our seats to await departure.
Departure time comes and goes, and the pilot informs us that we are all boarded, and the airplane is ready to go, but there is no food and drink on board. Once the aircraft is provisioned, we’ll take off. New departure time - 5:30. Still leaves about a 2-1/2 hour layover, maybe more. The pilot is anticipating making up time in the air.
Close to 5:30 the pilot announces that we have food and drink (yay!) but there is a maintenance issue. One of the cargo doors is bent, and maintenance is unsure whether it can be repaired in situ or whether the plane will need to go to the maintenance hanger. A decision will be made at 6:00PM.
At 6:00, we are told that the plane has to go back to the hanger. A replacement plane will arrive for an 8:30 PM departure. Cell phones come out, everyone grabs their stuff, and we dash off the plane. We are only two gates away from the United service counter, and Cheryl is one of the first to arrive there. We explain our situation to the nice lady at the counter, and she begins the process of getting us on another plane. It takes a few minutes, because according to UA’s computers, we never boarded the first plane. After about 10 minutes, she hands us two cards that show that we have “confirmed seats” (their terminology) on a flight scheduled to depart gate C11 at 6:45 PM. We don’t have specific seats, but we are told that our name will be called at the gate once they determine precisely which seats would be assigned to us. Off we go.
Gate C11 is packed, but the monitors note our names as numbers 1 and 2 on the “Confirmed Seat” list. There are lots of angry people bombarding the agents with questions and complaints, so we hang back a bit. At this point our concern was that they would run out of overhead bin space, which fears were confirmed when they announce that no more roll-aboards can be brought on the aircraft; they’ll have to be gate-checked. I don’t like this, but if I can pick up my bag at the gate in SFO (instead of at baggage claim) I can deal with it. Cheryl gets even more nervous, and heads back to the service counter to see about alternate arrangements. I remain at the gate and we agree that whichever one of us gets something definitive to happen, we’ll call the other. I listen to another passenger also trying to get to Sydney talk to the gate agent. “I have a confirmed seat!” he says. The gate agent informs him that they are still boarding, and to please be patient. Uh oh.
About 6:40 PM, the door to the jet bridge closes, and the gate agent walks off. Cheryl and I are not on the aircraft.
I go to the service desk, where I find that Cheryl is still in line and has not even managed to get to an agent yet. A few minutes later we do, and we are told that we can get back on the 8:30 departure, be put up in a hotel in San Fran, and take the next flight to SYD, which departs 24 HOURS after our original. When we explain that this would only leave us 2-1/2 days in Sydney, the agent agrees to refund our tickets. This was unexpected, but to me was a sign that she recognized that United had screwed up; getting a refund on a non-refundable fare is usually like pulling teeth. So we went home.
I probably should have been more concerned right from the beginning when our incoming aircraft was diverted to another outbound flight. Triple-7s aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, so to be trading them around like that meant that there was already a problem in United’s system, and we were downstream of it. It just didn’t occur to me at the time. Had we known about all the problems with the plane we did receive, we might have been able to get on a 5:40 flight to SFO. Or we might have had enough time to explore getting routed through LAX instead of SFO.
Each individual employee we dealt with was nice enough, but clearly United’s system can’t handle aberrations well. It turns out that the second flight we were put on was oversold; if the service desk agent had been able to tell us, “I can put you on stand-by but there are no guarantees,” we might have been able to come up with alternate plans, but based on her running commentary while pecking away at her keyboard she didn’t know this either. What made me the angriest was holding a booking card that read “Confirmed seating,” only to find out that that word does not mean what you thin’ it means (with apologies to Mandy Patinkin). I’m trying to figure out how I can book first class tickets to somewhere exotic and just “confirm” payment with United. When they ask where the money is I could tell them that the payment was “confirmed,” but I gave the money to someone else.
We have a dive trip to Fiji scheduled for January, and the first leg is on United. Cheryl’s got about 160,000 miles we have to burn, and then I’m never flying United again. They won’t really miss my business, but I’d like to think they’d miss Cheryl’s. Had this trip gone through she’d have reached 1K status and flown United a lot more in the coming year, since upgrades and other perks would be forthcoming. She always travels on full-fare, fully-refundable tickets, which are pretty expensive. Looks like American will get most of that revenue this year. I realize that all the major carriers have their problems, but I’ve never experienced a cascade of fuck-ups like this anywhere else.