I’ve been on a relatively large number of flights throughout my adult life and, because I have horrible luck, have therefore experienced an inordinately large amount of delays and cancellations. So I have a pretty good idea of my natural reaction to a Sunday evening flight being canceled after my flight Friday night was delayed 2 hours: angry crying. I can’t help it. When I’m a little angry, I might yell, but when I’m really mad, I cry. It’s embarrassing and not effective at all because uncontrollable tears do not get across the point that you are furious, but that’s the way it is, and by this time, though I haven’t learned to accept it, I at least know to expect it.
Add in to this scenario the detail that at 6:30pm, United.com claims the 8:49 flight is on schedule, listing a plane that had arrived at 3pm as the one the flight will be using. Add in that when I get to the airport at 8pm and check in, my boarding pass says the boarding time is 8:15. Then adjust for seeing on the departures board that the plane is delayed for 2 hours. Now add in the (lucky) action of me deciding to sit at a nearby gate anyway instead of roaming the airport for those 2 hours and therefore noticing when the other passengers start lining up at the service desk. Complete the picture by watching me go over to see what’s going on and, despite the fact that the sign right above the desk still says the plane is departing at 10:46, find out the flight has been canceled because the flight leading to the incoming flight (not the one they said on the website, clearly) has been canceled.
Now, factor in the point that I understand unforeseen circumstances happen a lot, and they disproportionately seem to happen at airports. Understand that I have come to expect the worst customer service ever from some airline employees. Know that I assume I will need to ask for everyone’s manager before the simplest adjustment can be made. Be aware of the realization that now that United has merged with Continental, the airline is even more terrible and incompetently managed.
THEN–witness me asking, as my flight is re-booked for the next morning, causing me to wake up at 4:30 and get to work late, if I can be put in an earlier boarding group so I don’t have to risk my bag not fitting on the plane and wasting time waiting for it at baggage claim. See how the worker claims that is impossible because it is an automatic process. Notice how, after I keep repeating, “There has to be a way to do that,” about 7 times, she turns to ask her colleague, who answers, “No, I have no idea how to do that.” Then listen after I say, “So you’re telling me no one in your entire company knows how to do that,” and she actually says, “Yes.” (Which is frightening, truthfully–if no person in the whole United Airlines corporation knows how to manually override something in a computer, that must mean the computer programmed itself, and you know how scared that kind of thing makes me.) Finally, see how, when I say, “So all these other people get hotel rooms and shuttles and meals, and I’m not taking a single cent, yet you won’t let me board earlier than my group number,” the woman just nods.
Can I just take one moment here to remark on what horrible customer service that is? I get that these people were overwhelmed with angry travelers who were all missing work and meetings and other flights on Monday morning as a result of their company’s inability to put the cancellation in the system early enough so people could get on a different flight. I understand it’s not fun having to apologize for your company’s ineptitude. But when a customer asks for literally nothing but a boarding group number change and you, for some reason, can’t grant that, you can at least reassure her that when she gets to the gate in the morning, she can probably ask the people there if she can board early.
Because of course she can ask. They probably won’t grant her that privilege because they’re really cracking down on people boarding at the wrong time these days and especially, at least on my flight, walking up to the gate on the rug rolled out for Elite Access on the right instead of the non-rugged carpet on the left (I think people should follow rules, too, but come on–you’ve already announced twice that the right side is for Elite and customers are ignoring you. I think you have bigger issues to deal with while getting a flight ready for take-off than helping people distinguish between their right and left hands. Like checking that people aren’t putting their coats in the overhead storage bins so customers don’t feel the need to rush to board through the Elite lane in the first place). But at least tell her she can ask. Don’t keep repeating, “I can’t do anything.” She already knows United is a horrible airline and will be doing her best to avoid taking it from now on. The least you can do is say, “You can try asking at the gate.”
I didn’t bother asking at the gate because of the aforementioned crack-down on rule-bending. But also, I didn’t cry. When my flight was canceled, I didn’t angry cry. I just calmly told my less seasoned fellow passengers how this happens a lot because airlines refuse to tell customers the truth until the last possible second.
By the way, United, if you see this, for next time, just so you know–when the flight before the flight before the last flight hasn’t taken off by 6pm, you can just go ahead and cancel that last flight. You’ll save yourself a lot of hassle in the long run.