Letters – July, 28 2009

Letters – July, 28 2009

Why United?

I am struggling to find reasons to fly United in the future. What do you think?

I grew up near Midway Airport–when the headquarters of United Airlines was located across the street from the main terminal. While I have flown on other carriers–especially when United does not serve the destination–or simply to maintain my small cache of frequent flyer miles, I have been a loyal United Airlines frequent flyer since 1981. I am a United Million Mile Flyer.

I have supported United Airlines through thick and thin. I have enjoyed the perks of the high flying 1990s with 1K status when it meant something, and I experienced the summer of discontent when the pilots maneuvered to make themselves the highest paid in the industry–not to mention various acts of flight attendant CHAOS through the years. I have enjoyed the privilege of a free international first class ticket when it really was free and when service was superb, and I have endured the cattle car service of Shuttle by United (especially in SFO and LAX) and Ted.

When I reflect on my 28 years of loyalty to United, I know that it was Mileage Plus that kept me coming back–for two basic reasons: 1) the ability to upgrade and 2) the possibility of earning occasional free international first class/business class travel. I was able to enjoy free travel and upgrades made even better because United usually matched the low fares of competitors. While United got my business, I was able to get good fares and perks too.

We all know that the world has changed. Flying is not what it used to be. What the frequent flyer gods give, they can take away. Airlines and many other businesses are fighting for their survival. I understand why United and other airlines have made some changes: penalty for changing a ticketed reservation, baggage fees, buy on board, etc. Now, I hear that they are going to charge travel agents for credit card fees. Yet, they are still losing money.

Why then does United not try to keep my business? Why doesn’t United try to keep me happy and coming back?

United says it is trying to do just that! How?

United claims that it is maintaining the integrity of the premium class cabin by charging more for the privilege of flying up front. United also now offers “Travel Options” like “Award Accelerator” and “Door to Door Baggage”. All for extra cost, of course.

United is charging more for upgrades. Loyal frequent flyers have noticed that when searching for upgradeable flights on United’s Web site, the total cost of the ticket is much higher than a fare found when the upgrade option is not selected. Not to mention that an “upgradeable option” does not mean that a seat is available once the fare has been selected! Gee! Let’s get the passenger to select a higher fare on the expectation of an upgrade (that the passenger still has to pay for by some means), and then–after purchase–inform the passenger that one has been waitlisted for a possible upgrade. Is this a bait and switch crime?

United has also announced that it is lowering the number of miles required for an upgrade paid with miles; however, there will now be a required co-pay which will vary depending on the fare paid and on the distance flown. Thank you very much!

In short, United is making it much more difficult for me to upgrade–the main reason I fly United.

We all know that the world has changed. Flying is not what it used to be. I am getting used to sitting in coach. So, if I am going to sit in coach, why should I fly United? Every airline has coach, and except for last minute fares, most airlines charge less than United. Don’t believe it? Check out Orbitz, Travelocity and the like.

United does have “Economy Plus”. However, they are even selling that to anyone who will pay making it more difficult for loyal frequent flyers to get such seats.

I have noticed recently that even though I cannot upgrade on US Airways, my most recent flights have been on US Airways, a Star Alliance and United codeshare partner. United no longer flies to Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and even mainline flights to Miami have been reduced. Fares on US Airways are usually lower and the US Airways Web site makes it easy to locate lower fares.

Then, if Continental gets government approval to codeshare with United, I probably will not be able to upgrade on Continental either, but even though they have 31″ pitch, I have at least heard that Continental still serves free meals on some flights! Not to mention that Southwest always has 32″-33″ pitch. And, I live only three miles from Midway.

So, in short, if I am going to have to fly in coach, why not go with the best deal? Why go to O’Hare? Since United rarely has the best deal, and many other airlines offer free premium class travel, why should I remain loyal to United?

Since United seems unwilling or unable to offer attractive options, and since we are beginning to once again fear for the solvency of United Airlines (today’s headlines: UAL Debt Pricing May Indicate Liquidity Fears, and UAL Mortgages the Parts), I am struggling to find reasons not to move my business to Delta or American.
Karl J. Walczak

Sleeping on the Floor at 87

The facts are as follows:
– United Airlines does not provide direct service from New York to Paris or from Paris to New York. My return was ticketed to Dulles International.
– I requested a wheelchair, which was provided and then taken from me; I was told wheelchairs are not available after midnight. I was left to get service on my own, with no consideration given to my need for a lavatory or food or drink. In addition, there was no food or drinks available at the airport in the late night hours. I specifically traveled first class so that I could have assistance.
– I placed a request to United for a room and offered to pay for it myself. I was told there were no rooms available. I did not have my cell phone with me to call American Express, but I called the next day. AMEX told me that there were plenty of rooms available, but none that were contracted with United. Consequently, I slept on the floor. I suffer from severe osteoporosis and have two collapsed vertebrae in my neck. I cannot sit in the waiting room chairs as they all have arm rests that put me in a position that gives me great pain. So I slept on a dirty floor, using my hand luggage as a pillow. Certainly not a position I should have been in since I am 87 years old and in possession of a first class ticket.
– The United Airlines podium was closed through the night with no personnel available for myself or any other United Airlines traveler. The entire area was deserted. The next morning at 5:30, the podium opened and I was given a ticket to LaGuardia Airport and was told that was all that was available. I arrived at LaGuardia, but my luggage was at JFK. I was told that my luggage would not be sent to my home, so I took a taxi (the driver had to park and help me into the airport) to JFK to retrieve my luggage, only to find there were several hundred bags to go through. After finding my luggage, I had the taxi take me to LaGuardia where I had transportation waiting to take me home. The taxi cost me $180.
– By the time I got home, I was suffering from an ear infection, and a burst eardrum. Later, after antibiotics and steroids, I had to have both eardrums pierced to drain the infection. Dr. K Etra, who punctured my ears, assessed my infection was caused by sleeping on a dirty, cold floor rather than by cabin pressure in flight. My hearing loss was so bad I was unable to hear the phone or television. After five weeks, my hearing is finally starting to return.

I have been a worldwide flyer with United for over 25 years. I believe United Airlines should take responsibility here to passengers they neglected in the airport. I received a $100 travel voucher as compensation, which in my opinion, falls short of what I expected.

I am writing to you in the hopes that you might be able, in your professional position, to help rectify this extreme lack of responsibility on the part of United Airlines.
Roger Williams

[Note: Mr. Williams also enclosed a letter from his daughter to United Airlines and a letter from United to his daughter. Because of space issues, we are not printing these letters here. The letter from United read in part, “If a wheelchair was not immediately available for your father, a request could have been made of the customer agent to arrange for assistance. With that said, I would like to clarify that when weather is the main factor in a flight delay or cancellation, as it was for this flight, the passenger is responsible for expenses incurred. United does offer a discount coupon valid at local hotels should the passenger decide to leave the terminal. It is reasonable that you father would choose to travel on the first available flight to the New York area after such a long travel day; however, as it would have been explained, when a passenger chooses to travel to an airport other than that ticketed they are responsible for their check baggage.]

Editors’ Note: Mr. Williams, we are sorry to hear of your travel ordeal. At several different points, those who work for United had the opportunity to step up and give you good service, but unfortunately, they chose not to. It is also unfortunate that the likelihood of you getting a much better response from the airline than you already have is slim. Long gone are the days when an airline will look to the comfort of passengers stranded because of weather conditions or other conditions that they see as out of their control. The best advice we can give is that if you ever find yourself in such a position again, find someone who will listen. If not through the airline you’re flying, but through the customer service of the airport. Yes, you might have to spend some money for your own comfort, but you should not ever spend another night on the floor of an airport. We wish you the best of luck in your continued travels and trust that you have fully recovered.

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