Sunday, July 15, 2012

Flying United Airlines

Yesterday I had one of my worst travel experiences. My wife and I had made plans to travel to Traverse City, Michigan to be with her grandmother for her 99th birthday. We were traveling with our dog Riley.

We booked the only direct flight from Denver to Traverse City, which happens to be on United. My wife has flown United forever anyway, and is an Elite traveller because she flies home to visit her family every few months, so when we got married I switched to United as my primary carrier as well. We both have many miles built up. Previously I've flown every major US airline, and they all suck. They also all change, so if you switch because you think one is better, you are likely to find that it will be much worse in a year or two.

Because United knows they have no competition on this route, it is a very expensive flight, but usually it is worth it because it save the hassle of changing planes in another city and wasting the whole day waiting on a layover.

Our flight was scheduled to take off at 5:30 PM and at 5:30 it was still scheduled to be on time even though people were still deplaning from the previous flight. United has an extensive updating system, more about that later.

We started boarding not too long after that, so I figured we would still be OK. The plane was a tiny Embraer RJ145. We've flown this plane before, more than once, and never had problems.

Time passes, and passes, and about an hour after takeoff time, the pilot comes out to give us the bad news. It turns out that we are not allowed to takeoff because the plane is overweight. I look around the plane, thinking "how can that be possible?" There were 7 unoccupied seats on a plane that holds 50. And of the 43 people on the plane, 9 were children!


Then the pilot finishes his sentence. "We are overweight because we have too much fuel on the plane." OK, I know planes carry extra fuel in case they get diverted or have to wait to land, but I can't help thinking "on this tiny plane, with empty seats and lots of children, how the heck are we overweight?"


The pilot explains that we have to wait for a truck to come and de-fuel us so we can take off. More time passes. The dog, sitting under my seat, is starting to get pissed off. His tranquilizers are wearing off. Traveling with a dog has become a huge pain in the ass. The cost is like buying an extra ticket, plus you need a vet's letter clearing him before you fly. Plus, no matter how large the plane, they limit the number of pets allowed on the flight. This plane allows only one dog. 



This type of delay had happened to me once before on a large jet. It was the holidays and the weather was getting worse, so in that case the pilot informed us they had been given permission to burn off the fuel, and he turned on the jet engines while we were grounded and we took off a few minutes later.



But yesterday, the pilot appeared again, and tells us that there is no de-fueling truck available. OK, I think, they must not be able to burn off the fuel on this type of plane because it is more efficient and it will take too long. (Later the gate agent told me that the first request was that they just burn off the fuel and that the request was denied.) I'm guessing there is a fine for doing it, as it is a lot of pollution that could have been avoided with proper planning. 


So then the pilot drops the bomb. They are going to have to lose the weight by having 10 people – one-quarter of the passengers – leave the plane. Remember, there's only one flight per day to Traverse City, so this is not an easy change for anyone. He tells us that volunteers will get $500 in travel vouchers (I've used these before, they are a royal pain in the ass) plus hotel and meal vouchers for the night. This is not appealing to us. 


I start doing the math in my head. When they remove people, they are also counting on removing their luggage. Removing 10 people removed at least 2000 pounds (and probably more), an entire ton of fuel. How in god's name could they be so far off in their estimates? There is no scenario in which that would have been the correct amount of fuel. If there had been a full flight, or even more adults instead of children, they would have been even more overweight. They would have to have a flight that was half full to make the weight restriction, but then you would be hauling around another extra ton of fuel, making the flight even more inefficient. And why wasn't there a de-fueling truck? If they had simply burned off the fuel in the first place, they would not be forcing people off the plane and we would have been close to on time. 

A woman comes aboard and tells us that people will be chosen by their time of check in to be removed from the plane. We checked in 24 hours early on-line, so I'm thinking, there's no way it will be us. But there's a catch. Anyone traveling with children will be allowed to stay on the plane. I had started counting children as they were entering the plane because I realized there were an awful lot of them and wondered how loud the flight would get. A quarter of the plane was children. Another quarter were probably adults traveling. And another quarter are being asked to leave the plane. Suddenly I start thinking our chances are not too good.

They start calling out names and about half the people they call have children. Finally eight people are removed, and they get to us. I try to explain how difficult it will be to rebook because of the dog, but she tells us it will be easy and will take about three minutes to rebook, as we can always fly through another city.

My cell phone has been ringing off the hook. United's automated updates began after we had boarded the plane to tell me that the flight has been delayed. Every time it is delayed a few more minutes I get another call (and an email) telling me so. One of them told me it was being delayed less and was being moved up, then while I was listening to the voice mail another one came in telling me it had been delayed even more. I got 13 phone calls about this. All of them came after we had boarded the plane. Half of them came after we were removed from the plane. I have since turned off phone notifications, but you would think United would know when the plane has been boarded and stop sending updates. Or send at least one update before the plane has been boarded, since it was clear at the airport that the flight would be delayed.

It is now about 7:00, so we leave the plane and talk to the ground crew about our luggage. He tells us it will be pulled off the plane and to go to carousel 15 to pick it up. I ask how long it will be and he says "soon," avoiding the question. I ask, "About an hour?" he says probably.

Because of the bizarre timing of the flight arriving so late in Traverse City, we booked a hotel so we could rest before driving to my in-laws' cabin. I call the hotel. Thankfully we were able to book for the next night, but we had missed the 24-hour cancellation window, so we are being charged for a room we could not use.

We go to the gate and wait for our new flight plans. The gate agent says it will only take a few minutes. The first person in line asks if he can fly through another city. The agent says "there are no other available seats tonight to anywhere." This completely contradicted what the woman on the plane had told us. People are really starting to get pissed. And the gate is backed up with several other flights that have been delayed, and there is only one agent to help us. And, apparently, there is some computer problem in changing our tickets because the flight is listed as having taken off even though it hasn't. It took 45 minutes for the first person in line to get his tickets.

It took over an hour to get our tickets. We check again about our luggage and the same guy tells us the same thing, go to carousel 15. We do. Our luggage is not there yet. It is now almost 8:30, three hours after or flight was supposed to leave. Everyone is cranky. They put out a search for our luggage. Amazingly, it shows up a few minutes later. By the time we got home, we had wasted 6 hours dealing with this. I feel worst for our dog, who will have to go through all this again tomorrow. He has to be sedated, forced through security, and shoved under a seat with no explanation YET AGAIN two days in a row. I am really not happy about this.

Perhaps the only consolation is that the flight arrived almost three hours late, at 1AM, which means it would have been a nightmare of a different type if we had stayed on the plane.

If they had simply burned off the fuel, we would have left a few minutes late.  But I'm guessing some bean counter decided that giving out $5000 in travel vouchers, $1000 in hotel rooms, and $300 in meal vouchers was easier than paying a fine for burning off fuel. They neglected to think about how much damage they had done to their own flyers. My wife is looking in to switching to American if they will accept her Elite status and miles. And I doubt any of the other people dumped from the plane will fly United again unless they have to. 

This entire episode was frustrating on way too many levels. We were lied to repeatedly. We were not able to rebook through another city. Re-ticketing took much, much longer than they told us. Our luggage was not ready for pickup when they told us. The flight updates were pointless and annoying. There were not enough gate agents to rebook us efficiently. We threw money away on a hotel room we could not use. The whole experience was terrible.

And today, we prepare to go through the whole thing again.

UPDATE:
Tonight's flight is different, it was scheduled two hours later than last night's. We just got notified that it has been delayed at least two hours because the incoming plane is late. This means we will get to Traverse City at 1AM at the earliest.


Post a Comment