Re: UA Flight #52 to Zurich from IAD on July 5, 2015


Dear Mr. Hand

I would like to bring to your attention a most disagreeable flight experience on July 5 (Flight #52 to Zurich from Dulles).

The fiasco first began at Dulles’ Gate D11 on July 5, 2014. Our plane was apparently downgraded from a larger plane. This meant that many business class passengers were ousted from the flight because the flight was now “over sold.” Gate agents sought to persuade business class passengers to accept alternative routings. Unfortunately, I witnessed these interactions—many of which were incredibly terse and even rude. The staff seemed to think that they were doing customers a favor by offering them later flights or convoluted alternative routes. Many customers who had paid for Economy Plus had also been expelled from these premium seats; however, no effort whatsoever was made to accommodate them without extreme effort and insistence on their part. It is never pleasant to witness such exchanges because, for all I knew, it affected me as well or could have under different circumstances.

The gate agent, Salonikka, executed boarding most ineptly. There were several wheel chair passengers, which understandably complicated the process. Nonetheless it took more than thirty minutes to seat some eight wheel chair passengers. I saw that the gate agents knew about the numbers of wheel chair passengers yet they made no advance preparations to handle them. Everything was ad hoc. Salonikka’s most puzzling judgment call was to defer boarding the aircraft until the last wheel-chair passenger arrived. He arrived about 40 minutes after the scheduled boarding time. In that time, they could’ve begun boarding the plane and boarded him last. Instead, they delayed boarding until he showed up. (It was entirely possible that he had not made his flight, after all.) During this, United sent me two emails noting that the delay was due to “aircraft preparation,” which was not at all accurate.

Under situations like this, you need gate staff who can logically consider various courses of action and optimize accordingly. Alas, Salonikka was unable to do this. Sending automated emails offering inaccurate explanations for the delay only aggravates the situation, I may add.

Forty-five minutes after our scheduled boarding time, she announced first class boarding. And indeed, for some ten minutes she continued to announce boarding for first class. As the first person standing in group 1, I saw and heard it all. After ten minutes, she opined to a colleague “where are the first class customers?” Her colleague informed her that there is no first class on this plane. We were all confused as to what she was doing as clearly there was no first cabin on this plane. She then announced boarding for business class. After all of the business passengers had made their way to the aircraft, she continued to announce boarding for business class passengers. After a considerable further delay, she began boarding the rest of the aircraft.

The aircraft was boarded a full hour after our scheduled departure time. By this time, we lost our taxi slot. We were in the air about 75 minutes behind our scheduled departure time. This delay was not due to weather, air traffic control, long taxi queues, or maintenance: just brute ineptitude exacerbated by insouciance.

As I only had a 100 minute delay, this was all quite stressing. Swiss Air has exactly one flight to Mumbai. Had I not made that flight, I would have missed all of my Monday meetings which was why I was flying to Mumbai in the first instance.

Upon taking my seat, I observed several gobsmacking interactions between customers and United personnel, in and out of uniform. As noted, several passengers who had paid for Economy Plus had been jettisoned from that class of service with the down grade of the aircraft. However, un-uniformed (i.e. not crew on this flight) were so ensconced in those seats. I hope you appreciate how offensive this appears. One of those inconvenienced persons was my fellow passenger, Brian Cousins (cc’ed here).

He was eventually seated in 12 D, in my row. He suffers from deep vein thrombosis and originally had an aisle seat in economy plus, which was lost in the reshuffle. At the gate, I witnessed him asking for an aisle seat for some 30 minutes before we boarded. Not a single gate agent cared about this situation or even the severity of this condition. They were to be blunt: flatly rude. They offered to re-route him via London. Only after he engaged the Service Director, Customer Service (Rain Choi, also cc’ed here) was this gentleman able to persuade a United employee to give up 12 D, an aisle seat. The United gate agents thought it was best to re-route him through London than request an employee to change seats?

Once he and his companion were settled into their seats, the three of us began complaining about how abjectly –and unnecessarily—horrible that entire process was. We were not angry. We were mocking the entire process with apposite ribald humor, which seemed the best antidote to the vexations of the entire farce. In fact, the passenger in 12 C—across the aisle—joined the jocose conversation in complete agreement with our assessment; namely, Salonikka either needs some intensive training or a new job.

This brings me the next development in this saga. At least two United employees (un-uniformed and seated in the row behind us in Row 20, seats A and B) had the temerity to interrupt our conversation (which did not include them) to chide us for complaining about Salonikka and other problems associated with boarding and the aircraft change. One woman seated in 20 A (visually appealing, middle-aged, blond, no glasses, average build, in an aqua marine and white striped blouse) got up from her economy plus seat and walked over to Mr. Cousins, who was seated two seats from me. As she leaned into his face, she told him coldly that rather than complaining, he should be “grateful” that an employee gave up his seat for him to accommodate his medical condition.

We explained to her politely but firmly that our continued business contributes to their salaries and that, furthermore, United personnel are NOT doing customers a favor by providing them the seats for which they paid. Her use of the word “grateful” was incredibly insensitive and also flatly wrong. United should be grateful for our continued loyalty and revenue.

Several passengers about me were inconvenienced by the aircraft down grade. Note that Professor Borgardt, who asked to be included on this email as he was one such person who witnessed the various exchanges, is cc’ed here. He has his own issues with his seat change. As I personally witnessed, Ms. Choi actually had to reimburse paying customers for their economy plus seats for which they paid but were denied. However, at least FOUR United employees unassociated with this flight were seated in those seats.

With the aircraft downgrade, the flight was termed “over-booked” and the gate agents were looking for persons to delay or re-route their travel. Yet un-uniformed United staff were seated with priority over paying passengers and were seated in premium seating. In what other business sectors do employees displace revenue generating passengers?

However, the insults to dignity and credulity did not end there. Another un-uniformed United staff member complained about me to the pilot and sought to have me removed from the flight. My crime: telling her and her afore-noted associate politely but firmly that they should actually be concerned about the maltreatment we experienced rather than defend it. This person was seated in 20 B. She was middle-aged, average-build, with stringy, long, dark brown hair and dark-rimmed reading glasses. I noticed upon deplaning that she was not wearing the glasses. She wore a pink and white t-shirt with a scarf.

I was requested by a woman (whose name I later learned was Kathleen) to step off the plane where upon I was greeted by Ms. Choi and the pilot. My typical experience with pilots is that they are thoughtful, attentive and concerned. Not this chap.

This pilot (a slender, tallish man with thinning, trimmed, golden blond hair plastered to his head) was churlish, curt, and without any understanding of what transpired, immediately sided with the unidentifiable employee in 20 B. He threatened to oust me from the plane without even hearing a single word from me. Ms. Choi observed this exchange with the pilot and Kathleen. Had it not been for Ms. Choi who also witnessed this cluster of customer service nightmares, I would have been removed from the plane because of this employee who intruded into a conversation that did not concern her to defend the malfeasance of colleagues, which she did not even witness as she was already on the plane when we boarded.

In fact, most of this discomfiting experience once we were seated happened because the employees in 20 A and B chose to interject themselves into a civil conversation that they overheard and which did not concern them. They could have remained seated and much of the “insult to injury” would not have transpired.

Coercing reasonably displeased passengers into silence by seeking to have them removed from a plane is disturbing beyond words. The cavalier manner with which the pilot would have a completely composed but justifiably irked passenger removed from a flight is stunning and should be subject to discipline. There was nothing in my conduct which was dangerous, menacing or, in any way shape or form, indicative of being an “unruly passenger.” I actually felt as if I was being bullied by the pilot and the women in 20A and B respectively as if I was not entitled to be dissatisfied with the entire experience for which I paid about $1700. Rest assured, had he removed from the plane, there would be a law suit. You should have NO doubt about that.

And with that final flourish of utter indifference to customer inconvenience and maltreatment and even coercion to acquiesce to the same by your pilot, the door closed and we began our taxi. The message was clear: stop criticizing our bad conduct or we will kick you off the plane.

When I asked the flight attendant about the names of the noxious pilot and the un-uniformed persons in 20 A and B, I was told that this is not information she can provide. She did niggardly offer her own first name: Kathleen. That is the only name I can offer you.

As a final coda, as I was deplaning, I explained, in a professional tone, to the two women in 20 A and B that, in my view, they should be required to wear identification especially if they are going to engage customers so abrasively, ostensibly on behalf of United. I also indicated that they made a bad flight worse and that I would be filing this complaint against them as well despite the refusal of anyone to provide even their first names.

Just when I thought the experience with your employees could get no worse: the blond woman in 20A actually said that I was “harassing her.” She continued “Please stop harassing me.” She even intimated that I had been harassing her during the flight. Given that I did not leave my seat until after the breakfast service and that only to visit the lavatory, this is tantamount to a slanderous lie. During the entire flight, I either worked or slept in silence. She further quipped to her associate in 20B that “she’s trying to play the victim.” I encourage you to reach out to my row-mate (Mr. Cousins, cc’ed here) or Professor Gorgardt (who sat behind me in 20D) if you have any suspicions that I was harassing her. (The woman seated between me and Mr. Cousins is his traveling companion and can be reached through him. She too can attest to my actions during the flight.)

To me, the employee in 20A understood that I would be filing a complaint about her and her associate. She concocted this “harassment” story to exculpate herself and, by extension, her associate. This is simply unethical.

It will take some time for my outrage over this ensemble of boorish behaviors to subside. I will be immediately making alternative flight arrangements on my numerous upcoming flights to India, the United Kingdom and Los Angeles (among other destinations) which do not include your “not so friendly” skies. I have been flying United nearly exclusively since 1991. I have been 1K for more years than I can count. (I have myself to blame for these choices.) What in the world is wrong with your employees that they believe this concatenation of execrable behaviors is acceptable? In what business model is it okay to threaten to oust a civilized passenger from a plane and threaten her with allegations of harassment?

I am going to make two other observations. First, if un-uniformed staff-members are going to engage with passengers in an any manner (let alone an noxious one), they should wear visible identification. The absence of identification affords them complete impunity and deprives the wronged customer of any specific recourse. (I doubt you will even be able to positively identify the women in 20 A and B.) If they are representing your brand, they should be identified. There was no reason for these persons to involve themselves in a discussion among passengers who were completely within their rights to vent about the situation especially with humor. I presume United has guidance about un-uniformed staff conduct and interactions with passengers while flying? If not, it should. Despite their absence of uniform, they represent your brand and your organization.

Second, if I were in charge of your customer service, I would stress to all employees who engage with customers in any way—beginning with check-in and ending in baggage claim—that their job demands that they make interaction with United as pleasant and professional as possible. They are the human interface of your brand. They have the ability to make people say “United is great” or “United is heinous.” This employee obligation is even more acute when all that could go wrong due to human error does go wrong.

With that final exhausting exchange with the woman in 20A, I bolted across Zurich airport, hopped on a train, scooted through security and made it to my flight. The polite Swiss Air personnel were a refreshing change. On board, they even offered me Prosecco. This is gratis with Swiss Air. This is your competition for my future business.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not note the complete professionalism that Ms. Choi exuded. She understood the customer’s duress and made numerous efforts to ameliorate it. She single-handedly managed several disgruntled passengers with grace and aplomb. Unfortunately, not a single other person associated with this farce had an iota of her decency and corporate commitment to doing the right thing. I am thankful to Mr. Cousins for reaching out to her at the gate and I am thankful to her for her interventions in my case and those of others. I only wish she had been there during my last encounter with the woman in 20A.

I do hope you address this panoply of issues. However, to increase the probability that you do, I am making a copy of this letter available to my nearly 16,000 twitter followers. In the meantime, I think it’s time I shop my status to other airlines which may be more appreciative of the fact that passengers do have a choice in what airlines we choose to use. Who knows: they may even appreciate my business.


C. Christine Fair, PhD

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