Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on November 27th, 2014
In my last post, we were just about to board our flight from San Juan to Houston to connect to Vancouver. In writing this installment, I realized it was going to take three blog posts to cover it all. This story of poor service has too many elements and I don’t want to jam them all in and overwhelm you.
As we waited to board the plane, the United representative at the gate announced that the flight was overbooked and they were offering $300 per person for someone to take a later flight. I thought that was interesting because the United flights we took to get to San Juan had been oversold too and they were trying to get people to take an offer and switch to a later flight.
We were happy to get on the plane and be heading home. The disorganized, ineffective manner in which United handled passengers at the San Juan airport had sucked the energy out of most of us. No one was happy and people were frustrated, hungry and they just wanted to get to their seats.
The flight was reasonably uneventful. I worked, read a bit, and kept checking the map on the screen to see how close we were… Then the pilot announced that the Houston Airport had quite a bit of air traffic due to rain and we would be in a holding pattern for 12 minutes. No problem, I thought – we have an hour and a half and our next flight was at a gate that was close to our landing gate.
Then, 15 minutes into our holding pattern, he announced that we needed to continue holding for a few more minutes…
Then, 10 minutes later, the pilot said that we were diverting to a nearby military base. Hmmm. Now I am sure he must have said to refuel, however – almost no one heard that part – everyone in the seats around me started asking questions and worrying – Why was this happening? Is there some kind of security risk? What is going on? Why are we landing there – will they bus us to Houston? Will I miss my connecting flight? It was all quite concerning. Yet no one addressed the clearly worried and upset passengers or clarified anything.
Upon landing, the pilot announced that we would simply refuel as quickly as possible and fly back to Houston. Why did we run out of fuel in a holding pattern for 25 minutes?
The time started to creep closer and closer to our connection flight’s boarding time and we began to worry. I asked a flight attendant, who was passing by my seat, about this and she said: “I don’t know – you will need to speak to someone when we land.” Really? On West Jet and Air Canada flights, when it seems passengers might miss their flights – the flight attendants are on it and even if they don’t have the answer, they communicate on a regular basis so people know they are doing their best. We received no information from the crew – and many of the passengers on this flight were worried about missing their connections, as Houston is a hub for United.
While we were refueling, the pilot announced that he had turned the Pay TV on for the passengers – as a gift from him for all of the delays. And I thought – that is a nice gesture. For the 45 minutes while we were on the ground, we had access to movies and TV shows at no charge. As soon as the plane hit the runway and went back into the sky, the free TV was cut off. Really? We spent another 30 minutes in the air – getting back to Houston International and circling the airport again. I think they could have left the TV on until we landed in Houston. Don’t you?
When we landed, trying to get off the plane was chaos. Unfortunately, some of the passengers either forgot or had no manners and were trying to push their way off the plane so they didn’t miss their flights.
Once off, we stood in a line at the desk at the gate – about an hour – to have the person there tell us she could get one of us out of Houston the next morning at 6 a.m. and one of us could go to San Francisco that evening and go to Vancouver from there late the next day. As United was claiming that we missed our connection due to “weather” and not due to “refueling” and that they were not going to pay for a hotel, we didn’t see the point in getting one room in Houston and one in San Francisco.
I could clearly tell that we were frustrating the woman behind the counter by asking her about better options. She sighed quite a bit and she rolled her eyes twice at my questions. Her voice held no helpful tone – it was sharp with the sound of frustration – directed at us because we had the gall to miss our flight. Let me explain here – we are polite and courteous… even for Canadians. We say please and thank you a lot. We say – would you mind checking to see if this is possible… we keep our voices calm and respectful. We knew she was having a tough day too and did our best to be sympathetic to her situation. However, that didn’t go both ways. There was absolutely no need for us to be treated like were a pain in her butt.
Finally, she said she could get us on a flight that night to Chicago and another flight the next day to Vancouver that would get us in later in the evening. That wasn’t great either. I asked her if there were any flights to Seattle (you know – that major U.S. city just south of Vancouver) and she looked at me like I had three heads… I admit I am making an assumption here, but I don’t think she actually knew where Vancouver was … She looked up Seattle and said she could get us on a flight there the next morning at 10 a.m. and then from Seattle to Vancouver later that afternoon. We would arrive in Vancouver at 5 p.m. We’d miss a day’s work, have to pay our dog sitter for another day, have to get a hotel room, and pay for all the meals. Thinking that this was our only option, we said yes.
In our next installment, I will tell you about the United pilot who thinks he’s funny, the $40 bottle of salsa and how the TSA provided the best customer service of this whole trip.