United Airlines, a SNAFU royale

It can’t be easy running a large airline like United Airlines.  The logistics of moving an enormous amount of equipment and 10’s of thousands of people around the globe daily with so many external factors is more complex than most of us can grasp.  Throw in multiple layers of unions, an abundance of rules and regulations, and managing and training almost 100,000 employees, most of whom are brand ambassadors, and it could be like wrestling a wild bear at times.  It’s hard to win without getting scratched up.  Until this week, I thought United Airlines did a slightly better than average job.  But then they broke trust with me and a plane-load of passengers over the course of several days.

The fares on their direct Newark to Shanghai flights are a premium, compared to lower fares with connections.  Since I’m not traveling for vacation, minimizing travel time is important.  Still, traveling by air is not without the unexpected and occasional delay problem.  But how United Airlines handled a series of delays this week exposed ugly flaws in their system.

Day 1

I arrived to Newark airport in plenty of time for the direct 10 am flight 86 to Shanghai.  The plane boarded on-time and the doors closed.  We sat at the gate for a half-hour before the captain announced that we were not moving because the plane had not yet finished fueling, (even though the plane had been at the gate for plenty of time prior to boarding). 15 minutes later, he announced that they still had about 8-10,000 pounds of fuel left to load (whatever that was supposed to mean to the passengers!).  One-half hour later, he announced that there was a fuel balancing problem which required mechanics.  Almost two hours after that, still sitting at the gate, he announced that they had to switch flight crews as the original crew would run out of allowed time.  At 1 pm, they announced that whoever wanted to deplane could do so while they continued to correct the problem.  At 2 pm, they announced that the flight was cancelled.

Passengers seemed to take the cancellation in stride.  It was just one of those things.  No one was happy, but safety is first — mechanical problems happen.  We were all given options for later flights, but each involved connections which meant arriving in Shanghai later than taking the same direct flight the next morning.  Most elected to rollover and take the next day’s flight.

Day 2

I returned to the Newark airport in plenty of time for the same 10 am direct UA 86 flight to Shanghai.  The packed 777 boarded on-time, the doors closed, and the plane pulled back from the gate.  There we sat for the next 3 hours.  After an hour, the captain told us there was a mechanical problem and it was actively being fixed.  There were precious few announcements and not until 1:30pm did the pilot tell us we had to go back to the gate because the flight crew had to be changed because the delay put them overtime.  While we waited for a new flight crew, many of us elected to deplane with our hand luggage and stay in the gate area (which they said we could do).  At the gate they told us the mechanical problem was fixed and that a new flight crew had arrived, but that the pilots were now ‘out of time.’  They had to call a new pilot crew.   We were told to ‘stand by.’   A new flight time was not something they were willing to commit to.

Several of us looked into options for changing flights.  Still, we were told, sticking with the direct flight was the quickest way to get to Shanghai.  But United’s stories on the ground started sounding less and less sincere.  Many of the new flight crew, although having worked for United many years, had never been to China.  They seemed ruffled.

I then called the United Premier desk and was guided to a flight change option through Hong Kong, which meant an overnight in HKG and a connecting flight on another carrier the next day to Shanghai.  The agent, after putting me on hold, verified my checked luggage logistics and informed me that my checked bags would stay on the Shanghai flight and I would not need to worry about the bags being switched.  United Airlines in Shanghai would hold the bags for my arrival, she told me.  So I decided to make the switch to Hong Kong, which meant being pulled off flight 86’s manifest. I reached the HKG gate during their boarding process, and when the agent gave me my HKG boarding pass he asked about my checked luggage.  I told him what the premier agent told me, that my bags were on flight 86 to Shanghai and I’d collect it there.  The United HKG agent then told me in a condescending manner that bags “must stay with passengers on international flights.”  I told him “yes, but your colleague told me differently” He then said “that’s not how we operate in Newark.  Do you want to believe someone on the phone or what I’m telling you now?”  Because there was no time to have the luggage pulled, I decided to back off the Hong Kong flight and return to flight 86 to Shanghai, which was being re-boarded when I returned to that gate.  However, because I had been pulled off the manifest, it involved jumping through system hoops to get me back on the Shanghai flight, which finally happened as the re-boarding process ended.

After we boarded at 4 pm for the second time, we sat at the gate for another hour.  “What is wrong?” I asked a flight attendant?  “We are still waiting for two pilots,” she told me.  Calculating the time we were going to arrive in Shanghai, then getting to my final destination 3 hours away, meant I would arrive at 3 am — a large inconvenience.  Therefore, I asked the flight attendant if I could deplane.  She told me it would involve taking off my checked bags and if the new pilots came soon, it would make the plane even later.  Given that I didn’t want to disrupt the flight’s already very delayed departure, I told her I’d stay on board, no problem.  At that moment, a guy from the first-class cabin decided he had had enough and wanted to deplane.  The same flight attendant came to me politely and said, “there is a guy who may leave the flight and he has luggage below.  So if he leaves, that means our crew will time out and they will need to change crews again, therefore if you want to leave the flight, there will be plenty of time to do that.”  She was kind enough to tell me this on the sly so I could make an informed alternate decision.

A few minutes later, the first-class guy made his decision to deplane, so I decided to do the same.  However, the gate supervisor then came on the plane and made an announcement that anyone who wanted to leave was welcome to get off the plane and make other arrangements, but that no luggage would be pulled off as the plane door would be closing soon because the last pilot had arrived.  Her statement baffled the flight attendants, who then asked the supervisor, “don’t bags need to stay with passengers for international flights?”  The supervisor told them, “no, not in this case, the bags have been through security, the passengers also, so checked bags did not need to be with the passengers,” the opposite of what Mr. haughty HKG gate agent told me an hour earlier, and the reason I didn’t opt to make that change.  Since no bags could be pulled I decided to stay on the Shanghai flight.  The door closed shortly thereafter and we pulled back and taxied to the runway where we got in the takeoff line.  We could hear one jet after another taking off and everyone was (somewhat) relieved that we were finally on our way after two days.

Except,…as we neared the takeoff spot, the captain announced that we were retuning to the gate because the flight crew was out of time.  There was a huge sigh of groaning throughout the plane.  We arrived back to the gate at about 7 pm and the doors opened.  They told us a gate agent was coming onboard to make an announcement about what to do.  No one came and there was no announcement so we started deplaning.  Dozens of us hi-tailed it to the customer service desk, where we were told to hang on until there was a determination about our flight.  It was officially cancelled again soon thereafter, for the second day in a row.

The only good option that evening was a flight to London at 9:15 pm, with a 4 hour layover the next day,   connecting on another carrier and arriving in Shanghai the second day at 8:30 am.  While that option kept me on the move, it involved two back-to-back redeye flights, so I elected an airport hotel in Newark and to try my luck for the 3rd time in a row on the direct flight.

As I was walking out the airport exit, I ran into one of the flight attendants from the recently botched flight.  “The pilot either lied to us or was very irresponsible” I told him.  “I was just thinking the exact same thing,” he responded.  “I’ve worked for United for 14 years and have never experienced anything like this,” he said.  Why the captain would have left the gate, taxied to the runway and gotten in line if the crew was so close to timing out is beyond good sense.  My guess is that most of the substitute crew had never been to China and probably didn’t want to go.

Day 3

I was re-booked on flight 86, but after checking United’s schedule, I realized they had added a second direct flight within the same hour.  I changed flights so as not to be on the dreaded 86 for the 3rd say in a row.  I also checked with the United agents to make sure my checked bags were on the flight.  One agent in United’s Club confirmed they were on flight 86 “for sure.”   The agent at the gate for 2086 confirmed they were on my flight. Either case, I was assured my bags were traveling and would be in Shanghai when I arrived.

Many of those who showed up for the flight on day 3 did so with cautiously hopeful faces.  And like me, many had switched from 86 because it was full, while 2086 had plenty of space.  We boarded on-time and United employees handed out gift bags for passengers which consisted of a bottle of water, banana, cookie, and a bag of chips.  This was to say “sorry” for the delay ordeal.

Day 3 notice while onboard waiting to take off

Day 3 notice while onboard waiting to take off

The doors promptly shut at the appointed take-off time.  The captain then announced that we’d be 10 minutes waiting for paperwork (why, many of us asked, would they need to wait for paperwork knowing what happened?)  After 20 minutes many of us started getting quite restless, no announcements and the United app showed our flight as having a delay due to operational difficulties?  What?  Finally, 25 minutes after the scheduled flight time, the captain announced that they were having computer problems receiving the flight plan, but they were now sorted and we were ready to go.  Sighs, this time, of relief.  After wheels were up, there was applause through out the plane.

Day 4

China is 13 hours ahead of New York time (in Winter) so the morning flight arrives next day in the afternoon.  Adding insult to 3 days of injury, both my checked bags did not make it to Shanghai.  Three days sitting in Newark, double confirming that the bags were on the flight with me, two direct flights on the same day, and United could not get it together to get my bags on board.  When I called they told me the bags were still in Newark.  They best they can do, they tell me, is get them to me by day 6.


On day two, I spoke with several business class travelers who vowed that they would not take another United flight.  On day three, a gentleman in the next row who has two million miles with United said this was his last flight with them.

Mistakes and delays happen and most reasonable people can forgive human error to a point.  However, bring jerked around for two days made the organization appear inept, not very comforting for an airline.  United’s direct flight is also a code share with Air China, hence most of the passenger are Chinese.  I don’t doubt that many of them will not take United again, as I avoid certain China carriers for some of the same ineptness.

Part of United’s problem is that service is not seamless.  In Newark, prior long-haul Continental flights (now owned by United) are still operated under contract by employees grandfathered on old contracts, which means that original Continental employees who are now United employees can only fly old Continental routes, and vice versa.  In other words, prior Continental crews and United crews are not interchangeable, a huge inflexibility built into their not-so-seamless system.

cancel, cancel, late, late

cancel, cancel, late, late

For me, it was several lost days of productivity, both professionally and personally.  For United, it was a gross injustice the way the ordeal was handled and showed an abundance of employees operating myopically, not as a unified organization.  I have 22 text messages from United Airlines on my smart phone showing flight time changes for flight 86 over a two-day period.  SNAFU’S happen.  But the experience sure did expose a lack of coordination and plan B preparation.  More importantly, breaking trust leaves a sour aftertaste.

Keeping things in perspective, there were travelers worse off than me, with connections both before the botched flights and afterwards.  In the end though, no one died, just several days of inconvenience.  Still, when paying for a service, it’s nice to trust what the service provider tells you.  That was not the case this week with United Airlines.