Thursday, November 24, 2011

Misery Air: United

It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and I know I'm supposed to feel thankful, but when it comes to flying United Airlines - the big carrier at my main airport, San Francisco International ( I just can't.

My feeling about United ( can be summed-up like this: Misery, thy name is United Airlines.

My wife and I flew Chicago-based United from SFO to Washington Dulles International earlier this month, paying a bit extra for Economy Plus, to get a little extra legroom. That worked out OK, but what didn't go well was the passenger-flight crew relationship. Simply put, the crew on our flight couldn't have cared less about the comfort and convenience of their customers.

The main source of tension was the overhead luggage bins. By the time most passengers clambered on board the needle-thin, single-aisle aircraft - following frequent fliers, military people in uniform, and people who needed help boarding - the bins were full. Seated in row 7, I, for example, had to stow my carry-on in the bin over row 35. I was lucky to find a spot.

This situation has come about because airlines, led by money-bleeding United, have reduced the size of aircraft on many routes, slashed the number of flights and instituted extra fees for everything from extra legroom to checking bags, in an attempt to finally return to profitability. Hoping to save money in tight times, many passengers are, not surprisingly, opting to carry on their bags. The rub: There is not enough space for them. So, passengers struggle with their bags, increasingly frustrated, the boarding of aircraft is delayed and take-off is delayed, compounding frustration.

Rather than help, United flight crews such as the sarcastic, snickering bunch of flight attendants on our overbooked flight, all too often stand idly by, amused by the frustrations of their customers.

"Come on, honey, try again, honey, move it, honey,'' one FA said loudly as a diminutive woman struggled to find space for her bag. Later, in voices, loud enough to be heard by passengers, the FAs gathered in a tight knot and talked, laughing all the while, about a passenger who went fruitlessly from one side of the aisle to the other, trying to find a space to stow a bag. Another FA on the intercom said in a hectoring voice that the plane could not take-off until all the overhead bin doors were closed and if we wanted an on-time flight we had better get the lead out.

Blame the customers - it's the customers' fault for a situation United itself created.

United's largely notional idea of customer service came about several years back when staff had to give back benefits and wages to management bent on downsizing. Employees couldn't strike back effectively at management so they have taken it out on people they can push around - their customers - who, it must be pointed out, are the only reason these disgruntled employees have a job in the first place.

Back on Oct. 1, 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines, creating a new company, United Continental Holdings Inc. In recent years, Continental had forged a reputation for a generally well-run and traveler-friendly company. When I flew Continental in November 2009 from London to Newark, near the end of a round-the-world trip, I was pleasantly surprised by how good Continental was.

The merger has yet to fully finish-up, however, and the can-do Continental culture has not replaced the miserable United culture, even though chief executive officer Jeff Smisek came over from Continental to run what is now the world's largest airline. As a useful piece in the 24 November Chicago Tribune by reporter Gregory Karp points out, the new United hasn't received an SOC - single operating certificate - from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the merged company permission to cross-crew its flights. Until that happens - Karp reports it should come soon - the customer-friendly Continental staff can't blend in with their United counterparts. (

As it is, the frequent flier programs of the two heretofore separate airlines will fully merge Jan. 1, 2012, and the company will soon take additional steps to become one in the coming months. As I and other long-suffering United customers can attest, it can't happen a minute too soon.

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