Dear United Airlines,
Isn’t it interesting, what humans will put up with for the sake of travel? Being crammed into a metal tube, much like sardines, amongst people with questionable hygiene habits and who knows what kind of illnesses, screaming babies, delays, waiting around, running from one end of the airport to another to not be late for our connections. Somehow, our need to see the world, or visit our families or do our jobs makes us willing to put up with all these things.
In the pursuit of doing my job (and seeing the world), I had the “pleasure” of flying with you last Sunday. Actually, it was a mistake. I thought I was flying Air Canada until I read the fine print 2 days before my flight home and realized it was an Air Canada flight “operated by United Airlines”. I shall of course be more careful to read the fine print in the future.
Here’s the thing, United. You and I, we don’t have a great history. Our sad history together starts not too long after you had acquired Continental Airlines. I was flying to Las Vegas, and the flight out of Ottawa was delayed by several hours, resulting in missing our connection in Newark. Once in Newark, we were “helped” by a very surly employee who at first refused to accommodate us in a hotel, even though the delay and missed flight was due to equipment failure. When this was politely explained to her, she gave us a hotel voucher for a $35 a night hotel in the bowels of Newark. Have you ever stayed at a $35 a night hotel in Newark? Let’s just say we slept with our shoes on and didn’t let anything touch any surface in that room. As a result of this delay, we lost a night in our beautiful Las Vegas hotel (worth about $400), and very nearly didn’t make it there in time for the show we had booked the next day.
Every flight I’ve taken with you since then has been either delayed, or cancelled. This has caused me to miss work and incur additional hotel charges. My favourite event was finding out that my flight home from Raleigh, NC on a Friday evening had been cancelled and I had been automatically rebooked for a flight the following morning at 6 am. Travel being what it is these days, I arrived at the airport shortly after 4am to ensure that I had enough time to get through security and to the gate. It appeared that all was going well. The plane started boarding. I gate checked my carry on. Waited in line. And then we were all told to go back to the gate (interestingly enough, up until this point, the experience was an exact repeat of my experience travelling to Raleigh from Ottawa). The flight was delayed. For how long, nobody knew. It took forever for the crew to retrieve the gate checked luggage. We waited for hours to find out that the flight was in fact cancelled. You can imagine my happiness at finding out that I arrived at the airport for a 6am flight to find out at noon that in fact I would not be flying out until that evening. At that point, I gave up and rebooked on Air Canada. That flight left on time and I actually got home that day.
So, United, you can imagine my trepidation at finding out that I would be flying home from Europe with you. It’s one thing to be stuck in the US, but quite another when you’re facing a 15+ hour total trip. I was sure that I would be spending most of the day trying to find a way home, rather than actually sitting on a plane.
You started irritating me before I even got to the airport. Like any good traveller, I attempted to check in the day before my flight. After going through quite an elaborate check in process that involved getting an app for my phone and verifying my travel documents, I was able to check in, but I was not able to select a seat for my flight from Amsterdam to Washington. Well, that’s not quite true. I was only able to select seats that were in your “Economy Plus”, or as I like to call it “Rip off our Passengers” section. So, if I were willing to pay $132 or more per seat for this “upgrade”, I would be allowed to select my seat in advance. I declined, as thus was issued a boarding pass with no seat assignment.
Once at the airport the next morning, I went to the check in counter, assuming that I would at that point receive my seat assignment. However, that was not the case. I was told by the agent that the seat assignment would be done at the gate. Wonderful. As it turned out, the gate was, as far as I could tell, at the furthest point away from the security check point as possible. My Fitbit tells me that I walked almost 5km to get to that gate. Of course, that is likely not your fault, United, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. So once at the gate, I surrendered my temporary boarding pass and was told I would be called when they had a seat assignment. So I waited. The plane started boarding. They were boarding by group numbers — 1 through 5. They were boarding group 3, and I still had no boarding pass. Finally, I approached the gate agent, and received by boarding pass, which apparently had been sitting there for a while. Guess what? I had been seated in Economy Plus. And I didn’t even have to pay! I think that maybe customers are on to the fact that trying to charge them extra for one inch more leg room is a scam, because nobody seems to be paying for these upgrades. So lucky me, Economy Plus.
On this United flight, there were tiny little screens for us to watch. They seemed to be showing movies and/or TV shows that had started before we got on the plane. I couldn’t quite figure out how this was supposed to work. I pick a movie and start watching it in the middle? As it turns out, it didn’t matter, since the channel change button on the armrest didn’t really work — sometimes you could press it 50 times and the channel wouldn’t change, other times you could brush it lightly and you’d be up 3 channels. But that turned out to be irrelevant as well, since the screen would intermittently tell me “this channel is not available”. So I gave up on that.
Luckily, I then found out that the app I had installed the night before would allow me to watch movies on my mobile device. In my case, the iPhone 6 Plus. Now, that’s a pretty small screen for watching a movie, but when you’re facing a 9 hour flight, you aren’t fussy. I was very excited to see that Season 5 of The Walking Dead was available, because I have yet to catch up, and thought that I would use the time to binge watch until my battery died (as the plane you supplied did not have charging ports). But, sadly, there was to be no Walking Dead for me, because when I tried to watch it, I got a message that the entertainment system was not available at this time. In fact, I got that same message for all but 2 out of the approximately 15 movies and TV shows I attempted to watch. Good thing I brought a book.
Towards the end of the flight, one of the flight attendants was passing through with a beverage service. He had quite carelessly placed a tray with pots of hot coffee on the trolley, and was pulling it up the aisle, when of course, the tray fell of the trolley, dumping the coffee pot on the floor, splashing several passengers (and their stowed luggage under the seat) and completely soaking the shoes and socks of the gentleman in the row behind me. With hot coffee.
Aside from these annoyances, this was actually probably the best flight I’ve had with you, United. The flight left almost on time, to my immense shock. I got to my destination, relatively unscathed, save for the faint aroma of coffee on my bag.
But let me tell you how it actually can be. By way of my experience a week earlier flying to Amsterdam on Air Canada.
I checked in 24 hours in advance and received my boarding pass AND seat assignment. Actually, I was able to select my seat when I booked the flight. For no extra charge. The screen in my seat worked, was much larger than the one you offered, and provided a wide variety of movies and TV shows that I could start and pause at any time. I enjoyed 2 episodes of Silicon Valley and 2 movies. There were USB ports and power outlets at the seats, so I could be assured that I could arrive at my destination with fully charged devices. No one spilled anything on me. The flight left on time and arrived on time. It was as pleasant as a long flight could possibly be.
Now, I know many people complain about Air Canada. Certainly, I’ve had my share of issues with them, as I’ve flown with them a lot, and mistakes are bound to be made. But in almost every case, I have been in some way compensated for my inconvenience, often without having to ask.
You can do better United. Please try to do better.
Until then, I will continue to do my best to avoid you.