Friday, October 14, 2005

Flying the friendly skies

Last weekend I flew out to Pasadena for an old friend's wedding. It was not the smoothest trip I've ever been on.

The trip out was fine, Indianapolis to Denver to Burbank. (Burbank was the closest airport to my friend's house in Pasadena; actually a quick and convenient little airport -- to a point, as I'll soon discuss.) The wedding was great, held outdoors in the L.A. Arboretum, near where they used to film parts of the old Fantasy Island TV show. Lots of exotic flowers and peacocks, which can also be exotic -- unless you have dozens of them nesting in your front yard, as my friend does, in which case even exotic animals can become pests. In any case, it was a nice wedding, and I had a nice time.

If I had been smart, I would have flown back home on Sunday. (The wedding was Saturday evening.) But I thought, what the heck, might as well spend another day in sunny Pasadena. So that's what I did, intending to fly back on Monday.

Intending is the operable word. Come Monday morning, I drive to the Burbank airport, do a quick check in, and settle in for the wait before the flight. That's when I found out about the snow. In Denver. Which is where my flight back to Indianapolis connected.

First, my flight was delayed by an hour. No problem, I had two hours between flights in Denver. Then the flight was put on indefinite hold, due to a ground stop in Denver. (You'd think the folks in Denver might have learned how to handle a little snow, but noooooo...) That's when I trekked back to the counter to try and figure out another way home, one that didn't involve Denver.

Now we come to the first of many reasons why I hate United. The lady at the counter said that there was probably a flight from LAX to Indy via Chicago, but that she couldn't make the changes herself. Instead, I had to call the reservations desk. Why the hell couldn't the lady at the United ticket counter in Burbank access the United reservations system? Isn't that what they get paid to do? Don't they have Burbank on line with the rest of the system? Is Burbank that much of a step-child of an airport? Or is United's entire operational process totally fucked up?

It doesn't matter. I got on my cell phone and called the United reservations desk. Or tried to. United uses a particularly annoying, impractical, and unavoidable voice message system, where it's virtually impossible to tunnel through to a real live human being. After five minutes of pushing buttons and yelling "NO!" into the phone, I finally got hold of said real live human being. (Tip for future use: Just say "AGENT" at any voice prompt; too bad they didn't tell me that up front.)

Said real live human being was a male American, which is unusual these days, but what the hey. The male American on the phone told me that yes, there was a LAX-Chicago-Indianapolis flight that afternoon, but it left in about an hour and a half. There was no way I could get from Burbank to LAX, check in, and make it through security in time. So I decided to spend an extra day in sunny California, and reschedule my flight for early the next morning out of LAX. (No point testing my luck by trying to go through Denver again.)

After changing my reservation over the phone, I trundled over to the airport Hilton, where a gaggle of protestors wearing Ronald Reagan masks were mouthing off about some damn thing or another. I ignored them, checked in, and connected to the Internet to check my email and do a little work; no sense wasting the day. That's when I decided, just for chuckles, to head over to the United website and check out my new reservations.

Good thing I did that.

Monday was October 10th. My new reservations should have been made for Tuesday October 11th. Instead, the screen showed that my reservations were for August 11th. Big difference.

Time for another call to the United reservations center. After punching and screaming my way through voice message hell, I finally got a live human being. I explained my situation, and the person appeared to be somewhat flummoxed. Said he couldn't change the reservation. Said I had to talk to someone in customer support.

Fine. It only took me a half hour to get to this point; plenty of time left on my schedule.

The first person couldn't transfer me to customer support. I had to dial them directly, which I did. After another few minutes of punching and screaming my way through the voice message system, I was patched through to a nice Indian gentleman. He was very helpful. (No sarcasm here; he did a good job.) He listened to my increasingly lengthy explanation of my problem, confirmed what had happened, profusely apologized, said he'd send me a $50 travel voucher for my trouble, and then said I'd have to call back to the reservations desk to make the necessary changes. He gave me explicit instructions on how to bypass the voice message system (hence the "AGENT" trick), provided a magic number so I wouldn't have to repeat my story again, and told me to request a supervisor when I got through. Why customer service couldn't change my reservation, especially after the first reservation agent couldn't do it, either, I didn't question. Bureaucracy in action.

Okay. I redialed reservations, said "AGENT" at the first voice prompt, and got connected to a nice Indian lady. I asked for a supervisor, she said she was one (I didn't question that), then I gave her my magic number. The guy in customer service had done his job, my info was in the system already, and she made the correct reservation lickety split. She apologized for my problem and tried to get me to rent a car from Avis. Ah, upselling.

All in all, I spent over an hour on the phone trying to fix the problem that the first reservations agent had created. Not a good thing. Not a way I would want to run a business. Not the type of situation that would have me seeking out United for my future travel plans.

But my story doesn't end there. I got up bright and early the next morning for my 9:00 a.m. flight. The person at the hotel's front desk said I probably should leave at 5:30 to make it from Burbank to LAX, given the traffic and airport security and all that, so that's what I did. The cab ride took a brief half hour (no traffic at all on the freeways that early in the morning), there was no line at the check-in counter, and no one in front of me in the security line. By 6:15 I'm sitting at the gate area, primed and ready to board my 9:00 flight. It's not like I wouldn't have liked another hour's sleep or anything.

(To rub salt in the wound, I discovered that my original Burbank-to-Denver flight the previous day actually did take off, about three hours late. I would have missed the Denver-to-Indy flight, which really wouldn't have mattered as that flight was cancelled. However, a later Denver-to-Indy flight was operational and there was room on it for me, had I continued to wait in the Burbank airport instead of switching reservations to the next day. C'est la vie.)

The flight from LAX to Chicago was on a 767, which is a plane I generally like. I tried to upgrade to United's Economy Plus class, where you get an extra 4" or so of legroom, but this plane didn't have Economy Plus seating. They did have Business class, but it was all sold out, which meant I had to endure a 3 1/2-hour flight with my knees digging into the seat in front of me. Even worse, my seat was near the back of the plane, where the center seating area starts to taper off, and was offset from the seat in front of me; the result was that the tray table, which would have barely lowered anyway, did not lower into a perfectly horizontal position, instead hitting against my right armrest. This proved to be a bit of a problem when the Wicked Witch of the West, who happened to be moonlighting on stewardess duty, sat a cup of water down on my less-than-horizontal tray. The cup promptly slid forward, slopping its contents onto my lower legs. Cool, refreshing water. Good thing I hadn't asked for a Coke.

(By the way, the entire flight was completely sold out--like all my other recent flights. If the planes are always full, how come all the airlines are going bankrupt? How lousy a businessperson do you have to be to lose money when you and all your competitors are running at full capacity? Seems to me the simple solution is either to cut costs or raise prices. Something's wrong with the concept of capitalism when an entire industry can go under because their prices are too low.)

Chicago to Indy wasn't much better, stuck in a middle seat all the way. Fortunately, that's a short flight -- you barely get up in the air before you head back down again. We were delayed, however, for about 15 minutes because the plane was waiting to be refueled. (Or, as the pilot put it, "We're waitin' for that little ol' fuel truck to pull up alongside us.") I would have thought they'd have that whole refueling thing down to a manageable routine, but what do I know? In any case, I made it home in one piece, and they didn't even lose my luggage.

So that's why I don't like United all that much. Who'd of thought that do-it-yourself customer service wasn't really a good idea?

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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