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How United Poorly Handled an Aircraft Swap

Sept. 14, 2016
9 min read
How United Poorly Handled an Aircraft Swap
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As a reader points out, United knew about the aircraft swap more than 24 hours in advance:

If you follow me on Twitter or Snapchat, you probably saw the mini-meltdown I had yesterday because of United. Before I dive into what happened, I want to issue a disclaimer about the whole situation. Yes, I understand it was not the biggest of deals — I got home with relatively little disruption. However, it was annoying for a couple of reasons and speaks to the larger issue of customer service at United — one that CEO Oscar Munoz is trying to fix.

Although I'm an American Executive Platinum and Delta Platinum (thanks to the Centurion card), I was flying United because it was the most convenient for my schedule. I recently flew back home from Auckland on the carrier's 787 in business class, and I flew to Brussels last week on the 767 — both perfectly satisfactory experiences. Since I travel so much, being able to fly nonstop at the times I want is extremely valuable to me. I understand that United isn't the most glamorous airline in the world, but when the schedule makes sense, I'll fly it.

When I knew I was going to be in Austin for business meetings, I booked a first-class ticket for $359 several weeks ago. I didn't notice what kind of aircraft it was because my assistant booked it for me. So when I went to check-in to the flight 24 hours beforehand, I wasn't able to select my seat in the first-class cabin, which I thought was pretty weird. I asked TPG Editor-in-Chief and resident United expert Zach Honig about it, and he said not to worry. He said that once it's under gate control, agents will be able to assign me a seat, as United doesn't oversell the first-class cabin, so there was nothing to worry about.

To which Zach replied:

But I did worry a little, so I called United to try to get a seat confirmed. The customer service agent I spoke with looked at my reservation and said I'd have to handle it at the airport. At this point, the agent could have rectified the situation by noticing that something was wrong. This is the big, big, big area where I think United could have really avoided an issue with a premium passenger — the demographic United's really trying to woo. Any airline should be proactive, but even when I called and an agent went through my reservation and they didn't catch it, that is the root of the entire issue. Either United didn't have the technology or the agent didn't care – both are unacceptable.

So the next day, I showed up at the airport and the kiosk displayed a message that read something along the lines of "No coupon can be found." Automatic red flag. I went up to the check-in agent and he called the gate. At this point, I looked down and he had a list in front of him with names crossed off. On the phone he said "I've got customer Kelly here," and then after a few seconds he hung up the phone and told me that unfortunately there'd been a downgrade in the aircraft and that I'd have to fly coach. I was ok with that news as long as I'd get a voucher and that I'd be able to sit in a bulkhead or exit row seat. He said unfortunately, all that was available was a non-aisle seat in the back of a regional jet.

Originally, I thought it was a middle seat, but there are no middle seats on this type of aircraft.

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Mind you, I'm 6'7" — not exactly a body type suited for that type of seat, but I can fly in coach for a short distance in an exit or bulkhead row. Simply put, my frame doesn't fit in a regular coach seat especially if the seat in front of me reclines, which that passenger has the right to do. Recently, I flew Ryanair, and I'll wedge myself into a tight seat on a seaplane for 45 minutes. But from Austin to New York, which is about 1,500 miles and a little more than three hours, I just couldn't do it. Plus, you have to account for not just the time you're in the air, but also the time you're in the seat — boarding, taxi and takeoff and circling around the airport (I ended up circling around JFK for about 45 minutes on the flight I eventually got on) — you're looking at around five hours.

OK, maybe I was a little dramatic...

Simply put, around five hours in coach on a regional jet is hell to me, which is why I shelled out to buy first class in the first place. I wasn't asking for an upgrade here or anything special, just to simply deliver the product that I bought. The coach seat on this aircraft has 31 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width, definitely not enough room for me. I'm writing a book and I booked first class so that I could sit comfortably in the seat and write. When I'm wedged in economy, my shoulders spill over to my seatmate and I can't use my laptop, especially if the person in front of me reclines. It's just not happening.

So, unfortunately, every single first-class option via other routing with United was sold out. This is where when I called the day prior, I would have been happy to choose other routing or seating options. But when you wait until the time of me showing up at the airport, few other options exist. It's a clear example of a customer service breakdown and resulted in some very unnecessary stress just an hour before a flight with very few other options available.

But what made me even more frustrated was United's soulless Twitter response to the situation:

So I had to reply:

So at the point when I knew I wouldn't be able to fly in first class with United, I pulled up Google Flights on my phone and saw there was a nonstop JetBlue flight to JFK, leaving roughly an hour later. I used my JetBlue Plus Credit Card and booked my seat that was in an exit row for $400 — a little more expensive than my original United first-class seat. And my JetBlue experience was great, and the next time I'll probably just book JetBlue to save the money rather than bothering with United.

Bottom Line

If United wants to win over business passengers — especially those paying for a premium fare — it needs to treat them with respect. Look, of all people, I know that things can go wrong when traveling, but I have to say that this experience makes me not want to fly United again. And when I talked about the situation on social media, I learned I'm certainly not alone in that thought. While the carrier claims the friendly skies, I had quite an unfriendly experience with United yesterday.

United ended up refunding me the first-class ticket I bought and gave me a $250 voucher, so I'm ok with that. And to put it all in perspective, I still got home safely and I had extra time to eat famous Salt Lick BBQ in the Austin airport yesterday. So, all's well that ends well. However, I do hope United improves its technology and customer service because I'd like to be able to confidently use the carrier in the future.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.