A note to United Air Lines

(Longtime blog readers — occasionally James writes about topics other than ultralight aircraft.  This post reflects on James’ experience with United Air Lines.  It was also posted on UAL’s FaceBook page.)

Dear United Air Lines:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.  I am writing this to help all of us – your company, myself, other flyers – understand what the problem is.  My hope is that this chronicle of events and frustrations will facilitate change within your organization.

Here’s the facts from a bad experience with United Air Lines earlier this week:

I arrived early for my flight from Wichita, KS to Las Vegas, with a connection through Denver.  The flight was posted “on-time” through your app and on the airport monitors.  As passengers waited at the departure gate, a sense of unease built as departure time approach:  the flight crew had not shown up.  I could hear the gate agent questioning aloud where the crew was.  With each passing minute, it became clear that United did not have a handle on the situation; the ‘on-time’ departure time was erroneous, and everyone was in the dark.  The gate area was filled with expectant passengers; a gate agent was on hand; the jet was outside and sitting on the tarmac.  The gate agent announced that no one knew where the flight crew was, and asked the passengers to please be patient. 

A typical airline-angst frustration settled over the crowd.  Adding to the weirdness was the fact that our departure gate was a re-purposed flight view lounge, complete with random chairs and a series of four wooden rocking chairs.  Weirdness.

A second gate agent showed up, clearly with a little more supervisory tone.  He attempted to diffuse the situation with what was Ill-placed, heavy handed humor.

More time passed.  The scheduled departure time came and passed.  No crew.  No word from the crew. 

The crew showed up 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and avoided the passengers entirely by walking the concrete tarmac directly to the jet.   Realizing the flight was going to happen, the supervising gate agent voiced a quick question to the crowd of passengers:  “Who’s going to Vegas (from Denver)?”.  Several hands went up, including mine.   “We think you’ll be able to make your connection, and if you miss it, you’ll be rebooked on a later flight,” from the gate agent.

[An important aside, from my inner voice:  in my 35 years of flying commercially, my ability to discern how long things will really take is usually more correct than the glib statements made by airline personnel.  I was to be proven correct, again.  Read on….]

After we were underway to Denver, the flight crew announced that we’d still be on time into Denver with a 7:40AM estimated arrival.  The original scheduled arrival was actually 7:25AM.  I don’t know how this fits the definition of ‘on-time’.  My connection out of Denver would leave at 8:00AM. 

I went to my outbound gate, the flight to Vegas had left.  The inner voice had been correct;  I missed my flight!  Because the flight crew showed up late in Wichita!

So I walked over to a United customer service counter.   There was no personnel there; just a series of kiosks.    I used one of the automated kiosks, and it gave me a ticket for a later flight.  I had a conference to get to, and I wanted a better option.   I continued walking to the next customer service counter, looking for a real human being to help me.  This counter was staffed with United personnel but was hopelessly slow with a long line. 

While standing in line, I called the usual Premier customer service phone #, got a real person, explained my problem.  I asked her to put me on another airline.  She was unable to find any option which would help me, and she would not consider putting me on Southwest (they had several flights to Vegas which might help me out).   

As I hung up, I gave up waiting in line.  It would take too long to sift through and get real help from one of the United personnel there.  Too many people with flight challenges and too few United agents to help.

I called the person I was meeting for conference setup and lunch in Vegas and explained the delay.  He took the news of my delay with a fair bit of grace, and I appreciated that.  He would end up setting the conference booth up mostly on his own.

Time passed; I did some email; I went to the departure gate for my reassigned flight to Vegas. 

I was pleased that I’d been able to select an economy plus seat that was not a middle seat.  I’d done this at the automated Kiosk.  (I’m 6’ 2” tall; I always fly in Economy Plus; and I try to make my seat selection early so that I end up with a window or an aisle seat.  Then I can flop my legs away from people.  Good for them and me.)   I had a new printed boarding pass in hand that showed my reassigned flight along with my excellent seat selection.

The flight was called for boarding.  I was in boarding group 2.

The gate agent took my boarding pass and scanned it into the reader.  The system flashed a message:  “record not found” or something similar.  She did it again:  same result.

She spoke to me:  “You need to step over to the counter to resolve the problem.”

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

I pulled out of the boarding line and stepped over to the counter.  An agent took my boarding pass, tapped away on the system, and I heard another boarding pass printing out.  He handed it to me, and explained that I was now assigned to a middle seat in an exit row.  I had no problem with the exit row but I had a big problem with the middle seat.  I also had a bigger problem with the fact that just moments earlier I’d had a boarding document in hand that showed the seat that I was supposed to be in, and it was gone, and so was my desired seat.  And United would not honor the boarding document.

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

Yeah, I was angry.  It didn’t matter how I voiced my anger; there was nothing that could be done.  Somehow, the computer support system for United Airlines couldn’t keep a boarding pass and seat assignment straight for 180 minutes.

Another technical observation:  my boarding pass had a note printed on it that indicated that I’d been added to the first class upgrade list for the flight.  Once in a while in my travels, I get an upgrade to first class, but most of the time, it is just humorous to note just how deep I am on the wait list.  (Upgrades are a rare commodity.)   And so I saw this note on my boarding pass, and I thought I might have an opportunity for an upgrade to first, given the big errors on the part of United earlier in the day.  I looked up at the computer screens showing flight status, standby information, and upgrade eligibility.  My name was not on the list.  Interesting:  a boarding pass in hand that shows that I’m on the list; a situation begging for an upgrade; a computer monitor showing I’m not on the list.  A broken system at United?  It appeared that way.

Let me make some suggestions as to how the various situations could have been better handled.

1)  LEARN HOW TO DELIVER A HEARTFELT APOLOGY.  When you make a mistake (such as the unannounced late flight crew), make a real and sympathetic apology:  you should say “We’re sorry, we screwed up,” or “We’re sorry that we’ve caused a problem.”  Use plain English words, not obfuscation and excuses as was offered:  “You’ll probably make your flight…”  I hate that.  So do most other customers.  The apology should come from the gate agent, as well as from the flight crew.  You need to especially avoid the words that make blood boil:  “Inconvenience” is a pretty good example of a word that now causes most people disgust, as in:  “We’re sorry that we inconvenienced you.”  You haven’t inconvenienced me — you’ve caused me a major headache.  I had some pretty good reasons why I needed to get to Vegas on time.  It adds stress to my day, but I can handle it a lot better if I feel like I’m being given good information with good empathy.  If you’d apologize with empathy to me, my anxiety level will decrease, and my comments to other about your airline will not be so disparaging.  And I will be far more likely to book you in the future.

2)  IMPROVE YOUR INTERNAL CREW / SYSTEM COMMUNICATION.  If your flight crew knows they are running late – they need to let your operations and schedulers know.  United has a wonderful system of providing me and other travelers text alerts as to late flights.  But, it is meaningless when your employees have not provided accurate information as to their status.  It is hard to fathom how an employee would knowingly act like that.  Yes, I suspect the crew had a very late night from their inbound the night before.  It is important to differentiate between a reason for lateness and an excuse for non-communication.  They showed up at the plane 10 minutes after scheduled departure, and they didn’t let anyone know they were running late.  (Or you didn’t let us know – but I doubt that.)

3)  USE MORE REAL PEOPLE TO HELP ME.  If you do screw up, provide me with a real customer service person, in person, promptly.  The lines at customer service in Denver are as long as the airport and state are high and, seemingly by design, creates ill will.  (You had an alternate service counter area which had no employees manning it.)  It is maddening when the flight options are disappearing because of the wait time.  Don’t tell me to “see a customer service person”, when, in-fact, that is not an realistic quick option.

4)  HELP ME.  SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY TO HELP ME.  If you can’t solve my problem on your airline, provide me with an alternative on a competitive airline, at your expense.  Make ‘my problem’ into ‘your problem’.  Don’t make me feel like I have no options — because I do.  Flying is a commodity, and the only real differentiators are schedule and quality of service.  As someone who has flown nearly a million miles with you so far this lifetime, and around 30,000 so far this year, can’t you help out once in a while?  Yes, I do wonder if that’s unreasonable.  But I ponder these things after I’m overloaded with cumulative small failures. 

5)  MAKE YOUR SYSTEM WORK PROPERLY.  A little less than 3 hours later, when I presented my boarding pass for the later flight, your computer system could no longer find me.  My reservation and seat assignment?  Who knows.  My assigned seat, which I’d picked earlier in the morning?  Taken, by someone else.  The agent kicked me out of the boarding line to resolve this with a gate agent.  I was denied boarding to the aisle seat on my freshly printed ticket, and I was offered a middle seat in the exit row.  I took it, as I had no option.   And where was my name on the upgrade list?   I did take a moment to vent on the gate agent for the generally poor way I’d been handled by United.  and that takes me to my final observation.

6)  DON’T MAKE EXCUSES.  I told the agent how the crew had not shown up in Wichita.  He started to mumble something about probable overnight problems from the prior day for that crew.  I understand that!  The real problem is that no one said:

    *  “We’re sorry they overslept.”  This could have come from the gate agents in Wichita.

    *  “We’re sorry we overslept, and we’re sorry that we didn’t pass that information on to our flight scheduling.”  This should have come from the flight crew on the Wichita – Denver leg.

    *  “We’re sorry that our system lost your boarding pass and seat assignment information for this flight.  There is no excuse for that; we’re sorry. “

    *  “We’re sorry the system dropped your name off the upgrade eligibility list.“

It boils down to transparency and humbleness.

Footnote:  As I had just entered the airplane cabin, the gate agent came on board the airplane and reseated me to a window seat in economy plus.  I am grateful for that.


1)      Learn how to apologize.  Be real.  Be authentic.  Don’t use weasel words.

2)      Improve your crew / system communication, so that passengers aren’t left in the dark with wrong information.  We’re not fungible material.  And so that you won’t look…  well…  so inept.

3)      Add many more bodies in customer service.

4)      Help me with all of your resources.

5)      Make your system glitch free.  You are a big company and technology infrastructure is an important, if not paramount, part of what you are.  There are no excuses.

6)      Speaking of excuses, don’t make excuses.  Be transparent.

I’ll sign off with the same comment that I started this note with:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.

Submitted by James P Wiebe, Wichita, KS.


3 thoughts on “A note to United Air Lines

  1. An excellent observation about the value of customer care. Jim, I believe you’ve read my blog and are hopefully aware of the frustrations your customers and I have with the cabin build manual. You have a great product, great staff, and the best of intentions. Is it fair to turn the mirror on Belite and ask that you invest in quality of service by improving the cabin build manual?

    • It’s entirely fair. I value transparency. This doesn’t mean that I have the answer you want to hear, but I acknowledge the deficiency.

      Now the good news: we DO have a new build manual coming. I will preview it in my blog starting in two weeks. It was prepared by a fellow Belite builder, and features over 200 photographs, along with part number citations.

      Best Regards


      • Hi James,
        I recently completed my inventory with few issues. Couple of gaskets pre-riveted to a longeron were bent and one “drill skip” that I should be able to fix. Will send pictures, a couple of questions and suggested solutions, etc. in the near future.

        As to the Cabin Build manual. Will everyone have the opportunity to obtain an improved Manuel? Or, will your blog suffice to use as a supplement/adjunct to the existing CBM?

        Really enjoyed you comments to United. I used to fly a fair amount and stopped using United, American, Delta and other domestic airlines for similar reasons. For the most part I now fly with Southwest.

        Have never had a problem with seating, being seated on another airline if there is a problem and have always been treated as a human, not a number or faceless “thing”. Hard to change airlines when one is faced with losing lots of reward points – as I am sure you have earned. United owes you a big one!

        Heading to the barn to work on making my work table “dead flat” before I lay out the first assembly.

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