Unfriendly skies

By Stephen Yafa

By Salon Staff
Published August 1, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

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I'm not a bit surprised to read of United's service problems. I received my worst flight experience at the hands of United this past winter. My flight to San Francisco from Detroit was initially delayed two hours. When we arrived in Chicago to pick up more passengers, inclement weather delayed us again. We sat at the loading dock or on the runway for a total of nine hours before the pilots and flight attendants became "illegal to fly." We might have gotten off the plane, but were encouraged to remain on, otherwise "the seats would be sold out from under us" to people whose flights had been canceled. What's more, they refused to give us our meals or beverages since we were always on the verge of heading out to the runway. When they finally called it quits (after an endless series of teases about our imminent take off) it was too late to get a hotel room. Most of us on the flight ended up sleeping on disaster relief cots in a baggage claim area at the airport. We'd been promised a seat on a morning flight, but when we got to the gate we were informed that passengers coming from Detroit were not reserved seats, and were promptly placed on standby with dozens of other would be passengers. Luckily, our names were called and we took the morning flight and managed to arrive in S.F. 24 hours after we left Detroit. I will never fly United again. I hope they go bust.

-- Kris Spencer

I wish I'd known about the unfriendly skies of United before sending my already-nervous-about-flying 14-year-old daughter alone on a "non-stop" flight from Oakland to Detroit last week. The plane was abruptly landed in Denver and the passengers kicked off to make way for another flight, and -- despite assurances that she'd be supervised -- she spent a sleepless night more or less fending for herself as she was shuttled from there to Las Vegas and Minneapolis before arriving in Detroit the next day. What did the airline offer for her inconvenience? A $6 phone card.

-- Jack Mingo

United Airlines will get me back with cheap fares? The HELL they will!

Over the last 20 years, I have suffered more indignities with United than I care to remember. Like the time I arrived at the airport two-and-a-half hours early for a trip to Paris WITH A BOARDING PASS. That's a guarantee of a seat, right? When I got to the counter, I was told they had given away my seat. I got on an Air France flight nine hours later.

The return was worse. We called United before going to Orly to make sure everything was all right. "Everything is fine," we were told. We arrived at the airport only to be told that our aircraft was in Washington, D.C., and our flight was delayed 13 hours.

United Airlines is legendary for stranding hundreds of passengers at a time in airports overnight, leaving them to sleep on benches or on the floor.

How do these cynics get away with it?

I made a trip last month and, like a fool, booked on United. The flight to St. Louis was one-and-a-half hours late. The return flight to Los Angeles was so late that I ended up flying TWA.

BELIEVE me, given a choice, I'll never fly United again. All they're interested in is filling an aircraft however and whenever they can do it. The customer be damned.

Friendly skies, indeed ...

-- David McVey

Your statement concerning telling customers lies is not correct here at United. I am a flight attendant with United based in Chicago. We are instructed to always keep the customers honestly informed of the situation at hand. Our pilots are instructed to be truthful with our customers as well. I do not know if customer service has been instructed to be less than truthful but I sincerely doubt it. Polls in the past have indicated customers want the truth about delays, cancellations, etc. Management has stressed how important it is to be honest with our customers. With all of this being conveyed to all personnel at United, I find it very difficult to believe that we are being less than honest with our customers.

-- D. Walters

I read with interest you story about the problems United is having. You failed to mention the verbal and emotional abuse the customer service agents have been putting up with for the last two months. Most of us are burned out and very angry at our company and also the idiots who fly and fix our aircraft. The company will eventually give in to the ball busters and they will kiss and make up. But what about us? We have had to put up with the angry passengers. Not one pilot or mechanic has come to us and said, "I'm sorry for what you are going through." They come and go as they please and never have to see or hear what we do. I hope if some of them read this column they at least feel some compassion for the front-line employees who have put their lives (literally) on the line for this company.

-- United Airlines Customer Service Agent
Name withheld at writer's request

I was appalled but not surprised by the tone of Stephen Yafa's article on the labor dispute at United Airlines. Like almost all labor reportage in American media, Yafa's piece was aimed squarely at readers who identify as consumers rather than workers, at frazzled executive travelers rather than frazzled service employees.

Though I fly United and have been inconvenienced by flight cancellations on United, I hardly imagine myself as a "casualty of a labor war." Rather, I'm a partisan -- any efforts to stem the growing inequity between rich and poor and to resist the increasing autocracy of the modern workplace strike me as a bit more important than a missed connecting flight here and there.

The disaster of the employee stock ownership plan at UAL is a fascinating story, and one worth telling. But its moral is about the delusive allure of stock-option capitalism, not about inconvenienced globe-trotters. I wish Salon had sought this more important story.

-- Sage Wilson

Salon Staff

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