United Airlines: A Broken System Report

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Before I get back to my post-WOMBAT 2 conference coverage, let me share some quick thoughts about my experience with a broken system:

You see, it just took me 22 hours to get from San Francisco, CA to Greenville, SC, thanks to United Airlines. Yep, United Airlines. Write this down, everyone, and file this under "negative word-of-mouth."

It's too bad that none of the hundred or so travelers I spent the last night and day with don't have blogs of their own. It's okay though, they'll surely be telling everyone they know about their horrendous experience flying with United Airlines for weeks, hopefully months. Maybe even for the rest of their lives.

If they can help it, they'll never fly United again... and neither will anyone who hears their stories.

22 hours - give or take ten or twenty minutes, just to bridge three little time zones.

It only takes about 9 hours to fly from New York to Paris.

Maybe 16 to fly from Boston to Madgascar.

Today, it took me 22 hours to fly across the United States.

I've flown with shady 3rd world airlines that were more efficient than this. Crates of live chicken bouncing around in the aisles. Unmarked cargo being picked up by heavily armed guys with thick beards during unscheduled"refueling stops" in airports you've never heard of. Oh yeah. Even those airlines managed to get us where we needed to be on time.

I think that at this point, we can say that even F.E.M.A. is probably more efficient than United Airlines.

So thank you, United Airlines, for wasting an entire day of my life. 22 hours worth. At the rates I usually charge, that's a whole lot of coast-to-coast round trips I could have banked today. But no. All United gave me was a food voucher for $5. Nice.

Too bad the cheapest lunch dish in the terminal was $6.25.

Thanks a bunch.

As for the automatic rebooking process, as cool as it may be not to have to wait in line to beg for a seat on a later flight, it's a patch, not a fix.

A fix would be to find a way for United to get a significant number of its flights back on schedule. Or a way to keep the flight overbooking problem to a minimum, so that its employees don't have to spend every shift managing angry customers (at least at their Dulles hub).

A company cannot function in crisis management mode every day of the week, 365 days per year, and hope to still be in business in five years. It just can't. This is the second time I have been stranded at Dulles by United. They're batting 2/2 here. 100% failure to deliver on their promise to get me where I need to be in a reasonable amount of time. There will not be a third. I feel pretty confident that most of the folks I traveled with today will also never fly United again if they can help it.

But since I'm all about constructive criticism, here's a free piece of advice for United:

Dear United Management,

Until you are able to get your planes to take off and reach their destinations on schedule, grab some petty cash from the accounting department's pizza budget, and equip your terminals with free Wi-Fi pods. (If I can do it in my house for under $40, if the Greenville-Spartanburg airport can do it, if every $49 per night motel in the country can do it, I'm sure you can spare a few thousand dollars to create hot zones in your terminals, especially in an airport as busy as Dulles.)

Giving stranded passengers the opportunity to at least be productive while they wait beats the hell out giving them crappy $5 food vouchers, and it would be a great way to bring customers back to the disaster you call an airline.

Here's what I saw everywhere today: A good third of the people waiting for late, rebooked connecting flights took their laptops out to try and get some work done pretty much as soon as they reached their gates. Everyone of us went through the wi-fi hunting dance. Everyone of us came up empty-handed and even more frustrated than we already were. Not only were we stranded, we were also pretty-much useless.

I could have posted more of my notes on WOMBAT 2 today. I could have gone through the hundreds of emails that I just don't have the energy to tackle tonight. I could have sent email updates to clients. I could have done any number of things that would have made my day somewhat productive.

But no. Instead of providing us with Wi-Fi, United forced me and the passengers of five flights to airports in the south-east to sit and wait by a gate with a faulty alarm that kept going off every ten minutes or so.

Imagine the most annoying alarm-like electronic screech ever devised by man. Pump it up to 180 decibels. Trust me: As good as your imagination may be, you're only scratching the surface.

That was my experience today. No wi-fi. A broken, eardrum-splitting alarm going off every ten minutes or so. Wild-eyed passengers with airport hair and red-eye breath glaring at each other from their caved-in, ass-numbing seats with the same spaced-out, "I'm going to kill something" look.

After 16 hours, people who didn't expect to waste almost 24 hours of their lives between delayed and cancelled flights either start to laugh at their situation, or they start getting aggressive.

This is not the kind of experience you want to be known for.

This is not the type of psychological environment you want to be responsible for.

Look. It's 2006. We've mapped the human genome. We can send billionaire tourists into space. We can grow low fat avocados and make pigs glow in the dark. I live in what is supposed to be the wealthiest, most powerful, most technologically advanced nation on Earth, but today, I couldn't connect to the internet in two of its busiest airports. Today, it took me 22 hours to do something as simple as fly from one coast to the other. I would love for someone to explain to me how this is even possible.

Better yet, I would love for someone at United Airlines to come to the next WOMMA conference and explain it to all of us.

That would be swell.

Don't give us food vouchers. Don't give us extra baggies of salted nuts. Don't bore us with ceiling-mounted monitors spewing Headline News or Bloomberg TV. Give us free Wi-Fi! Let us be productive. Let us entertain ourselves while we wait and wait and wait... and wait for you to finally get your act together.

On the positive side, perhaps the most interesting thing about my experience today is that United's employees had nothing to do with the problem. They were visibly stressed out by it as much as we were. Pilots, cabin crews, terminal personnel, they were all victims as well. We were all, customers and employees trapped together in United's endless cycle of crap. In its broken system. In the complete operational breakdown that has apparently become a staple of the United Airlines experience. Yep, United's human touchpoints were all friendly, professional, and as helpful as they could be under the circumstances. They tried. They really did. But the broken system they tried to cover for was just too far gone for them to be able to make the slightest bit of difference.

This, boys and girls is the most flagrant example of a broken system that I have run into since... well, the response to hurricane Katrina.


Note: If you ever get stranded for 9 hours in Dulles, here's what you do: Go to the main terminal (baggage check), head downstairs and grab yourself an airport shuttle. (Don't forget to schedule a pickup too.) You're looking at $55 round-trip, but it's worth it. Ask to be dropped off at the ultra-posh Willard Intercontinental at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue. There, drop your carry-on(s) with the concierge, grab a map of downtown DC from his desk, and go check out the sights. You'll be within walking distance of the White House, the war memorials, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and a dozen other cool spots. (If it's raining, grab a quick cab ride to any of the amazing museums waiting for you just a few blocks away.) If you don't have a camera, you can buy disposable ones near most of the monuments. And if you don't feel like going outside, having tea at the famous Willard Room doesn't suck.

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