Why You Should Never, Ever Fly United Airlines


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Do you remember eons ago when we took that one incredible, fantastic trip?  (Oh, right, and the travel fashion series I never did because life got really busy?)  Well, we’re going to re-visit that a little today.

I’m really into customer service.  I know, who isn’t, right?  But I mean not just in the normal, I-like-to-be-treated-well kind of way, but in the I-nerdily-enjoy-studying-it and make it a point to call companies out on it, good or bad.  It was one of my favorite things to research and about which to read case studies in both undergrad and business school.  Yes, I’m one of those.

I don’t usually bore others with my nerd-dom.  But every once in a while (and by that, I mean this time) a company does something(s) so egregiously wrong that I cannot, in good conscience, NOT share.

We took our trip on United Airlines and its partner, New Zealand Air.  I’m the first to admit that we flew on miles, so I suppose I’m still grateful we were able to go, but I don’t think that excuses them from any of their bad behavior.  I can say with some confidence that I’ve never encountered an airline that treats its customers more poorly, that has worse processes or attitudes.

The Infant Boarding Pass

We began our trip to New Zealand and Australia by flying from Washington Dulles to San Francisco, and were at the airport well over 2 hours in advance.  In all the times we’d flown with Nat, both domestically and internationally (probably 40+ flights in 11 countries), we’d never once had trouble with an infant boarding pass, even in the remotest airports in Africa.  With United, I am not exaggerating when I say we waited at the ticketing counter for OVER 1.5 hours. The
initial agent couldn’t figure out how to print an infant boarding pass (although we had purchased an infant lap child ticket and paid all taxes and such when we initially purchased our tickets),
so a supervisor came and took over 45 minutes trying to figure it out. He
finally printed out some random ticket, which we found out going through
security was not valid, but they kindly let us through. The supervisor was beyond rude and unhelpful and flat out lied to us by saying there
would be no line at security (we were concerned because it was literally
30 minutes before our departure) – there was no way for him to tell, as the security line is a floor below ticketing. As
it turns out, there was a HUGE line, and we had to beg and plead our
way to the front in order to RUN to our gate (with our baby), arriving 10 minutes before departure, all
through no fault of our own. We arrived at the
airport early with a child because we knew that we would want to get some food and have some time to relax and play, and had zero time to do so. We then had to fly
with a tired and hungry toddler, being tired and hungry ourselves. The United agents even caused a fuss and claimed they couldn’t even give us a courtesy meal on board.

After all this, we found out when we finally got on the flight that our seats weren’t together, despite confirming no fewer than 3 times with the ticketing agent, as well as with the initial reservations agent when I booked the flight.  We had to do all sorts of shenanigans to switch. This was with some of the rudest flight attendants I’ve ever met – they actually rolled their eyes at us on multiple occasions when we asked to switch or asked for something to drink.

Missing Gate Checked Items & Luggage

When we arrived in SFO, we were scheduled to have a short layover before getting on our flight to Auckland on United’s
partner, Air New Zealand (without question, the best thing about United is that they’re partners with ANZ). We had gate checked our stroller and wanted
it in the airport. The agents told us that the stroller, along with all
our luggage, had been sent to baggage claim, even though we’d specifically said we wanted our luggage checked through to Auckland (and had been assured that it would be), and wanted our stroller back in SFO. We obviously did not have time to exit security
and look for our luggage.

Dan tried talking to one extremely unhelpful United agent.  I tried talking to another who was, I kid you not, THE RUDEST person I have ever
met in my life. He was not only unhelpful, but mean and sarcastic. He
told me it was too bad and that I would probably lose my baggage and
that he wouldn’t do anything about it. He sarcastically told me to “call
President Obama” about my situation and actually walked away from me while I was still in the middle of a sentence.

The saving grace was that the Air New Zealand agents were amazing and wonderful and helpful – the best thing about United
is that they’re partners with ANZ. ANZ not only located our bags, but
ensured our suitcases actually made it onto our international flight. They had more workers at their gate than I’ve ever seen, all of whom were pleasant and kind and helpful. They even commiserated (one ANZ agent claimed that trying to talk to United was like “talking to a brick wall” – you know it’s bad when you have that reputation amongst other airlines).  They had an in-flight concierge who gave us regular updates on the status of our gate checked items while en route.  Amazing.  ANZ really is probably the VERY best airline we’ve ever flown – they were all incredibly kind and helpful and patient and graciously brought us about a million snacks. 🙂

Still No Baby Items…

When we arrived in Auckland, we found that while our
luggage had arrived, our car seat and stroller hadn’t. This was obviously inconvenient as we were immediately renting a car and needed a car seat for Nat. ANZ, thankfully, gave us a loaner car seat and stroller (although Nat hated this particular stroller and the car seat was actually too small – his head was peeking over the top – thank goodness we didn’t get in an accident, but we had no other choice). United
promised ANZ that they would put our car seat and stroller on the same
flight the following morning (Sunday). We were headed out of town for 2
days, but were flying back out of Auckland on Monday morning, so
arranged to pick up our car seat and stroller on Monday.

Monday arrived and we got to the airport. We talked to the ANZ baggage folks and found that despite their many attempts on ANZ’s part, United had STILL not sent our car seat and stroller. So United had not put them on our flight arriving on Saturday morning, they hadn’t put them on the flight on Sunday morning, nor had they put them on
the flight that arrived on Monday morning. Three missed chances! We were flying out of Auckland and would be gone a
whole week, so we had to use the old, beat up, incorrectly
sized stroller/car seat for an entire week.


No Bassinet

Fast forward to our flight home from Sydney to SFO, which was on United. I had confirmed
with the reservation agent when booking the flight, I had confirmed when
calling in several days before our trip, I had confirmed with the
agent at the ticketing counter at check-in that we would ABSOLUTELY be
in the bulkhead row in a place where there was a bassinet attachment (I even asked about that in particular, because I know not all bulkhead spots have bassinet attachments – for instance, certain aircraft have side bassinet spots, while some only have them in the middle). When we boarded our flight, we found that while we were in a
bulkhead row, we were in the side section; the bassinet attachments were
only in the middle on this particular aircraft. We tried asking the couple in the middle
if they would switch (we had middle & aisle seats, as did they), but
they refused.

The flight attendant told us there were also floor bassinets, & that he would bring us one. Airlines never let adults even lie down on the floor of the aircraft, even in
the bulkhead row, so I was surprised by and uncomfortable with this.
Even if this was a possibility, he never brought us anything despite
our many requests. He also said he would
ask someone to switch with us in another cabin, which he also never did. I
finally walked back and asked them again, & another agent went into
the cabin behind ours and asked them to switch. It was not as
comfortable (we were originally in Economy Plus seating), but at least
we had the bassinet (a lifesaver, as Nat slept for 9 hours). Three different parties
had to switch to get us there, though, when we simply should have been there in
the first place. This all finally happened 1.5 hours into the
flight, after Nat was asleep and it woke him to move around –
frustrating for us and the other passengers.

So we finally switched to
seats that had a bassinet attachment, but still had no bassinet brought to us.

We waited in our new seats for 30 minutes (and a baby who had fitfully been trying to sleep for 2
hours of the flight) before Dan finally got up and asked the flight
attendants for a bassinet. They were incredibly rude and acted like he was bothering
them to no end – perhaps they should have brought us the bassinet in the
first place, the whole reason for the seat switch. When Dan
went back there, one of the flight attendants actually commented, “Your wife didn’t get what she wanted, so she sent
the husband?” First, I did finally get the seat we
had requested 6+ times, the one we should have had from the beginning.
Second, Dan was requesting it because they had clearly forgotten
about us AGAIN and we needed the bassinet – the whole reason we
were sitting there!  They finally brought us the bassinet (not without attitude) and Nat was finally able to sleep (albeit under the giant, bright screen as United is the only international carrier I’ve encountered that still doesn’t have personal screens in the seat backs).

The flight attendants continued to be incredibly rude on the entire
trip. They refused to be helpful at all, kept making obnoxious comments,
and would give patronizing and disdainful looks. They also did not have
a vegetarian meal for Dan, although we had requested them for both
of us.


Checking Bags and An Almost-Missed Flight

We had a 24 hour+ layover in SFO because a
flight back to Washington wasn’t available on the day of our arrival.
We knew this ahead of time, of course, and had made arrangements to stay overnight. We
arrived at the airport for our domestic flight from SFO-IAD with plenty
of time. We waited in an incredibly long line and tried to check in at
the kiosk. The machine kept telling us, however, that we would need to
pay for our checked bags – absurd, since we were coming from an
international connection. United was well aware that the lengthy layover was because of their availability, and the system should have allowed us to check our bags
free of charge, as the agent had assured us it would when we booked our flights. The nice baggage guy told us we had to walk down to another ticketing agent,
so we waited in line and finally talked to her. She literally
spent 20 minutes looking at her computer and couldn’t figure it out and finally informed us that we could no
longer check in for our flight because it was too late, and that we’d have to wait for a flight the next day. When I told her it wasn’t our fault and that we were there with plenty of time, she sarcastically told me to go talk to the baggage guy who’d told me to come down there (obviously, he couldn’t do anything), and dropped our passports and turned away from us.  So because
of United’s incompetence we were now going to
miss our flight? I immediately talked to a supervisor, who, after
ANOTHER 20 minutes, managed to manually check us in, although she couldn’t check our bags.

Thank goodness our
suitcases were carry-on sized, and we could take them through security
with us. Imagine if we had big suitcases with tons of liquids? Then what would
we have done? The supervisor finally managed to get us checked in, and again had
trouble printing an infant boarding pass (what is it with United
and not knowing how to do that??).
She finally printed out a random pass and wrote “infant” on it. We
tried to rush through security, but they wouldn’t accept the bogus
boarding pass. I had to run out and find the supervisor again, and have her
walk over to the security line and confirm that Nat and I could go
through. We FINALLY managed to make it through security and had to RUN
through the airport – not only with our carry-on baggage, but with ALL
of our luggage as we couldn’t check any of it. We RAN to the gate
carrying all of our stuff and Nat and made it to the gate just as
they were about to close the doors.

Contacting United

Overall, I just cannot believe how incompetent United’s
agents and systems are. Even more, though, I’m disgusted by how RUDE
many of the employees were – many of them simply flat-out refused to
trouble themselves to do their job and do anything to help us, even if
it was because of United’s own mistake. The vast majority were lazy, obnoxious, unhelpful, and an utter disgrace to the airline industry.

So, of course, I contacted United and explained my grievances.  What was their response?  An automated reply that took 2 weeks to arrive and that fully acknowledged within that the response was delayed and generic.  It was abundantly clear that they hadn’t even taken the time to read my complaints.  Oh – and they sent ONE $100 travel voucher for a future United flight.  Oh, good – so now I can fly United AGAIN and probably still pay more than I would for a flight on another airline!

Look, I know that airline troubles aren’t the end of the world.  I know that we are still incredibly fortunate to have gone on such an exotic and incredible trip.  I know that in the grand scheme of things, I should just be grateful to be in a chair in the sky.  Still, there’s that part of me that just believes that customer service shouldn’t be such a rare gift, and wants to spare you the same frustration.  And if you feel similarly, please share to spare someone else, too.

15 Responses

  • Preethi– This is so interesting to read b/c we had an unbelievable experience with United when we flew to Denver 1.5 weeks ago. Of course we don't have a kiddo, but we witnessed two families with toddlers (2ish) being treated horrendously. One mother with her son (who had JUST turned 3) had been traveling all day. This was flight #3 of the day for them. Our flight was delayed 2 hrs for maintenance issues (United's fault). Then, on top of that, we were stuck on the tarmac for 3 hrs due to weather. The barely 3 year old fell asleep (no surprise), half on mother, half on his own ticket seat. The flight attendant INSISTED that the mother wake the exhausted child up for take-off saying his back had to be against the seat back. The mother was reluctant to do so but the attendant was adamant, rude, and threatened ejection from the flight! THEN once the mother propped sleeping child up against chair (all the while trying to keep him asleep), the same attendant INSISTED she wake the child b/c all children over two MUST watch the safety video. She did the same with a child of very similar age sitting a row back, too. Keep in mind, it was now like 12 midnight and these kids are so little, they aren't even going to understand that safety film anyway. Both mothers/parents were livid and asked to speak to a supervisor when we landed.

  • Oh my gosh, that sounds HORRIBLE! I'm so sorry you had such a bad experience! But I'm so glad that you're posting/contacting them about it. I feel like there is absolutely no excuse for a big company to have such terrible service. If it's a teensy mom-and-pop business that slips on a thing or two, I understand, but a huge corporation? There is just NO excuse, they should know how to run things and how to hire competent employees. The rudeness factor is what puts this over the edge for me–if they messed something up, fine, it happens, but to mess SO MUCH up and then act like YOU'RE being a problem for trying to get things made right? Not okay. (And this isn't even the first horror story I've heard about United!)

  • I hate this story but I love that you called them on it. We had the exact same issue with the infant boarding pass when we flew with them internationally last year. I guess they don't train a single employee on how to do it? I say, if they want to run an adults-9only airline then fine, but just make it clear you hate children before we book our flight with you.

  • I have only flown Delta since Elle was born so I don't have any experiences with United and the hassles of traveling with kids, but the last time I did fly United, my flight was delayed 4 hours due to a minor mechanical issue. They did not have a single technician at Dulles that day and had to send someone from Reagan to do the ten minute repair. Everyone missed their connecting flights of course, and the ticket agents were incredibly rude to passengers trying to make alternate plans. And it was their fault…who doesn't keep technicians on hand? What if their had been a major issue with a plane that needed immediate attention? It seemed incredibly unsafe to me!

  • This is ridiculous. I have had similar experiences with Delta and am just shocked that a company so large and "competent" can't get it together enough to have things run smoothly (and to have employees that actually treat people well). This is why we fly Southwest everywhere within the US. No questions asked. We don't even check other airlines' websites because Southwest just gets it right. You can change flights easily, they have a great rewards system, and you can ALWAYS get a competent, kind person on the phone (usually a middle-aged lady with a Southern accent) when you call. I only wish they flew international. With likely trips coming up to Brazil in the next 3 years, I just wonder how we'll go about picking the lesser of so many evils. I am willing to pay more for a company that knows what they're doing. This is why I will pay thirty cents more for a box of Ziploc bags at Target, rather than trying to navigate the chaos and mayhem and black hole of customer service that is WalMart. Ugh.

    That said, the best airline I ever flew was South African Airways. The entire thing went so smoothly (we had a party of 40+ people and something was bound to go wrong, but it didn't), and the staff was by far the kindest staff I have ever flown with (maybe tied with Southwest).

    If you have any suggestions of the best way to fly to Brazil, let me know! 🙂

  • Boo on United. We seem to have trouble with them a lot, and they never have my gluten-free meals despite me requesting them. Their international flights are also very, very uncomfortable.

  • I probably would have had a breakdown! When I fly with Alex I rely so much on the help of the flight attendants and this around us I really wouldn't know what to do with so many unhelpful people. I like reading your customer service reviews!

  • Sorry, I saw this posting through a friend of mine on facebook… just appalling. I've been using United a ton, and while it's been better to fly with status, since their merger with Continental, the decline in attitude and service is remarkable. Here's United's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/unitedairlines … go raise hell.


  • Wow, what a nightmare! Thanks for the heads up. I've flown Delta lots of times with my 1 year old and we've always had pretty good experiences. Note to self- never fly United.

  • So even already knowing almost this whole story still made me enraged just reading it. I cannot understand how people can be so rude when their job IS customer service. Seriously, if you don't like working with people, find another profession. Honestly, if I'd been in your shoes, I probay would've gotten kicked off because I would've caused a huge scene. But then I would've contacted a news agency to cover my story – haha.

    I don't know what this DOT complaint is that anonymous is talking about, but if it actually does require someone to respond and at least acknowledge your complaint, I'd do it. Honestly, I probably wouldn't be able to let it drop… But that's just me. We love Southwest – never had a problem. But obviously we've never done international with a baby. Live and learn, I suppose, right?

  • I've definitely had similar experiences with companies before…and definitely complained! The worst is when you have an problem and then have even more problems trying to get is resolved. Sorry that your traveling was so hassle filled…it should be something to enjoy 🙁

    <3 Cambria

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