My Letter to United Airlines

2260 Saint Francis Drive
Palo Alto, CA 94303-3133
4 July 2002
Customer Relations--WHQPW
P.O. Box 66100
Chicago, IL 60666

My wife and I have recently endured a very disappointing experience with United Airlines. This occurred in spite of our loyalty to United over many years. We are both members of Mileage Plus. Due to the length of our ordeal, my description, which follows, is also somewhat long.

We were scheduled to depart on flight 36 from KOA on 30 June 2002 at 10:00 PM HST. After returning our rental car, checking in, and clearing security, we reached the gate by 8:15 to begin our wait. At around 9:00 the gate agent announced the first indication of a mechanical problem with our aircraft. The mechanics continued to work on the problem and we continued to learn more.

Eventually, we learned that the problem involved the APU (auxiliary power unit), a required system for long over-water flights such as ours. We were told that a battery needed to be replaced. A battery could not be found at KOA; it would need to be flown in from HNL. This apparently would take 2-3 hours. By this time, I was pacing back and forth because I was no longer comfortable sitting and because my body clock believed it to be 1:30 AM PDT.

Around 11:00 PM HST came the announcement that we would board the plane. It seemed that if the battery could not come to the plane quickly, the plane would go to it. The short hop from KOA to HNL would not require a functioning APU. So, we boarded the plane, inconvenienced, but glad at the prospect of departure.

Once on the plane, we learned that we were stuck in a no-win situation. Apparently, our 757 had too much fuel on-board for a short trip, but was too broken for a long trip. The pilot continued to discuss the matter with United operations and the FAA. I wondered if fuel could be pumped out of the plane, but I figured that greater minds than mine were considering the problem.

The next announcement said that we needed to get off the plane. The FAA would not allow our airplane to land with too much fuel. The flight attendants then offered to allow us to stay onboard and watch a movie featuring some teen pop diva. Before the opening credits had finished rolling, however, we were told that everybody would need to exit the aircraft. By this point, it was probably midnight.

In our sleep-deprived state, my wife and I scrambled for a comfortable patch of concrete on which to attempt sleep. The designers of the airport had added armrests to the benches in such a way as to prevent one from lying down on them. By this time, however, the concrete felt fine. Then came the warning about the giant nocturnal stinging centipedes. I, personally, felt as if I was now a character in a bad science fiction movie.

By 12:30 AM, a more important issue presented itself. Our flight had now been cancelled outright. We would be taking an 11:00 AM flight the next morning. Our checked baggage could be claimed at the carousel. There would be a bus to take us to a hotel. At this hour, only one bus could be secured. There were about 180 passengers and the bus held around 60 people. The round-trip to the hotel took 45 minutes. My wife and I did not make the first bus. Some alert passengers suggested that families with children should take the first bus. This was a good idea, although they should have included seniors, judging by who was left after the second bus departed.

During the wait for the bus, there wasn't much to do. Nobody wanted to risk centipede bites; so, there was a lot of standing around and pacing. At this juncture, the United crew did a very nice thing. They brought snacks and beverages from the airplane to us while we waited. In retrospect, the ground and flight crews deserve praise. They got no more sleep than we did and tried to make the most out of a bad situation for which they were ill-equipped. It became clear to me that when they gave us incomplete or old information, it was because they themselves were being kept in the dark by those who actually made the decisions.

Check-in to King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel was uneventful. We learned that buses would leave for the airport at 8:15 AM and received breakfast coupons. By the time we settled into our room, the time was 2:00 AM. We had five hours of sleep before we needed to shower, eat, check out, and board the buses (three this time). I was grateful for the sleep, but wondered why the flight couldn't have been cancelled at 11:00 PM.

When we arrived at the airport, we all repeated the check-in process en masse--this time for flight 8831. We were excessively early, and so, began the familiar process of waiting. I began to think that United Airlines was slowly usurping my freedom. I no longer had control of when and where I could go, and the Kona/Kailua airport began to seem even smaller. My sense of helplessness only grew when it was announced that yet another part was required to fix the APU.

Our departure time had been pushed back to 12:00 PM to allow for arrival and installation of the replacement part. This announcement was repeated at intervals until 11:45 AM. Considering that none of the passengers had even begun the final baggage screening, we knew we were being lied to. The 11:55 AM announcement finally confessed that we would not leave at 12:00 PM, and that we would need to wait for further details. Eventually, my wife and I received a $15 voucher for lunch at the airport's only eatery. We never got to use the voucher, as flight 8831 was cancelled while I was waiting in the long line for food.

We repeated the familiar process of retrieving our baggage, convoying to the hotel and checking in. Our new flight was to depart at 9:00 AM the next morning. Buses would leave at 7:15 AM. Dinner and breakfast coupons would be distributed. We felt thankful at this point that we would have adequate time for sleep, and also some time to relax.

Late Monday evening, a notice was slid under our door indicating yet another cancellation. We would not be leaving at 9:00 AM. Instead we would leave at 10:00 PM, exactly 48 hours after our original itinerary. For some reason, we weren't surprised. When enough absurd events occur, they become expected. I guess we were glad to be able to sleep late.

My wife, now worried about missing commitments on Wednesday, called United Customer Service at 800-241-6522. We had been reluctant to call earlier because we knew others had more pressing needs. After too much time on hold, my wife spoke with a representative who was completely unaware of our predicament. After a long discussion with her supervisor, the representative was still unable to help. She said that all other flights were full and suggested that we call back the next day. We tried this, but never progressed past the hold queue.

Being stuck in Kailua town for a day isn't the worst fate in the world. Nevertheless, it was mitigated by our lack of clean clothes, and attempts to explain to coworkers and supervisors why we would be two days late to work. It's also a hazard to one's finances to be stranded in such a retail-heavy zone.

At 7:15 PM on 2 July 2002, we boarded the bus for our final trip to the Kona airport. There, we learned that we had been combined with the normal flight 36 for that day. The usual 757 had been replaced with a larger 767 to accommodate us. We also learned that our original aircraft had been flown empty to HNL the previous day, after its excess fuel was pumped out. Its entire APU needed replacement.

Aside from arriving at the airport a bit earlier than our usual habit, the rest of our trip to SFO proceeded in the manner we had previously come to expect from United. That is to say that nothing went wrong. We were glad to return to the mainland, where we found ourselves red-eyed and two days behind in the rat race.

As might be inferred from the above saga, my wife and I are extremely dissatisfied. Being stranded for 48 hours is the worst travel problem we have ever experienced, including the effects of weather and flights in the third world. What felt most like torture, however, was being forced to spend a total of 13 hours waiting at the airport. While we received apologies and were praised for our patience (not that we had a choice), nobody ever offered us anything to make up for our troubles.

I understand that United did not choose to have our plane break down. I also understand that United incurred significant expenses related to the situation, both for the aircraft repair and to accommodate stranded travelers. Nonetheless, these must be considered part of United's cost of doing business. After all, even the best aircraft break down. United makes a trade-off between maximizing revenues and recovering from disruptions. It's a gamble. Recovery requires costly spare capacity and equipment. Not having them can also be costly.

At 9:00 PM on 30 June 2002, United gambled that they could fix our plane. Instead, United could have flown us to HNL, where many more mainland-bound connections were available. They could have done this by pumping out fuel, by sending another aircraft, or perhaps by utilizing other carriers. If the only viable option were to put us on an enlarged flight 36, it would have been better to do this 24 hours sooner. A non-weather-related delay of 48 hours should not have occurred.

It seems that the decision-makers at United Airlines chose not to go the extra mile for us. This is ironic because when the tables have been reversed, my wife, a physician, has gone the extra mile for United by providing in-flight care for an ailing passenger.

We would like to believe in United. Our recent experience indicates that United does not put a high value on our time and comfort. This can be partly remedied, however, through just compensation. Considering my wife's and my after-tax earnings for two days, I think it would be reasonable for United to issue two non-expiring vouchers for coach-class round-trip travel within the 50 states.

Yours truly,

Alex Meyer

On 6 August 2002, United responded. For our troubles, we recieved vouchers for $250 each.
Sat Feb 7 14:29:43 2004