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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cue the Gershwin while I give you the finger

A reader writes:

Here's a story for folks who might occasionally fly United from PDX.

I dropped my daughter off at the airport to go back to school. Her flight was at 6:30 AM to Chicago and then on to Manchester, NH. I got a call from her after I got home telling me that she'd missed her flight.

She was in line to check in with United by about 5:15. A little more than a half hour later she got to the front of the line and, along with 10-15 other people booked on the same flight, was told that she was too late. They said that you had to check in before 45 minutes from the time of your flight or "the system" would not let you check in. There was, alas, nothing they could do.

This included a guy who had checked in online. It included another guy who had asked a United employee during his long wait in line whether he would be o.k. for his 6:30 flight. Yes, you should be fine, he was told. There was no effort on the part of UAL to inform customers standing in line that they might have a problem. (Apparently they might have been able to check in outside, but nobody knew that or knew that they needed to.)

So, according to the United employees in Portland, you have to touch the touch screen at the check-in counter before this deadline or you will be rejected. Doesn't matter whether there is room on the plane; the system locks you out if you are even a second late. They claim that they cannot override this under any circumstances.

So… they booked her on a flight to Washington Dulles, a six and a half hour layover in Washington, and then to Manchester, arriving after midnight. The last bus she could get to Dartmouth was at 7:20, and there wasn't another one until something like 4:30 in the morning.

I'll spare the details, but while she was getting on her flight to Washington, I was searching their website for a phone number. (They want you to use an email contact form, response promised within 3 days.) I'm sure the "customer service" and reservation people in India didn't enjoy talking to me. Mom was not happy about the prospect of her having to wait overnight in the airport. Some airports don't even let you do that, but I don't know what else would be available in the middle of the night in Manchester.

It took an hour's worth of telephone tantrum, and persevering through multiple different stories about why they couldn't do anything, to get a supervisor to finally allow as how there was space on a flight from Washington to Manchester five hours earlier than the one they had booked her on in Portland. She and her bag both arrived in time for the 7:20 bus.

Interestingly, she sat next to a man on the plane to Washington who had the same experience, also headed to Manchester, but he had immediately been given a seat on the earlier flight, and he had been behind her in line.

One story was that it was the responsibility of the agent who sold her the ticket to inform her of the new rule. Another story was that this rule had always been in effect. At one point they wanted to charge me $150 to fly her to Boston instead.

The upshot is that:

1. It's the customer's responsibility to check in more than 45 minutes before a flight, regardless of understaffing or other problems United might be having.

2. "Customer service" has to know that you're not giving up before they will actually try to help.

3. United Airlines doesn't particularly care about repeat business.

That is all.

Comments (23)

I wonder what "check in" means here, since that's something many people now do on line before going to the airport.

My guess is "check in" means getting a real boarding pass printed from their crappy touch screen systems at the counter.

When I say "real" boarding pass, I mean something that they will take at the gate to let you onto the plane.

This happened to me as well a few weeks ago. I was there 43 minutes before my flight left, but was summarily told I have to wait 2.5 hours. Since I got my ticket via a travel agency for a business flight, there was no information anywhere stating that United's policy is different than EVERY other airline flying out of PDX. It's just the typical level of service you can expect from that soon-to-be bankrupt airline.

My guess is "check in" means getting a real boarding pass printed from their crappy touch screen systems at the counter. When I say "real" boarding pass, I mean something that they will take at the gate to let you onto the plane.

The boarding pass I print out doing online checkin gets me to the gate and on the plane. Since I don't check baggage, the only lines I stand in are for security (which always goes quickly at PDX) and then actually boarding the plane.

I dropped my child off at 5 am Sunday morning at PDX to return to college on a 6:15 am United Airlines flight. Online checkin done and boarding pass printed out at home. Carry on baggage only, so straight to the security line and then on to the gate. I'll be shipping clothes and books back UPS, which costs less than United Airlines' checked baggage fee and is more reliable.

We were in line at PDX to purchase a ticket. A customer service person was very helpful in checking the line, which included people trying to reschedule due to a delayed flight. A military guy, under the 45 minute window, was accomodated after the customer service person checked with her supervisor. They couldn't guarantee his luggage would get to his destination with him, but at least he was able to get on the plane. Two different United people were very helpful and customer oriented during or wait.

This story should be sent in to Harry Shearer for his radio Le Show program -- http://harryshearer.com/news/le_show/ -- he has a bit called "Tales of Airport Security" in which he publicizes crazy sh*t like this.

Official "check in" smells almost like the convoluted scam credit card companies run wherein a check or money order payment customer can send their payment in plenty of time, even get a delivery confirmation slip and the payment still isn't official until accounting logs the payment into its system (sometimes days or even a week later). And - whoops - sorry we have to raise the interest on your account because YOU were late.

From the fine print on the back of a United Airlines E-Ticket Receipt and Travel Itinerary issued 19 November 08, under the heading "Reservations/Pre-Reserved Seat Information":

"RESERVATIONS AND SEAT ASSIGNMENTS ARE SUBJECT TO CANCELLATION IF YOU ARE NOT CHECKED IN AND OBTAINED YOUR BOARDING PASS at least 45 minutes prior to your scheduled departure and available for boarding at the departure gate at least 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure for flights to/from international points.

"For departures between U.S. cities, to/from Mexico or the Caribbean you must check in and obtain your boarding pass at least 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure and be available for boarding at the departure gate at least 20 minutes prior to your scheduled flight. Departures from Canada require check-in at least 60 minutes prior to departure."

Either the regulations have changed or the United Airlines employees at PDX don't know that regulations for domestic flights are different than those for international flights.

Thanks for the headline and picture, Jack. I got an email response to my email complaint this morning. An excerpt:

"... your comments certainly do not represent our usual high level of service. We are sorry to give you and her a poor impression of our operation. Your feedback is appreciated and has been shared with our management responsible for Portland Customer Service so they can understand how your daughter's travel experience felt from her point of view."

They provided a $50 travel voucher, subject to Terms and Conditions; there are 27 of them.

I asked UA about using a comp travel voucher the last time I made a reservation. I was told I had to go out to the airport to purchase the ticket in order to use it. And stand in line, which customer service did not mention, although that is what buying a ticket at the airport usually entails. Another Catch-22.

I hope someone will follow up to get a definitive answer about whether United is doing 45-minute or 30-minute pre-departure lockouts for domestic flights only at PDX, only at US airports with international flights or at all US airports.

This happened to me two years ago, so it's not a new policy. I tried to check-in online, but there was some error and they told me I had to do it at the airport. So I got to the airport 1 hour and 45 minutes (!) before my United flight. Stood in line for 45 minutes. Finally got to a touch screen kiosk, which gave me the same error. So the rep told me to pick up one of those phones that connect you to United people who can actually do something. She spent about 15 minutes clearing up whatever the problem was, which she admitted was on their end, and said I could now check-in. But, I was told, we were only 44 minutes away from departure so I would have to fly standby.

You can imagine the rage. They did finally let me on, but only after checking with three supervisors.

Well, thanks for the tip to avoid United. I usually go Southwest, anyway, since it's the most direct route to my most frequent destination. And now that they've changed their boarding procedure, the whole "cattle car" aspect has been greatly reduced.

But I have no patience for having to go through multiple supervisors in order to get something done that just requires good ol' common sense.

There is no reason to travel on an airline that makes every aspect of flying a battle.

I stopped flying United years ago after getting jerked around by them far to many times. They just don't care on whit. None are great but at least give me the impression you care, United doesn't.

Sorry your daughter went through that! I am from that part of NH and it's really a challenging place to get to even with a functional airline. From Portland, I've found that it's better to fly to Boston and take the bus from there. The Dartmouth Coach is easy and fast. They show a movie and give you a bottle of water and all the pretzels you want...way better service than the airlines! I'll spread the word about United.

Over on the BTA blog, some poor soul got to pay JetBlue $50 to check a bike because he foolishly told them it was a bike (even though it was under the weight limit and smaller than the size limit for checked bags).

But we need to stop flying anyway. Jet travel is especially destructive of the climate -- contributing about 2-3% of the global carbon emissions, but about 6-8% of the emissions' impact because all the water vapor sprayed into the atmosphere at high altitude is especially good at trapping heat (and much longer lasting than vapor emitted at sea level). Basically, by the time you fly from Portland to about Vegas once you've undone all the good you might have done by not having a car.

In other words, the solution to airline idiocy is doing away with the airlines, starting with non-essential flying (which is the vast majority of flights).

Stay home -- or go by streetcar (or aerial tram!)

Incensed: It sounds like what happened to you 2 years ago was that you were on the FAA "Selectee" list. I think this is what happened to my son in December when he was preparing to fly home from college. He was not able to check in online. I called United Airlines' Web Support Hotline and a UA employee told me that my son had been "randomly selected" for additional scrutiny but would be able to check in at the kiosk at the airport. He was not able to check in at the kiosk but had to stand in line and show a UA agent his photo ID in order to check in and get a boarding pass. He did not have any problem on his return trip. Nevertheless, I don't know whether he is on a watch list and if he is how he came to be on it in the first place, or whether he has the same name as someone on the watch list. I'm still making phone calls and waiting to hear back from people. I do think this is why we haven't caught Bin Laden. Our counterterrorism agents are too busy scrutinizing college honor students and other upstanding citizens to look for him.

Sue, I'm sorry if this happened, but as a regular traveler, this is something that is well known and pretty well documented on the airlines and airport websites.

All airlines are not the same. American and Delta have a 30 minute cutoff. Frontier is even more restrictive--one hour prior to take off. I see no published policy for Southwest.

The times are there for a reason. Less than 30-45 minutes can make it pretty challenging to tag the bags, X-ray them, possibly have hand searches by TSA, and finally get them to your plane.

In the future if you are in a pinch, use the red caps outside and pony up the two bucks.

Maybe it will be better than I expect, but I'm completely repulsed that there is now a network television series on true tales of Homeland Security. Most of the clips seemed to be filmed at one airport or another.

Paul g.:

This is what the United website says:

"For flights within the U.S., to/from Mexico and the Caribbean, and to Canada, seat assignments are subject to cancellation if you do not check in and obtain a boarding pass at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure and you if are not available for boarding at the departure gate at least 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure."

as a regular traveler, this is something that is well known and pretty well documented on the airlines and airport websites.

So Paul, do you think it was unreasonable of the airline to deny me a boarding pass when I arrived 1 hour and 45 minutes before my flight, and was delayed because of some airline screw-up? Or should I have planned to get there 2-3 hours early?

Of course, it could be that they think Manchester is an international destination.

Either that or they lock you out when the flight is full and use the 45 minute dodge to avoid the rules associated with overbooking.

We were booked on a flight to San Diego on SWA departing PDX at 10:50 on 12/20/08.

SWA had a single deicing truck stationed in Portland, and it broke down that morning: SWA airline was out of business for the next 36 hours.

Realistically, given their scheduled holiday departures and the weather forecast, SWA needed a minimum of 4 deicing vehicles in PDX. As indicated by the longest check-in lines at PDX, they are trying to keep their costs down in Portland, which doesn't allow for any redundancies should equipment (like the deicer) fail. Not exactly a confidence inspiring strategy for an airline.

So my non-refundable $450 r/t tickets were worthless (and now fully refundable), and we had to rebook three seats on Alaska Airlines at the rack rate (nearly $800/seat) in order to book multiple days departures at the fully refundable rate: the next four direct flights to SAN never departed, but the fifth did, and we camped out at the Shilo Inn while we waited. We finally arrived to SAN on 12/23 and the passenger cheered both takeoff and landing.

I will drive before I will fly SWA again, and I've been avoiding UAL and US Scareways for years.

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