Why united airlines sucks

So our vacation in China was a good one overall, until the trip home.  Our flight from Beijing to San Francisco was delayed almost three hours leaving Beijing, which meant that almost the entire plane (200 passengers total), had to have connections in San Francisco rebooked.  Now, I don’t fault UA for the flight being late (entirely); that kind of stuff happens.  My problem with UA is with what led to the delay and how they handled it.

First I will share with you one of the most important facts I learned on this trip: every single person that works for United Airlines, from gate agents all the way to flight attendants, is a complete asshole.  I’ve flown domestic and international airlines all over the world, and I have never seen an airline with more people who could have cared less about me.  Going to China, our flight attendants started off mildly accommodating and became increasingly agitated with everyone as the flight went on.  By the end of the flight, they had ceased to be polite to passengers and were issuing orders instead.  On the return flight, we had several flight attendants that had less personality than my big toe.  The nicest flight attendant we had was the last leg on an RJ which, ironically enough, was a United code-share and not operated by United Airlines.

The gate agents in China were completely incompetent, as you will see below.  In San Francisco, they where slightly less incompetent, but equally useless and rude.  One ticketing agent refused to check other airlines for flights out of San Francisco.  Another passenger on our flight asked for a different hotel and was told he better take that option because “you’re lucky we’re giving you a room at all” and “we normally don’t give rooms to people in your position.”  Just to clarify, our “position” was created by UA scheduling, not weather, but they are doing us a favor by not making us sleep in the SFO terminal.  On Sunday, we tried one more time to get home sooner and the ticketing agent was extremely put-out for having to even look for options.  I mean, its only her job to do this, right?  When we checked loads at the gate, the gate agent looked at me and laughed when we inquired about going stand-by.  When we tried to checkin for our flights to Dallas, the women at the first-class counter looked at our passes and said “Oh, your flight was late?  So that’s why you’re first class.”  WTF kind of customer service is this??

My next problem is with United’s scheduling.  In addition to our flight being delayed, we found out that the same flight the day before was delayed more than five hours.  This tells me that these flights are late coming in and delayed because of layover restrictions on international flight crews.  The fact that this seems to happen with some frequency also tells me that United doesn’t know how to schedule international flights.  Also, I don’t understand why a three hour delay (relatively brief by international-travel standards) causes the majority of a 747 to miss connections.  More poor scheduling.  In addition to this, it seems that most of the flight had connections from LAX, not San Francisco (the flight from Beijing continued on to LAX).  Apparently, United thinks its a good idea to conduct international and domestic operations out of separate airports.  Could someone please explain the logic in this to me?

Next, the United agents in Beijing were completely unprofessional in handling this pending fiasco.  We arrived at the airport two and a half hours early to find our flight delayed.  We knew this meant we would miss our connection in San Francisco, but assumed that we would get on a flight later in the day as we arrived at SFO early on Saturday (this was before we found out about the same flight the day before).  So we got in the economy class check-in queue.  Things are moving OK at first, but our line gradually stops moving.  We eventually notice that the people in the first class and business class lines are checking in at a much faster rate than those in economy.  United has 10 counters at Beijing, with half being dedicated to economy.  As this disaster grows, they are using as many as EIGHT counters to get first and business class checked in.  As you can imagine, this meant the economy line has stopped moving.

Now, I was a little ticked about the blatant discrimination, but was not entirely surprised.  What do you expect when you are in steerage class, right?  But what happened next infuriated the entire economy cabin.  Once the entire first and business class cabins were checked in, we expected the economy line to start moving again.  No dice.  The UA reps began pulling people out of the economy line and checking them in ahead of the rest of the line! 

So lets recap at this point.  United has 10 counters.  At this point four of them are closed and no longer staffed.  After all, they were first-class only, and they have all checked in.  One of them has been dedicated to people who don’t have connections that need to be rebooked.  And the other five are basically not going anywhere as the agents attempt to rebook the economy cabin.  It was about this time that we found out what happened to this flight the day before.  So the agents, most of whom barely spoke English, are booking people on flights as much as two days later as all the flights on Saturday are full with the folks from the flight on Friday.

At this point the economy line is on the verge of revolt.  United agents are still pulling people out of the economy line to check them in because they don’t have connections.  When questioned about this, the only thing the agents would say is “They don’t have connections.”  What the agents failed to realize, and what no amount of logic or reason could make them understand, was that while all of these other folks were getting through ahead of us, United was still selling tickets on flights out of SFO on Saturday!  So in the tiny little world of these agents, no seats are being taken on these flights, but these seats were being booked around the world as we stood there.

When we do finally make it to a counter, the agent we draw speaks almost no English (of course).  The agent tells us, in very broken English, that we are basically screwed to get home anywhere near on time.  The best they can do is book us through Denver or Chicago on Sunday.  I ask them to check other airlines.  There are flights out of SFO on other airlines, but they cannot confirm our seats, as the other airlines don’t have ticket offices in Beijing, and they won’t make calls to the counters at other airports.  They wind up booking us through Chicago, but at least they had the decency to upgrade us to first class.

We stayed Saturday night at the glamorous Red Roof Inn at the San Francisco International Airport.  Thanks to the stress of international travel, compounded with the added stress of not getting home on time, Sheryl get extremely sick that night and started throwing up.  She threw up all day Sunday and Sunday night, and we wound up putting her in the hospital early Monday morning.  Thankfully, she was released that night and is doing better now.

So there you have it.  Thanks to the gross incompetency, combined with the complete a-holes working for United, what should have been an 18 hour trip home turned into a 42 hour disaster that ended in a trip to the hospital.  Let this serve as a warning to anyone who might be considering flying United to China in the future: make sure you allow yourself a six-to-eight-hour layover if you have connections coming home. Thank you United Airlines.  Thank you, and screw you.