Fly the friendly skies of United…

This morning – like most other folks – I saw this video of United Airlines’ forced removal of a passenger for being on an overbooked flight.

It reminded me of two stand-out experiences I had had with United…among many.  It seems like a good time to revisit them.

The more recent took place a few years ago.  I was boarding a plane and saw a short older woman struggling to lift her bag into the overhead compartment.  She was a couple of passengers ahead of me and I couldn’t reach her to help.  There was a flight attendant directly in front of her, watching her.  I called out and said, “Can you help her?”  She looked at me calmly and said, “That’s not my job.”  I replied, “A perfect motto for United” while closer passengers realized the woman’s problem and began to help.

Below is an earlier letter to United, following a crew “mutiny”.  I should mention that United’s response union response and government response were minimal to non-existent.

October 21, 2007

Mr. Glenn F. Tilton
President and CEO
UAL Corporation World Headquarters
P.O. Box 66100
Chicago, IL 60666

Dear Mr. Tilton,

I began writing this letter a month and a day from the June 27 date Flight UA897 from Dulles to Beijing was scheduled to take off and exactly one month from when it actually did. I have delayed its completion until now to understand whether my anger then would justify its completion.

The facts as I present them come from my own observations, as well as those of three co-passengers, a physician from the U.K., an engineering professor at Penn State and an executive from a Christian service organization.

We boarded the 747-400 aircraft as scheduled and prepared for 12:23pm takeoff. Prior to flight time, we received an announcement from the crew that the flight would be delayed for air conditioning repair and we would have to debark.

To the best of my recollection, we were reboarded about two hours later. We sat on the plane for quite awhile and, from my perspective watching flight attendants and other crew on the upper deck, it became apparent that there was some confusion. We heard announcements that, while it was very hot on the main deck, that would change when the flight pushed off. The announcements became unusual when they continued on to state that if even one passenger left the flight, it would be cancelled because their luggage would need to be searched for and removed.

I later learned the following about the situation on the lower deck from a co-passenger who was reseated from a position close to the lower front exit to the upper deck. Apparently, the air conditioning delay had caused the flight to extend beyond union rules for flight attendants…and three walked off the plane. I was told the gate crew panicked and closed the plane door. Several flight attendants, in front of passengers, began to bang on the door saying loudly that the door closing was an FAA violation. The gate crew did not open the door…until a passenger reacted to the situation through a claustrophobic attack. The door was opened for the passenger and five more flight attendants walked off. This reduced the flight attendant “team” to 7, one short of the FAA requirement for a flight of this size and length. It seems the passengers weren’t the problem.

The remaining crew announced that the flight would not be cancelled but delayed until 9:00am the following morning. Therefore, luggage would remain on board. While there were apologies, I do not recall any specific reason being given. We debarked for the second time and were told we should get hotel and cab vouchers. While I live in suburban Maryland, I decided to take advantage of this offer because I had spent two hours in traffic delays getting to the airport and didn’t want to risk missing the next day’s flight.

Those of us in Business Class went to your Red Carpet Lounge and received hotel and cab vouchers. Since the flight delay assured that I would miss a Guangzhou presentation, an important component of this trip, I also changed my connections from Beijing to Shanghai. While at the counter, I heard the person next to me ask if the hotel rooms were reserved. He was told yes and that was good enough for me. Three of us shared a cab. The ride was quite long, since the hotel was the Sheraton Crystal City – which is 5 minutes from Reagan National but 40 minutes in rush hour from Dulles.

When we arrived at the Sheraton, we presented our vouchers and were immediately told “we don’t take United vouchers”. The information from the Red Carpet Lounge appeared to be wrong. Using the Internet and phone information to try to reach someone at United who could help us, it took three of us working separate cell phones (one with a U.K. billing) 45 minutes to get to your customer support. I was able to do this through reaching someone at your meeting planning office who connected me to the Red Carpet Lounge. The Lounge connected me with a customer support supervisor who told me that the Sheraton was wrong. We invited him to speak with the desk manager, which he did. When he got back on the line, he told us that United contracts with a third party for rooms and that there had been a problem with them. By this time, our group of United refugees at the Sheraton had grown to about 12. We were then directed to another hotel (which we were told was close and very nice – an extraordinarily inaccurate observation on both counts). We were also told that United could not cover this cab ride…but maybe we could get United mileage when we came in the next day. Our group got into three or four cabs and departed for the second hotel. After another 30 or 40 minutes we arrived at 9:00pm, about 4 hours after debarking.

When we arrived back at Dulles, I checked the departure boards and saw that while our flight remained scheduled for 9:00am, the regular Dulles to Beijing 12:23pm flight for the day had already been cancelled. As we boarded the 9:00am flight, we received an apology letter and a contact card to fill out and return to the flight attendants. I was curious how United would respond to what seemed to me to be the closest I had ever seen to an aircraft mutiny. Returning from several subsequent business trips, I recently received a second brief apology note from United and a $150 flight discount coupon (see enclosures) for a future flight on what was a $10,886 business class booking.

That was the story of your flight on your newly approved route from IAD to Beijing. Now I’d like to tell you my story. I am sure it is one of well over 300 such stories from that flight.

I am the president and CEO of a rare illness association – the Pulmonary Hypertension Association. During the past eight years, I have built the organization from a staff of one to a staff of twenty-two, with a growth in annual budgets from $132,000 to over $5,000,000. As part of our mission, we are linking medical and patient communities throughout the world. Through the internet, personal connections at our international conferences in the U.S. and acceptance of invitations from our international partners we have fostered the growth of a worldwide network that is currently at 41 PH associations. A visit to Asia has been long-planned, emerging from Japanese, Korean and Chinese translations of our almost 300 page patients’ survival guide.

The new focus on pulmonary hypertension has been fueled by life-extending treatments which have recently become available. Access to treatments, in turn, has led to a reason for physicians to diagnose. As a result, two of our leading physicians and myself were asked to bring our medical education program and the story of how we have accelerated interest in the illness to three cities in China – Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. As a non-profit employee working through the donations of our constituents, I avoid traveling business class. However, this trip had a sponsor who recognized that, with three presentations to over 500 physicians in three different cities in three days and with important related meetings, we needed to arrive fresh. My choice of United cost us valuable connections and added stress. I remain fascinated – more as a management case study than a travel experience – with what took place and how it has been handled.

So, here are my requests and questions to United management:

1) Your company’s July 18 letter refers to a company investigation of the incident. Given your sending of a $150 United travel voucher – which I am returning with this letter – in relation to a $10,886 ticket, it seems you didn’t think there was much of a problem. I request a copy of your report on this incident.

2) Was the $150 voucher intended to cover the business class seat reserved as part of this trip for my Guangzhou 3 hour connecting flight (flight UA4477, operated by Air China Limited) or the also unusable June 29 business class ticket I had on another airline to get from Guangzhou to Shanghai?

3) I understand weather delays. Those are acts of God. Equipment failures and not having backup flight attendants are something different. They result from management choices. Why did you not have backup flight attendants sufficient to allow this flight to depart? Did you cancel the next Beijing flight because you had to pull attendants from that flight to cover my delayed flight? Why did you roll my flight to the gate and board it without a pre-check on the air conditioning?

4) Many of our members and supporters have offered to donate frequent flier miles to PHA to assist with our travel. Because our work is committed to change the history of an underdiagnosed and not well known disease, we are not among the few non-profit organizations for which airlines have set up frequent flier collection accounts. Rather, each mileage donation requires a direct transaction involving the donor, the airline and ourselves, making any program we might set up inconvenient and untenable. We would ask that United turn this failure into an opportunity to assist our rare disease organization by setting up an account into which donors can deposit donated miles…and that United contribute the equivalent of the cost of my ticket ($10,886) to start the account. To give you a better picture of who we are, I am including two DVDs produced at our Conference in 2006. The first is a 12 minute presentation reflecting the partnership between, physicians, families and medical professionals that is advancing hope for those living with what is still an incurable but increasingly treatable illness. The second includes keynote addresses by Congress Members Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Kevin Brady (R-TX), as well as a presentation on one of our media programs and retired Army Col. Carl Hicks discussing Why I Fight. Col. Hicks led the first battalion into Iraq during the first Gulf War and served as an Army Ranger. Today, his fight is for his daughter’s life. Meaghan Hicks who was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension as a young child has recently undergone heart and lung transplant.

Here are my questions for the union:

1) I am not anti-union. I know from whence my college education came. However, I also grew up watching the printers unions work to the rule (telling employees the papers had plenty of money to go around) and destroy the richness of the newspaper industry in New York…and ultimately their own jobs. Are you in the midst of a work to the rule campaign? If so, which airlines are involved? Also, which airlines does your union represent? Watching the enthusiasm of the Chinese and Taiwanese airline attendants and comparing that to what I am seeing on U.S. airlines, I can only think that under the current conditions American labor, management and the general public all lose. The only solutions that ultimately emerge in a free economy are that those airlines that can provide service – wherever they are based – win. We’ve already seen that begin in the auto industry.

Here is my question for the FAA:

1) Once you approve a route what is your review process?

Here are my questions for all of you:

1) Do you dispute any of the details as I have presented them? If so, how do you see those details differently from what I have presented?

On September 22, 2006, on a site (see http://theairlineblog.blogspot.com/2006/09/united-help-us-get-into-china.html) titled “United: Help Us Get into China”, United asked its frequent flier passengers to write to Maria Cino, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding Docket 2006-25275 The request was to support your application for a direct Dulles to Beijing route. While – from my limited observation – you certainly seem able to fill your planes, you clearly have management and labor deficits that seem to make you unable to fulfill your business commitments.

On March 28, 2007, speaking as United’s Chairman and CEO, you yourself said:

“This inaugural flight is more than just another service in United’s robust global network. Connecting for the first time two of the world’s most important cities is a historic occasion with great geopolitical, commercial and cultural promise for citizens of both the United States and China. United Airlines is proud to fly this new nonstop route.”

I hope you are not only proud but capable of flying this route.

I look forward to your responses and a discussion of how you can reverse at least some of the damage you have done.

Sincerely,

Rino Aldrighetti
President

CC:

The Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV, Chair
Senate Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee
531 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable James Oberstar, Chair
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
2365 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mary Peters
Acting Secretary U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, SE
Washington, DC 20590

The Honorable Marion C. Blakey
FAA Administrator
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591

Patricia A. Friend
International President Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO
One O’Hare Center
6250 N. River Rd. Suite 4020
Rosemont, IL 60018

Greg Davidowitch
President United Master Executive Council
One O’Hare Center
6250 N. River Rd, Suite 4020
Rosemont, IL 60018

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