My Ducked-Up United Flight

Let me be clear: I could totally have done things differently. In a way, this isn’t entirely United’s fault. But here are the facts.

My flight out of Atlanta this morning was scheduled for 7:30am. Yesterday, I had the good fortune of checking my itinerary and learned that my flight had been bumped up to 6:45am. No biggie, I already had a ride to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport. Just needed to leave a little earlier, is all.

I made two fatal mistakes.

Mistake One

We should have left even earlier. Leaving at 5:00 ought to have given me enough time to waltz through security, but I underestimated how many people were flying home (or away) after the Christmas holiday last weekend. Traffic outside of the terminal delayed my entry until about 6:00, and the TSA security line was going to take another thirty minutes, according to some overheard walkie chatter.

Mistake Two

This is my iPad stand, that I purchased from a delightful company called TwelveSouth. And, as it turns out, it looks like something hazardous on x-rays. I know this because, twelve minutes before my departure time, I was pulled out of the screening line to have my bag searched.

I thought my bag was being searched because I forgot to pull my 3–1–1 bag out of my backpack when I put it on the conveyer belt. An honest mistake, but a costly one.

When they stopped to search my bag, I was certain I would miss my flight, but fortune smiled on me and my plane’s departure was delayed from taking off by another twenty minutes due to a sudden thunderstorm that descended on Atlanta.

What luck!

Little did I know, that delay was going to bite me in San Francisco.

Where it All Went Wrong

When we touched down in San Francisco, we were only a few minutes later than our original arrival time. But there was some miscommunication about gate availability at SFO and we were stranded on the Tarmac for another thirty minutes.

I could see my connecting flight through the window, or at least it felt like I could. We were waiting for Gate 69 to open up, and my connecting flight was waiting for me at Gate 63.

The minutes ticked by, and the friendly flight attendants asked those people whose final destination was San Francisco to let those of us who had tight connections disembark first.

Few were kind enough to do so. I made it off the plane with a little more than ten minutes to spare.

And it turns out that my flight needed to close its doors and prepare for departure ten minutes before takeoff. The plane was closed to me, even though I was in the right place at the right time, with half a dozen other people who desperately wanted to get home.

The gate attendant directed me to United’s customer service desk. There was nothing she could do to help.

United’s customer service representatives informed me that, though there were several other flights leaving for Portland that day, they only had standby availability left. I would need to wait at each gate, at each departure time, to hope for a seat.

I guess it’s true that airlines are in the habit of over-booking their flights.

The next flight with an available seat was scheduled to leave at 10:45 the following morning. It would mean missing work, but it was a way home. There would be no cost for rescheduling.

Now, normally, airlines accommodate such inconveniences by either providing lodging for the night, a seat upgrade, or a meal voucher, but United did none of these things. They pointed to a clause in my flight agreement that stated they were not liable for weather-related delays or inconveniences.

I don’t wish to dispute that clause, because I understand that even most insurance policies don’t protect against acts of God. But unless my arrival was delayed on the Tarmac due to weather, of which the pilot gave no indication, I felt that United was simply trying to skirt around the issue of accommodating me for my inconvenience.

SFO has no smoker’s lounge, so I was told I needed to leave the terminal to take a breather. I was in the air for six hours, add an hour for a check-in and another for dealing with customer service. Looking back, I was remarkably calm for someone so inconvenienced, doubly so for being so long without feeding the monkey on my back.

But TSA won’t let you pass through the security checkpoint if it’s not the date you’re traveling. I learned this after showing my boarding pass to three agents, the third being the one who actually scanned it and noticed the timestamp. At the end of my second round of waiting through the security line, I was turned away.

United gave me a phone number to call to book my own hotel, at a supposedly-discounted “inconvenience” rate. I don’t want to say anything bad about Best Western, they were the most manageable part of my trip by far. The hotel was within walking distance of the airport, but another friendly TSA agent told me there was no way to leave the airport on foot. I would need a taxi, BART, or shuttle.

What

  • When my arriving flight was held on the Tarmac, my plane could have communicated with my connecting flight to ask them to hold the plane. There were six other people on my flight from Atlanta who were connecting to Portland, and since the delay was due to the airport’s confusion and not anything we were doing, that would have been a reasonable accommodation.
  • United could have announced the gate numbers for connecting flights. I wasted three minutes because the gate number listed on my boarding pass was not the gate number where my plane was waiting, and that knowledge may have made the difference between me missing my flight or not.
  • Someone, at any point, could have informed me that all planes stop allowing passengers to board ten minutes before scheduled departure time. Maybe this is common knowledge, so maybe that’s not their fault.
  • When my flight took off without me, due to no fault of my own, United ought to have given me a priority position on the standby list for the next available flight. They should have made some gesture to assure me that they were interested in helping me get to my destination in a timely manner. I got no such impression from the people who helped me.
  • Since I missed my flight because I was sitting in a plane (run by the same airline as my connection,) United should have taken some ownership over the inconvenience. I think that calling it a “weather-related delay” is inaccurate at best, and that felt like United was trying to find a way to absolve themselves of responsibility for my predicament.
  • Any gesture of good faith from United would have made my experience better, but they were unsympathetic and content with offering the bare minimum of assistance. I know meal vouchers are silly things, but I would have felt like they cared about my life if they had said, “here, have lunch on us since you’re stranded for twenty-four hours.”

TL;DR: It will be very difficult to convince me to fly United again.