Dear United Airlines: How Did This Happen?

I don’t like griping about people or companies. It doesn’t feel right. In this case, though, I’m confused and disappointed enough to make an exception.

My girlfriend and I flew United to Pasco, WA. (PSC) on the 30th of June, right before the 4th of July weekend. Our first flight left very early in the morning, so we only slept 2–3 hours the night before. The airports were crowded, but everything moved smoothly from BOS to SFO.

Until this point, it was what I appreciate as United experience: impressively efficient, professional, courteous, and smooth. We got to SFO with more than an hour before our connection — a small plane to the rural Pasco airport. From there, we were scheduled to rent a car, and drive 4 hours to Missoula, MT., for a wedding the next day.

We sat down at the gate for our flight to Pasco, UA5055. We sat in the front row of terminal seats, a dozen feet from the ticket counter. It was an hour before scheduled departure.

The plane arrived. The flight was overbooked; the PA asked repeatedly if anyone would give up their seats for credit.

Pre-boarding was called. The monitor above the gate switched to a notification for “pre-boarding” passengers. People gathered at the gate, on the other side of the ticket counter kiosk from us. We were in the last general boarding group, so we waited, reading and catching up on work, for the other boarding groups to be called. We frequently glanced up at the monitor, and listened to the PA system, for general boarding to be announced. No further announcements were made. The monitor stayed on “pre-boarding”.

We waited another ten minutes, then decided to go ask what the holdup was. Nobody was at the ticket counter; the group of people that had gathered at the gate was gone. We caught the attention of a nearby attendant, and asked when general boarding would begin.

“Oh, that flight?” The attendant asked, “That flight just left.”

We were flabbergasted. Why hadn’t the monitors updated? Why hadn’t general boarding been called? Where was the final boarding call? Why hadn’t missing passengers’ names been called before closing the gate? Had the attendants skipped the PA and gestured/talked directly to the passengers they could see and announced general boarding? What if we hadn’t been facing the gate, or had been elsewhere in the terminal? What if we had been disabled, or deaf?

We decided to cut our losses. We went to the nearest information counter, just across the hall, and said that our flight had left without us. We were met with incredulity: “So, you missed your flight. Is that what you mean?” No, we explained. It had left without us. We pointed across the terminal at the closed gate. The monitor still showed “pre-boarding only, flight UA5055”.

We asked to be rescheduled, to Pasco, Missoula, Spokane . . . anywhere within a few hundred miles of our destination. “Nope,” we were told, “Not until the three days from now; there aren’t any flights to that area.” We asked about other carriers, and were told that they didn’t have seats. We tried a bunch of nearby airports, though the information desk attendant did not seem to have a map, so they didn’t know which ones were near Pasco. Nothing worked.

“OK,” I finally asked, “What is the closest you can get us?”

“I can get you to Medford, Oregon by 6pm tonight” said the attendant. “That’s the best I can do.”

My girlfriend and I looked at each other. Medford is 900 miles from Missoula. More than half a day’s drive. The wedding was in a little less than 20 hours.

We didn’t have a choice, so we took the flight to Medford. We cancelled our car rental in Pasco ($160, no refund available), rented another car in Medford ($704), and started driving. Thankfully, credit cards, are magical things. It’s paying them off that’s the hard part.

We drove in shifts, two hours at a time, with the passenger talking to the driver to keep them from falling asleep at the wheel. We drove for 14 hours, over night, and into the next morning. We arrived in Missoula, got out of the car after more than half a day spent in it, got dressed, and went straight to the wedding. We were sick/feverish, and exhausted, but happy we had made it.

Before we left SFO, I had gone to the main (or at least the largest) United information desk, and asked if I could be reimbursed for the difference in car rentals we would have to pay, or at least for the rental we had to cancel because our flight left without us. I was met with the same incredulity I had received before. I had to convince people, over and over, that we weren’t late, or at the wrong gate. We had been there, waiting, on time, before the plane even arrived. The flight had left without us — without calling our boarding group, our names, or any final boarding call, while we sat waiting for the same boarding process we had been through hundreds of times to complete. The folks at the info desk listened, and then I was told, verbatim, that “It’s your word against theirs; it sounds like you missed your flight.”

I’m not bothered by tiredness, rudeness, long drives, or unexpected changes of plans. I understand that things happen; humans slip up — especially on busy holiday weekends. What I don’t understand is why all of the systems that exist to cover for human failures (a computer display of each boarding group, the universal practice of announcing boarding groups over the PA, final boarding call, the final call for any missing names) didn’t work in this case. United has been nothing but consistent in my experience. Why did they break with that consistency this time?

Was it because the flight was overbooked? If seats are needed, is it standard practice to do boarding “on the down-low”, and skip calling the names of any passengers missing before the final call?

I don’t want to believe that. I’m not angry, and I’m not after guilt or apologies. I’m confused, and most of all I’m disappointed. I’ve flown United for years; I’ve put a fair few miles on my Mileage Plus card. I always pick this airline first, even if other options are slightly cheaper or more convenient time-wise.

I’m sorry, but you’ve lost a customer. I won’t be flying with you again.