Everyone Has Their Own Horrific United Airlines Story. Here’s Ours

My wife, my 14 year old daughter, and I were passengers on United flight #955, from TLV to SFO, scheduled to depart December 26, 2019 at 12:55 am. Due to the departure time, many passengers will stay awake the entire prior day and sleep on the flight—which makes already-fatigued passengers especially vulnerable if something goes wrong, as it did in our case.

Our scheduled flight suffered a mechanical issue. The pilot said a lavatory was leaking. Maintenance tried to fix it. However, the issue recurred while taxiing. The pilot returned the plane to the gate and called maintenance again. However, the pilot concluded that the flight could not leave before the Tel Aviv airport’s early morning curfew. He canceled the flight and had everyone deplane.

I compliment the pilot for prioritizing safety. The pilot knew that his decision would cost the airline a lot of money and wreck the schedule of many people, so I’m sure he felt a lot of pressure to go. But safety should come first, which is what the pilot chose.

However, what happened after we deplaned was not OK. I cannot recall having a prior experience with any airline that was so avoidably awful.

We exited the plane into a void of customer service. United did nothing to immediately help the 300+ deplaning passengers. We could not find any United personnel anywhere in the airport. No gate agents met us as we walked off the plane. Because it was an international flight, we departed through passport control/customs. No one from United met us after we exited customs. No one was at the United departures desk.

As a result, we were stranded in Tel Aviv airport at 2am in the morning with no information, no plans, and no help. No information about hotels or food vouchers. No information about alternative flights. No information about when we would get more information. I cannot wrap my mind around how an airline can dump 300+ exhausted and confused people into an airport at such a late/early hour and simply abandon them.

SUGGESTION #1: There should always be sufficient United personnel available in person to assist passengers deplaned after a cancellation. If necessary, supervisors or on-call personnel should come back to the airport. Under no circumstance should cancelled passengers be stranded in an airport without any in-person assistance.

After realizing that United had no in-person help for us, I called United’s customer support. Of course, they had no information about the cancellation or substitute plans. I simultaneously initiated a conversation with the Twitter support team. This is where United had its second major failing. In all of these interactions, no one offered hotel or food vouchers or a plan of how to proceed. No one offered to reschedule us on another airline (until it was too late). These omissions do not comply with Israeli law or United’s policies, which explicitly say that United will “offer” care rights to canceled passengers. It’s like United had never experienced a flight cancellation before and no one knew what to do.

When I asked about a hotel for the night, I was sent to the ironically-named “United Cares” page, the standard form for submitting complaints. It provides no guidance about the questions we had. At the time, I did not know about Israeli law, and none of your customer support representatives explained the policy or what expenses United would cover. Instead, at one point I was told that I would get details about reimbursements after I boarded my replacement flight. In other words, I was told to incur expenses without any clarity about which expenses United would cover. I’m incredulous that no one directed me to United’s web page where it details its policies in these circumstances.

SUGGESTION #2: I subsequently learned that United has a webpage which describes passenger rights under Israeli law. [https://media.united.com/images/Media%20Database/SDL/travel/destination/international/CSM859-IL-Notice-of-Rights-English-2016-09-REV-ADA.pdf] (No United personnel mentioned this page at any point in our multitudinous interactions with them). United’s cancellation emails/notifications should link to it, and customer support representatives should direct canceled passengers to it.

SUGGESTION #3: United customer support representatives need additional training and refreshers about the requirements of Israeli law and United’s policies. They should immediately offer the rights rather than passengers having to extract concessions.

About 2 hours after my first contact with them, the phone and Twitter customer support representatives finally offered two options to get home: the rescheduled 955 flight to SFO (renumbered to flight #2829) departing 23 hours after our original departure time, or an 11:30 am United flight to EWR with a connection to SFO, arriving about 11pm local time, or about 17 hours after our originally scheduled arrival time. (Other airlines had better options, but by the time the representatives offered them to us, savvier or higher-status United passengers had snapped up all the seats). Like many other 955 refugees, we chose the 11:30 am flight with connections. At this point, it was after 4 am local time, so it didn’t make sense to leave the airport just to return for security/passport control a few hours later. We stayed at the Tel Aviv airport without a comfortable place to rest.

We next started working on seats for our new flights. We had paid extra for Economy Plus seating on Flight 955 so that we could select bulkhead seats. Our interest in bulkhead seats isn’t simply a matter of comfort. My wife has a cancer diagnosis and takes a chemotherapy medication, which puts her at an increased risk of life-threatening blood clots. To reduce this risk, she needs the ability to elevate her feet, which bulkhead seats permit.

When we rescheduled to the 11:30 EWR flight, we were not automatically assigned Economy Plus seats despite having paid for them. Instead, we were assigned economy seats all sitting apart, even though we were traveling with a minor. That necessitated another call to phone support, who did not show any sympathy about this issue. After lengthy negotiations, the support representative grudgingly provided Economy Plus bulkhead seating for the TLV-EWR flight—like we had arranged and paid for—and Economy Plus non-bulkhead (which did not allow for feet elevation) seating for EWR-SFO.

SUGGESTION #4: Paid seat options should automatically apply to rescheduled flights so passengers don’t have to negotiate for what they already paid for.

SUGGESTION #5: When a passenger requests specific seats due to a health condition, customer support personnel should be trained to try to accommodate that request.

On the new flights, we were bumped from Boarding Group 3 to Boarding Group 4. I contacted Twitter support about this issue and they did nothing. On the phone, I asked for a courtesy Priority Boarding pass and was denied. As a workaround, we invoked my wife’s health condition at the gates, and the gate agents accommodated our pre-boarding requests.

SUGGESTION #6: United should consider giving priority boarding as a courtesy to canceled passengers when a reschedule negatively affects their boarding group.

We arrived in EWR per that flight’s schedule, only to experience yet another problem. Our scheduled EWR to SFO flight was delayed at least two hours due to…maintenance. I know maintenance delays happen, but their prevalence seems like a corporate strategy.

SUGGESTION #7: United already knows that it has an aging fleet, and that causes avoidable last-minute delays and cancellations. However, United’s management may not have first-hand experience with how maintenance delays affect ordinary passengers. United should consider passenger empathy training for the executives who decide how much money to invest in aircraft maintenance. Then again, passenger empathy training might be a good idea for the entire organization.

In response to the second maintenance delay, we switched our reservation to the regularly scheduled flight departing about the same time (9 pm local time). This meant we had to negotiate Economy Plus seating yet again. We didn’t secure bulkhead seating for this flight segment, even though that’s why we had paid for Economy Plus seats in the first place.

At this point, the customer service representative gave us $30 in vouchers for dinner (the first and only time on this trip that we got any vouchers from United). However, the customer support representative denied our request for free access to one of the United Lounges so that we could try to relax for two more unexpected hours of delay (the representative said that giving us free access wouldn’t be fair to lounge customers who paid…really?).

SUGGESTION #8: United should consider providing complimentary access to lounges when requested by passengers who are having a miserable trip due to United’s maintenance problems.

Our EWR to SFO flight finally landed in SFO at about 12:30 am Pacific time on Friday, December 27. Some statistics about our trip from TLV to SFO:

  • 2 separate maintenance problems caused 13+ hours of departure delays.
  • Total travel time from scheduled TLV departure (12:55 am local time) to SFO arrival (12:30 am local time the next day) was 34 hours.
  • Because we woke up at a normal time on Wednesday morning, we were basically awake continuously for 48+ hours. That was a sour end to an otherwise wonderful trip to Israel.

During our dozens of hours in United’s “care,” we never felt like any United employee actually empathized with our exhausting experience. Instead, at virtually every juncture, United employees did the bare minimum—or less.

SUGGESTION #9: United personnel should be trained to recognize when passengers are having a miserable trip due to United’s failings and look for ways to soften the blow. Little acts of comfort or kindness would have meant a lot to us.

I used to fly United regularly and had Gold/Platinum status for several years. A few years ago, I switched to Alaska Airlines. After consistently good experiences with them, it was a shock to experience United at less than its best. Seeing how United failed so fundamentally, I’m not sure what it will take to rebuild my trust enough to fly United again.

Irrespective of our future patronage of United, we are entitled to compensation pursuant to Israeli law. Because our flight delay was well over 8 hours, I believe the amount is 3,080 NIS per passenger. We also incurred 111 NIS of food expenses during our 11 hour hiatus in the Tel Aviv (remember, we did not get food vouchers because no one was there to give them to us). Thus, this letter requests compensation of at least 9,351 NIS (we prefer to be paid in USD).

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if United does more for us than legally required, which would be appropriate in light of the two maintenance delays and the repeated customer “service” failings. Instead, I fear United will consider our experiences to be fairly typical and normal for its customers.

Thank you for reading this letter.