Screwed by United's Sydney Ground Staff

I’ve just gotten into San Francisco for a few weeks of business related travel, after my direct, 14 hour flight turned into a three leg, 4 stop, 24 hour mountain of hassle, caused by some very dodgy customer service based on laziness and deception and more than a little ineptitude. Here’s my letter of complaint to United.

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing this letter of complaint today following some truly awful customer service experienced at the hands of what I can only describe as your uncaring Sydney ground staff. While it is widely acknowledged that your fleet and operation is much like a creaking, cumbersome, overweight old man who’s best days are well behind him, my experiences today at the hands of your staff stand out for their incredible level of dishonesty and lack of care, even at the hands of United.

The trouble began when I checked in early (at 12:32pm) – something I rarely do – and was told by 12:46pm Sydney time that my flight to San Francisco (UA-870) had been cancelled, and that we would have to be re-routed.

No details to the reason for cancellation were given.

When it was explained that my new route would be Sydney (SYD) > Auckland (AKL) > Los Angeles (LAX) > San Francisco (SFO), instead of my expected SYD > SFO direct, I asked whether it would be possible to be put onto United’s SYD > LAX direct service (UA 840), as the detour all that way to the south in Auckland, and the associated layover, was going to add quite some time to my journey.

I was then told that BOTH United flights out of Sydney, to both Los Angeles and San Francisco, were now cancelled, again without any explanation of why but with the impression the aircraft had gone unserviceable (US).

My first request: I would like to know what caused these flights to be cancelled in Sydney, as so far no one has been able to tell me why. To have all of the flights by the same carrier cancelled at the same time struck me as very strange indeed, and sounds more like bad management than bad luck.

After being given paperwork for the re-routing via Air New Zealand’s Pacific tour and checking my luggage and getting boarding passes from the Air New Zealand couter, I grabbed a bit of lunch and checked some emails before clearing Customs and making my way to the gate. My suspicions that something strange was going on was that I cleared customs alongside what looked like a full United Airlines crew, fully kitted up in uniform.

If both flights were cancelled, what were they doing here? Surely the crew wouldn’t be going home on another carrier in full uniform without their aircraft?

Then I saw the United Airlines girl from check-in who’d told me the flight had been cancelled – she was pushing a wheelchair for someone and when she saw me, the colour drained out of her face and she avoided eye contact like she had something to hide.

Once I got to the gate, at around 2:30pm, it became very clear I’d been misled. The United SYD>LAX direct service was indeed boarding, with the San Francisco flight passengers being told to come back after 3pm, as the gate lounge was shared and there wasn’t enough space there for 2x 747’s worth of passengers waiting to board.

Of course, my I was thinking why the hell are they boarding the LAX service now that was cancelled, and why are they asking people to come back after 3pm for the SFO service that I should have been on, but which I was told had been cancelled?

The staff at the entry to the gate were contract security, and as I didn’t have a UA boarding pass, they explained they could let me in to talk to someone from United, but they promised to go and get someone for me.

I thought when I got a chance to talk to someone from United, I could just get swapped back onto the original UA870 flight: with my SFO flight still over an hour away (15:45), if it had been reinstated, there would be time to get my bags back from AirNZ (which was boarding in about half an hour at the gate next door), and onto my planned flight, saving me the unnecessary detour around the Pacific with AirNZ?

While waiting to see someone from United – it took about 15 minutes – one of the guys, Alex, who was checking in around the same time to SFO, and who got routed similarly via AKL and LAX, wandered over. He was travelling to a conference with a few work colleagues, and he explained that a mate of his – who checked in about 15 minutes after us – was able to get onto our original flight, UA-870, SYD>SFO direct. Alex said he knew the time period between when the flight was cancelled and then uncancelled was short because he only had time to walk down to the money-change service at the end of the concourse after checking in with AirNZ before his friend walked over to meet him after checking in successfully with United on UA-870.

My second request: I would like to know why your staff couldn’t be bothered – with around 3 hours until our UA-870 departure – to page the handful of customers affected by your temporary flight cancellation, and arrange for us to come back and check in properly on the flights we’d booked? This sort of customer service is truly appalling, but unfortunately, it gets worse.

Now the United manager on the ground in Sydney came over to talk to us. It became quite clear early into the conversation that now the timing to make any changes was tight – the LAX flight was getting ready to board, and while my flight to SFO was still well over an hour away, the AirNZ flight was getting ready to board, and there were concerns that getting bags out from the AirNZ hold would delay that flight, something AirNZ wouldn’t want to do.

With the new knowledge that the flight was un-cancelled within a few minutes of us being redirected to AirNZ, and given short time frames was now our enemy, I also wanted to know why no-one had paged us back around 1pm when there was plenty of time.

Without getting any form of explanation on this, the United staff member promised us that if the AirNZ staff were able to get our bags out, they would transfer them and us across to the UA-870 flight to SFO, but that unfortunately it was in the hands of the AirNZ staff.

She made a call to the AirNZ manager downstairs, who she said had declined our request. “It’s a manpower issue” she explained, and we couldn’t blame AirNZ for not wanting to delay their own flight: it was United’s fault this was all being contemplated at the last minute…

It was now 2:55pm, and the AirNZ flight was boarding at 3pm.

When it came to the question of why they didn’t page us right back at the beginning and get us back onto the right flights – when there was plenty of time to sort out this baggage stuff – she basically admitted that they couldn’t be bothered to try and fix it. I then put it to her that they’d deliberately held back the information from us in the hope we wouldn’t find out that they couldn’t be bothered to deal with it and didn’t care that their unreliability meant a much longer and delayed journey, increasing the trip from 14 hours to over 21 hours (it turned out being around 24 hours in the end, with more United delays in LAX), and with two layovers instead of a direct service.

She then got defensive and told us that this was costing United money, and we should have felt incredibly grateful that we were leaving the country at all given the poor reliability of the United service.

After copping it on the chin for the time being and fuming at the ineptitude of these United clowns over the previous few hours, I joined the queue to board the NZ118 service to Auckland. The friendly staff were at the front doors of the aircraft and welcoming us aboard, asking us the usual “how are you today” questions. Of course, the answer at this point was very very dark and pissed off – I said something to the effect that “this probably isn’t the right time to be asking” with a wry smile.

The AirNZ Flight Service Manager, Anthony Mayer, was excellent, taking note of our situation and actually giving a damn and taking action, rather than making excuses for screwing people over and being too lazy to fix the problem like the United staff had done.

Anthony then pulled some strings with the ground crew, and within 10 minutes, he’d found the bags of myself and a few other passengers all in the same situation. At this point, UA-870 to SFO was still about 45 mins from boarding, and given the gates and aircraft were right next to each other, this should have allowed plenty of time to move our luggage and get onto the UA flight.

Given the promises the United lady had made in the gate some 10 minutes earlier – if AirNZ would/could find our luggage, then United would take it and we could be moved across to our original flight – we then understandably had the expectation that we’d be changing over to the direct flight.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Once again, United customer service let us down, because while our luggage had been found and was ready to be off-loaded from the AirNZ flight, the United staff refused to take the luggage.

Once again, servicing your customers and making up for your mistakes was too hard.

My third request: I want to know why – with the aircraft next to each other, and my SFO flight still over an hour away from departure and no passengers even boarding it yet – my luggage and then I couldn’t be transferred across to my scheduled and much more convenient flight?

Things didn’t get much better in LAX. After lining up at our third check-in/ticket counter (your staff kept directing us to the wrong place), we finally got some boarding passes, and then the flight to SFO was delayed by another hour.

In conclusion, this whole episode has been an incredibly unpleasant experience caused entirely by wilfully poor levels of customer service by your Sydney staff. It is clear that they couldn’t be stuffed trying to help us after we’d been shunted to AirNZ – a simple paging message, like the ones that ring out through airports thousands of times per day, asking us to come back to the check-in counter when the service was uncancelled – would have done the trick, and we could have had it all resolved by 1pm, almost 3 hours before the UA-870 flight’s departure.

It was clear the objective of the United staff was to deceive and keep us, the customer, in the dark, in the hope we wouldn’t realised we’d been screwed over by getting routed all over the Pacific unnecessarily.

Unfortunately for the woeful United staff who thought they could just deceive us so they didn’t have to do the right thing by us, the Departure gates for the UA-870 and NZ-118 flights were next to each other, and I happen to know quite a bit about the industry (many of my good friends and a relative are in the industry as pilots and cabin crew).

My final request: While the airline business is subject to numerous external factors like weather and mechanical issues, I feel in this case the problem was purely wilful and deceptive customer service by your Sydney ground staff. In light of this, expect to be compensated for the lost time and massive inconvenience (I’ve now missed a couple of important meetings in San Francisco which I’d planned to make on the Saturday afternoon). I’ll be flying home to Sydney on Friday the 23rd of October on UA-863, which would give you an opportunity to start to address this unpleasant experience at the hands of your Sydney staff through an upgrade.

The bright light in this whole experience was Air New Zealand. While the extra time was a bit hassle, AirNZ’s staff, service, aircraft and everything else were absolutely outstanding. I’d always thought of Singapore Airlines as the outfit with the nicest planes, best in-flight entertainment and highest quality service, especially for economy travellers. AirNZ have just trumped them in my mind, big time – well done everyone at Air New Zealand.

5 thoughts on “Screwed by United's Sydney Ground Staff

  1. maybe they just had overbooked the flights and so had to “get rid” of some economy passengers by rerouting them via mars. some seam to do that….

  2. Prior to you wrap your bags and then head off on the way to your desired destination, it can be rather important to have a few fundamental specifics in your head. Whatsoever transpires, you do not want any purpose spoiling your entire holiday…will you?

  3. Unfortunately you summed up the United experience at the start of this letter. Yes, everyone knows United is the worst of the worst.
    I think the bigger question is why QANTAS decided to cancel their SYD – SFO flight? I have flown that route many times and the QANTAS plane was always totally booked. Every single time. So how could that not have been a profitable route? It is just another example of big business really not giving a damn about it’s customers. Flying via LAX is a massive headache as anyone who has had to sit and wait the 4 hours minimum for the connection to SFO after doing the Australian leg will agree. I certainly hope the rumors of Virgin pickin up that route turn out to be true.

  4. Pingback: Deception & Denial – Commercial Aviation’s Two Worst Habits - looking out from down under

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