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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

United: Fly the F-U Skies

I am in the US as part of a sabbatical, for about a month. My wife accompanied me as far as Washington Dulles Airport, then we split – I am in Michigan, she went for a couple of weeks to Peru. South African Airways failed to load our suitcases in Johannesburg, which we only discovered after parting at Washington.

In the US, United Airlines handles SAA’s baggage and that’s where the problem really began.

In South Africa, we are used to whingeing about poor service. In the US, you expect better. Everyone is trained up in being nice and putting the customer first – or at least it seems so. United at first seemed fine – when I arrived in Detroit, they gave me a file reference number and told me when to expect my suitcase to arrive. Much as I expected, it was rerouted to the same flights a day later.

My wife’s situation was a little different. At Washington, her original ticket ended and she switched to an American Airlines flight. To complicate things, she arrived in the midst of a big strike that affected airports. But that cleared in a day or two. What I think really broke things is that United decided to keep things in house and used one of their own flights from Washington to Peru, and the routing I had from them was via Houston and Lima. No doubt that saved them money – they would be charging SAA for handling this for them and they would do better if they didn’t have to pay another airline to take the luggage.

For the last few days leading up to the fifth day, at the end of which the airline would have to pay compensation, United kept stringing me along. Then it turns out they have no record of her suitcase past Lima and – wait for it – don’t want to hear about a compensation claim. The suitcase now has an SAA file reference number on a different tracking system.

Up to that point United had been very happy to handle this – they could perform a service for SAA and profit from the fee. Her suitcase made it as far as Lima on a United flight and now has gone missing. It had one more stop after that: Cusco. Suddenly at the exact point when they (since it is their fault; SAA did not lose the suitcase in Lima) would have to pay compensation, they give me an SAA file reference number and tell me to F off (not quite in those words but their meaning is clear).

If SAA pays compensation, good. I will give them that option (they are so far being cooperative – so I will give them benefit of the doubt). If not, we have the mess of trying to claim from insurance for something that should not be an insurable loss. I will somehow have to get a letter from at least one of the airlines explaining why they are not paying for the loss.

Are they just being horrible to me? No – United has a poor track record on service that the new CEO ought to be prioritizing.

Not too soon as far as I am concerned. I had a flight from hell with United in the 1980s. I had just arrived from South Africa into New York and boarded a flight to Chicago en route to Minneapolis. After we boarded and the doors were closed, we were told there was a delay for bad weather and sat next to the terminal for 3 hours. Once we reached Chicago all outgoing flights had left and instead of putting us up for the night (it was their choice to leave us stranded at around midnight), we were offered a list of discounted hotel rooms. The discounted rooms had all sold out, and I ended up trying to sleep in the airport, not with much success.

This is the first time in 30 years that I’ve flown United, and I didn’t allow enough time for them to improve.

So United, your “Fly the friendly skies” slogan is a tad misleading. I suggest “Fly the F-U skies”. Whether you take that as your attitude to service or my attitude to you is your choice. Both fit.

Update

My wife finally found her suitcase. Someone staying at the same place was returning via the same route and asked after it at the United baggage desk in Lima. They said it had gone to Cusco. My wife had to go to the Cusco airport to drop someone off (not really but shared the taxi) and picked it up. United meanwhile offered to send me a $75 Travel Certificate (which needless to say hasn’t show up yet). How this compensates to 9 days of borrowed clothing and wasting time I don’t know. I certainly can’t use it because I am not resident of the US or anywhere else United operates, and would be embarrassed to give it to someone else after this.

What really beggars the imagination is that a total stranger with the details of the suitcase could walk up to the United baggage desk in Lima and be told where the suitcase was yet United’s internal systems could not track it down. Part of the problem is they don’t answer their phones; I was put on hold 3 times by the United central baggage tracing service and not once were they able to reach their own baggage desk in Lima. I tried calling the SAA baggage desk at Dulles and not only didn’t get a reply but messages left were not returned. Since United handles SAA baggage in the US I would not be surprised if it was in fact United staff who were not taking calls.

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