Just Another Day on United Airlines

After dropping my daughter off at the school bus this morning, I picked my bags up from my house and headed out for another routine flight from IAD to DEN.  This was a rare occasion where my upgrade cleared in plenty of time, and I had an aisle seat in F on a 757-300.

Just as I was pulling up to the airport (around 8:40am)I got an e-mail that my flight had been cancelled.  Sigh.  I headed to the ticket counter to get on a later flight.  Upon arriving at the ticket counter, I found out that they hadn’t put me on the 12:30 departure but instead had elected to put me on the 2:30 flight to DEN.  The agent told me that the 12:30 flight was now oversold, so my only option was standby.  This wasn’t surprising, just disappointing.  As a 1K on United, I would have expected to be a bit higher on the list for protection on that 12:30 flight.  But, there’s no way to really know how many seats were available at that time.

At that point, I asked the agent if she would re-accommodate me on American Airlines, as that would get me into DEN at around 2pm as opposed to the 4:30 UA was predicting.  She declined, stating the flight was canceled due to weather.  I knew it was sunny in Denver, so I asked her again (there was a light rain falling at IAD).  She confirmed again that it was because of weather with a notation about rain at IAD.  I pointed to the arrivals board which showed virtually every flight on time, but that didn’t seem to do the job.  Again, not losing my temper, I asked her if it really made sense that this was weather-related.  She was a bit frustrated that I asked again, but hopped on the phone and asked someone else.  She was informed that it was, in fact, a mechanical delay.  Shocker.

At this point, I had 35 minutes to catch the American flight (we lost about 10 minutes).  She said she needed at least 30 minutes prior to departure of another flight to move me, and she didn’t think she had enough time, since she was going to need to call the UA help desk to assist and she wasn’t sure how long the hold time would be.  I asked her to please try.  We were inside 30 minutes when she got the answer back that AA wouldn’t accept the transfer.  I spoke with someone from AA later, and they confirmed that the flight I was trying to move to had already started boarding and processing standby passengers.  Not sure if the time delay caused my issue or if AA was already full, but it’s frustrating that the system killed my ability to try.

At this point, the UA agent’s attempt to move my ticket had caused me to lose my seat on the 2:30 departure.  This necessitated another call to the help desk.  After she hung up, the system still wouldn’t let her print a boarding pass for me, so she had to call the help desk back again (yep, 3rd time).  She had already given me a standby card for a 12:12 departure to DEN, but couldn’t get me a confirmed flight.  After another few minutes, she had me ticketed but with no seat assignment.  So, I’d gone from a 9:40 departure in F to a 2:30 departure in coach with the possibility I might be able to make the 12:30.  Awesome.

I cleared security quickly and figured I would do some walking, then sit down somewhere and get caught up on work.  As I was walking past one of the departure monitors, I noticed there was a flight on the board going from IAD to DEN about 20 minutes after the one the agent had me on standby for.  That seemed odd, so I called the 1K desk.  Apparently, the ticket agent had processed me on a “direct” flight.  For those that don’t know, “direct” is not the same as “non-stop” in the airline world.  Direct means you don’t have to get off the plane for a connection, but you most certainly stop somewhere for a while (in this example, Chicago).  I don’t think I need to explain non-stop.  The agent was able to get me a seat on the 2:38 before I hung up, just in case I needed it.  And, not a horrible seat after all, 20E which is exit row with no seat to the left on an Airbus A319.

I went to the United Club to ask for standby on the 12:37 non-stop. Again, this took about 10-15 minutes of struggling with the record.  In the midst of doing this, the agent at the club confirmed I was 5th on the standby list for the 12:37 flight.  That seemed really odd, since my status plus my travel disruption should have put me pretty high on the list.  She couldn’t help me further, so I went to go get a bite to eat.

Something told me to keep asking questions, so I went to a United customer service counter to ask.  The agent there confirmed one of the  people in front of me was there because of status, and one was there because they were in a standby category reserved for the elderly or unaccompanied minors.  Good enough, that makes sense.  She couldn’t explain the other two, though.  She asked me to hold on because she was going to call someone to ask.  She banged away on the keyboard fora  few minutes and then shocked me by handing me a boarding pass.  Not a great seat (27F), but a seat nonetheless.  A bit happier, I headed back to the club to do some work, then headed out to the gate to board.

Overall, not the end of the world.  Arrive 3 hours later than I thought, sandwiched into coach, but livable.  Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story.

We pushed back 100 feet and sat for a few minutes.  It started to feel like too long of a wait, and very shortly my thoughts were confirmed.  Second broken plane of the day!

It turned out we had a generator that wouldn’t come on.  It took a solid half hour before we were given that information.  At this point, it’s about 1:30.  The first indication from the captain was maintenance was going to take everyone off the plane so they could take the plane out to try and spin up the generator, then reload.  About 15 minutes later, the indication was we would not have to deplane and would be ready to go at 2pm.
At this point, it seemed prudent to see if I could get my seat back on the 2:30 departure, since I wasn’t sure my second plane of the day was taking me any further than the first did (well, unless you count that 100 feet we pushed back from the gate).  According to the 1K desk, one of the errors someone had made was actually putting me on both flights without canceling either seat.  Maybe I’d get lucky?
I waited until 2pm and finally asked my seat mates to let me out into the aisle.  Although the purser had given us every indication we were leaving, I was pretty sure I still counted at least one mechanic still on the plane.  And, if I got to the other plane, I had an economy plus seat in row 20, which meant extra legroom and no seat to my right.  The 319 has this configuration for one row right at the over-wing exits, where instead of 3 across the actual window seat is missing and the middle becomes it’s own window.  In my opinion, this is the best seat in the 319 cabin other than an aisle seat in the bulkhead row.  Keep in mind we’re not talking lap of luxury stuff here, but 4 hours with a bit more legroom and elbow room wouldn’t hurt after a 5-hour delay.
When I approached the front of the plane, the purser told me we were getting ready to leave. I pointed out the mechanic and then suggested we probably still had to add fuel, which she confirmed.  And, we still weren’t 100% sure they had resolved the generator issue yet, although it seemed pretty likely they had resolved it.
So, I made the decision and jumped off that flight at about 10 after 2.  They had moved the gate for the 2:30 flight, so I had a bit of running to do, but made it in plenty of time.  And, when I got on board, I got an e-mail update on my previous flight that showed departure time had been pushed back to 2:40.  So, at the very least, this would turn out to be a roughly even money decision on time of departure and a more comfortable seat after a long uncomfortable delay.
I arrived at DEN around 4pm, about 5 hours after I was supposed to.  I cut off about 30 minutes by changing planes (the second plane I got onto took off about 30 minutes after I took off).
I don’t know what I’ll ask UA for in regards to compensation, but I essentially lost my entire day.  I would have much rather spent some more time at home with my family than a day at Dulles bouncing around to different planes.  I’m a seasoned traveler and I know things like this happen, but today seemed like a bit of a circus.  I know some of the errors made are part of the learning curve the UA folks have getting used to the new reservation system, but that really could have been diminished by better training.  I don’t think the sky is falling, but I haven’t seen UA take any opportunities since the merger to make themselves look better.
I’ve come to expect these types of letdowns from UA, although not quite this magnificent.  And, that’s disappointing for someone that loves air travel as much as I do.
How have your flying experiences been lately?  Any crazy travel stories?


  1. I’m a 20 year flier on UA who has decided to use almost any other airline for both domestic and international travel. Shame to use my award miles for hotels.

    1. It is a bit of a shame. Their route network fits nicely for me, but customer service is definitely a lost art. Knowing all the complications that have arisen from the computer system transition, I hoped that would be a focus area. I’m still plodding along hoping to earn lifetime Star Alliance Gold status, but I much prefer the customer service I receive from AA.

  2. Sounds like a wonderfully wasted day. Reminds me of my last trip with Delta a year ago. Except you probably were smart and did carryon….my bags didn’t arrive for 3 days from NJ to FL. I could’ve driven to Florida faster than it took Delta to fly me there. Sometimes flying the friendly skies isn’t so friendly OR weather-related.

  3. Now I know why I no longer miss business travel after 35 years of much of the same as you went through today.

    1. Yep. No question that the days of glamorous domestic travel are long past. You probably remember the good old days when you got to fly on the deHavilland Comet and the 707.

      1. I miss the good old days of twice baked potatoes and quality meals in coach. Did that really happen or was that a figment of my imagination?

  4. Hey, when I first started flying in the 50’s, it was on DC-3’s with wicker seats. Seriously. 🙂

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