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United Airlines - PR Disaster or Business as Usual in the UNfriendly Skies?

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Airlines and Aviation

United Airlines suffers public relations disaster after a passenger is forcibly dragged off a plane that has been overbooked - and bloodied in the process. Just a one off or business as usual in the Unfriendly Skies?

Several years ago I was flying United Airlines from San Francisco to Hong Kong. After checking in and having farewell drinks with a friend at SFO, I went through security and headed for the gate.

When I arrived at the gate, there was a large crowd of agitated people, and some very harried United Airlines employees. OMG!  What’s going on?

Slowly I became aware that my flight had been overbooked … I mean, SERIOUSLY overbooked!

But this wasn’t the usual overbooking that most airlines employ to deal with potential no-shows.

There was a genuine computer screw-up, which meant that the entire plane – with the exception of some unsold seats - had been double-booked!

So we’re not just talking about a handful of people. There were scores of people - possibly more than 100 - that were not going to get on that plane that night.

Compensation Offered

There was an announcement over the loud speaker asking for volunteers. If anyone was willing to travel the following day, they would be given a dinner voucher, put up at a hotel for one night, and given flight vouchers worth US$500.

WOW!!!

That sounded like pretty generous compensation to me because US$500 is about how much I had paid for my ticket.

Since I was in no hurry, I got in line. What’s a one-day delay if I get to have a nice dinner, spend the night in a nice hotel, and end up with enough in credits to pay for my next trip?

I actually looked on it as a bit of an adventure. I was thanking my lucky stars. I actually thought that my summer vacation was getting off to an excellent start!

Little did I know …

First of all, the dinner was nothing to write home about. If I remember correctly, I was limited in what I could order, and not even a glass of house wine was included.

I guess United assumed passengers bumped from a flight were only entitled to the same kind of meal they would be served on a United Airlines flight.

Some compensation ...

As for the hotel … Well???  The room was clean: I can say that much for it. But it was pretty basic. And the facilities? What facilities? There was no swimming pool, no fitness center, absolutely nothing whatsoever to do.

It was already getting late, but what was I supposed to do the next day before boarding my flight? There was no shuttle bus into town, and the flight didn’t leave until evening. What was I supposed to do all day, watch television in my room?

Still …  I thought I had lucked out. That US$500 would pay for my ticket next summer!

Fine Print

There were a couple of catches that United’s staff hadn’t explained when offering the US$500’s worth of flight credits.

The first catch was that the vouchers had a fairly restrictive time limit, which meant I had to cash them in within a fairly short period of time.

That meant having to book a trip before the vouchers expired and not necessarily when I wanted to travel.

Unless you were a businessperson flying every month or so, chances are the vouchers would expire before you could use them.

It gets worse!

The second catch was that I was given two two vouchers, one worth US$300 and one worth US$200, and they could not be used to purchase a ticket on the same flight!

That was NOT made clear when the vouchers were offered. 

The third catch was that the voucher could only be used on a full fare ticket! 

And I NEVER pay full price for a ticket! I ONLY fly when there's some kind of special promotion - unless it's some kind of an emergency.

If I remember correctly, there were also black out periods when the vouchers couldn't be used.

I only became aware of most of these catches when I rushed to cash in my vouchers before they expired.

United was running a special promotion at the time, and guess what! It would have been cheaper for me to purchase a discounted ticket without the voucher than to apply the voucher toward a full fare ticket.

Needless to say, the vouchers couldn't be sold, nor could they be given to a friend. They were - for all intents and purposes - absolutely USELESS to me.

The moral of the story is that I got ZERO compensation for my willingness to help United Airlines out of its sticky situation.

My dissatisfaction with their ridiculously named “friendly skies” doesn't begin - nor does it end - there.

I recently cashed in my hard earned MileagePlus miles, and - based on that very unsatisfactory experience - I will let the remaining miles in my account expire. 

I have had several negative experiences with United over the years. This incident in Chicago only serves to further convince me that I have no desire to ever do business with that airline again.

Would love to hear what you have to say about flying on United Airlines - or any other airline for that matter!

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