Basic Stupidity from United Airlines

The Supervisor and the Checkin Agent at United

With all the traveling I’ve been doing these past eighteen months–mostly going back and forth between upstate New York and Colorado–I guess I was due for a bad airline experience. Sure, I’ve had upsets this past year and a half, at least two that forced me to stay over at a connecting city because of a flight cancelled due to supposed mechanical problems. (I’m told that’s what airlines say and do these days when a plane isn’t packed to the gills.) But yesterday, I felt the full brunt of lousy customer service.

I arrived with some trepidation at the airport to check in at United for my Albany to Chicago to Denver travel itinerary. I had already received a few updates stating that my flight was delayed due to thunderstorms in Chicago. OK, that’s acceptable, that’s an act of nature that has forced me to be grounded in Chicago several times before. That’s not the fault of the airlines. These storms goofed up the arrival of the inbound flight to Albany, so I just had to take a deep breath and hope for the best.

But the real trouble began when the checkin agent told me I had to check my rolling carryon at checkin. “Are you serious?” I exclaimed. “That’s not at all what I was told.”

United’s Basic Economy

“You have a Basic Economy ticket and that’s what you have to do,” the agent replied without a hint of an apology.

I proceeded to explain to him that I knew I had a Basic Economy ticket and that’s why I packed the way I did. I booked it two months ago and checked the restrictions four times over with the agent I spoke with on the phone. (I always do check, double check to practically ad nauseam. My father was in WWII and he said that was the rule of the land–no one could afford any mistakes. And I learned well from Dad.) Since this is a new reduced fare that United recently launched, I questioned the agent up and down and then planned my strategy accordingly.

It was my understanding that I was not allowed to check a bag although I could check a carryon at the gate at the cost of $50. each way ($25. for the bag; $25. for the handling fee). I thought it odd that I’d be paying for anything at the gate but the agent I spoke with was insistent upon that. (She did have a thick accent, so in retrospect, I can only think something was lost in our ability to understand each other.)

Not Getting Anywhere

I was only allowed to bring a small carryon onto the plane. The agent assured me that I could pick up my checked carryon at the end of the jetway. Being someone that does not travel lightly (I like to have a selection), I thought this whole baggage business over long and hard and after a couple more confirmations on this and other restrictions, I decided to pull the trigger on this reduced fair.

My Bag

In the time from when I booked the flight to the morning of my departure, I mentally packed my roll-on carryon a gazillion times. Sure, I have OCD tendencies but still, I was leaving for a two-week trip back to Colorado, so I wanted to make sure I was going to have everything I needed. (I’m not a minimalist.) I was convinced it was doable since I have a closetful of clothing and accessories at home in Colorado as do I have a large amount of belongings at my Mom’s house in New York where I’ve been spending time with her ever since my Dad passed away.

I was kicking off a long weekend, however, with a wedding in Denver and other dress-up occasions, so I wanted to make sure to get it right. My boyfriend would be meeting me half of the way through (in Denver), so I had even packed a bag for him to bring to me (from Telluride) in an effort to properly reunite all of my fancy and casual clothes and accessories. (He was charged with bringing my elegant French hat and some other items whereas I had the dress, shoes, bag and jewels already with me in New York.) Quelle organisation!

Plus, being a woman of un certain age (or at least steadily approaching it), I can’t help being encumbered by a fair amount of potions, lotions, an array of other toiletry and beauty items, supplements, special herbal teas and snacks and dare I say, pills. (Yes, already.) I’m also a writer and despite my devices, I still bring a small stack of papers with me when on the go. Good lord, I usually travel with everything but my cats and actually they sometimes come with me, too. So you can imagine that all this tiny suitcase planning presented a challenge, one I was determined to master.

I explained my exchange with the phone agent to the checkin agent in Albany in full detail. I told him I would have loved to have been able to pack and check a regular-sized suitcase! I advised him of the packing problems my understanding of the rules had created for me but he didn’t give a hoot. There was no way he was going to let me board the plane with my roll-on carryon.

“Sorry, rules are rules,” he told me flatly. “You have a Basic Economy ticket and I can’t let you on the plane with your roll-on carryon.”

“I’ll pay the $50.,” I pleaded.

‘Nope. Sorry, you have to check that bag.”

“But I have tons of important stuff in it that I need to have with me. I have my laptop, toiletry items, medications, jewelry (yes, my bag of baubles is substantial–mostly costume, of course)–I can’t fit all this into my pocketbook.”

“Rules are rules,” he said without even a “sorry.”

There wasn’t a bit of understanding for the conundrum this posed for me.

“I’m a travel writer,” I said as I pulled out my card. “I really don’t like doing these kinds of stories.”

He just shrugged.

“You mean you’d allow me to check a bag–even a large suitcase–with this Basic Economy fare, but I can’t wheel my carryon onto the plane even if I pay extra?”

“Yep, that’s right.”

“I’d like to talk with your supervisor.”

I made my plea to that guy and found him to be even more useless.

“Can’t break the rules,” he gave me with the same unfriendly skies demeanor.

“Well, I think sometimes you need to make exceptions. Sometimes you need to use common sense and good judgement and work to accommodate a passenger. This problem began with your phone agent and her poor communication.”

After I was subjected to a few more shrugs and dismissive remarks, I made one last plea. “The flights are a mess due to the storms in Chicago. I could very well end up having to spend the night there. I can’t check this bag in the belly of the plane. There’s a lot in it that I really need. I know how it goes. You’re never able to retrieve your luggage in those instances.”

The whole scene was pathetic. No one cared. No one said, “How can I make this better for you?” There wasn’t even a remark such as “I’m sorry for this misunderstanding.” It was awful.

My Splayed Suitcase

Not Fun

So in addition to the usual stress of travel (and that’s coming from a travel writer) and the anxiety around foul weather delays, I had to get down on my hands and knees, splay my carryon out on the floor of the terminal and attempt to pull out my very most important items. I stuffed them into my tote, checked in and then walked away with a load of my belongings slung over my arm and bulging from my pockets. I realized I just had to suck it up.

By the time I boarded the plane at the gate, I realized I had lost my favorite black fleece pullover in the kerfuffle. I asked the gate agent about it and she gave me the royal brushoff, most likely because she was partly in on what happened at checkin.

Then as soon as I entered the plane I took a look at my boarding pass and saw that I had a middle seat. I looked at my pass for my Chicago to Denver flight and that was also a middle seat. Those buggers, I thought. You can’t obtain your seat assignments ahead of time with the Basic Economy ticket and in my upset, I forgot to attempt to find a better seat at checkin. Far be it from them to offer to find one for me as a kind gesture for my trouble. I’m just lucky I didn’t miss my flight. (I would have had it not been delayed due to bad weather.)

What a bunch of nasty people!

I’m really disgusted with the whole experience. Many people have been recommending that I travel more on American or Delta, two airlines that also serve Colorado well, which is exactly what I think I will do.

After that horrific incident of dragging the man down the aisle, which was clearly due to a lack of common sense and good judgement, I received reams of correspondence from United about how they were making changes and how they were going to try to do better.

Well, clearly no one passed that message on to the folks in Albany. The experience could have been very different if the agents actually practiced good customer service and used a measure of smarts.

To hell with them!

Note that in fairness, I received at least one email explaining the regulations of Basic Economy. I only gave them cursory glances as most of us do with most of our emails. What stuck with me was the lengthy conversation I first had with the United agent over the phone.

One More Gripe
OK, so I finally made it onto the flight to Denver. And no sooner was I in my seat that horrible graphic images of deer hunting flashed on the screen before me. We hadn’t even taken off yet! I tried hard to shut the damned TV off but to no avail. My seat mates couldn’t do it either. I then tried blocking the image with some reading material but that kept slipping down. I was infuriated! I hate the constant onslaught of TV everywhere but it’s truly intolerable when it forces disturbing images upon me. Finally the flight attendant arrived. He had a hard time turning the TV off, too. But he was able to strategically place a cardboard card that blocked the image. I’d bet he has had plenty of practice with this one. Enough with the forced TV viewing!

One of a Couple of Beautiful Animals I Saw Slaughtered on the Screen in Front of Me

The Gun Demo

The Flight Attendant Trying to Hide the Screen

What an ordeal! I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’ll never fly Basic Economy on United if I have to take one of their flights!

21 Jul 2017, 12:38pm
by Pam Kvidera


Hi Maribeth,
As a travel agent, I know not to sell “N” seats on United and “E” seats on Delta — both are Basic Economy with all of its horrible conditions. Better to upsell yourself on a higher category of fare — or better yet, fly on Southwest with “Check Two Bags for Free” policy.
Just flew myself roundtrip to Albany from Seattle on Southwest – tons of legroom on their 737-800 series of planes — not at all disappointed. Loved checking two bags for free!
I hope that all is well with you –
Pam Kvidera

Welcome back Maribeth,

For the past years I have flown on
American Airlines, domestic and international. They are grwat.fly on air miles and you may stop at two cities before your final destination

Have not flown for a while, still hope it is the same!

Never heard great reviews about United.

27 Jul 2017, 5:30pm
by Allison


Basic Economy fares are very clear that you do NOT get a carryon except for a purse or bag that fits under the seat in front of you and you WILL have to check your bag to the final destination. And, you pointed out that you fly a lot, so you shouldn’t be surprised that you got a middle seat. Sorry to sound unsympathetic but people book these fares and then bitch about them when they don’t get what they want. I fly Montrose-Albany at least once a month right now, and sometimes twice a month, and have to say that i have been very happy with United that last year.

Hi Maribeth,

Sorry for your troubles with United, but we’ve flown United for decades without one unfortunate incident ~ and we fly coach so receive no special treatment. Don’t think that Delta will be a great alternative. We booked a flight to France on Air France a few years ago and Delta is their domestic partner, so we had to fly Delta to Atlanta from California and fly Air France from there. Delta changed our flight times and our flights at least 5 times over a few months before departure, including seat assignments ON AIR FRANCE! They finally contacted us to say that our flight over the Atlantic would be on Delta, and I said, “No it won’t!” They said I could change to a later Air France flight but it would cost us $200 each, and I questioned why since we didn’t request any of the changes they kept making. I then called Air France, got a lovely guy on the phone who told me Delta has no access to their computers so cannot change our seats or flights, and he would put us on that later flight ~ at absolutely no charge. United has NEVER done anything like this to us. I carry a large tote containing my notebook computer, medications, cameras and any valuables, and we always check our two rolling bags. It doesn’t cost anything for one checked bag per person, and United has never lost or damaged any of our luggage.

My friend flies American quite often as well as British Airways, both of whom have lost luggage. My only complaint with United is that all the miles we accumulated as frequent flyers are no longer enough for a ticket to Europe as they once were.

27 Jul 2017, 10:27pm
by Frank Connolly, Jr.


Hi Maribeth:
Gave up on United several years ago. I use SouthWest and instead of Denver we go out of Albaquerky. Same distance from Ridgway to Denver but much less traffic.
Enjoy the rest of your summer and see you in November.
Frank

 

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