It's almost becoming cliche to say the friendly skies of United Airlines seem not-so-friendly lately. It all started with the passengers flying as pass riders who were kicked off for wearing leggings which apparently is outside of United's employee attire policy. Of course that video of the doctor being dragged off a United Express flight by Chicago Aviation Police was seen around the world and probably even up in space. Just last week another story surfaced when United charged a soldier flying home from Afghanistan $200 in excess baggage fees for an overweight bag. Each of these incidents which blew up newsfeeds everywhere happened over the last 6 weeks or so.
Those are just three experiences from three different individuals on three different days in which 495 United flights depart each day on average from O'Hare. Over the same 6 weeks I have been on eight United flights to and from O'Hare. And I have to say, those eight experiences were good ones.
As a Chicago transplant with family on the East Coast, I have entered into a forced marriage of sorts with United. If I want to fly home cheaply with flexibility as to departures, I have to call on my arranged spouse for that ticket. O'Hare is a United hub as is Newark Liberty International Airport and while LaGuardia isn't a hub, there are flights to and from pretty much every hour. With a month's notice, I can fly home for as little as $99 each way.
But lately I haven't had the luxury of a month's notice. My mother deteriorated very quickly before passing away earlier this month which meant I was flying back and forth to spend time with her. This meant that not only was I booking flights on a few days notice at best, I had to book flexible fares so I could change flights without penalty. I changed flights at least four times for various reasons and each time United accommodated me. Each flight was full but I was able to get a seat. No standby drama here.
The last flight change I had to make was the day after my mother died. My return ticket was for several days later but I had to get home quickly to get my family so we could fly back out for her service. I am guessing I booked that original ticket while sleep deprived because while I meant to click on the flexible fare button when I booked on the United website, apparently I didn't. Once I explained the situation to the agent on the phone she very kindly waived the $200 change fee.
Most of the time I was flying solo but that wasn't the case on the last two flights when I took my husband and two young children with me so we could attend her funeral. Those flights I booked on one day notice. O'Hare to the New York/Newark area is a heavily traveled corridor so miraculously I was able to get four seats together for the first flight. That wasn't the case for the flight home and when I initially booked the flight our seats were all over the plane. That's simply not acceptable when traveling with a four year old. United agrees with me because when I called to arrange a seat reassignment the phone agent told me United's policy is that if minors are traveling with their parents/guardians they are to be seated together. Unfortunately, the phone agent was not able to fix the situation and I had the gate agent take care of it right before we boarded. They did and we all sat together once again coming home but maybe this is something United could work on in the future.
All of my flights were on time, actually three were early, except one. On that flight, a 6 AM Saturday morning flight, for some reason, probably weather related, the pilot had to file a flight plan change that took us halfway to the North Pole before heading back to O'Hare. This change resulted in a 15 minute delay for which the pilot and attendants profusely apologized over and over on the intercom. Many passengers had connecting flights with tight layovers, including the woman seated next to me headed to LA. I gladly obliged when asked to let those passengers off first even though I was near the front of the plane.
I think the worst thing that happened on any of my flights was on the flight I took back to New York that included the kids, the in-flight WiFi didn't work and I hesitate to even label this as a complaint. If not having WiFi on a 2-hour flight isn't a prime example of a first world problem, I don't know what is. And yes, they gave refunds to those who purchased internet access before the flight. I didn't purchase access nor did I complain about it to an attendant but I was still comped a glass of wine back in Economy.
Did I mention I wore leggings on every flight?
This post is not about debating if airlines should bump passengers to reposition crew or if they should overbook (by the way, that United Express flight was not overbooked), airline dress codes or if active US military should be charged excess baggage fees (as an aside, the military reimburses all baggage fees, not that you read that in the initial story). This is about overall experiences in what we pay airlines to do, which is to safely and reliably fly us to where we need to go. Based on that metric, United is doing just fine.
If you think about it, it is crucial that United as well as other passenger airlines and cargo flights continue to do what they do despite social media smackdowns. We rely on airlines not just to take us on vacations and business trips, but the smooth functioning of commerce depends on it whether it's transacting, shopping or even mail delivery.
Yes, there are going to be bad flight experiences and what happened to those passengers was horrible. When a major airline transports 16.6 million passengers a year out of O'Hare alone like United did last year, given the psychotic weather we have here in the Midwest and demands on the equipment, something is going to give. But my point is, and my larger sample size of good flight experiences bears this out, is things could go wrong way more often than they do. In fact, more often than not, you are going to have a good flight on United. You'll even get your bags if you check any. Given the horrible operating environment airlines face, it's a wonder United functions as smoothly as it does.
Now, United Airlines isn't horrible but I will stop short of saying they're great. They're not. I'm very happy to give the United app a rest for a while. If you spend any time flying around Europe and/or Asia on a non-American airline, you know what I mean. You can actually eat and drink well on a flight back in economy and even get a kid's menu. Something else for the American carriers to think about.
As a culture we are so quick to complain when something goes wrong. We should also give praise when things go well. Even if that praise is directed at United Airlines.
In case you're wondering, no, United is not paying me for this post. Note: all statistics (2016 data) are pulled directly from or derived from this Wikipedia entry on United Airlines.
My recent United flights were to see my mother who just passed away. This post, "What I am giving to my dying mother on her last Mother's Day" is about that experience. You may also like this post which includes tips on flying with children during spring break or anytime.
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