Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The unfriendly skies of United Scarelines


Travel to and in Africa is arduous but quite often one finds that good things do not come easily. So while this was one of our most trying treks it was also one of our most rewarding. Three countries in fourteen days – here we go:

First off, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Sara and me knows of our love-hate (way more chits in the hate category – in fact let’s call it what it is – a hate – hate) relationship with United Airlines. They never cease to amaze in their lack of service, customer care and willingness to take responsibility for absolutely anything. It’s definitely an abusive relationship that we just can’t seem to quit – held hostage by frequent flier miles and the old days when we were Continental fliers. (Yay deregulation!)

So we get to the airport on tickets that had been bought and confirmed seven months ago – all our flights are within United’s partnerships – South African Air – Ethiopian Air etc. It should be smooth sailing.  I called confirmed seats with South African two weeks out - so what happens when we get to Cleveland Hopkins Airport? We are told Sara has no seat aboard our first flight – the only one that is actually on a United plane. Stress level factor of oh, miss your entire trip to Africa.

What happened? Who knows United will never tell you. Could have been equipment swap – might have been a time change of two minutes somewhere. Whatever sent the itinerary into the tailspin it was headed is to remain a double secret mystery and one for, which United, will never accept any responsibility. Whatever it was it sent a ripple like the mythical rainforest butterfly flap whose consequences we would feel for the rest of our journey. Every painstakingly selected seat and confirmation evaporated like an hour’s old jet contrail.  Star Alliance Gold Status perks (hazardous duty pay for flying tens and tens of thousands of miles and spending tens and tens of thousands of dollars) poof – all gone! You get nothing! – And you will LIKE IT!

At the last moment Sara gets cleared for a seat just in time to sit and wait two hours for a late arriving airplane – why was the plane late? Who knows? The weather is fine so it’s not that – but since we are United Airline’s passengers we have no right to information. We’re never told – but we do know catching our connecting flight is going to be tough. Once the plane does show – we are not allowed to store our carry-ons under our seats in order to facilitate a quicker dash to our connecting flight – which is looking iffier and iffier. They do offer to check our bags all the way through to our final destination – having a loads of experience with their baggage handling prowess we decline this proposition.

That’s okay though – since we are Star Alliance gold and platinum members they will have a cart waiting for us at the other end to make sure we don’t have to send one of us racing through Washington Dulles while the second waits and waits and waits like a character in a Becket play for the gate check bags and then having to race the ¾ mile to the international terminal dragging both bags behind them.


Good thing we didn’t allow them to check our carry-ons, because this is when they lose the rest of our bags. But hey, we’re just going to Africa – why would we need luggage?

For the first time in my life I am the very last person on the plane – drenched in sweat after galloping through the airport I come to the gate and Sara is literally straddling the air bridge door so they would not be able to leave me behind. Those extra legroom seats we are supposed to get due to our many miles flown – tada! – They disappear thanks to the unexplained and un-apologized for glitch that United has thrown into our lives.

Eventually we arrive in Zambia. We do – our bags do not. Luckily I have come to expect very little of my airline so I had an extra days change in my carry on bag remember the one that the flight attendant so wanted me to check for free! If I had taken her up on her offer I would have been royally boned – as it stood I was merely inconvenienced – which pretty much sums up being shackled to United Airlines – an inconvenience.

Throughout our journey we have to talk our way onto plane after plane – getting supervisor’s assistance to locate our tickets, which have mysteriously become translucent due to the United portion of the ticket. It poisons our whole trip like a puss filled abscessed tooth. This was of course all “fixed” when we originally checked in – in Cleveland – we were assured everything would be smooth sailing.  So, on an itinerary in which only one flight out of a dozen was actually on a United Airlines plane – they were able to gum up the whole works. Stellar ineptitude knows no boundaries.

It seems to me the standard operating procedure at United Airlines is to first deny responsibility and then do just enough to get he customer in front of you out of your face and let the next guy or gal handle the mess which you know is going to follow the hapless patron throughout their journey.

So what happens now? We will file a formal complaint – United Airlines will throw a 300-dollar voucher our way and that will be it. No skin off their butts – their scrimping of service is paying off for them in spades as noted in this open letter to the company’s CEO from Ralph Nader. Ralph effin’ Nader! You know you’re sucking big time when Ralph finds you worthy of his time.

OY – this was going to be a blog about the schools we visited with just a mention of the travel tribulations we had (travel in Africa is rough – the time tables will beat you down like you’re dragging a snow tire behind you – the airports can be undeveloped and immigration control in some places is Kafkaesque) but when I got to thinking how United was able to make what should have only been an arduous journey into a Sisyphean marathon I just got on an uphill roll.

Oh and their new pre-flight safety video? It’s the dumbest thing ever filmed at no doubt the expense of an inch of legroom. Way to go United Airlines! Thanks for the unfriendly skies.

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