Flying United (or not)

иконописПравославни икониToday, my 13-year old daughter was flying from Manchester to Greenville/Spartanburg, transferring in Dulles. She was flying without the unaccompanied minor service. Her connection time in Dulles was short (only 1hr15m), but should have been sufficient.

At 4:50PM, her flight status was updated, making it clear that her flight was going to be an hour late in arriving, arriving at 4:54PM. (Admittedly, I should have been keeping closer track and making some phone calls earlier, but I doubt it would have helped.) She pocket-dialed me at 5:00, so I knew she was at least somewhere with cell reception; unfortunately, calling her back didn’t get any response.

At 5:05, I called United, and asked if they could confirm her status — whether she made her flight. While navigating their phone menus, I observed that the flight she was supposed to take had taken off, 5 minutes early. I gave United her name + flight information, and they then proceeded to take 5+ minutes to tell me that she had left from Manchester earlier that day. (Thanks for telling me information I gave you.) They also told me her flight was late (thanks again), and that she was rebooked for the next morning at 8:20AM.

Now, for me, cue a bit of panic; I made the decision not to purchase unaccompanied minor service for her trip based on the idea that she could make her flights, and even if she didn’t, there was another flight later in the day she could pick up (still the case here: there were two more flights out of IAD to her destination 30 minutes later). This may have been a mistake, but that was a decision. Having United rebook her on a flight the next day is an entirely different beast, obviously.

I asked the agent whether they could confirm she had *not* made her flight: I was told that she could tell me that she had been rebooked the next morning, which they would not have done if she had made her flight, but she repeated that she could not tell me if she actually made her flight. (What?)

I called a couple other numbers, including the airport traveller assistance number, who told me that they could not do anything other than page in the baggage claim area; we punted on that for the time and kept trying United, still trying to get a confirmation that she had or had not made it on her flight.

In my next call, I got the same basic story: She’s rebooked for tomorrow. Since she is rebooked for tomorrow, United will be putting her up in a hotel tonight. No, I can’t tell you what hotel. No, I can’t tell you a number you can call for that information. No, I can’t tell you whether she made it on the flight. No, I can’t tell you hotels we use for putting passengers up. I can tell you that she was rebooked for tomorrow morning.

At this point, we had her paged in the airport — which ended up producing no response, though they were attempting to be very helpful. They did clarify that they can’t page in the gate area, and we should contact the airline for that.

Again, we called a different United number, only to be shunted back to the main United phone disaster. No, we can’t contact our gate agents because of 9/11. No we can’t page in the gate are. No, we can’t tell you what hotels we use. No, we can’t give you a number to find out where this passenger has gone.

Kristan and I at this point started calling hotels — this is one hour after she has landed in Dulles and we have been told she will be staying overnight in DC and that we could get no information from anyone. We made it through about 10… at which point we got a call from Alicia. She had not answered her cell phone (which she did have on her, and charged)… because she was on her plane.

She was fine, and on her plane, the whole time. United put her on the next flight, but rebooked her anyway. She’s not in IAD, and had no problems… other than our complete lack of ability to communicate with United at all.

The first response to this will naturally be: “You should have paid for unaccompanied minor service.” While this may be true, I’m not convinced that it would have helped: specifically, the problem was not that Alicia did not make her flight — she did. The problem is that *no one could tell us this* — despite the fact that, presumably, someone scanned her boarding pass. Since we did not have a phone number — and I looked for an ‘unaccompanied minor contact number’ on United’s site — and she made her flight on time, I doubt we would have been contacted by United. (In fact, unaccompanied minor service might well have meant the difference between her making her flight and not in this case!)

Overall, I’m not upset that United didn’t know where my daughter was: that’s my fault. I’m not really that upset about most of the question they couldn’t answer in this case — though if she *was* stuck overnight, I’d be damn upset. Instead, I’m only upset about one thing: United told me she missed her flight, rebooked her on a flight tomorrow morning, and was completely unable to tell us that *she actually made her flight*. That has to be seen as a failure somewhere in the system, in my opinion, and I think the complete lack of being able to get to anyone other than reservations via the phone on short notice is completely unreasonable.

I do want to thank people who helped reassure me on twitter and elsewhere, and the IAD Travelers Aid desk, who did everything within their limited power to help us out, and the most important thing is that Alicia is at her destination + safe.

3 Responses to “Flying United (or not)”

  1. azurelunatic Says:

    I’m very glad she’s safe. I recognize the need to not be giving information about passengers to any Tom/Dick/Harry who calls and has their name and general flight information, but there should be some means of easy authorization.

  2. crschmidt Says:

    For the record: No part of the conversation was “I can’t tell you that information because of who you are”: instead, it was “I can’t tell you that information because I have no way of getting ahold of it.”

    And I don’t doubt that it’s *true*: Airlines probably do *not* have that information. However, I do think that it’s a case where United must have *someone* organizing their operations in Dulles: getting *that* number is the only thing I want customer service to be able to do.

  3. Kristan Says:

    If the natural response is “you should have paid for unaccompanied minor service” I’ll kick whoever gives it in the balls. With all that red tape, she probably wouldn’t have made it to her connection, like you said. Thankfully, her arrival and departure gates were in the same terminal (which has not been the case with her previous two flights). Thankfully, she knows how to and can haul ass when necessary, and all she had was a small backpack.

    They seem to “proactively” rebook, which was infuriating to read about on their website, in that her plane to GSP left 5 minutes early. You proactively rebooked her because your plane was an hour late and then her connection decided to leave early, without her on board? Do we not do head counts anymore? This is the WTF that was running through my head. Of course, she was on board, but everyone was all like “we do reservations, we have no way to contact the gate agents at airports.”

    “Can you tell me if she made it onto the plane?”
    “When was her flight rebooked for, ma’am?”
    Seriously. Like three times, I went in this circle with one of the reps.

    Of course, she did make it and they were closing the doors but let her on anyway, she said. She was just stuck waiting in Spartanburg for her ride since we’d called them saying “oh, don’t send someone, she’s stuck in Dulles until tomorrow morning we think,” and of course didn’t know she *wasn’t* until she called from Spartanburg, apologizing for not answering when I first called her because she was on the plane and had to turn off her phone. Some kind of being was looking after her today, that’s all I gotta say.