I thought United Airlines was just incompetent. Turns out they’re also crooks

I was in Buffalo this past weekend, taking care of some wedding planning before the big event in September. Overall it was a great trip. Except for getting there. And getting home.

I’ve had a lot of bad experiences on United Airlines the past few years, which clearly demonstrate their poor quality and disregard for customer service. But I still fly United Airlines often, for probably the same reason they are still in business: they own a lot of key routes, and I have no other choice.

Delays happen. But what I experienced on United this past weekend seemed far less excusable:

  • United Airlines oversells their flights. This means they sell more tickets than they have seats, betting that some people won’t show up. How is this legal? Retailers like Apple can’t bill your credit card for purchases until they leave the warehouse; how is United allowed to bill for a seat that doesn’t exist? We heard many complaints from other passengers who were stranded. 
  • United Airlines does not maintain their planes. Lets ignore the minor stuff like lack of internet and old, ceiling mounted CRT televisions. United planes are dirty, creaky, and are constantly in need of maintenance. Our flight from SFO to IAD was delayed about 45 minutes for routine maintenance. Why can’t this be done on their time? 
  • United Airlines understaffs its terminals and has cheap labor. Upon arrive in IAD, we ran to catch our connecting flight. My dad was running. Families were running. Old people were running (sort of). We reached the connecting gate only to find out that flight was also delayed. The gate agent *rudely* told us we should have checked the monitors before running. We had. 
  • United mechanics are incompetent. Our flight from IAD to BUF was delayed by 15 minutes every 15 minutes for 4 hours. There was no transparency in the matter, no communication by the gate agent as to what was going on. At one point we got on the plane, and were told they had changed a hydraulic pump. After backing away from the gate, the pilot told us they had changed the wrong pump. 

Dear United: please don’t tell me about the issues on your plane or that your mechanics are incompetent. I really don’t want to know. Just keep your planes running and on time. Thanks.

  • United is cutting costs by reducing gate agents. Our flight back was delayed as well. At Buffalo airport, passengers had been waiting for over 5 hours for a flight to Chicago. There was no gate agent and no announcements. People were huddled around a pilot getting information.
  • United outsources customer service, and it doesn’t work. I called customer service to get new flights. My call was routed to the Philippines where I spoke to someone who couldn’t communicate. “What about flights in the morning?” I asked. “Today or tomorrow?” she asked me. It was 4 in the afternoon. “Well, I can’t really fly today in the morning now can I?” There are plenty of smart people in this country who need jobs. Hire them.

And here’s the kicker, and really changed my view on United from simply being old and incompetent, to actually being crooked

Chicago was a mess with many passengers on standby for the remaining flights of the day. The order of the standby list is determined by the fare class of your ticket (how much you paid).

Someone standing next to us asked if they could upgrade their ticket to be moved up in the list. The agent told them they could buy a first class ticket. But they would still sit in economy. This would move them to the front of the standby line. Several people pulled out their credit cards and purchased tickets for several thousand dollars each.

What United was doing is this:

  • They would sell these passengers a nonexistent first class ticket on a sold out flight. In other words, they would oversell the flight at the gate just minutes before it was taking off. 
  • Since first class was full, these passengers would get bumped to economy but be at the top of the list. 
  • In economy, someone on the standby list would be bumped off. 

So if you have the money to do it, United will let you pay to bump someone else off a flight.

After our flight to Buffalo, I had two simple requests for United: maintain your planes and don’t oversell flights. But now it goes far beyond that. United is crooked. They will gladly take your money for things they can’t deliver.

Something serious needs to happen here. The airline industry is a mess. United needs a serious makeover, like what Steve Jobs did to Apple in 1996. Make the company lean, focus on core products, and be the best or don’t even try.

Would I do with United? “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

Remember when flying was fun?



  1. if every company was run like Apple, I would be in paradise. I guess it’s just too much to ask for quality these days.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I was platinum on American Airlines for ten+ years. The service just kept getting worse, but I kept flying them. Probably for the same reason people keep using PCs. It’s comfortable. People are afraid of change. About a year ago they wanted me to pay $150 to change a flight. The change was due to an error on their end! I told them no. It was escalated all the way to a VP. She told me they would not change the flight unless I paid the $150. I told her, "you’re going to lose a life long, platinum-level frequent flyer over a $150 change fee?". She said yes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I now fly Virgin and I couldn’t be happier. Virgin IS the Apple of airlines! American (and United) should sell their routes to Virgin and close their f-ing doors!

  3. Are you sure retailers aren’t allowed to charge you until product leaves their warehouse? I think they’re very allowed to, just many reputable ones don’t.

  4. <html><body style="word-wrap: break-word; -webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; ">Dan you might be right. Maybe it’s just courtesy.<div><br></div><div>So that shows the stark difference between companies like Apple/Amazon and companies like United/BofA. We need some change. This country should be the best at everything, not just technology<br><div><div></div></div></div></body></html>

  5. The problem is that they need to oversell, because it is extremely rare that everyone shows up for a flight.The way to balance it is to make it so costly for them if they oversell *in a way that hurts someone*. If they bump you, they have to give you hundreds of dollars. The government is proposing increasing this. This should make it that any airline that oversells too much will lose significant money.

  6. <html><body style="word-wrap: break-word; -webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; ">I know I don’t speak for everyone here, but I’ll gladly pay more for:<div><br></div><div>* no oversold flights</div><div>* no bumping</div><div>* well maintained planes</div><div><br></div><div>In general, i think people are willing to put up with too much shit to save money. That’s why people buy Dell computers and shop at Walmart. I do neither. And I’ll pay more for better air travel too.</div><div><br></div><div>But maybe I’m in the minority here, and that’s why United and other airlines get away with this.</div><div><br></div><div>As a comparison, I don’t believe Virgin oversells flights. And they aren’t more expensive than United. So somehow they figured out how to make the model work.</div><div><div><div></div></div></div></body></html>

  7. Airlines have higher fares where you don’t get bumped. But they cost 2x or more. You also don’t have to pay change fees, or others.

  8. <html><body style="word-wrap: break-word; -webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; ">Sean:<div><br></div><div>1. I do think my ticket was cheap. I think it was TOO cheap. There’s a limit to how cheap these airlines should be making their fare and at some point need to say, "hey, our quality is absolute shit. people aren’t happy." I never said I wasn’t willing to pay more. I absolutely am willing to</div><div><br></div><div>2. I never argued against the ordering of the standby list. It’s fine with me. What I am arguing is they should be selling tickets *at the gate* for seats they don’t have.</div><div><br></div><div>3. In the past couple years, I’ve seen a dramatic reduction in routes and options. So doesn’t seem like the system is working there</div><div><br></div><div>4. I don’t think Virgin costs more than United. So how are they able to do this?</div><div><br></div><div>I think you’ve been spoiled by business travel from when you were a consultant. That’s who these airlines seem to be catering to now, not the average consumer.</div><div><br></div><div>My bottom line is that other airlines seem to be able to provide better service at the same price. And I will support them as much as I can. That’s the only way to send a message to United that their system is broken</div><div><div><div></div></div></div></body></html>

  9. UAL was #1 for ontime arrivals last year, they must be doing something right. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=37372Those 757’s you flew on are big pieces of shit, I think they’re the oldest in UAL’s fleet and probably due for retirement soon. Fly business or first class on their overhauled 67/47/77 aircraft to Tokyo and you can actually get a nights sleep on their lie-flats. Those puppies are well maintained.From my experience, you’re pretty much screwed as a passenger if you purchase low-far tickets and don’t have status on an airline. Look at the bright side; 200 years ago there’s a good chance you would have died of disease from IAD -> SFO. Driving in a car would take days. You’re still making good time on an aircraft with a 4 hour delay plus 4.5 hour transit time.I’d love to fly Virgin sometime, except they have no freaking routes.

  10. The main point in this blog post was supposed to be the last one: united selling seats at the gate on sold out flights.But the top 80% of the post was written in rage. Yes, I get it: we have cheap fares and this lowers quality but gives us more options.so here’s a new blog post, with just the last point highlightedhttp://sachin.posterous.com/united-airlines-will-let-you-pay-at-the-gate

  11. I’m a pretty loyal Southwest Airlines customer. Great rewards program and excellent customer service. Yeah, they don’t serve food (you can usually buy better food at the airport and bring it on board) and they don’t let you choose a seat but their planes are always well maintained, their usually ahead of the curve on technology and they don’t screw their customers to make an extra buck (like bag fees).

  12. lots of heated comments…understandably so!Customer service should not be compromised when we need it most ( when there are delays, weather issues or any other hubbub that prevents us from getting to our destination. I am going to make a concerted effort to use Jet Blue or Southwest air, and to try Virgin airlines, even if I have to be creative in the routing ( like get as far as NYC and switch to another carrier).

  13. Great post Sachin! I totally agree with your post. I was bumped on a flight to Hawaii a few years ago. They oversold the flight and the last flight of the day had a lot of standby and bumped passengers from previous flights. I booked via Travelocity and was bumped and had to stay overnight in SFO. The next day I was able to upgrade to first class for only a few hundred dollars at the gate.There are flights like this that are almost always overbooked. Mine was the last SFO->HNL on a Friday. I got $400, a hotel, and a travel voucher that I was able to use on a later flight. But I was pretty angry with the desk help and the supervisor too. I think it would be pretty easy to book cheapo tickets knowing you’ll get bumped overnight to make a little vacation cash off of the airlines. My bumping tips here: http://www.edwardmiller.org/weblog/2007/07/i-was-bumped-on.html

  14. Interesting post. I have no warm feeling for United as I had a terrible luggage experience with them last year on what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. I’ll do what I can to avoid them in the future as well.Your experience sounds like just the thing that Christoper Elliott (http://www.elliott.org) deals with on a regular basis. Also, if you want your ideas/complaints heard by United he has contact information on his site for more than the front-line customer service based off-shore.

  15. Couldn’t agree more. I called united this morning to change a flight. She told me about the $150 change fee after everything was already cancelled. So now I have a whole $29 credit ($179-$150) to use next time I want to fly United.

  16. Harsh words my friend. I have flown a lot with United and always cheap. Always the same route West Coast to Maui and back. Often. 1 to 4 times a month. For $230.00 each way. No problems ever. My wife reports the same. It’s like taking a bus. It’s not a limo but when the price is important I am happy the bus driver is smiling. I hear the same from some who complain about Bank of America. I have nothing but great service from them now going on 10 years. And I do a lot of business with them on many levels. I must live right. Another point worth noting. Once a guy told me, Zoran don’t complain and don’t explain, ever. Took a while and then I got it. Now I turn potential complaints into projects. Aloha:) z

  17. Sean and Zoren: sorry I didn’t realize it was ok for airlines to reduce their safety standards in order to give me a cheaper fare. Next time I’ll just keep quiet and hope the plane stays in the air :)Seriously though: i understand economics. I understand that most people want cheaper fares, and to do this, airlines cut back on perks. But there’s a line, and I think United and other airlines have crossed it.

  18. Brad: do you know if they included codeshares when determining that United was number one in on time arrivals? Seems like they didn’t, in which case it’s a bullshit claim. (but i’m not sure, from the press release)http://www.united.com/press/detail/0,7056,63195,00.html

  19. I totally agree. From Philadelphia to San Diego and back on United and was really disappointed in the service. The "routine maintenance" took over an hour and a half on our flight and then they ran out of food. I mean, they charge you an arm and a leg for food in the first place, but on a five hour flight, they ran out of sandwiches. The flight attendant said they only brought 7 aboard. SEVEN! for a flight of 200? At prime meal times! I was shocked!

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