David J. Danto



Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion




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Cool Hand Oscar

Dear Oscar, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”  I hate to start a blog with mixed metaphors (especially when I’ve decided to channel Cool Hand Luke) but regarding my business travel on United, this has been the Year of Hell.   In my 25 trips so far this year I have not had one flight without incident.  That’s ZERO for twenty-five, or to state it another way, ZERO for 2017.   The reasons have been numerous.  Sometimes it’s simply weather that’s killing my schedule – with more thunderstorms than I can ever remember splashing in the face of climate change deniers.  Sometimes it’s mechanical delays – airplanes pulled-into a gate the night before, not looked at at all till the 6am flight, then “discovered” to have had an easily fixable problem now being addressed on my time.  A few times this year – nearly my 40th in business travel – I’ve been hit with problems I’ve never seen before – like when LAX couldn’t find a gate with a working jet-bridge so we had to walk down the stairs to the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane; or when the arriving aircraft for my flight landed early, but my departure was late for the listed reason of “late arriving aircraft” as United lost it for over an hour somewhere between Newark terminal B and C. 

After every one of those flights United sends me a survey saying that my feedback is very important to them.  I fill out that survey, and then…nothing happens to address the issues.  United’s CEO still calls the experience on his airline “the friendly skies” – which I believe was the first appearance of alternate facts in our new reality of fake news – and nothing changes.  Week after week the news is filled with horror stories of how United passengers are being treated – dragged off a plane – abandoned in Hawaii – forced to give-up a paid seat and hold a child for seven hours – but nothing gets done.  And, as many have said, those are only the egregious incidents.  Experiences on United are routinely awful, with thousands of less publicized incidents forcing customers to suffer a death by a thousand pinpricks. 

Today I got another survey (this one at least acknowledging that they blew the last flight experience.)  So instead of filling it out, submitting it, having it never read and then sent into the virtual trash bag, I thought it better to respond in public so maybe someone can actually get the information over to Oscar.  Again I doubt that anything will happen, but at least someone will read it.


United handles it’s schedule with the assumption that everything everywhere will be perfect.  The first butterfly that flaps its wings wrong sends the entire network into utter chaos.  There are not enough aircraft flying to absorb any issues.  On this particular day there were thunderstorms miles outside of EWR.  No indication of the delay was provided till people were already standing in line to board the flight.  We were then told of the delay in a series of lies that were clearly meant to deceive the passengers into feeling it’s not as bad as it is.  First the 12:25 departure was changed to 2:26.  Then an hour later it was changed to 3:15.  Then an hour later it was changed to 3:52.  In a rare instance of honesty, the crew actually told us that by 11:30 that day they already had received a wheels-up time of 4:20.  The culture of lying to passengers is so ingrained in the airline industry and United that passengers can’t get a straight story – which compounds every situation that occurs.  Passengers assume they’re being lied to at every turn – which they likely are.


To be transparent, I’ve mocked-up and merged the above question to more succinctly encompass all the issues without fifteen separate paragraphs.  Very dissatisfied with United is an understatement.  Day after day the experience gets worse.  Each interaction is a further insult with no improvement in sight.  Here are just some examples (from the perspective of a Platinum elite and Million Miler – not the top level, but over 75K annual miles last year.)

·       United has so watered down the loyalty benefits that they are actually driving customers away from their airline when there is any other option.  When I checked-in for a recent flight I was number 1 on the upgrade list, yet during the check-in process United offered to sell me the upgrade they’ve promised me for free for about $200 bucks.  I didn’t agree to buy what should have been free to me as a loyalty benefit, yet clearly someone else subsequently did, slipping in front of my place for a few bucks – which is clearly more important to United than honestly providing the promised benefits.

·       As a Platinum, United sends me two “confirmable upgrade” e-certs that I can supposedly use whenever I want – yet these are unusable.  They have taken more round trips (onto and off of itineraries without clearing) than I have this year.  These are two measly little perks supposedly in appreciation of my business.  Why can’t United just do the right thing and honor them?  How much revenue can possibly be lost in keeping United’s promise in this case?

·       United has replaced the seats in coach on its aircraft with “slimline” versions to fit more seats onto a plane.  I don’t like it, but I understand it.  One version of this slim seat has a real, useable seatback pocket.  The other has a mesh version that is completely unusable – it won’t even hold an iPad and a bottle of water.  How hard would it be to get rid of the unusable version – or at least get it out of Economy Plus?  It’s a huge, unnecessary, fixable issue that never gets any better – just another insult to the United passenger.

·       Million-Miler status gets one nothing.  It is the same benefits one would receive if one opens an airline credit card.  If I didn’t fly over 75K miles last year I’d only be in “group 2” boarding.  That’s some nothing-burger for all that loyalty and business.

There are so many of these pinpricks it would be impossible to list them all in one blog.  The lack of substantial, edible, not-overly-spiced food in the clubs and onboard the aircraft; the upscaling of Newark airport establishments which removed simple, common foods and replaced them with overpriced, “gourmet” options (as if a gourmet bag of pretzels is really necessary).  The worst one is perhaps that the lying to customers is so routine that it has become ingrained in United’s culture.  In the recent “lost plane” incident I mentioned above the passengers were told that the flight would be delayed because the aircraft arrived late.  Three people at the gate then pulled out their United app and showed the agents that the plane actually arrived early.  Only at that point was the story was changed to “it was being held by customs.”  When it finally arrived at the gate it was fully cleaned and catered – something customs agents clearly don’t do.  How hard would it have been to just tell the truth to the passengers all along?  Why is United mismanaged so badly that an aircraft that arrives early can’t be turned around to meet its scheduled departure?

So, if anyone passes this blog over to Oscar, they should first let him know that I have videos and screen-shots of everything mentioned above.  This will avoid him the embarrassment of initially lying about it in response – as he did in the Dr. Dao incident before he realized that mobile phone video exists.  These are simple truths and everyone knows it.  United offers a crappy product to the huge majority of its customers and doesn’t do anything in response to complaints to show that they care about it at all.  Airline mergers have created hub captives that usually can’t take any other airline, and a typically miserable experience is an intentional incentive for people to buy that upgrade for a few hundred bucks whenever it is offered.

There will be a day of reckoning soon.  The economy or some other unfortunate disaster will impact airline bottom lines and United will again care that it has customer loyalty.  When that day comes, and they realize the bank of loyalty is dry, someone will blame the mismanagement of the past.   At that time people can look to this blog and realize there was indeed a failure to communicate.  Sending surveys out that are ignored and not acted-upon accomplishes nothing.  As far as Oscar goes…well, we gave him the benefit of the doubt and more than enough time to turn things around from the past overtly passenger hostile management, and he’s shown he sadly also just doesn’t get it.  As the Captain in Cool Hand Luke said, “…some men you just can’t reach.”


This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.

All image and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.