We Tried United, My Wife Wants a Divorce

I shall not reprint the texts messages, emails and furious calls from my better half the past day. We departed from Moline, IL (MLI) on separate flights to Shanghai, me on Delta from a previously booked business trip, she on a United + ANA award.

I have been experimenting with United on a 1K challenge. Out of a small sample size I had been chalking up my string of irregular operations to bad luck, however how United handles these situations has been quite a shock. I always hesitated to test out United because everyone extolls MileagePlus and their Star Alliance partners but few voices have anything good to say about actually flying United.

My first impressions in about a dozen flights, a mix of international and domestic, business and economy, is that they are operationally disorganized and inefficient. The decrepit planes I can live with, I was a NWA flyer after all. Check-in is gruff. The boarding process is often a mess. Meal services can take ages with flight attendants following processes that seem to take twice the steps of other airlines.

Now I have had a string of mishaps and most dramatically (for me), my wife’s flight today from Chicago to Tokyo-Narita was delayed for mechanical and then crew time out. Initial estimates were 2 hours, bounced around, then eventually was 5 hours. Meanwhile I was on Delta winging it to Seoul.

What’s worse is that I had actually convinced my wife to move to that United flight from Asiana when availability opened up the day before because the timing and connections were better. She will not forgive me this one.

Delta is really good about immediately calling and emailing every contract method in my profile. Maybe I do not have the settings right, for instance I now see on the United phone app that the default is bizarrely set to NOT push notifications. The fifteen minutes we lost between the initial delay announcement and the time I checked email cost us the only earlier option out of Moline, IL (MLI) that could have got her on alternate flights. That and the 15 minutes on hold while I had to pull up options because the 1K agent could not see what I saw on the website.

And that is my big frustration with United. I am getting the 1K agents who should be good, but this is where United has disappointed me the most. Slow, slow, slow. Everything takes the traveler to be proactive. Everything takes prolonged holds. I have been disconnected far too many times on different occasions to be accident or phone connection.

Then, like this morning, after all that hold, the conclusion was the agent telling me that she could not change anything so we would have to go to the airport. Later the airport contractor put my wife’s Tokyo – Shanghai segment in economy by accident, we discovered it when she was in Chicago and the United Club said only the 1K line could fix it. Everyone seems to only be clear that whatever is needed must be done by someone else. Each step of the way we had to proactively book alternates until the flight was so delayed there was no flight left from Tokyo to Shanghai and finally the United system did something and put her on the first flight tomorrow morning.

I highlight again that my sample size of a few months is small, though I don’t like the pattern: Call. Disconnected. Call. Told nothing can be done. Point out what can be done. Told not authorized or someone else needs to do it. Disconnected again.

The one fast response in this was an email offering 15,000 miles, $350 voucher or 20% discount, the latter two good only on flights in the US, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and must have a credit card with US billing address. Offering US only restrictions to someone on a flight to Tokyo, for heaven’s sake.

My wife has opted out the United experiment. Should I?

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  • Greg

    My saying about United is they always make you feel like you’ve earned whatever accomodation, award, or upgrade you end up with. You have to be in ‘expert mode’ to successfully fly them.

  • Levy Flight

    UA is a total disaster. They just can’t seem to get planes off the ground. I have had so many mechanical delays, cancellations, and calls from distraught friends who are supposed to be in one place and are stuck because of UA problems. They can not be trusted to deliver. Only last month a friend had a flight to Paris canceled 2 days in a row – 3 different planes attempts. What a mess. Their mileage program is still pretty good.. On 1K line – i have had very good experiences, generally.

    Friends do not let friends fly United.

  • NB

    I have to say that this is one of the most reasonable summations of United’s failings. As a 1K, I have learnt many of the system’s shortcomings and am quite adept at getting around all the obstacles United throws at me.

    However, I know of no one who actually flies United because it’s the best flying option. I fly it because they have the most generous programs – without those, I would avoid it like the plague. My wife flies it for the same reasons. My children fly it because I buy their tickets with my miles. But we would all choose other airlines on the basis of flight/ground experience.

  • Andrew C

    I know that some will dismiss this as a partisan opinion, but things on UA did not used to be this way in the pre-COdbaUA era. It’s sad and frustrating, but the systems and procedures in place now are, for the most part, so much less efficient and reliable than they once were.

  • Tried on more than one occasion to like United for something other than their miles. While I don’t doubt that some of the current issues are merger and systems related, I never found them to be all that. Frankly, I’d rather fly US Airways, and that has got to say something….at least about my personal experiences with United.

  • I should also add that with my mostly pedestrian domestic travel needs, US Airways served me just fine living in DC just as DL does now in ATL. I dunno what other options might work for you with your extensive travels to Asia. Would Oneworld and AA/JAL/Cathay do the trick?

  • Carl

    It is really Continental Airlines, but in any event took 2 crappy airlines and merged them into 1. I guess I am ok with them because i do like booking awards online and my awards are usually to one specific place in Asia easy to get from here in HNL so that my wife can visit her family. About the only other place i use them is HNL-LAX, a route for which there is lots of capacity and i usually get upgraded as a 1K.

  • steves

    It’s BAD, I mean BAD over at UA now. I’ve been loyal for 10 years and I’m gone. The experience on other airlines is so much better. At this point I don’t care about redemption (I mean I do, but) because the flying experience on UA is such a complete Cluster that I can’t handle it anymore.

    They hire from within, nothing changes, and what your wife went through is “par for the course” nowadays with no change in site. UA board are yes-men and until more DOT complaints happen (ie have your wife file one) nothing is going to change.

  • LarryInNYC

    Look at the bright side. If she does decide to go ahead with the divorce, that ought to be worth some miles from United, right? 😉

  • This was my experience with United several years ago when I worked for a company in Chicago. Horrible customer service and a “the customer is a problem” mentality.

  • Kris

    It’s a shame you have had such issues with United, even as gold I was able to call reservations and have flights changed in minutes. Last year an UAX flight was delayed by a few hours, as another flight was in final boarding I called UA and within 5 minutes I was on the plane (which required changing four flights). I quite like the boarding process, but I guess the same can’t be said of everyone. With that said, there are some gate agents who are entirely clueless of policies.

  • Vic

    Well your experiences aren’t making my decision to dump AA (over their pre-merger related idiocy and elite PR snafus) in favor of United. Being in Chicago it’s pretty much AA or United.

  • If you can, try American. I’ve been loving life as an Executive Platinum for the last four months and I’ve found them better than Delta in almost every way. If you’ve still got Diamond on Delta, ask for a challenge. They *might* give you an EXP challenge.

  • Kate

    Well your offer was better than our initial one from United when our flight was delayed for an entire day due to mechanical problems. After sitting on the runway for hours, we deplaned, still not knowing if we were going out that day. Eventually, we were told in the lounge that the flight would go out the following day. My husband and I are both 1K, were traveling with our daughter and flying first class on awards on that particular flight. My daughter and I were initially offered $200 on a future United flight, and my husband 30,000 miles. But that was for an entire day of sitting around the airport and losing a day of vacation.

  • timmer1001

    I have to tell you… Rookie mistake… why would ever take your wife OFF OZ and put her onto UA? I don’t care if the connection times are better… you deserve a week in the doghouse.
    Asian airlines are always better than US carriers…

  • UnitedEF

    So glad I left after CO took over UA. It’s so sad to see what has happened to a once proud airline. I was 1k for several years pre-merger and have never had any problems domestic and international. I got a few op ups on international flights and the agents always took care of things in a matter of minutes. I am loving life as EXP on AA now as well. I pay higher fares sometimes but the lounges are of much higher caliber and all of the my companion upgrades have always cleared. I just hope US doesn’t screw up AA and drag them down to their level.

  • Kelly Henry

    I’m in the middle of a 1K status match from AA ExP. It is KILLING me – had 2 irr ops on Saturday! Then, i was moved to AA to SFO where i learned that the rest of my reservation had been cancelled. Using UA to LHR from DFW on Thursday for business and I’m a little concerned about their ability to get me there. I’m 10k miles from achieving my status match and am totally questioning my sanity for even bothering.

  • @timmer1001 – she and her parents were worried about Asiana because of the SFO crash was the primary consideration, she had only reluctantly accepted it. Also were the ability to sleep in a couple hours later and in theory get in earlier, not needing to shlep through ORD from T1 to T5, and lie-flat seat versus angled. I agree that Asian carriers are generally better though I have been underwhelmed by Korean Air and had no personal experience of Asiana.

  • Charlotte (TYR)

    The regional airport I am close to flies United and American. Not that American is perfect, but I loathe flying United. I usually have to have a United flight to a hub city for award flights and just dread it. “operationally disorganized and inefficient” is an accurate description.

  • Edward Ross

    I used to be elite every year on United but since the merger with Continental I have given up flying on them. I can’t think of a single positive thing that has happened since the merger but can go on for hours on how things have gotten worse. Most of my flying is to Asia and I have my choice of very good airlines to fly. I have become elite on another star alliance airline so for all practical purposes I have lost nothing by giving up on United.

  • Nancy

    Great post, Stefan (and brilliant headline…assuming/hoping its hyperbole!). Your reports are always so balanced and thoughtful that this criticism of UA really stands out among from the crowd of ranters. I have been known to defend United, but this detail makes me think twice about ever doing that again.

  • @Nancy – I don’t know that I should ever risk treating what she says with hyperbole, but she did let me meet her at the airport today, fortunately I checked her luggage through with me, her only comment in the long ride was “ANA is very good.”

    @All – sorry to lump you all together, it was a long, long jetlagged day work.

    I have been oblivious to United and had no idea the operating issues are so pervasive.

    I am really thinking whether I should bother to finish my 1K challenge, I will need 3800 in the next two weeks that will need to be personal, might even need my first mileage run to do it. Keeping 1K next year would require me to actually fly United on business to meet the spend cap and that is not appealing. Putting up with such unreliability just to get miles to use on partners is not necessarily worth it. I have looked at AA but their route network and partners don’t really fit my travel patterns, especially since the short stuff I can use Avios.

  • Bill

    I must confess that I find some of the complaints about United to be entertaining. I have had no issues with the Premier Gold/Platinum/1K lines in the past several years, even after the merger (when I have only been Gold, even). The representatives have always been very helpful. The fact is that EVERY US airline suffers from quality issues. The few times I’ve flown American, US Airways and Delta since the CO-UA merger, it has been quite disastrous–terrible check ins, missed connections, horrible seats, no entertainment (on every US Airways flight!), poor FA service, etc.

    I have experienced all of these with United, but not usually. I think all US airlines are subpar when compared to Asian airlines, but I’ll take United and its EconomyPlus and Business/First and First Class over some of the major Euro carriers most days. Be careful when you complain–it isn’t always greener elsewhere.

  • Shannon

    Please do let me know when you are single again. I am more than happy to marry you!

  • Mrs. RTC

    I fully agree with timmer1001- RTC deserves a week in the doghouse, I will sign up immediately for RTC if there is a loyalty program at the doghouse.

  • Have to defend United again as I’ve had a very nice experience 🙂 When your award itinerary is booked, you always, always, always need to check the segments are correct! Secondly, I routinely book in economy when business class not available and all it takes is a seat reassignment – I’ve never had anyone deny doing it, from gate agent to United Club attendant to any customer service. Thirdly, NRT-PVG is a 2 hour flight… I guess I am not too concerned where I sit at that point.

    Anyway, don’t give up on United 🙂 Lastly, being sweet and diplomatic is always the way and they will fix everything 🙂

  • @The Miles Professor – I have not even gotten into the fare credit from a paid business ticket that has been back and forth since July, they keep confirming I should have it, yet somehow they need to email it to me and each time they say wait a couple of weeks, and of course nothing. $1200 at stake.

    I finished my 1K challenge and will not fly them again this year. Worst part of the challenge was only UA/Copa flights counted, next year I can focus on partners except for the minimum UA segments.

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