United Airlines’ Epic Fail

Our selfie before the problems began

Our selfie before the problems began

First in a series of travel posts about our trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

Update: I received a letter from United stating that, as a US-based carrier, they were not subject to the terms of EU regulation 261 (which isn’t my reading – but I’m not going to hire an attorney over it), but they acknowledged the inconvenience and discomfort we experienced and provided a voucher for $200 toward future travel.

My recent journey to Spain accompanying my friend, Collette, on her dream trip, did not start off auspiciously (but, thankfully, all’s well that ends well).

At first I thought karma was on our side when we sailed through San Francisco International’s airport security, blessed with TSA Pre-check status. Even in the regular security line, fewer than a dozen people were calmly shedding jackets and shoes, taking out laptops, and removing liquids and gels in compliance with the 3 oz. limit.

The long, white concourse of the international terminal gleamed. On its sides, duty-free stores, a Japanese restaurant and a few newspaper and souvenir shops were quiet.

Down below, at Gate 97, first class and premier status travelers hustled as they were called to board. It was just before 2:00, with our flight scheduled to depart at 2:45.

When the fifth boarding group was called, we proceeded down the skyway and easily found our two adjacent aisle seats. Right next to a crying infant. Momentarily dismayed, I reminded Collette that her dandy noise-cancelling Bose earphones would likely blot out any disturbance.

Instead of pulling away from the gate, time ticked by. The Captain announced that a maintenance crew was finishing something up and would soon “button it up.” More time passed. Passengers began to stand and stretch. Without the engines running at full capacity, the cabin grew warm.

An hour passed. A German accented man with a gold medallion on a heavy chain joked that we should get the dancing going. Or open up the bar on the second floor of the plane. The line to the bathroom grew. An agitated passenger complained that two of the four mid-cabin toilets were not in service. The flight attended tried to soothe her by explaining that they only work when at altitude. (In fact, two were out of service the entire flight, leading to long lines to use the bathroom. Eventually, a third bathroom went out of service so only one was operable.)

By this time, some passengers’ connections were threatened. A blonde passenger handed her phone to the flight attendant so the crew member could explain the delay to her son, who spoke English. Would she make her connection to Istanbul?

The question, “Will I make my connection,” was becoming a chorus. The answer was always the same: “We don’t know. It depends when we get in the air. Then we’ll see.”

Hot, irritated passengers with limited toilet access: it was no dance party.

We taxied out to the runway. After a while it became clear we weren’t in line to take off. Finally, the Captain announced that they’d received a warning light in the cockpit and Maintenance had asked them to return to the gate.

I texted my husband, “Still on ground. We had a three hour layover so we are still good. Leaving soon I hope.”

He replied, “I have been receiving updates online, too. Latest says 4:00 departure.”

The sour-faced blonde flight attendant (who received us when we boarded with a sullen face) pushed through the passengers in the aisle with a tray full of water. I said, “This is hard on you guys. May I have one?” She looked exasperated and said I could take one but she was heading to the front of the cabin to distribute it.

A little later Todd texted, “Just got an email estimating departure at 5:10.” There went our connection. Left to our own devices for information, we learned from the Lufthansa website that there were two other afternoon flights after the one we had planned to catch.

Passengers began to exchange what information they had. Next to Collette, a woman named Vicky explained that she was being met by her son’s girlfriend; she was flying to Hamburg where her son was in serious condition in a hospital. She borrowed my phone to let his girlfriend know she was delayed. After looking at the Lufthansa site, I could reassure her that there were almost hourly flights from Frankfurt to Hamburg, and she would surely get there on a new connecting flight.

For a long while, flight attendants disappeared, perhaps worn out by all the questions. At 6:30 p.m., the Captain announced, “Well, the problem is fixed but I don’t have good news. We have to deplane you for a new flight crew.”

Off we all piled with our belongings. At the counter, each gate agent faced a line of upset passengers ten or more deep. Lacking announcements about anything but the availability of $7.00 meal vouchers, I waited 45 minutes in line only to be told, “We cannot rebook you and the Service Recovery Team will automatically rebook you in the air.”

Sometime after 7 p.m., we reboarded. The unpleasant blonde flight attendant had decamped. At least there was that! Two flight attendants from the original crew remained. A new flight attendant (male) mentioned that some of the crew had walked out.

Eventually, we were on our way.

The later departure and a 0.5 mg Ambien made it easier to sleep a little on the long flight. Silver lining? The new male flight attendant who joined us had a great attitude. When I wondered where the breakfast entrée as he served what passed for breakfast, he said, “I know. It’s embarrassing. That’s all we serve to Europe now.” I looked forlornly at my mini croissant and eight small squares of cut fresh fruit.

Arriving in Frankfurt at 2 p.m., local time, a gate agent with a clipboard told us we were rebooked on Lufthansa flight 1132, departing at 4 p.m

From then on it was easy: bags arrived, no passport control, a short (30 Euro) taxi ride to the hotel in the middle of the Eixample district. Our adventure would finally begin!

STATUS: On April 8, I submitted a complaint on the United website, which has (to date) not yet been acknowledged. I just posted a hard copy of the same concerns by US Post. In case you’re not aware, even American-based airlines that are traveling to Europe are bound by EU regulation 261, which requires compensation in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations or long delays (five or more hours). The compensation – of up to 600 Euros on long flights – applies even to passengers traveling on airplane rewards miles. Here is United’s own explanation of EU 261.


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