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An Open Letter to United Airlines: Rerun with Update

In light of recent events surrounding United Airlines, I’m reposting this account of my 2015 United flight experience. Having flown them once since (to collect the $500 voucher referenced below), I made reservations with Sweetheart to fly United later this year. At the moment, I’m rethinking that decision and wishing my economic reality was such that I could rebook on (the now sadly extinct) Midwest Express, an airline that had more respect for its passengers. And, as you are about to learn, its gate agents.

Anyway, here’s the post:

July 12, 2015

Dear United:

It’s a beautiful day here at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Your white planes, with their gray/green logo-festooned tails look particularly striking against the blue-wash sky and gray tarmac. I’m sitting here at Gate 10, surrounded by what is rapidly becoming a small community of marooned souls, and in that group I am including Jessica, the gate agent.

The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.

The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.

Gate 10 Buffalo people

Nonexistent passengers watching Jessica the Gate Agent trying to convince United’s computer system that we are real.

I had not planned on being in Buffalo today, United Airlines. But on Tuesday, my oldest daughter sent me a text.

Liza: Mom, it looks like (Cousin BC) died, yikes, so sad.
Me: What!?
Liza: I saw on Facebook.

I called up BC’s Facebook feed. It was filled with variations on “RIP.”

You don’t need to know the particulars, United, but suffice it to say that this was one of those situations where the only thing you can do to make it better is nothing. BC’s parents are one of my favorite cousin sets. In my last blog post I wrote that I learned how to parent from the books I read in my childhood. (Feel free to read it if you’re curious, but that’s as much as you need for purposes of this letter.)

Those books gave me a window onto a world in which parents supported and respected their kids. BC’s parents – who are 10 years older than I am – showed me how to live in it. Nearly 40 years ago, they gave me a ride from Boston to Utica. I don’t remember the particulars. The feelings associated with it? They’re still with me.

Which is the reason that even though the only thing I could do to make it better was nothing, I had to get myself from Milwaukee to Syracuse for a 1 p.m. Friday funeral.

I take my job pretty seriously, United. And unlike Jessica the Gate Agent, whose superiors seem to have no problem letting her get squashed under the metaphorical bus, (or maybe I should say plane?) I have a supervisor who is fair, consistent and leads by example. I guess I should thank United for reminding me once again how lucky I am.

Point being, my supervisor had assigned me a rather large and important deadline-critical project. So I needed to make the trip with as little time off as possible. When I went looking for flights, it turned out that it was actually faster to get to Uruguay or London. Direct flights between small cities? Fuggehdabout it. The best I could do was Chicago-Buffalo, rent a car and drive the nearly three hours to Syracuse.

You had two morning flights and a 9 p.m. one. I booked the late flight and took work home the night before so I could get the project finished in time to leave work an hour early, then go home and throw a few things into a carry-on bag.

In addition to black attire, I packed a bag of fresh green beans and the newest Apocalyptica release. That no liquids rule eliminated the possibility of an energy drink, and I knew I was going to need help staying awake.

Working a near-full day followed by a 90 minute bus trip to catch a flight that leaves at 9 pm and arrives at midnight, then renting a car and driving another hour-and-change to somewhere you’ve never been before (another cousin’s couch) is, as long as we’re being honest, kind of dumb if you’re not 20. I figured headbanging music and crispy eats would help me stay awake.

When I got to O’Hare, I printed my boarding pass at the check-in terminal. There was a gate number, and a “See Agent” note where my seat number should have been. I asked the woman taking luggage what it meant.

“It means ‘See the agent at your boarding gate,’ ” said the concierge-type guy standing near her.

This was not reassuring, United. I had to use the facilities in a big way and had planned to do so before going through Security. Now, though, I felt as if I needed to get to my gate as soon as possible. So I waited until I had gone through screening (at which point I was a much nicer person).

When I got to the gate, the agent, Tyler, was busily trying to deal with a raft of passengers between making an announcement that went roughly thus:

“Welcome to (Flight to Buffalo). We are currently oversold. We would like to offer you a $350 voucher and a seat on another flight. Please see me if you are interested in giving up your seat.”

There was a line. Tyler was working it as quickly as he could, but I had no idea whether I’d be on the plane or not. I asked the man in front of me in if he knew what was going on.

“I’m in line,” he said, in a tone that nailed the sweet spot between rude and haughty, eyeing me as if I were something he’d just scraped from the bottom of his shoe.

Not reassuring. But before long, I’d bonded with a 20-something who was traveling with her mother and stepfather. They’d all bought their seats together, but a hack of United earlier that day had somehow resulted in her reservation disappearing.

As Tyler worked the counter by the gate, the gate agent was calling passenger names at irregular intervals. “Passenger Smith! Come to the gate.”

Passenger Smith, waving a boarding pass, would rush to the gate, jumping up and down like a game show contestant who’d just won $1 million, then cartwheel down the jetway while juggling carry-on bags.

Okay. So I’m lying about the juggling. But after awhile, I did start thinking the whole thing looked like some demented mashup of “The Price is Right” and “Survivor.”

Long story short, I was the last passenger whose name was called to board the plane. There was no room for my carry-on at that point, so I left it at the end of the jetway after yanking my book out of it. (Props for reuniting us at the end of the flight, United, but that’s as it should be.)

We got to Buffalo at midnight. I headed over to Budget where I’d rented a car. (The rental agents had been dealing with frustrated passengers for hours, and because I wasn’t a total cow, the agent upgraded me from a compact to a gorgeous SUV.) Two hours later, I was on the far side of Rochester, where I crashed on a cousin’s couch.

(In case you’re wondering, United, the green beans and Apocalyptica worked as well as I’d hoped they would on the “Keep Me Alert!” front.)

I did what I came to do in Skaeneateles (with one unscheduled stop at the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn – highly recommended if you ever find yourself in those parts), and headed back to Buffalo on Saturday to catch my flight home.

Harriet Tubman House

This is the best $5 you will spend anywhere. Go and see this place – the museum, the houses, the tour. So worth it.

Harriet Tubman's house

This is the house where Harriet lived. It was recently acquired by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which already owned the 25 acres adjacent because Harriet left it to the AME Church. It isn’t yet open to the public, but is expected to be by this time next year. Oh, and that’s me, standing by the root cellar entrance.

Harriet_Tubman_Infirmary

This is the infirmary/community-based residential facility Harriet opened for older African-American veterans. Four people lived there at a time. We did get to tour inside of it. Don’t do what I did and forget you’re not supposed to take photos or touch anything. (I was 100 percent on the no pictures, but because I used to give tours at other jobs and in my neighborhood when we have our home tours, I forgot myself when standing in front of something our tour guide was pointing out, and lifted it. Nearly gave our poor tour guide a heart attack. Luckily for all concerned, I managed to set it down intact.)

When I got to my gate – with a seat number on my boarding pass this time – Jessica was making the same announcement Tyler had been making. I figured I’d balance my karma and give up my seat. There ended up being eight of us – a woman who said she could drive back to Rochester, a father and son from Canada, and me who’d volunteered.

Then there were the people who hadn’t. One was a tall man with a deep voice, German accent and commanding bearing. Picture a younger, handsomer Arnold Schwartzenegger having a righteous fit. His wife, a lovely caramel-colored woman with short braids, didn’t speak English.

We all empathized with Arnold, but none of us were thrilled with the way he was taking  Jessica apart. The kid was a gate agent. He was yelling at her as if she were the the company CEO. (2017 note: If Jessica were the company CEO, Dr. Dao would have gotten home and you wouldn’t be reading this.)

Eventually, the rest of us trying to be kind to Jessica and, possibly, the time and energy that it took him to keep ranting got to him, and Arnold turned out to be reasonably okay.

But none of us – including Jessica – were okay with what happened when she started trying to get us onto other flights. All eight of us disappeared from your system as if we had never existed. A single supervisor buzzed by occasionally, pushing buttons and telling Jessica things that didn’t seem to help when she tried them, then disappeared again. Jessica was on the phone, trying to get us reinstated, but whoever she was calling seemed to know even less than the supervisor. She was doing everything she could, but it was like aiming a squirtgun at a house fire.

All of us – and I include myself and Jessica in this – had moments of not being our best selves. But in poor Jessica’s case, it meant a couple of intervals where she simply couldn’t hide the toll her inability to resolve a simple matter was taking.

Which is why, United, in addition to the $500 voucher I got at the end of this ordeal, you owe me a travel pack of tissues. Which I will forego if you would kindly supply your gate agents with a stock of them, because if you’re going to hang your employees out to dry in these kinds of situations, they’re going to need them.

She finally presented us with boarding passes and vouchers. The other passengers got hotel and meal vouchers which I didn’t need, United, because my best friend from middle school picked me up (four hours after she otherwise would have) and brought me home to her house. You owe her for saving you a hotel room bill and another tantrum.

Nancy's spare room

Why I didn’t have to throw a tantrum. I got to sleep here.

That’s because, United, a $7 meal voucher is NOT enough to buy dinner. That was the point at which the mild-mannered Canadian had finally had enough. I told Jessica to give him mine.

Then, I looked at my boarding pass.

“Geez,” I said, “I was kind of hoping for an upgrade to first class.”

Her instantaneous response came straight from her heart, United, and left no doubt in any of our minds that this woman is way too good for the likes of you.

“If I could,” Jessica said, “I would give you ALL upgrades to first class. And I would take you out for pizza and buy you beers.”

Standard

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