Airlines Travel Stories

Is There a Pilot Onboard?

What would you do if you were sitting on a plane, the door was closed, the flight attendants had announced to turn off your cell phones and then you hear, “Ummm….we have no pilot?”

That is precisely what my fellow passengers on United Airlines flight 779 heard on June 19th, shortly before they were asked to return to the terminal. Sounds outrageous, right?

So outrageous that I missed it entirely! Not by choice though. You see, I was flying back from the TBEX conference in Vancouver to New York’s LaGuardia airport via Chicago O’Hare and my connection was quite late arriving. In fact, had that fateful flight not been delayed due to lack of pilot, I would have missed it entirely!

Alas, the whole situation was unbeknownst to me, as I stared at a departure screen that screamed, “Delayed.” First it was 2 hours, then 3. And then?


It was 10:00pm when the news came down the pipeline, not told by those ever so informative departure monitors (on which my flight was no longer listed), but by a not-so-helpful United representative. The flight was canceled.

I made my way into lengthy customer service line that snaked its way around and around. There I would meet fellow passengers from my now canceled flight who would fill me in on all the juicy details of their near pilot-less departure. It was melting pot of sorts, as I hobnobbed with fancy business people and their first class tickets, an experience I never would have had otherwise.

United Mileage Plus

As we stood there in the nearly stationary line, we theorized what might happen to us. Would we receive hotel vouchers and leave in the morning? Maybe at this rate it would be faster to take a bus to NYC? This was all so exciting. I mean I’ve never had a flight canceled mid-trip before!


Alas, none of that proved true as a little while later, yet another United representative came over to announce that the flight was no longer canceled and we would be leaving at 12:30am, a whopping 4 hours after our scheduled departure.

But, there was a problem. Given the time difference, we were due to arrive at the ungodly hour of 3:30am and apparently LaGuardia has a curfew on  “fixed wing” aircraft and we could not land there. Instead, we would be going to JFK Airport.

Now, I would never book a late night flight into JFK. You know why? Because JFK is so far away that it would take me at least 90 minutes to get home. LGA is a quick 20 minutes or so from me. Collectively, we grumbled that United ought provide us with some ground transportation, as this was quite an inconvenience!


When midnight finally rolled around, the gate agent announced it was time to board the plane (again). “Do we have a pilot?!,” someone shouted. “Your pilot is arriving in 15 minutes in Concourse B,” the gate agent responded, as the crowd groaned loudly.

“Welcome back!,” announced a clearly exhausted flight attendant, only adding to the déjà vu that everyone else must have been experiencing as they settled back into the plane.

It was time for departure and we still sat there. The flight attendants assured everyone that the pilot was in fact on board and needed just a few minutes to get herself situated (yes, we had a female pilot, how cool is that?). By 12:40am, we were on our way.

The flight attendants were very apologetic for the ordeal we had been through. They even took the unusual step of passing out complimentary large bags of pretzels during the beverage service, a particularly kind gesture considering that there was not a single food establishment open at O’Hare at that late hour and many of us were starving.

Ground Transportation

It was 3:45am when we finally touched down at JFK and, much to everyone’s surprise, it was announced that United would be providing ground transportation and we should talk to the gate agent for more information. Yay!

Of course, “Ground Transportation” turned out to be a shuttle to LaGuardia, which we were told would be waiting outside.

As if what we’d been through was already not enough, outside there was a large line of people waiting at the taxi-less taxi stand and a few disgruntled passengers standing around waiting for this mythical shuttle that was definitely not there! Had we been bamboozled, I wondered?

25 minutes after our flight had arrived, there was still no shuttle, at which point I gave up and started my long trek home by subway. It was 6:00am when I finally walked through my door, 14 hours after I had arrived at Vancouver airport!

Customer Appreciation

Now, to give United some credit here, they did hand out these Customer Appreciation cards while we boarded, apologizing for the delay and inviting us to select an appreciation gift of our choosing from their website. While I’m sure the choices vary depending on the situation and your status in the mileage program, I was able to choose from:

  • 3,000 bonus miles
  • A $75 certificate valid for 1 year
  • 10% a roundtrip flight valid for 1 year

Knowing that the certificates come with plenty of restrictions, I took the miles. But I was incredibly peeved at what struck me as a really puny settlement for the ordeal we had been through. I mean, 3,000 bonus miles might have been ok if they hadn’t promised ground transportation that never showed up!

United Apology Card

So, I took to Twitter to complain a bit, ensuring that I mentioned @United, the airline’s official Twitter feed, in all my tweets. Much to my surprise, they sent me a direct message asking me to send them my frequent flier number. I was thrilled that maybe I would be getting a little something extra!

Still, to this day, nothing has come out of that direct message, nor have I heard back from @United, so I made a formal complaint on their website. About a week later, I received a response, stating that they understood I was unhappy with the appreciation offer and that they’d be giving me an additional 3,000 miles (for a total of 6,000), still a very puny offer in my humble opinion.

Now, this was an award flight (meaning I cashed in miles for it) and I lack status in the mileage program, but am I really being unreasonable here? 6,000 miles to keep me happy after they delayed my flight for 4 hours, sent me to a different airport and promised ground transportation that never showed up?

If nothing else, I vote for “I Survived United Flight 779” t-shirts! Anyone?

But Wait! There’s More!

On July 14, nearly one month after @United had reached out to me on Twitter and then never responded, I received a phone call from United Airlines, asking to discuss this matter further and offering additional compensation. How did this amazing feat happen? I laid it all out in How I Harnessed the Power of Social Media to Get What I Wanted.

Sound Off!

What do you think? Was this a wacky flight experience? Am I being unreasonable to think that maybe the compensation should be higher?


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

42 replies on “Is There a Pilot Onboard?”

I can’t say I’m surprised by the outcome, but I think the initial offer was quite weak. It always bothers me when companies make you continue to complain before offering a different outcome and in this case it was still pretty weak too. But that seems to be the norm, especially with American companies.

When we were leaving Cuba, we showed up and were told that there was no plane. The plane wasn’t grounded, it apparently was just not there. After waiting for a couple hours, however, the Cuban airline shuttled us to a very nice hotel, fed us lunch, and picked us up again when they had a replacement plane. We were completely taken care of and quite lavishly, I might add. It was a totally different experience than we would have gotten from most companies in our wonderful capitalistic society who treat you simply like the dollar sign they see you as. Sorry your experience was so crappy. 🙁

One need only fly an airline in any other country in the world to know how much American carriers suck. It’s no wonder that they still offer complimentary meal service, free alcohol and pillows and blankets on international flights when they actually have to cope with the competition!

Did they make an attempt to make me feel valued as a customer? Sure. But it was a lame attempt. A really, really lame attempt.

That’s awesome that you guys went to Cuba! Did you fly from Mexico?

Awesome! I look forward to reading about it! No passport issues anywhere I assume?

I calculate 1,000 km as $10, perhaps unorthodox, but that’s how it works for me, if the cheapest ticket I can buy on LAN to the states is 70,000 km, and the cheapest ticket (used to be) is $700, you’ll see how I come up with it. So before I cash in km, I decide if I could get the ticket for fewer dollars than km. So 6,000 miles is about $90 US, which is better than the $75. Win!

Still lame though.

Hahaha it depends on how you look at it, as frequent flier redemption amounts vary wildly and are not proportional to price. A domestic flight in the U.S. is 25,000 miles, which costs about $300 and a flight to Asia is 65,000 miles or $1,000.00. But given how rapidly air fare prices change, it changes the value of those miles. For example, the reason I redeemed 25,000 miles for this flight is because it would have otherwise cost me $450.00, which is a much better value than buying a $250 flight from NYC to my hometown of Las Vegas. But if you were to take your math that way averaging a domestic flight at 25,000 miles and $300.00, 6,000 miles is roughly the equivalent of that $75 certificate.

Another way to look at is that since I redeemed miles I didn’t actually earn any on this flight. 6,000 miles is roughly the amount of miles I would have netted from the round trip so it evens out that way.

Still though, considering that 3,000 was the initial offer, it’s in fact a much worse deal than the $75.00, but miles have WAY more flexibility than a certificate that requires you purchase tickets on United’s website at full price in the next year. Yeah…I don’t think so.

And I agree. Still very lame!

🙂 And yes, it IS bull. I keep mentioning @United when I tweet this (purposely) but they are curiously quiet this time around…

Actually the vouchers for appreciation have VERY few restrictions – I find them VERY easy to use.

The biggest problem I have with vouchers for appreciation is that they require you to book again on in the next year. Realistically, I don’t fly United that much (though once the merge with Continental is complete I’ll be flying them much more) and instead tend to fly on Star Alliance for the mileage much more often. Therefore, miles are much handier for me than the vouchers.

I feel like airlines always act like they are doing us such huge favors with these freebies we receive for our inconvenience.

Once, I was booked a flight to Mexico with a layover in Atlanta. I arrived at the counter in St. Louis and was immediately informed (rather bluntly) “You are not making it to Mexico today”

They flew me to Atlanta and put me up in a hotel. They gave me meal vouchers that were only valid at the hotel restaurant. The hotel restaurant was a MEXICAN RESTAURANT. What a slap in the face! I had dinner there, but I didn´t want tacos for breakfast. They gave me vouchers for lunch and dinner (as my flight was not just delayed a night but a day and a half!) but my check out was 10am. What was I supposed to do, go back to the hotel just to eat the crappy food?

I did not receive any other compensation and simply lost a day of my trip AND my hostel reservations in Mexico.

Thanks for nothing, Delta.

Yikes that really sucks!!! I believe they’re required to give you a hotel and food vouchers if the delay is their fault (rather than weather-related). Seems like United in my case at least made some attempt to go above and beyond the requirements through a goodwill offer.

Of course, when you add up EVERYTHING that happened, most of which stemmed from United’s sheer disorganization I mean, promising ground transportation to a very tired group of passengers they were flying to a different airport in the middle of the night and then not delivering on that promise was almost bigger to me than the delay.

And their Twitter feed contacting me asking for my mileage number and then never getting back to me also really pissed me off.

Another commenter opined that airlines based in other countries had considerably better customer service, just another sign that the perception that U.S. airlines make a push on customer loyalty is a falacy. Unless, of course, you have some sort of status in a frequent flier program, which, unless you travel for work frequently, is unattainable to most of us, even if we do travel for pleasure often.

I do believe that this is the sign of things to come.
More companies with poor service, ,low customer concern and a “take it or leave it” attitude.
Just the sign of further deterioration of service.
Rare will it be that the average consumer is taken care of.
Just my opinion.
United is another company I just do not do business with.
I do have that choice, ya know?
One of my favorite worlds in business these days is “Thanks, but I’ll find someone who treats me right – I’ll pay a little extra to be treated like a human being vs. sheeple.”
John D. Wilson
aka The Big Mozey

Thanks for your thoughts John! The so-called “legacy” airlines in the U.S. seem to be grooming us to accept their crummy service. Sure, you’d think the emergence of some of the new (and wonderful) low cost carriers like JetBlue or Virign America would give the big carriers a run for their money, but it really doesn’t seem to have done so! These new carriers not only provide an awesome customer experience but awesome customer service too! It makes the big carriers look all the more pathetic in comparison!

And no, they don’t give a damn about the average consumer. It’s all about the people who have status in their frequent flier program… the business travelers who rack up tens of thousands of miles per year jetting around the country or around the world. As for the little guy, we can fend for ourselves!

I’d love to tell United “Thanks, but I’ll find someone who treats me right,” but at the end of the day, I play the mileage game, and those United miles are worth a hell of a lot more than JetBlue or Virgin America miles because they can take me around the world on any number of affiliated carriers.

I don’t think you’re being unreasonable in expecting more of the airline. You were inconvenienced beyond belief. I think you should have gotten:

–15,000 bonus miles
–A $150 certificate valid for 1 year

Isn’t it true that a negative customer service experience is shared 10 times (?) as often as a positive one? I think United, by skimping here (and with others) bought itself a lot of negative press. Shame, too. I expected more from them.

Oh absolutely. I mean, had I been super impressed with United’s service would I still have written this post? Probably not, though had I been blown over, then maybe, just maybe. But realistically, I’m not all that surprised. I mean, the U.S. airlines have sort of trained us to accept crummy service from them. When is the customer going to stand up and say enough is enough?

I hate these ‘weird’ compensations. What good are those miles gonna do to you?

AirAsia once was delayed over 4 hours and they gave us a gift certificate worth around 80% of our initial flight ticket. Now this gift certificate wasn’t for miles, it was for new plane tickets!

I think if United would adopt a similar system, it’s customer satisfaction rate might go up 🙂

Well, compared to the alternatives, the air miles weren’t such a bad deal. For one thing, they don’t expire and they can be put towards free travel should you have enough of them and if you’re a smart mileage earner, then you can make use of them.

That said, isn’t is amazing that AirAsia who will nickle and dime you for everything you’ve got (though from them you expect it since their fare is so absurdly cheap) has considerably better customer service than good ol’ United Airlines?

That’s true, they make you a part of the community.

I think the main difference is that the AirAsia coupon is more straightforward, giving you less hassle and allowing AirAsia to keep their customers (and then of course, overcharging them again :P)

Anyway, compensation is always nice, maybe we should just be happy we get some… :\

I refuse to accept that airlines have stooped to the level of doctors offices, who make you wait for hours on end to see the doctor yet charge you if you miss your appointment! 😛

Airlines and insurance companies are the worst.

Not sure why it’s always the ‘old’ airlines that are always the worst at customer service, but I don’t think they’ll ever get it. I guess when we always search for flights by ‘best price’ something will have to give.

I don’t buy it though. Often times, the “new carriers” beat the legacy carriers in price and have FAR better services. Sure we can speak with our wallets, which is, of course, the most powerful. But I think more people need to put their feet down and say no, this is not ok!

Oh, and don’t get me started on insurance companies… I could go on for hours…no, days!

You had the same flight attendants sitting on the plane 4 hours after you should have taken off? If someone knows otherwise, they only get paid from the moment the plane leaves the gate, so it’s possible they also would up getting stiffed for those four hours that they had to sit around! If so, that’s really bad as well. I’m surprised they weren’t more grumpy…

The flight attendants were actually the exact opposite. They did sound tired but they went far and above what was expected of them to be pleasant and cheerful to us. I mean, passing out bags of pretzels? That’s huge in the States these days… (and they weren’t the wimpy-sized bags you used to get on airlines but large ones too!).

Ugh– sounds incredibly frustrating! I’m glad you were able to squeeze another 3,000 miles out of them. There’s really no excuse for their delayed response– especially when they reached out to YOU on Twitter. You should have taken the direct flight to Newark filled with TBEXers… we actually had a pilot!

Hahaha well there were a couple of problems with that, the biggest of which was I came back a week after TBEX! 😛

And I still think that 6,000 miles is incredibly lame, especially after the ground transportation and Twitter things…

Aaron, OMG you took me back to my experience w/ United summer of ’99. I know EXACTLY what you meant about Flight Cancellation & staying over night @ an in-between stop. I was leaving Calif. & my connecting flight was in Denver going to NYC where I live. I remember it was rainy (don’t remember the time) day & my flight was cancelled due to Maintenance problem. Just like you I went up to my fellow passengers who were standing on line & filled me in w/ the details as well. They said that the only flight out to NYC was another plane going to JFK (I was trying to get to LGA as well. I, too, live 15mins. away in Bronx.) & if you’re going to LGA I would have to stay over night. I was tired & cold. Calif. was HOT so I was wearing shorts, a tee, & Demin Jacket. Here I am in Denver which was “somewhat” cooler & I’m COLD! & yes, We Got Those HOTEL VOUCHER tics. The airline gave us ground transport. which brought us into “Double Tree” & I remember as soon as I walked in my room I stood there saying “Now What?” So, I went & took a shower (feeling soggy from the rain & cold), but of course my pj’s were in the luggage & so I had to get back into my shorts & tee (my Demin J. became my blanket b/c Both the Hotel & Denver was Cooler). Finally, I went down to the restaurant & ordered a Hamburger & Fries Combo. Lastly, the next day I went back on another plane which I find out that MY LUGGAGE was going to JFK (I guess b/c they assumed that we were all going to fly in @ JFK?!) & I went to LGA. Anyway, my parents picked me up @ LGA (I called them as soon as I heard that there was Maintenance problems) & we had to TRAVEL whatever the LONG distance is in betw. LGA & JFK (let alone to & from JFK was tremendous TRAFFIC!).
So, that’s my experience – you’re not alone. & NO, you’re not being Unreasonable if United tried to compensate me w/ Certificates, Flyer Miles, etc. I would think they’re just “kissing my **ss just to Cover Theirs b/c God Forbid they would lose customers (just like any other co. would). They “HAVE” to Make Themselves look in Good Standing – I Mean After all “Fly The FRIENDLY Skies”!! LOL!!!!

Wow…that is QUITE an experience Mona!!

Alas, they didn’t even give us the option to spend the night and take a flight to LGA the next morning. It was get into JFK at 3:30am or nothing!

Incidentally, did United give you any sort of appreciation gesture like a certificate or miles or anything after the ordeal?

No! They didn’t. It was like as if nothing ever happened. After this ordeal I guess people (me & the passengers) just moved on w/ our lives. Tho’ I’m sorry that you didn’t get a choice. That must have been harsh! Nevertheless, I’m glad that American Airlines is cheaper to fly today. I’ve gone to Nashville (LGA is always the airport I fly in & out of) summer of ’09 & went to “SxSW” in Austin, TX in March ’10. Both were on American & so far (knock on wood) nothing has happened (tho’ just out of curiosity while I was comparing diff. rates – vacation packages from diff. airlines United has gotten pretty pricy anyway so @ least I can avoid flying w/ them).

I fly with United because they are the holders of all my mileage, which I’ve worked very hard to consolidate into one place. I’m a pretty big fan of Star Alliance and the fact that I can earn UA miles on any of their flights so it’s worth it to me. I in fact fly UA so little that’s it’s almost not a big deal, mostly just when I’m redeeming miles (which I did this time). I do tend to fly Continental a lot more since they basically own EWR and have much better service in my experience, but once they and UA finish their merge, who knows what will come of that!

Maybe I’m jaded from flying so much, but I’m surprised that they gave you ANY compensation! The ground transportation was probably made up on the fly by a flight attendant who was trying to make a plane full of angry customers a little big happier.

I just lower my expectations when I fly these days – if they get me there within 12 hours of when I was originally supposed to get there, I’m impressed. What a sad state of affairs!

Hahaha jaded much in the same sense that I was shocked to get pretzels!

I don’t think that ground transportation was made up by the flight attendant because it was announced as “We’re told that there will be ground transportation provided” and the guy at the gate was able to give us further direction on it. It was once we arrived at the curb that nothing showed up and at that point, there wasn’t a single United employee in sight as we were outside of security.

Sorry, I don’t accept low expectations! I’ve been spoiled by Asian carriers! 😛

I can relate to the experiences that you’ve had! I actually once was rerouted to JFK and nearly missed my connection flight. It’s nice you got some form of compensation for the entire ordeal but I’m sure it made for a long night.

Very long night. But it was less the rerouting and more the the things that were promised and never happened that really irked me. Especially ground transportation. That was the kicker. You can’t tell a plane load of passengers at 3:45am that you will provide ground transportation for them (even if it was just LGA) and tell them it will be outside and then never follow through. That just put a huge drain on the entire experience!

Did your connecting flight still leave from LGA (or wherever you were supposed to end up)?

I think you have a little TOO much power in social media. You posted this on United’s Facebook page, but you prohibit others from commenting there. That’s not very social.

Hahaha alas that’s a function of Facebook and unfortunately not something I have power over. I actually posted it on my own Facebook page and tagged United so it just appeared on their page. Had you clicked on “View Post” it would have taken you to my Facebook page where you could have left a comment.

Oh, memories of my two separate times flying with United. I despise that Continental is now with them … I loved Continental’s customer service, before that crappy United brand took over.

You mean back in the day when Continental was the only airline stills serving free meals in Economy? Granted they were almost inedible, but still. I’m no fan of United but for a matter of convenience they are my mileage program of choice. So in that regard, the Continental merger (or even when Continental switched to Star Alliance) is more beneficial to me thanks to their Newark hub.

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