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