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United We Strand

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Westword's What United Did to My Summer Vacation contest has been a resounding success. Well, not for United Airlines customers, of course. No, things just keep getting worse for them. A recent example? Nearly 200 United flights out of Denver International Airport were canceled between this past Friday and Sunday, and hundreds more were delayed -- some by hours. United blamed its pilots, who are refusing to work overtime while the airline negotiates various labor agreements. It also claimed bad weather was a factor (and seemed poised to say that the dog ate its term paper, as well).

The folks at DIA, apparently worried that a United passenger might snap, employed several musical groups to tour the concourses (primarily United's B concourse) in an attempt to calm travelers' nerves -- a ploy that the airport usually employs only during the winter holidays. "It's not going to solve all the problems, but it will make things calmer during a hectic time of the year," says Meredith Gabow, DIA's performance series manager. The bands include the Gypsies, who play mandolin and guitar, and the Vince Wiggins duo, which plays jazz, as well as a Celtic group, a country group and others. "If anything can calm a crowd, it's the Gypsies," Gabow adds. "But they are all talented musicians with a sense of humor -- they play 'Leaving on a Jet Plane,' 'I Want to Go Home.' One thing that is different about this series is that we are using all roving artists, because they can seek out the hot spots. The artists love having an audience."

And a captive audience at that. Expect the mellow grooves to continue for a while, Gabow says, since United plans to cancel another 1,980 flights next month.

While that will leave a lot of would-be United passengers high and dry, Denver-based Frontier Airlines (which has absolutely no official role in our contest, although the winner will receive a round-trip ticket on the airline) just reported its ninth consecutive profitable quarter. Despite its obvious fear of doing anything to upset United, which could squash Frontier like a bug if it wanted to (although United would have to get some planes in the air on time first), Frontier even attributed a tiny part of that success to United's problems -- not that Frontier president Sam Addoms would go so far as to mention United by name. But everyone knew who he was talking about -- especially the passengers still stranded at DIA.

According to US News and World Report's current cover story (which, by the way, prominently features our contest), this summer has been the worst travel season in American airline history. United isn't the only airline with big problems, but since it controls roughly two-thirds of DIA traffic, its problems are Denver's problems, and don't think the people of Colorado haven't noticed. In a telephone survey of 607 people, only 7 percent said they had very positive feelings about United, while 15 percent said they had very negative feelings. The poll, which was conducted by Boulder's Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy Incorporated at the request of the Rocky Mountain News and Channel 4, also found that 62 percent of the folks whose flights had been canceled recently had been flying United.

"Those are devastating numbers," says Paul Talmey, president of Talmey-Drake. "It's real clear that if you are a company, you cannot have ratings like that if you have competition. Right now people are getting jacked around... Everybody understands that there is a problem, but when you don't do anything, that's when people get angry."

Talmey-Drake also asked about people's opinion of Janet Reno on the poll, and although Talmey can't release the results of that question yet, she couldn't have fared much worse than United.

While the stats are ugly, the individual stories behind them are downright gruesome. In this contest, we collected tales of delayed flights, canceled flights, bad service, worse service, lies, mistakes, incompetence, lost luggage, more lies, unbelievably rude flight attendants, confused pilots, sleepy pilots, mechanical problems, even more lies, and price gouging. Although many of the entries featured a combination of snafus, none, thank God, included every possible indignity. But our winning tale of woe, from Randy Roark of Boulder, came close.

Last week a spin doctor from the firm of Schenkein Public Relations, which represents United, called to ask whether we would accept United's perspective on the situation. "We have heard about your contest," she said. "And I just kind of wanted to gauge how receptive you would be to receiving information from us." We said we'd be glad to include United's perspective -- after all, our own up-close and personal experiences on United earlier this summer had inspired the contest -- and even asked if the airline wanted to help judge the entries or respond to the winners (or losers, depending on your perspective). But United's answer was somewhat delayed, and then, apparently, canceled altogether. We never heard back from the flack -- but perhaps she was busy composing the generic apology note that United released yesterday, which is reproduced on this page.

But you've all waited long enough this summer. So here, without further delay, is the winner's story (in his words, although condensed), a runner-up and several excerpts from other sad tales. Enjoy.

Winner

A funeral procession: My father died unexpectedly, quietly, in his sleep on June 9. I immediately called United to see how I could get back to Connecticut for the funeral. The first quoted price was $1,760 round trip. I told her it was for a funeral and asked if they had a special rate. "Yes," she said, it was "only $898." I asked her if there was any cheaper way of getting back East, and she told me no. A friend was with me and suggested I look up some e-fares on the Internet. I did, and found a United flight to Logan, about a ninety-minute drive from where I was going, for $286, which I booked.

The trip out was uneventful. When it was time for me to drive back to Logan, I left with plenty of time, because I didn't know about traffic or how to find the car rental place. I knew I'd have to wait for a shuttle from there to the airport, I didn't have a ticket (since I'd bought it over the Net), and I knew there'd be long lines. But traffic was fine, I breezed into the airport, had no trouble finding the car rental place, the shuttle left immediately, and I ended up two and a half hours early for my flight. So the lady at the counter said, "There's another flight leaving for Denver in half an hour. Do you want to get onto that one?" I said, "Sure." When I got to the end of the ramp, the monitor said my flight was delayed, but I wasn't worried, since I could see the plane sitting at the dock, so I sat down to wait.

When the plane was scheduled to board, they made an announcement that they didn't have a crew and they were making calls to try to get one. One of the customers goes up to the counter and says, "Excuse me, you have a plane sitting here for a scheduled flight and no crew? How does that happen? I mean, the plane and the passengers were able to get here on time. This isn't like a big surprise or anything to you, is it?"

Two hours later, the monitors change from "delayed" to 8 p.m., which is three hours later than my originally scheduled flight. People go up to the counter asking if the 8 p.m. time is correct, and the counter people tell us that they think it'll go off sooner than that, as they already have half of a crew available and they're just looking for a pilot. By now word is circulating through the crowd that the other plane to Denver (the one I was originally scheduled to fly on) now says it's supposed to leave at 7:55 -- is that possible? Little by little, people leave our waiting area and go to another desk, where they get switched over to the 7:55 flight. The word is that most of the people on that flight were transfers and United has found other arrangements for them, and now that plane is only half full. But no one makes an effort to get us onto that flight, and I don't bother switching because I figure there's no way they're going to let that flight out before ours -- we've been waiting three hours longer than they have.

Someone finally goes up to the counter and asks him directly: "You're not going to let that plane out before ours, are you?" "Oh, it's only five minutes' difference," he says. But then someone notices that the time on the monitor for our flight has changed to 8:40, but our desk still says 8:00. Is it 8:40 or 8:00? "Oh, 8:00, absolutely," the guy says. "The monitor is wrong." Half an hour later, after the other flight has boarded and taken off, the guy at the counter quietly goes up and changes the "0" to a "4" without making an announcement.

Finally, a little after 9 p.m., seven hours after our original departure time, they begin boarding. I get on the plane and begin walking toward my seat -- but there's a stewardess standing with her hands across the aisle near the back of the plane, where my seat is. "Excuse me, that's my seat," I say. "Oh, United Airlines reserves the right on a non-full airplane to use assigned seats to carry cargo," she says. "You'll have to wait until the plane is boarded and find an open seat." So I stand and wait until everyone gets on and finds their seats. Meanwhile, a family has gotten on board with three children under eight years old. I've watched them all afternoon, how difficult it's been to keep the kids informed and happy and occupied. The parents are exhausted. The father puts the youngest (probably a month or so old) in a car seat and puts it on the seat beside him. A blonde stewardess runs up the aisle shouting, "Sir you can't use that seat on this plane." He looks at her and says dryly, "I did on the way out." "Oh, but that's not a proper seat," she says. Apparently, there's something technical that it's missing. She tells him he's going to have to carry the infant for the entire four-hour flight. The guy almost loses his cool: "United Airlines told me I could not carry my daughter and that I needed a car seat and another ticket, which I paid $600 for. And now you're telling me I have to carry her on my lap?" The answer is yes.

Then, as the plane is still boarding, the stewardesses all hang out in the area reserved for "cargo" and badmouth the passengers, loud enough for them to hear. One guy seeks them out and asks them where he should sit, because someone else is sitting in his assigned seat, and the blonde stewardess says, to the laughter of all of the other stewardesses, "Oh, like you can't find a seat on this plane?" Then the stewardesses walk down the aisle in total boredom, handing out earphones, but my seat already has them, so I don't take one, which causes the stewardess to say to another one, "I always keep a couple of extra ones in the back because someone always wants one at the last minute." (Later, when the movie comes on, I check my earphones and they need the connecting cord, so I ask her for one, and instead of replying, she turns to her friends and says, "See?")

At this point, the captain comes on and says, "I just flew another plane into Logan, and it was the end of my day. But I've agreed to fly this plane on to Denver." The anxiety level on board increases dramatically. Then he assures us we'll be in Denver no later than 11 p.m. At 11:35, approaching Denver, he announces it's taking longer than he thought.

So we finally arrive in Denver, and I get off the plane and go to the Airporter desk, where there's a long line. Finally I get up to the counter and say, "One to Boulder, please." The clerk says, "Oh, I'm sorry, our last Boulder ride just left." So I go to the ground transportation desk -- but it's closed. I go to the information desk, and it's closed, too. I go outside and check the bus schedule, and another passenger tells me the buses have stopped running. Then suddenly, twenty taxis fly around the corner like a school of sharks. When I say "Boulder," the one driver who agrees to go there tells me it's $72. Another passenger from my flight calls out, "Anyone going to Boulder? We can share a cab." There's three of us, but the driver says that to drive the three of us, he'll give us only 20 percent discount per person. I do the math in my head and say, "So you're going to charge $180 to drive three of us to Boulder?" Yes, that's "regulations," he tells us. Two of us find another cab driver who'll drive us for $40 apiece, so we take that, and I get in about 1:30 in the morning.

I call United to complain about my flight and ask them to at least cover the $40 for my cab ride. The customer service guy apologizes profusely and says he will send me compensation for my additional expense and something "extra" for my "inconvenience." A week later it arrives: a $100 voucher on my next United flight. -- Randy Roark

Runner-up

The brush-off: On the morning of July 10, I arrived at DIA ready to fly to London for business. The plan was that I would fly to Chicago and take a connecting flight to London Heathrow. When I initially checked in at the counter, the agent warned me that my flight to Chicago could be "a little late" due to bad weather in Chicago. (I had just watched Al Roker on Today, and I knew the weather was fine in Chicago.) By the time she finished checking my luggage, however, she assured me that the flight would leave on time.

When I got to my gate, the monitor indicated that my flight was delayed approximately one hour. I got in line to speak with an agent because I was concerned about making my connection in Chicago. While I was in line, an agent at the counter announced that the flight to Chicago had been completely canceled because a plane was not available. When I made it to the front of the line, the agent informed me that I could be re-routed through Newark and confided that the plane intended for Chicago had been given to Newark because that flight was more valuable than the Chicago flight.

The Newark flight was scheduled to depart about an hour and a half after the canceled flight, and the agent assured me that there was sufficient time to transfer my luggage to the Newark-bound plane. As it turned out, our flight to Newark was delayed by almost two hours from the originally scheduled time. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to make my connection from Newark to London, because that flight was also well over an hour late.

I arrived in London at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Unfortunately, my luggage did not. The baggage claim agent at Heathrow initially told me that he couldn't even find a record that my luggage had been checked in Denver, despite the fact that I had the claim check. Eventually, he found a record for my bag and indicated that it was in Chicago and would arrive in London on the next flight (scheduled to arrive in approximately two hours). Although I had a business meeting late that afternoon, I naively figured that United would deliver my luggage in sufficient time for me to shower and change out of the clothes that I had now been wearing for almost 24 hours. With about two hours to go before my meeting and no sign of my luggage, I got on the telephone to call United. Because nobody would answer the phone at the baggage claim office at Heathrow, I had to resort to making several calls to the customer service, Mileage Plus and baggage claim offices in the U.S. Nobody could tell me what happened to my luggage, other than confirming that it had not been on the flight from Chicago.

With my meeting coming up, I rushed out to some boutique and bought the first suit that fit me, found a pair of shoes and stocked up on toiletries (we'll get to that later - I like to save the best for last). Due to the exchange rate, I had to spend over $600 to get what I needed. On the bright side, however, I got good use out of that suit, because my luggage didn't arrive until two days (and several angry international telephone calls) later!!!

When I checked in at Heathrow to return to Denver, the agent informed me that my flight was (surprise) delayed and, as a result, I would miss my connection in Chicago (which was scheduled to leave at 11 a.m. Chicago time). He also told me that, while there were several other flights from Chicago to Denver that day, they were all booked and I wouldn't be able to get on a flight until 3 p.m. Wouldn't you know it -- my 3 p.m. flight was also delayed and didn't take off until after 5. Originally scheduled to get into Denver at 1:30 in the afternoon, I didn't get here until after 7 p.m.

All in all, for my $1,200 round-trip ticket, I got one canceled flight, four significantly delayed flights, one lost suitcase and a reputation for wearing the same suit for three days straight.

But really, here's the best part. When I arrived at Heathrow on that Tuesday morning and learned that my luggage would be delayed, I asked United to give me one of those "freshen up" kits to take with me to my hotel. They said no. Not wishing to be so demanding, I modified my request and asked for just a toothbrush and a little tube of toothpaste so that I could at least brush my teeth after flying through the night. Again, no. Their rationale (and I'm not making this up): Passengers don't qualify for a free toothbrush or toothpaste until their luggage has been missing for at least 24 hours!! -- Amy Bailey

Some contest-entry excerpts for your reading pleasure

The joke's on you: After the usual hour delay at DIA and an hour-and-a-half delay at O'Hare, I upgraded to first from Chicago to Albany. As we started to descend, the pilot was undecided about what to do, and, after circling for an hour, turned west, and we landed in Cleveland, a Continental hub that was all but closed. (Weather problem, "not our fault.") No cabs, no hotel availability, no flights. After a bit of arguing, I got $15 in meal credit (Cinnabon was the only thing open), and after waiting three hours, was offered a nine-hour bus ride to Albany, take it or leave it. I took it. I needed to get there. Of course, a requested return of my upgrade coupons was dismissed, so I asked for first class on the bus. They didn't even get the humor.

Plane drain: The absolute worst experience I ever had was when my diabetic sister-in-law was forced to sit in a plane with me for over five hours because we were waiting for an airplane part. After I kindly explained to the flight attendant that if he didn't let us deplane, my sister-in-law would go into diabetic shock, he replied, "Well, next time maybe you should bring more food with you. You didn't think that we would get you there on time, did you?"

Booze cruise: It started out easily enough: Fly from Australia to North America, stay with five different Internet friends in five different states, fly back home! My family and friends were horrified. Didn't I know the Internet was full of ax-murderers and rapists? I am here to tell you that the Net people were wonderful! It was United that managed to cause the only problems on my vacation! In seven flights, only one was on time! The only saving grace was that late departures mean free alcohol!

Sweet dreams: The phone rang at 4:40 Monday morning. I answered, since my wife was dead asleep. It was United's baggage office in New York, asking if they should go ahead and send the bag to my in-laws' house now. "Denver would really be better, on account of MY WIFE'S NOT IN NEW YORK ANYMORE," I replied. "And by the way, do you know what goddamn time you just woke me up?"

"Yes," she replied. "It's 6:40. But it says here 'client was angry,' and when a client is angry, we like to do things right away." I explained time zones and customer service to her. She seemed interested in both concepts.

There's more -- so much more -- at westword.com/unitedairlines.

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