United: When Turkeys Fly

Four years ago, Westword ran a "How United Airlines Ruined My Summer Vacation" contest. Well, this year United Airlines ruined my family's Thanksgiving.

I got a phone call from my mother the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But she wasn't checking in to see how I was doing, or thanking me for the delicious pumpkin pie I'd contributed to our Thursday meal. Instead, she was in tears because a United Airlines "customer service" representative had just hung up on her. Granted, there were other issues involved -- this was our first Thanksgiving without my father, for one -- but I can't remember another time in my 25 years when "customer service" reduced my mother to tears.

Here's what happened: My brother was home from Annapolis, where he's attending the Naval Academy. He'd booked a flight back to Annapolis that left DIA at 12:20 p.m. on Sunday -- and he paid the premium price for his tickets, too. My mother dropped him off at the airport at 10:20 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., he had checked his bags and received his seat assignment and his boarding pass. He made his way through security. Those lines took forever. By the time he made it to his gate, the flight was boarding.

He got on the plane. And that's when things got interesting, because someone was sitting in his seat. He was asked to step off the plane. He was told that he was considered a "no-show" -- not even a "late arrival," which he wouldn't have been anyway, since he'd checked in nearly two hours before the flight and clearly made it to his gate before the plane took off, but a "no-show" -- and they had given his seat away. Don't they keep a record of people who check in? Apparently not -- I mean, it's not like they have computers or anything.

Regardless, he did not get to leave on that plane. Instead, he sat in the airport for hours, waiting to maybe get a standby seat on another flight -- on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Like that was going to happen. After several hours in the airport, he called my mother to say he might need a ride back to her house because he was still in Denver, and to tell her that he couldn't reach his commanding officer and might be in serious trouble for not getting back to school in time. (That happens when you're attending a military academy.)

My mother got in touch with his commanding officer, and then she called United's customer-service line. She asked why they had given my brother's seat away. The woman on the other end of the line said he was a "no-show." My mother explained that he actually was at the airport on time, and United had made a mistake by listing him as a "no-show." The woman said she couldn't do anything about that. My mother asked if it would be possible to guarantee him a seat on an upcoming flight. The woman said no. My mother asked why not -- after all, if they had kicked my brother off the plane to accommodate someone else, then why couldn't they kick someone else off a plane to accommodate my brother? The woman said there was nothing she could do. My mother asked if they were going to refund my brother for some of the ticket cost, since he had paid premium price for a flight they wouldn't let him take. The woman hung up on her.

My brother ended up spending an extra $25 to get his ticket transferred -- they were going to charge him $100, but were nice enough to reduce that fee. Still, they never did manage to explain how he was at fault for showing up on time with a boarding pass and seat assignment that they had somehow messed up.

So thanks a lot, United, for ruining our Thanksgiving. And it's wonderful to see how you give thanks for people like my brother, who are owned by the United States government and have a duty to protect people like your "customer service" representative who hung up on my mother.

Thanks, United, for making the impossible possible. After my father's death, we didn't think this holiday season could possibly get any worse -- but somehow, someway, you managed to pull through for us. I'll remember you next year, and every year beyond, when making any travel or vacation plans. 'Cause you never know when you'll need your schedule hopelessly fucked up beyond repair -- and United is clearly the airline to help you with that. -- Amber Taufen

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun