United misery and madness

August 4, 2021

Months ago when I booked Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg (South Africa) on United Airlines for me and a friend, I purchased first class tickets for the domestic connection RDU/Newark and in swanky international business class on the 16-hour Newark/Johannesburg leg on July 29. I checked in for both flights Wednesday night, July 28 and went to bed certain that Thusday, July 29 was going to run smoothly, my first overseas trip since Covid began.

Then United sent me a text at 130am canceling the Raleigh-Newark flight with no alternate flight booked. Reason given was bad weather approaching New York + Newark runway construction. 

I later confirmed bad storms were forecast in the NY area for late on July.29 and that Newark has just a single operating runway while rebuilding other(s). However, that doesn’t explain why United didn’t rebook our paid first class seats and sent only a middle-of-the-night notice. 

United also canceled my friend and colleague’s RDU/EWR (Newark) flight, Newark/Johannesburg (JNB), plus 3 intra-Africa flights, his Johannesburg/Newark leg, and his Newark/RDU flight. 

United eventually, after many long and confusing phone calls, rebooked my colleague on the EWR/JNB nonstop with me, but not on his intra-Africa flights–which they had no business canceling to begin with because they’d been booked and paid for directly with the South African carrier (SA Airlink). 

Originally, United had rebooked him on the following day’s Newark/Johannesburg flight without asking him and without considering whether his Covid PCR test results would be accepted by the South African government since they’d be a day late by then, nor whether his onward travel plans, including hotel, air and car rental, were impacted. Totally stupid and non-integrated. 

At 704am July 29 when I learned this, I booked a Hertz car one way Raleigh to Newark (an 8 hour drive) as insurance.  If we left by 9am, we could make it by 5pm for our 845p united flight to Johannesburg (Avis & Budget reported no cars). 

Meanwhile, I notified my long-suffering travel agent who had booked the rez. He was able to quickly book us on a Delta RDU/New York LaGuardia nonstop at 105p for $218 each one way. So I canceled the Hertz rez and dashed to RDU without breakfast. Good thing I was already packed and ready to go. Our agent said I can get United to refund for the outbound portion of the ticket when I get home. I kept hoping the return EWR/RDU wasn’t canceled. (I got an email from UA the next day saying it was indeed canceled.)

Arriving RDU, I was surprised to find the Skycaps are working the curb again, first time since Covid. I tipped one $5 to get our bags inside because I knew I might be able to get us on an earlier flight to LGA than 105p. The sooner we got to New York, the better, I thought. I didn’t want the Skycap to check our bags on the confirmed 105p flight if we stood a prayer of getting on the 1051am flight. 

Sure enough, the Delta Air Lines Priority counter agents were extremely helpful and sympathetic when I explained our plight. They put us on standby for the 1051am nonstop to LGA and checked our bags on that earlier flight. 

We rushed through TSA PRE-check and to the standby flight gate D5. The agent had already cleared us and handed us Comfort+ boarding passes. Mine was 6D, a window. My traveling companion was in 5A. Lucky us. No thanks to United. 

The 1051am Delta flight left the gate on time. Now we just had to figure out how to get from LaGuardia to Newark.  

Off the ground at 1059am.

All but three window shades were closed throughout the flight. What’s wrong with people? No one looks out at the world from above any more. Are we all really so jaded that the magic of flying doesn’t penetrate our sensibilities?

Routine but adequate service on the little E175 airplane. If it’s on time, I kept thinking, I’ll be thankful. It arrived early. 

Thick cumulus clouds mostly obscured the New York area on descent.  

Landed 1208pm.

Left LGA 1242p via Uber in a Suburban to EWR for $139. Our Nepalese driver has been in the USA for 5 years. Spoke understandable English despite having arrived from Kathmandu not speaking a word.  Impressive, I thought. 

Our driver navigated from LaGuardia (in Queens) via the Williamsburg Bridge to traverse lower Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, creeping across town, as usual. A stifling 102° in Holland Tunnel.

Arrived New Jersey 125p. Arrived EWR Airport 143p.

Checked in, with great help from United agent Michael Lewana [sp?] (from Brazil), and were through security at 207p.

Found the single open Newark UA club at gate C75 to wait. Our flight was due to leave from gate C121 at 845p, a long wait. But we were there! And that morning we didn’t think we would be. No thanks to United. 

Nobody at United could confirm if my return flight EWR/RDU on Aug 7 is valid after United canceled today’s RDU/EWR flight. The agents in the UA club (only two people, and of course swamped) were poorly trained, with no authority, and had to phone for help. The people they phoned were utterly incompetent. So, NOTHING was straightened out. But by then I’d had two Hendricks gin and tonics, so I was more sanguine about my chances than earlier. 

It was a literal Dr. Seuss-in-the-third-world situation. I’m pretty sure we could have sold sold our dinky two-person table for $50/seat. The United Club was horrible, a canker on the entire American scene. 

Making things worse, I discovered that there are just just two sit-down toilets and two urinals for guys in the entire United Club with 500+ people there. Just added to the chaos with men standing in line. 

The Club was packed out: SRO. Covid must love that place. 

With boarding 90 minutes away, I hoped the flight in business class to Johannesburg would be the highlight of that hectic day. 
Our misery wasn’t over, though. The Johannesburg flight left an hour late and arrived an hour late in South Africa, but I’ll save that story for next week. 

For the record, there was no reason for United Airlines to cancel domesic flight ls in South Africa that were spaced out over two weeks and booked and paid for independently of the UA itinerary. 
And of course United had no reason to cancel anything that was not tied to the RDU/EWR separate reservation.

Thank goodness our travel agent responded to email from home before he even left for work that morning. 

And that our agent looked into the Newark/Johannesburg record and noticed United had canceled the SA  space, otherwise, we would have had a rude surprise when showing up for the flight once overseas.

Thank goodness our agent got two of the last three seats RDU to LGA, while other United passengers were on hold forerver to get protection or standing in a long line.
Thank goodness our agent was able to rebook SA Airlink and hold it without selling a new ticket so we could talk to their agents on arrival in South Africa and get the reservations fixed. All no thanks to United Airlines.

Altogether, a vivid picture of why I haven’t flown on United since 1994 or 95. If I didn’t already hold two more paid business class tickets on the same UA flights for Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar travel back to South Africa, I wouldn’t risk such misery and madness again.   

7 thoughts on “United misery and madness

  1. You have to wonder if, after reading this post, the buffoons at UA will go out of their way to make your last two trips even greater nightmares! If that’s even possible.

    (Disclaimer: By “buffoons” — in lieu of harsher terms — I don’t mean to include many of the good people on the front lines at UA, who try their best but are forced to operate under the most harsh conditions in a third-world airline.) (With apologies to the real third world countries, most of whom don’t deserve being compared to UA.)

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