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What I Learned From a Cancelled United Airlines Flight

cancelled United Airlines flights

I love the view, taken aboard a replacement flight or not.

A cancelled United Airlines flight gave me plenty to think about the day I returned to the U.S. with my family. We’d been in Europe for more than two weeks – a great trip, but we were ready to be home (just try finding a good West Coast-style IPA in Germany!).

The TSA made sure my homecoming was less than friendly.

And then United Airlines boarded its flight to Phoenix – a Boeing 737 that has seen better days (the carpet was battered, and my window shade hung at a diagonal – yet it had seem enough shop time that it had split-scimitar winglets). Still, it had DirectTV; I swiped my credit card and was happily watching soccer … then the flight attendants alerted the pilots that they heard a banging noise in the rear of the plane. They delayed the flight, delayed it again, delayed it again for good measure. They tried to find a replacement plane, and then they cancelled it.

Here’s what I learned from this cancelled United Airlines flight.

airline choices

United Airlines is modernizing with planes like the 787 Dreamliner. They generally have decent short-haul flights, too, but there’s still some old beaters in the fleet.

Pilots Wisely Listen to the Flight Attendants

You might think they just lecture you about electronic devices and bring you drinks. But flights attendants spend a lot of time in the air. They know when something isn’t right. And I’d rather they cancel a flight than ignore a warning sign and put me into the air aboard an unsafe aircraft. I have to give props to the cooperation between the United pilots and flight attendants. Yeah, a delay or cancellation is a pain for passengers. But it’s nowhere near as bad as flying an unsafe aircraft. I give absolutely unequivocal kudos to United Airlines for the flight deck-flight attendant cooperation.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight

I flew a United 777 to Brazil, and it the Economy Plus upgrade was well worth it. Yet another positive data point for United.

Passengers Need to Chill Out

“This is why I never fly United,” a guy behind me said. He told me about his double-secret-unobtainium status with American Airlines. He didn’t exactly seem thrilled when I replied that this was the first problem I ever encountered with United. I also overheard a surly passenger telling a United customer service employee to “call me ‘sir’” and “you owe me your undivided attention.” That is so unnecessary. A cancelled flight is a giant pain for everyone involved – yelling and being demanding does nothing for anyone. And no, the cancellation won’t get you a first-class upgrade on the next flight. There were about 160 people on that airplane … and only a few first-class seats.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight

Oof, I’m a bit squeezed here.

Customer Service People Could Do Their Part, Too

Here’s where I had a problem with spending a night in Chicago because of our cancelled United Airlines flight: The customer service rep booked us at a hotel 30 minutes away for a 5:30 a.m. departure. For some people, this might not be a big problem. But we’d just gotten off a 9-hour flight with a 9-month-old. She was a trooper, but there’s only so much you can expect … we promptly returned to the airport, grabbed an on-site hotel (for less than the advertised rate of the place where customer service booked us) and gained some extra sleep. Why the customer service person didn’t put us there in the first place, I just can’t say. Still, he was personable in the situation, and he knew a serious flogging was in the offing from the other passengers.

The Return Flight – Not So Great

Our plane for the 5:30 am flight was a decent 737 with the cool Boeing Sky interior. It unfortunately had a seat pitch not designed for a person who stands 6’2: My knees were up against the seat in front of me the whole way. The flight also left an hour late, and with the WiFi and DirectTV out of order.

United Airlines Made Things Right

When we returned, I wrote an email to United Airlines summarizing this situation. I asked them to pick up the hotel bill, along with my DirectTV payment (I’d paid my $7.99 for the flight) and the cost of our Uber ride back to O’Hare. I also asked for a chunk of air miles for my wife and me. I skipped the “I’m never flying United again” because it’s counterproductive – and I’ve had too many positive previous experiences with United to be hostile like that (though I admitted losing my patience with them on Twitter).

They agreed and have since credited our account. We also received a check for our expenses.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight Still Made Them Look Good, Ultimately

United Airlines cancelled the flight because the plane seemed to have a mechanical problem its team couldn’t sort out. So they made the safe choice.

They also recognized the shortcomings in how they handled the hotel situation and did their part to make things right. That’s all I can ask – sometimes, in air travel, things won’t go according to plan. Someone, somewhere, will make a mistake. And when it’s airline making the mistake, you have to wonder how well they’ll respond. United Airlines handled it every bit to my satisfaction.

I can no longer say I’ve never had a problem with United Airlines. But I can say that, the one time I did have a problem, United made things right.

Now, let’s say United received my email and said “forget about it, pal.” Well, they probably could’ve gotten away with it. And the amounts are just too small to any other way, and I’m not willing to let something like that waste my time on general principal.

But with American Airlines now the biggest operation at my hometown airport, a bad and unresolved experience with United could’ve pushed me toward them. Instead, I’m sticking with United Airlines as my first-choice domestic airlines because it did its best to fix a very difficult leg of my trip. It looks like United understands that empowering employees to take a relatively small step to help a customer can pay dividends.

Read more about my previous experiences with United Airlines. And if you want to read about a long-haul flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’ve got you covered.

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