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United We Fall

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Christopher Gardner

Surly Skies adopts a new motto: it's not their problem! Got that?

By Michael Learmonth

ONCE UPON A TIME, when airlines messed up, they did backward aerials to be sure that you, the esteemed traveler and customer, went away feeling like you got something out of it. Whether it was a travel voucher, a first-class upgrade or a even just a night at a hotel, when passengers got screwed on a flight, they could count on getting some little prize so they wouldn't feel like a piece of used orange burlap upholstery.

What little of that fine airline tradition remains gets run over by a steamrolling beverage cart during the holidays. Some airlines try to replace it with cheery attitudes, extra peanuts and short pants. Others, like United Airlines, seem to be replacing it with a new kind of ethic: it's not our problem, it's yours.

When I arrived in Sacramento this past holiday season, diverted by fog from our destination in Oakland, the new policy was clearly in effect. When we disembarked, hours late and looking for answers, we were met by a red-faced United representative and four armed sheriff's deputies.

"It's weather-related," he said of our predicament, standing firmly behind the deputies. "Not our responsibility."

He then proceeded to tick off our options: no hotel rooms, no rental cars, no flights out and no buses in the area. As for any little goodies an airline such as United might hand out to make us feel better about dumping us 85 miles from our destination, well, that wasn't his problem either.

Ours wasn't the only flight diverted to Sacramento the weekend after Christmas. That night, in fact, Delta had stranded a few hundred of its Bay-bound passengers there. But Delta prepared for the contingency not by calling the cops, but by calling three buses which it had chartered to take its passengers home.

When the buses pulled up to the terminal, my United cohorts mistook them for our savior, put their bags beneath and settled in for the ride home. After a few minutes, one of the sheriffs boarded and apologetically announced that all United passengers would have to get off--this bus was chartered by Delta.

Off we trudged, and by 3am resignation had set in: that we would be spending a night shivering on the tiles of Terminal B. I had long since stopped expecting any goodies from United; in fact, I had stopped expecting any kind of service from them whatsoever.

On an earlier leg of the trip, equipment problems had made our plane to Tampa late for a connection to Miami. It was all an exercise in letting go.

Two futuristic monorail rides and a mad dash later, we were heaving at the counter of Continental Connections, the short-hop carrier that United contracts with to fly within Florida. When we got there, we were told that our flight did not exist--that flight 1453 had been discontinued months ago and that we needed to take this up with United.

So we did. We took another monorail ride to the main terminal, stood in line and told a United agent of our predicament. She said the nonexistent flight was still appearing on United's computer system--not their problem!--and that we should fly standby on the next outgoing Continental Connections flight. No matter that I had paid $335 to United for the tickets in my hand--apparently now our fate was in the hands of the commuter airline. About our bags, the best the United agent could do was speculate: "They would probably have been put on the next flight out."

On the ill-fated Chicago-to-Oakland leg of our flight back, the pilot had already apologized for an unscheduled, hour-long refueling stop in Salt Lake City. As we descended into Sacramento, he came on again and implored passengers not to ask crew members about ticket and flight issues. "We are experts in flying the plane," he said, "not tickets and connections and that kind of thing."

That, I thought, was a shockingly blunt articulation of the "Not our problem!" policy. Usually airline employees take pains to at least listen to passengers' questions even if they have no answer to give.

Hours after all but a few of the other passengers had given up, United finally relented and footed the bill for Supershuttle rides to Oakland Airport. Oakland Airport at 5am? Not their problem! Fortunately, the shuttle drivers, Samaritans all, were cajoled by sob stories and $20 tips to deliver us to our doorsteps.

Thus, the holiday travel trauma ended, at every unpleasant turn punctuated by a "Not our problem!" I wished there were some way I could register my dissatisfaction with United. If this were restaurant service, I would just never dine there again. But no, this is an airline, and I know that if United has the best fare next time around, United will be my airline once again. And when things go wrong, there's one thing we can agree on: it's my problem.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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