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Anne Z. Cooke Headshot

The Not-So-Friendly Skies of United Airlines

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"What happened to the good old days -- 20 years ago -- when flying was a pleasure and the airlines tried to do the right thing for their customers?" asked Paul Cook, who sent me the following email about his recent experience with United Airlines. Cook, who was traveling with his family, was heading to New Orleans for a long-anticipated vacation in the Big Easy.

We were booked on a flight that was supposed to leave at 1:06 p.m., said Cook, but after waiting forever to board, the gate agent announced that they'd cancelled the flight because the plane had a cracked windshield. Did they try to re-route us from their information desk inside the security area? No, everyone on the plane had to go back to the baggage claim, pick up our luggage and THEN get in line to be rerouted. When we finally reached the counter, the agent said there were no flights to New Orleans that day. And this, despite the presence of three or four other nearby West Coast airports. Instead, they sent us back home with a taxi coupon that didn't cover the fare, and with a kiss-off: come back again tomorrow.

The next morning, said Cook, the family returned to the airport to find their new flight (a connecting flight to Denver) so overbooked that the gate agents offered $400 flight coupons to volunteers willing to get off. But was there compensation for the previous day''s cancelled flight? No. "I was so insulted that I bitched and moaned until they offered me a $125 coupon to go away," said Cooke. "When we finally boarded, we were split up and had to change seats so our son could sit with us, another annoying hassle."

But the hassles weren't over. The flight arrived in Denver too late to make the New Orleans connection. But that flight was also delayed, this time by a non-functioning toilet. After an hour spent trying to fix the toilet, and then in indecision, the airline decided to go ahead with the three-hour flight anyway.

So we missed a day out of a seven-day vacation and wound up frustrated and disappointed because we'd bought our United tickets in good faith, said Cook. Flying used to be fun. On today's United, it's like riding in a cattle car, feeling like a captive herd of beef that they're pushing from airport to airport. I know there are regulations about how many hours in which passengers have to be put on another flight, and how they should be compensated, but how many people know those details?

When I got back home I did a little research on my own and discovered that when my initial flight from San Diego was cancelled, at 2:30 p.m., they could have booked me on a 6 p.m. Delta flight direct from Los Angeles to New Orleans. They could have flown me to LA that afternoon, or I could have driven there, a two and a half hour trip and one I drive at least once a month. We would have made it to New Orleans the same day and I would have been grateful that they'd made the best of a bad situation. But I suspect that they didn't want to lose the revenue by putting me on another airline. It was more profitable to string me along from one excuse to the next, a pretty sad way of doing business.

Is Cook's experience unusual, or typical in air travel today? And is this indifference to paying customers caused by a tough economy, or is it a sea change in business ethics? Hard to say. But when we're the customers whose plans have been spoiled, the reasons seem unimportant.