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Saying Goodbye to United Airlines

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Good business people know that tough economic times demand greater emphasis on customer service and satisfaction. There are clearly no good business people in United Airlines' top-level management. The airline that MSNBC declared the "worst of the worst" in June 2008 is striving mightily to maintain that status in 2009. I should know, over the weekend I had the "privilege" of suffering through two of United's cross-country flights. Here's my humble advice: spend your travel money on any other option.

I should have known better than to fly United. The airline has arguably the worst business record of all American carriers. United's woes began in the 1980s with a bitter pilots strike. In the late 1980s the airline failed as a travel conglomerate called Allegis. In the mid 1990s United Airlines' management dreamed up a nightmarish Employee Stock Ownership Plan that soured any further interest in employee ownership of public companies. This was followed by a scandal-ridden merger attempt with U.S. Airways. And then there was the December 2002 bankruptcy. It is now apparent the 38 month-long stay of execution should never have been allowed--United draws managers who are seemingly single-mindedly intent on killing the airline--if Washington would only let them.

But enough of this abstract history, let's talk about United's current reality. For amusement's sake let's be even more specific and discuss my time with United over the Columbus Day weekend. I live in the nation's capital--an option largely dictated by my chosen profession. My parents reside near Seattle. Needless to say, I don't make it out to Washington State as often as they would like. I either am trapped by work obligations or have committed to family concerns closer to the east coast. That said, there are times when no excuse should be brought to bear. This was one of those occasions, so plans had to be made for crossing the continent in the most expedient method possible.

As you might guess, moonlighting as a national security consultant will not make one independently wealthy. Nor will it make you famous. So there is really only one option--take to the skies on one of our commercial airlines--preferably without spending a fortune. This means going on-line to search through a bevy of increasingly unbearable itineraries. Did you know it is possible to fly across the country from Washington and change aircraft three to four times? It's a cheap way to travel, but you better have a lot of patience and time to burn. I'm American--instant gratification is the rule of the day--and time, with a 7 month-old infant at home time is not something I am allowed to waste, particularly if I want my wife to speak with me in the near future.

All of which boiled down to a simple solution. It was United or United. The other airlines were either significantly more expensive or offered extremely circuitous routing. I should have spent the extra money.

Welcome to United Airlines. You know you are in trouble when the boarding pass in your hand says "Group 4" and approximately 300 people have entered the airframe before they reach us unfortunate stragglers. How is this possible? Well. United maintains a boarding protocol that opens with first class and then steps through at least four other "premier" programs before declaring a willingness to consider "Group 1." This procedure is similar to other airlines--but United seeks to make the process more painful by apparently choosing to load the "group" designees--us low-class types who would not pay an additional $90 for the "primer" status and thus be allowed to trod on the red carpet--from the front to back. Automatic traffic jam. One would think the computer would be programmed to load seats in a reverse order, back to front. That would be logical, and thus not considered at United.

Those of you who travel frequently can already see where this is headed. Because United charges for every checked bag, we are all trundling roll-on suitcases. The first on fill up all the overhead; the last 20 to board are simply silly if they think their bags are coming with them. United allows the first aboard to fill up the luggage bins, even if the personal stuff is nowhere near the owner's actual seat assignment. Now here's the rub. Rather than placate the poor slobs who are thus compelled to leave their bag on the passenger bridge by placing these items with the strollers and car seats, United has the remaining roll-ons tossed in checked baggage. See you at the carousel of eternal waiting.

Ok, so now we have crammed everyone into the over-sold plane and managed to depart the tarmac. The next unpleasant surprise is United's new service curtailment campaign. Instead of providing three attendants for those of us in the back of the bus, United is saving money by hacking the service/safety crew to a paltry party of two--who charge for everything on their cart except coffee and soda. "I'm sorry sir, that 69 cent bag of chips will now cost you 3 dollars, and don't even think about asking for free peanuts." I would feel sorry for these crew members, but they appear to specialize in being disgruntled and slow. So much for customer service.

Granted, United is not alone in seeking to maximize income--profit would be a poor choice of words when describing a vast majority of the U.S. commercial airlines--but United manages to standout for indulging in a silly "premier" advertising blitz while simultaneously managing to antagonize almost everyone who steps foot on their planes. There is nothing "premier" about flying on United. The lesson for the future, if I want to fly cheap go with Southwest...they don't sugar coat the truth...and if I want to be comfortable sign up with Virgin America.

As far as I am concerned United no longer exists...and the sooner other American consumers discover this truth the sooner we will all be better off. It sure seems like we could use fewer airlines in this country, and United is racing to drop off the abyss first. Hopefully my little push will help United's management reach that objective even more quickly.

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