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Michealene Cristini Risley Headshot

"Owned and Operated" by United Arrogance: Can Service Get Any Worse?

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This summer I was thrown into a third world prison. This is a story for my next book "This Is Not the Life I Ordered, Still"! Thankfully, I managed, with some help and a touch of trauma, to get back to San Francisco. However, my luggage did not.

United Airlines assured me that the luggage was never lost. After we arrived back home, both my assistant and I went through more trauma at the incompetent hands of the United Airlines Luggage Department. There is no easy way to say it but they are incompetent. I wish I had a penny for every time one of the "Luggage Specialists" assured us that our luggage was not lost. Those pennies would add up quickly and I could pay for a one way ticket to their lost luggage complex and find my own damn luggage!

I am more than a trifle upset that my luggage was lost. There were a lot of important things in that piece of luggage that are irreplaceable. I had all the original Zimbabwean newspaper articles about President Mugabe and his thugs that were part of my research for the documentary that I am completing. There were names, addresses, and original testimonies that I needed to follow up on human rights violations. Besides my clothes, there were many items for my kids. I wanted to show them the incredible talents of artists from Zimbabwe with the artwork I packed away. There were also these hand-carved wooden instruments and beautiful bowls with intricate animals that lined the inside. Books on Lions, Giraffes and Elephants, oh my...and the South African soccer team jerseys that my boys would wear to school for a month! I even had my dirty prison garb wrapped in plastic. How do I get those items back?

Another item that I had in the suitcase was cash. For anyone who has traveled in unsafe or war-torn countries, it is not unusual to strap cash on your body or to stash it in your suitcase. You have no other choice. I had just come from Zimbabwe where inflation is up to 10,000%. This means that $1 US Dollar is 29,882.00 ZWD. Other than the money I spent on prison bribes, I ended up bringing back more cash than I had planned. In South Africa, when you go through customs, you are not allowed to carry more than $2,000 cash. I have no idea why. It is not a country that you ask a lot of questions at immigration; not if you want to stay out of trouble.

In some parts of the world, you cannot bring travelers checks. Cash in some of these countries is very difficult to obtain. It is not as if you can simply find an ATM machine. I didn't want to exchange too many American dollars for Zimbabwe dollars because outside of the country the currency was valueless. No country will exchange Zimbabwe dollars.

This is why I stashed the extra money I had in one of our three suitcases. I carefully hid that money under presents and clothing.

Ah...I know what you are thinking. You think that the money never left South Africa. We have proof that it did. I had to track down and call South African Airlines myself. United never made that effort. In one rare moment of honesty, when a United Airlines representative did admit that the luggage was missing, they said that it was lost by South African Airways. Perhaps finger pointing is easier than hiring someone to go through the unclaimed baggage. Plus, if you share blame, you share the responsibility of the claim and eventual settlement. I admit, having enough staff to handle luggage issues can be challenging. But, if there is a Federal Law that states that your luggage has to always travel with you, shouldn't airlines have luggage control a priority? If my luggage was lost so easily, what about a piece of luggage that a terrorist decides to check? Does that piece of luggage go missing just as easily God, I hope not! I feel much safer in our great American skies now. Don't you?

I visited San Francisco Airport three times after we arrived back home. They airlines lost all three bags at first, but eventually found two. After we screamed at United to deliver the found bags, we called again in search of the final bag. While trying to get more information, the representatives gave us the run-around. "Only 1% of luggage ever really gets lost. It may take some time, but your luggage will come back to you". When I asked for a supervisor, one of two things happened: They either hung up on me or refused to get me to a supervisor. The wait on the phone lines was longer than waiting in the lines at the airport for an international flight!

In desperation, I decided to contact a woman named Kate Hanna for help. For those of you who don't know her, Kate Hanna was one of the unfortunate passengers aboard a diverted Dallas bound flight that got stuck on the Tarmac for 9 hours without food or water...sounds a bit like my prison experience. After Kate's experience, she turned her rage into action and began the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, now boasting almost 17,000 members.

After a couple of emails, we finally connected by phone and I told her my story. Kate asked me to call the Flyer's Rights hotline to voice my frustration and tell the tale. So I did. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from CBS News asking if they could interview me about my incident for a segment on problems with airlines. The reporter and camera man came out last Friday to interview me. I hope that CBS's desire to tell the state of passengers' rights will get someone in Washington to pay attention and realize something needs to be done. Perhaps someone at United Airlines might listen.

Do you remember when United Airlines became "Owned and Operated"? I clearly remember that at this time, customer service declined. I found the change included staffing shortages, the expansion of blackout dates and increase in the mileage needed for free flights. I won't even talk about the food situation. We all realized after 9/11, the airlines were in trouble. As country, we all stayed positive and tried to help with the recovery process. It took a great deal of patience to get use to new security laws and baggage requirements. We might of grumbled, but we did what we were told. Is this how we get thanked for cooperating?

On my list of frustrations was finding a real phone number for the corporate offices at United Airlines. I had some hope that if I reached an executive, they would understand how critical customer satisfaction was and assist me. However, finding the corporate contact information was close to impossible. I turned to the internet. No luck. I even FACEBOOK'd to see if anyone I knew had a contact in corporate at UA. Still no luck. The only number suggested was an 800 number and it started the whole run-around process again. I finally gave up.

After I figured out that my luggage was not lost in South Africa, I still convinced a dear friend to go through and check each back at South African Airways in South Africa. Nothing. I was certain that United Airlines lost the luggage in the US. SA Airways had explained to me, that the UA tracking numbers that were assigned to my bags could only have happened if the bags had arrived in New York. Another series of phone call were made to UA. I was told that it was my fault the luggage was lost in the first place. Apparently I was to claim my luggage in New York, go through customs with it, and recheck it for San Francisco. This was not the directive I received in South Africa. United Airlines said that my luggage was left behind in New York, waiting for me to claim it at Baggage Claim. Okay now it is my fault. How did my other two pieces make it back to San Francisco?

My husband is a very calm man. He stayed calm working with the embassy and hired human rights lawyers to get me out of prison. With regards to the luggage he said "Honey, just give up. You are never going to find your luggage". I refused. I talked to Kate again at Flyers' Rights and what she told me made me furious. I mean furious with a capital F. She explained that not only does the airline lack enough personnel to go through the luggage and find the owner but they actually sell your "contents" to a company in Alabama called Unclaimed Baggage. Call me crazy, but isn't that kind of like selling stolen property?

So I went to the site. The site is unclaimedbaggage.com/. The header boasts "Lost Treasures from around the World". I joined their mailing list just so that when they advertise my luggage on-line, I can make sure to buy my items back.

Just last week I received a one-page letter from United Airlines. It said, "Thank you for your patience while we have been searching for your missing property. We are sorry our tracing efforts have been unsuccessful and apologize for the inconvenience this incident has caused you. Although our trace will continue, we want to resolve your claim without delay".

The letter goes on to say that "United Airlines does not assume liability for cash. Such items are excluded from our published baggage liability. The expenses you incurred are considered part of your settlement. These purchases were to replace items in your missing bag. To reimburse you for them in addition to your claim, would be, in essence, paying you twice for the same articles."

Now I am confused.

"Our claim settlements are based on the original costs of the items and depreciation is applied taking into consideration the age of the items as well as prior usage. Our check, less reasonable depreciation for the balance of your claim will be mailed to you shortly". Since all of the items in that bag were newly purchased or bought for the trip, I couldn't see room for depreciation.

The check came. The total amount of the check was $1,476. It would barely replace the cost of the TUMI suitcase. With the actual cost of the luggage subtracted, I now have $476 dollars to replace everything that I packed for two weeks in Zimbabwe. Okay, let's say I am an idiot for putting cash in my luggage. I will accept the blame.

So right now, I am at a net loss $3,500 dollars.

The letter that arrived with the check went on to say that this situation was unusual and certainly did not exemplify the standards set by United Airlines. And then there on the bottom...oh my gosh! A real name. It was signed by baggage claim representative, Rudy Tiwari. Oh great, I can actually talk to...oops no phone number...oh...and no real address...a P.O. Box. What a surprise.

So what do we do? You can first add your voice to the growing discontent amongst airline passengers. You can also choose to fly another airline that truly cares whether you fly with them. Let me know if you locate a good one.

This upcoming weekend, I am off to Scottsboro, Alabama. There is this HUGE Thanksgiving Sale at "Unclaimed Baggage". If I am lucky maybe I can find some of the precious cargo from Africa. Or perhaps find some goodies from some other poor soul misfortune.

In the meantime, does anyone know a charity that takes Airline miles as a donation?