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Bad Airline Service: When Is Enough Enough?

12/18/2012 07:22 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

Like thousands of other loyal Continental elite flyers, I unwittingly became a United Airlines MileagePlus member at the beginning of this year, when the merger between the two carriers became official, and Continental ceased to exist.

And, as I would imagine has been the case for many other former Continental flyers, my United experience has been less than enjoyable.

It all started on my flight to Australia at the end of January. The terrible service and poor attitudes of the flight attendants notwithstanding, the flight was operated by a decrepit Boeing 747, which was falling apart -- quite literally in many ways.

"I'm kind of shocked we made it," my seatmate joked, as we looked out the badly-scratched window to see the Sydney Opera House.

As un-amused as I actually was -- I'd spent 100,000 of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles on my trip to Australia -- I held my tongue. Until I attempted to return, that is.

You see, after nearly missing my flight in the first place due to a protracted check-in -- the newly-combined Continental-United computer systems were proving a mess for airport agents -- the push-back of the flight, operated by an even older, more decrepit 747, was delayed for over an hour.

By the time we finally started our take-off roll, everyone on-board the plane was quite literally cheering. And then we stopped.

"Customer service will be coming onboard to discuss compensation options as soon as we get back to the gate," the captain explained, after announcing that a problem with the flaps had prevented us from taking off.

We sat at the gate for about an hour before the shaky-voiced gate agent came over the intercom -- we wouldn't be leaving Australia after all, it seemed.

Not surprisingly, pandemonium soon erupted in the cabin. Many people were headed to Los Angeles for business, some of whom had only a couple days to work out their deals.

Although I didn't have any pressing commitments in the United States, I was nonetheless annoyed, the memory of my terrible outbound flight to Australia still fresh in memory. When I finally did get back home after a return flight that wasn't, in the end, much better, I wrote United an email.

I didn't expect to receive anything from the airline, having already been given a flight voucher and 10,000 frequently flyer miles, in addition to a hotel stay in Sydney the night of the cancellation. I was surprised not only to receive to more miles and another voucher, but also a personal response from the company's VP of customer service. It left a good taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, it didn't last long.

A few months later, when I was about halfway through my summer trip through Europe, I learned that United had stopped serving the Moscow-Dulles route I was planning to fly to get home, and that I would instead be departing from Frankfurt, Germany.

When I asked the United representative if there was any way for me to get a flight from Moscow to Frankfurt on another carrier, she replied that there was nothing she could do. For this and other reasons, I cancelled my trip to Russia outright.

Unfortunately, just days after I did this, I received an email from United that, in fact, a Moscow-Frankfurt flight had been added to my itinerary. A follow-up call to United yielded the same sort of "Sorry, you're screwed" response, which eventually resulted in a cancellation of my flight which, according to the representative I spoke with, would be refunded on account of my extenuating circumstances.

Or not. "I'm sorry Sir," apologized a third representative, when I called a couple weeks after my would-be flight to inquire about the status of my refund, "but refunds are not possible in this situation. I deeply regret the misinformation."

Fuming, I remembered that I had the email of the VP of customer service still in my digital Rolodex, and fired off a pointed, yet respectful message to him.

Almost immediately, I received a response, albeit from one of the VP's associates, rather than himself. Just as her boss had done, the woman padded her apologies -- and the full refund I was promised -- with miles and money. And, just as had been the case in the wake of my return from Australia, I was pacified enough not to continue complaining.

Until, that is, my little sister experienced unacceptable service on the flight to Bangkok I purchased for her as a surprise. (Among other offenses, a sassy flight attended flat-out skipped her when she had the nerve to ask for more information about the white wine being offered. "I haven't got time for that, honey," he barked, as if he had some other commitment at 35,000 feet.)

You can probably guess what happened next: I complained to United again; they threw more money and miles at me. But the next United flight I took a few weeks later was still terrible.

Now, I realize I don't have an obligation to fly United, even if my elite status does afford me some very nice perks. I also realize that I should be thankful United did anything to assuage my dissatisfaction. And I am!

But the fact remains that nearly a year after its merger with the impeccable (by comparison) Continental Airlines, United is still a hot mess, and no amount of apologies, cash money or free flights can change that.

It is for this reason -- that air travelers need a place to publicly post reviews and opinions of airlines, so that airlines might actually address their problems, instead of paying passengers to shut up -- that I started BadAirline, a consumer advocacy website and blog I hope will have a positive impact on airline service, in spite of its negative name.

Whether you want to congratulate or lambast an airline you've recently flown, head on over to BadAirline and make an airline complaint on the airline's report card. Or, subscribe to our airline news blog and keep abreast of the latest airline developments.