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Don't Fly United 2/14/06

Don't fly United. At least not if you plan to fly international and there is even the slightest possibility that you may need to contact them. Most especially if it is to a country where they do not fly their own planes, but book you on an affiliate carrier.

I booked through United to fly round trip to Russia. As a Fulbright scholar I am required to book my flight on an American airline, a reasonable request considering my grant is paid for by the State Department. Such bookings are a bit of a subsidy as cheaper flights can be purchased from a competing non-American airline but I support the logic and intent of purchasing American products. Making my reservation through United doesn't fully fulfill the intent of Fulbright guidelines, as they do not fly to Russia, as does Delta. Instead they fly you on their affiliate Lufthansa, so in reality the bulk of the fee goes to a non-American carrier.

Traveling abroad things can happen. In my case it was good news, my grant was extended so I could spend two extra months working with children's hospitals to improve the working and healing conditions for staff and patients respectively. I got the news while on a special assignment on behalf of the Embassy and Fulbright office in Kemerovo, in central Siberia teaching a seminar on arts administration to cultural institutions, giving presentations in hospitals on arts and healing, meeting with agencies that work with disabled children, and helping identify potential partners for international collaboration, most especially in the areas of cultural survival and healthcare. All to the good, until I tried to contact United to reschedule the dates of my ticket prior to my previously scheduled departure. I learned that they are unreachable.

First I tried their web site. I had my flight confirmation number, but that wasn't good enough. I needed a frequent flier number to gain access. Got that, entered it, but that wasn't good enough. They gave me an 800 number to call, but you can't call an 800 number from Russia and United's web site doesn't provide an international 800 access or any other number including a direct dial number. Since they do not have an office in Russia, there is no place in Russia to call as well. I emailed friends in the States, they contacted United for a reservations number I could call, but were only given an 800 number. Blocked again. I managed to get from their web site an email address to customer relations, but the emailed response gave me an 800 number to call. So, United left no way to contact them from abroad, be it an emergency or whatever.

My next approach was via their carrier Lufthansa. They had an email address posted on their web site, but their response (a non toll free reservation number I could call in Frankfurt, which would be a tidy sum to call I might add) didn't arrive until a week later after my scheduled flight had departed sans me. I also tried their phone number in Moscow four times, but each time was put on hold for ten minutes, then told all agents were still busy and to call back another time; a well-matched affiliate for not being able to reach in an emergency it seems.

Now past the date, I waited until I was in Moscow a week later and used an 800 line from the Embassy to finally call United, while a colleague negotiated with Lufthansa. United said, it will cost you a $400 late fee. I said, I tried to reach you, but it was impossible by phone or internet. That's your problem, not ours (blame the victim, aka customer). But for $400, we'll take you. I'll call you back, I said. Lufthansa said, $200. I agreed and gave them my credit card number. They sent me a confirmation number and email confirming flight, time, date, etc. (which I have saved). I told my friends. They sighed relief. Lufthansa called back, Whoops, they said, United told us we can't do it for $200, please call United. I did (this time from the American Center). United said, Sorry, after six months no extensions possible. Read the fine print. So you are abandoning me here, I said, Taking my money and saying bye bye. We are not abandoning you. You're not? Feels like it, I responded. No, we'll fly you, but you have to purchase a one-way ticket. How much, I said. $2,000, they said. $2,000! (I near shouted this, wanted to in any case). It felt like I was being told, we got your money, FU, and we'll happily stick it to you for some more. So much for the "Friendly Skies."

The unreality about their one-way fee is that one can purchase a one-way ticket from Moscow to JFK for $399, plus fees, on Air France, and for not much more on a few other carriers. Thus from a business point of view, United's figures make no sense in light of the market place. Nor does their Kantian approach to their regulations or inability to be contacted by their customers abroad. Whatever happened to customer service, better to have a satisfied customer than an angry one? Remember the Marketing 101 adage; positive word of mouth is the best form of advertising? True international carriers in the TWA and Pan Am mold never treated customers the way United treated me. I suspect one could say, Well, look at Pan Am and TWA, they died. My response would be, Look at Southwest and Jet Blue, they are kicking United's butt and not just because of pricing, rather because they still treat customers as people, listen to their customers to enhance service and give their representative power to make adjustments if circumstances warrant. And they can be called.

I have flown United many times in the US, and have received great service, but internationally, I don't think their heart, passion or customer service is into it. I think they should do what they do well and leave the international routes to Delta and other carriers who take that part of the business seriously and value satisfied customers. As for me, I booked a return flight on another airline, and certainly have no plans whatsoever to fly United again internationally or recommend them to another.

All this, of course is just my personal opinion and should not be considered in any way to be the opinion of this station or its affiliates.

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