United we crumble

I’ve been meaning to write about some important stuff, such as the
catastrophe enveloping the Columbus Symphony and Greg Sandow’s
comparison of orchestras and museums. But first I’m going to vent about
an airline.

I was supposed to go to Rochester tonight for a meeting with the
Polyphonic staff tomorrow. Now, on paper, it’s not hard to get from
Milwaukee to Rochester. One hops on a plane, flies to a hub somewhere,
hops on another plane, and lands in Rochester about 4 hours or so after
one started. The actual door-to-door time more like 8 hours, of course.
But it’s still faster than driving.

Tonight it was apparently impossible for United to manage all the necessary steps. First of all, the plane out of Milwaukee was late – way too late to make the very tight connection that the United computer seems to think is possible at O’Hare. The agent in Milwaukee didn’t offer any explanation of just why things were late – but I probably wouldn’t have believed her anyway. When was the last time a passenger was told the truth by an airline, after all?

So the agent offered to get me to Rochester tomorrow morning. But that would have involved a 6:00 AM departure and an arrival in Rochester at 10:30 (and probably at the meeting at noon). That made no sense. So she suggested I drive to Chicago and catch my connection that way. That did make sense (or seemed to), so she checked me in and off I went.

I zipped down to O’Hare in near-record time, parked the car and took the tram to the United terminal. There I found somewhere in the vicinity of 10 agents checking in all of United’s outbound passengers – both international and domestic. To make matters worse, apparently lots of international flights were messed up. Of course, all I had to do was check a bag (I already had a boarding pass), but I was told (rather curtly) to stand at the back of a very long line.

Which didn’t move. The handful of agents actually present were on the phone, or fixing the printers, or doing something on the computer. None of it seemed to get anyone checked in. So of course no one behind them in the line could get checked in either.

Finally, 10 minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave (and about 30 minutes before it looked like I was going to get to yell at an agent), I gave up and headed back to Milwaukee, having wasted an entire evening, a fair amount of gas, and way too much emotional energy.

I’ve heard way worse than this from friends who travel a lot, of course. And weather can mess up any airline schedule. But none of this appeared to be weather-related. The real problem was that, at their premiere hub, the world’s second-largest airline had only a bare handful of people on hand to check in all of their passengers. This wasn’t bad luck, or weather, or a mechanical problem. This was bare-naked bad management.

So I’ve crossed United off my list of airlines. No wonder Continental didn’t want to merge with them.


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