Purgatory of Failure: My Unbelievable United Airlines Saga


So the last time I wrote, I told you all how I felt about going home for the first time in a year and a half. And rather than tell you all how it went, I’ll just say it was GREAT! Some things just can’t be summed up in words, but I will hold the memories tight. What I will instead choose to direct my energy and writing towards is something that needs attention drawn to it. Welcome! To the blog post where I RAGE OUT towards an inferior airline and poor excuse of customer service. Sorry United Airlines, but you get my hatred tonight. Unknown The saga begins with me sitting down at my gate at United Airlines, 61B, a number now burned into my cortex, and settling in for an hour while my flight gets in. I notice on the screen above my terminal that the city still says “Washington,” which was the flight before my flight. I ignore the quite obvious error, dismissing the detail as a delayed update. After thirty minutes of the city not having been changed, I walk over to the departures screen IMG_5550where flights are updated and notice that my flight, due to arrive at 6:05, was now arriving at 8:08pm. This was a little troubling as I needed to make a flight in LA at 10pm. This was now cutting it very close. The customer service desk looked very understaffed and busy trying to get Washington on the plane. I sat down, having gotten to the airport at 4:30, and at the gate at 5:15, knowing that I would be sitting in my little corner for another two hours…at least. After an hour, I went to the customer service desk to see what could be done about my situation. The man’s name was Doug, and he looked about one irate customer away from taking his pen and using it to end this already horrible day. I was almost regretting being in his line, when the lady ahead of me finished. I approach and say, “Rough day?” He looks at me and expressionless says, “What can I do for you?” Yikes. You can go home. Instead I explain how I need to catch my connecting flight in LA to Sydney and….he cuts me off. “Look, I need to take care of Washington, as this is the flight of importance right now. We can’t even help you. You will have to sort this out when you land in LA.” I am actually left standing there with nothing to say. Say something! Nothing comes. So I instead shuffle off to the side and the next person takes my place. I sit on the bench to wait for the Washington plane to leave and my plane to take its place. Have you ever been so nervous or anxious about something that you can’t even relax–even when you know that you have at least two hours until a resolution will present itself? I couldn’t even read my book. All I could think about was how I was going to re-route myself to get back home in New Zealand. HOW? I was overcome. One hour passed. Two hours. Finally it was 8:08. The plane should be taking off any moment so that my flight to Los Angeles could take its rightful place. 30 minutes go by. An hour. WHAT?!!!? LEAVE!?! GO!?! Things were getting crowded in the terminal and I was grateful to have a seat. The sky outside is unusually dark for this time of night. The crowd around me had changed faces three times over and I was one of the only original ones still here. After what seemed like an entire day, Washington took off and left the gate. Praise God, my prayers were answered. In came Los Angeles. My savior. I got my things ready in eager anticipation. Still, I was very unsure about what would happen when I landed at LAX. I will definitely miss my connecting flight. Doug is relieved by Stan and Stan is a joyous blessing compared to suicidal Doug. Stan gives the passengers updates whenever he can about the status of our flight. This is most appreciated. He notifies us that this is a big plane, and usually takes about an hour to refuel, restock, clean, load up, and taxi..so be patient. Now, usually I am a patient man, but at this point, my patience was murdered by Doug. “Group 1 is now boarding.”  WHAT?! Did I hear that right? Finally! I watch as Group 1 boards.” Group 2 can now come forward to board.” People surge forward to board their life-boat out of this purgatory of failure. Just then, the boarding is halted. Then, the Captain comes through the door. Oh no. This doesn’t look good. The Captain grabs the PA system and addresses the mob…cause that’s what we were at this point. “Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that we have a mechanical failure in the main wheel well. (A groan from everyone fills the air) (It was here that my heart sank to an all time low) Before we allow any more of you to be trapped like sardines (Yes, that’s actually what he said) we will stop boarding for now and call in the mechanics to take a look at the problem. So find a comfortable spot and we’ll update you soon.” The pain was palpable in gate 61B. We all hated this airline. I look outside the window and notice that it should not be this dark. And like a punchline I was not in the mood to laugh at…Lightening strikes. Then a downpour follows. On cue, in rolls a totally Chicagoan weather anomaly. I did NOT want to think about what could go worse, as to ward off bad juju. Too late. The Captain makes another appearance and addresses the now ‘unruly mob.’ “Alright, so, as you have most likely seen, we have a storm starting and we cannot have our mechanics on the ramp working while there is lightning.” Just then another lightning strikes. “So sit tight and we may or may not get this plane on the way.” May or may not. Ha! As I look outside, I do NOT see this storm letting up. I start thinking that I might have to call my parents to pick me up and try again tomorrow. I am disheartened and unspeakably angry at the turn of events that are a mixture of incompetence, poor planning, inefficiency, and acts of God. Just then, right next to me, I hear a familiar accent…it’s Australian. A family of Australians. I turn to the Dad and ask if he wants to sit where my bag is, and he says he’s fine. We strike up a conversation about where we are both going, and I tell him I’m trying to get back to NZ. He tells me that he once missed his connecting flight and the airline put him up in a flash hotel for the night to compensate him. Now I am picturing myself in a hotel in LA, feet propped up on one of my many decadent pillows, room service catering to my every need, eating a bowl or ice cream while watching old movies. Feels oddly familiar to Home Alone II. Man I hope I get a hotel. Then, an older couple sits next to me and starts asking where I’m going. I start talking to them and they tell me that they have a nephew in New Zealand. They are incredibly kind. Man. Old people totally rock. If you haven’t had a genuinely awesome interaction with and elderly person, you should. They are my favorite. They tell me that I should really try to get a change in my flight at customer service. I think to myself that it might be a good idea. I also contemplate using their phone to call my parents, as mine doesn’t work in the U.S. The Australian guy comes back and tells his family that he found a flight to LA. They grab their things and disappear. I am jealous and wanted them to take me with them. Actually. As I stand in line, I notice that Pittsburg passengers were now trying to figure out why they weren’t being helped. UGH! This gate is seriously cursed for the night. It’s probably STILL backlogged from the wait. Now people are yelling, and getting pretty angry. This calms me down believe it or not. This is how I respond to other people’s distress. I help and comfort, reason and rationalize. Still, the guy in front of me is beyond angry. I wonder when he will snap and slug someone who looks at him the wrong way. That’s what my story needs now, someone punching me right in the face. He eventually leaves and doesn’t spare the crowd the image of him giving the customer service rep the bird. Classy bud. All Class. Just as I am glad he is gone, Doug comes back to the Customer Service desk. Wow, this day is a total joke. I do the math in my head, counting people ahead of me and really hope I get the other lady helping passengers, instead of Mr. “Would rather be brushing my teeth with the tire of a moving car.” The Captain comes back through the door. Oh Great. Seriously?! What now? “Well everyone, it seems that our mechanics have thrown caution to the wind and have fixed the problem for you. We will resume boarding in the next few minutes. Thank you.” Relief is now on everyone’s faces and applause erupts from the masses. THERE IS A GOD! It is now my turn and it looks like they are just starting to board again. I approach the desk and thankfully get Jennifer. She is delightful, but stressed. I begin re-explaining my situation to her, “So, I missed my connecting flight. It’s international to Sydney. I NEED to get home. I’ll take anything. Is there anyway you can get me direct to NZ. I’d rather not go to Sydney if I can avoid it.” She tells me that there is indeed a flight direct, but flights to the Pacific always leave in the evening. Basically, my flight would be at 9:45pm. Not really processing the news fully, and overjoyed that I have solved my pending doom in LA, I accept the revision to my flight. She gives me a receipt for a hotel voucher when I land for my trouble and I accept it happily. I grab my bags and rush to the door, just making it. I find my seat and sit down. Safe. It is 10:45pm, over 4 hours after I was supposed to leave. As we land in LA at 1am, the flight attendant tells us that we need to go to 71D where the customer services desk was and she hopes I choose United in the future. HA! I’m sorry United, but you did everything possible to ensure that I never fly United again. I needed to go to Customer Service to get my boarding pass and hotel. I was so close. I’m going to kick back and just relax until my flight. I am sixth in line and when I reach third, the customer service reps start handing out pillows and blankets. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. The lady in front of me says, “Oh boy, that’s not a good sign.” I look at her and sigh. Who was I kidding? Who in this trip has been favored by luck? It comes to be my turn, and I muster all of the polite nature left in me. “Hello mam, can you help me?” “Honey, we have no more rooms. Not one.” She grabs for a piece of paper with websites printed on it. “You can go to these websites listed to be compensated for the hotel rooms for which you were entitled, and I can give you two meal vouchers (which were $7 each…in an airport, that’s like one meal when you combine them) good anywhere in the airport, but in the mean time, you will probably need this.” She hands me the last thing I wanted, as it was the final blow of my fate in this desolate and abandoned terminal. A pillow and a blanket.

The photo I took after finding my seat for the 19 hour journey ahead of me. It's not supposed to look pretty.
The photo I took after finding my seat for the 19 hour journey ahead of me. It’s not supposed to look pretty.

Like a swell of ocean water smashing against the rocks, the full reality of my situation slams into me as I pick a bench without armrests near an outlet. This is my home for the mlSKSJykiDttjj9xfsDWFcwnext 19 hours. At least I have a laptop with hours of media content! This was true. Some relief. I grab my charger and my heart sinks for what seems like the thousandth time. It’s a New Zealand charger. Whatever battery power I had left was all I had. For some reason I had my American charger for my phone. It was a few hours before I had the idea to delete all my music on my phone and load the videos into my phone. Not ideal, but doable. I threw a blanket over my head, put in my headphones, and passed time as I watched the suns trajectory pass over the window.

My view from my seat for 19 hours
My view from my seat for 19 hours

Two hours before my flight, I headed to the international terminal, which turned out to be a ten minute walk with my two bags. Literally…..the only good news in this day was that I found a bag cart, which usually costs money, and carted my bags to the AirNZ terminal. Once there, I was greeted by the most amazing customer service rep. I nearly hugged her and cried. I walked to my AirNZ gate and used both my meal vouchers for dinner. No beer has tasted sweeter, no fry more perfect, no burger so succulent. After I was well fed, I sat in a starkly different waiting scenario. You see, unlike United, who has planes frequently late to the gate, understaffs their gate service centres, and staff who would rather be testing decommissioned land mines than doing their job, AirNZ staff are always happy to help, well dressed, well staffed, and extremely polite. Oh yeah, their planes almost always leave on time. “Will the following passengers please come to the main desk for seating arrangement upgrades. Jill Singer and Eric Peterson.” What? This is awesome. Things are looking up. I arrive at the desk and she asks for my passport and boarding pass. I throw my hand into my back pocket. Nothing. Coat pockets. Nothing. I open my bag to check the back pocket. Nothing. No. My hearts sinks….again. I left it in the security check. The lovely lady escorts me to the security check. The entire time I am picturing having to get an emergency passport, calling people, paying money, on and on the scenario goes. This can’t be happening! I was safe! I was out of HELL! I was so close. My flight was in less than an hour. Literally as I am walking into the security area, there is a man holding a passport open to the picture page. He looks at me, and I frantically ask him, “Is that mine?!” He nods. “I’ve been paging you for hours.” (I swear I never heard one page). I grab the passport and my anxiety lifts like a helium balloon.

IMG_5536
One of my favorite photos I took from the flight.

I am upgraded to an aisle seat, SCORE. And boarding begins. I enter the plane and begin the 14 hour journey back to Auckland. I couldn’t help but take a hippie shower in the airplane bathroom after recounting the truly unbelievable journey I had getting me to this plane. Smelling like two-day old man, wearing the same shirt, pants, socks, and shoes…I return to my seat to eagerly drift into a long-awaited unconsciousness. I’d like to say that I literally kissed the ground on my arrival, but instead I took a very deep breath in and smiled. It was good to be back. *DISCLAIMER* Events happened exactly as they were told. Characters names are true and their behavior is unfortunately not fictional. This is an original story told by Eric Peterson.

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2 thoughts on “Purgatory of Failure: My Unbelievable United Airlines Saga

  1. Oh, Eric, I was feeling everything as you explained it! I’m so sorry you had such a horrible time by yourself. However God saw you through and I praise Him for that. Love you so much, son and wish things had been different but God knows why this all happened and you came through it a stronger man. Be blessed this day!

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