We Get Greener Kit Cassingham & her Bigger Half

Untied Airlines: The Unlinked Trip

Bless the Internet and the tools that make it easy to book travel. From renting cars to booking rooms and travel by air or train, I haven't needed a travel agent in years. The only time I've used help in booking travel has been for international travel and tours.

When my sister, The Environmental Knuckle Dragger, invited me to join her for business travel to Nanjing, China, I was thrilled. Another trip to China!! Not only was I going to a city I'd not been to, but I also was completing my tour of the Yangtze River, one started in 1996. Then the trip was extended to include Beijing, China, and Dubai, UAE. Woohoo!! The ever-westward travel would make this an around-the-world trip.

United's online booking service didn't make it easy, or even possible, to book my flights, so I resorted to using an agency that specializes in around-the-world flights. Sal booked an itinerary of Denver, to Los Angeles, to Beijing, China, to Nanjing, China, then Nanjing back to Beijing, then Beijing to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and finally Dubai through Washington, D.C., to Denver. I booked my own flight from Montrose to Denver using collected frequent-flyer miles.

Being in the habit of checking in 24 hours before my flight, I did that for my first leg of the trip. I had a sinking feeling when I went to check in for my second and subsequent flight legs and received the message saying I needed to check in at the airport. I tried calling United and the Premier Customer Service numbers, but was on hold for a total of about 4 hours over three different phone calls. One agent I actually reached, English not being her first language, couldn't help me understand why I couldn't check in even to L.A. Eeep!

The desk agent in Montrose did succeed in printing my boarding pass from Denver to L.A., but she couldn't link my United flights to my Air China flights -- even though Air China is a United partner, and my flight number was United's! I heard her and another couple of agents in Montrose discussing the "new" system and the limits it put on them. No longer could they do simple things like linking flights with different airlines. It wasn't clear to me it if was just the different airline issue, or if the international component was tripping things up.

Really? Because of the Continental/United merger simple actions like linking different flights -- all on airlines within their much-vaunted "Star Alliance" -- can't be done easily? FAIL! Partners should be able to print boarding passes for other partners. And when a flight has a United flight number, it sure seems even more reasonable for United employees to be able to print a boarding pass. It's a no-brainer!

United Plane with Continental logoSo, off to Denver I flew with the anticipation of getting my boarding passes for the China legs of the trip there. But Customer Service there couldn't help me either, suggesting the gate agent could help. Nope: the gate agent couldn't help either. Until the flight from Denver to L.A. was delayed long enough to cut my layover time to one hour, I wasn't too worried. My sister was able to get her boarding passes, and heard that linking flights has gotten to be a "challenge" that sometimes it works, and generally it doesn't. Gulp!

Bonus! My flight from Denver to L.A. was upgraded to first class and my seatmate knew LAX well enough to be able to direct me to where I was going to need to run, with The Environmental Knuckle Dragger in tow, to catch my L.A.-to-Beijing flight.

Catching the shift change just right meant we couldn't take the shuttle between terminals so we, along with another half dozen people, made the mad dash to Terminal 2. My sister ran for the gate while I ran to the ticket counter to get my boarding pass. Hey! Everyone at the ticket counter had left for the night! What does one do when your flight is leaving in 20 minutes and you don't even have a boarding pass, and nobody is around to print one for you? Argh!

Evidently you ask the TSA staff at your terminal, which in my case was also at my gate, for help. They somehow were able to grab people from Air China who could print a boarding pass for me -- and for the three other people in the same situation as I was. Through security (twice in my case because in the mad-dash I forgot to empty the water from my water bottle), onto the plane, and barely able to get seated and buckled in before the plane took off. Of course the Air China agents and attendants were scolding me for being so late, as if I had anything to do with that. Harumph!

I had to go through the same exercise in Beijing, minus the 20 minute window rush, to get my boarding pass to Nanjing. No longer will I think two hours is enough time between flights, especially if I'm flying internationally.

While it wouldn't have mattered whether I had a boarding pass or not, it did add a bit of insult to injury to learn that our luggage didn't have enough time to get transferred to the Beijing Air China flight. We only had to wait for a day and a half to get our luggage, so the citizens of Nanjing didn't have to suffer too long with us in our well-worn clothes.

Based on how long I was on hold, and how long I waited in line at Customer Service, evidentally I wasn't the only person suffering from United's "new and improved" service. What a big gaffe United pulled. Actually, I'm struggling with my use of the word "gaffe" -- it's not quite enough. I intentionally didn't use the acronym snafu because while it is all "fu", it's not a normal system. Let me try these words on for size: blooper, blunder, bungle, confusion, error, false step, faux pas, flub, foul-up, goof-up, mess, miscalculation, misjudgment, misunderstanding, mix-up, oversight, screw up, slip, slip up, complication, difficult situation, difficulty, entanglement, hard nut to crack, headache, hornet's nest, hot water, mess, predicament, problem, quagmire, quandary, snake pit, snarl, trouble, troublesome problem. What do you think a good word would be to describe this situation? __________! ;~>

My story barely turned out well, and this event gives us great fodder for travel tales. But how many people had unhappy endings to their travel day? And how many days will people continue to suffer? For how long? What are United and Continental going to do to make this up to their "loyal" customers? I'd be happy to be given my Premier status back, as a gesture of good will.

Comments

The word you are searching for is "FUBAR". Effed Up Beyond All Recognition. Seems appropriate.

Caroline Buck at March 24, 2012 5:50 PM

If and when you get a moment - read this. Perhaps he can write a song for you?

I don't fly willingly any more -- it is just too much hassle.

Janice Carroll at March 24, 2012 6:13 PM

Not sure it was intended, but I love your titled "Untied Arlines" It sounds as though your trip was definitely untied.

Noella at March 24, 2012 6:14 PM

Definitely intended!

Kit Cassingham at March 24, 2012 6:40 PM

"But ..... You're in a chair. In the SKY!"

--Louis C.K. :-)

Tom at March 24, 2012 8:13 PM

FUBAR seems kind.

Suzanne Neuman at March 26, 2012 12:59 PM

FUBAR is the 'word' that came to my mind first and foremost too. Could you not have called your travel agent and asked them to see if they could intervene on your behalf? Although, truth is I'm not overly familiar with international travel in recent years, I thought that's why we used agents (and paid a little extra for the service). Still glad to hear you made it.

Marcy Scott at March 26, 2012 3:45 PM

It's Short for United Nations Airlines. They both look good on paper but in reality it's just a mess of a concept and hardly works.

Jayson at March 26, 2012 5:21 PM

Used United frequent flier miles for a trip to Florida from Vermont last Dec. Going south was fine but on the return trip spent 40+ minutes at check in because that part of the trip was with the new partner Continental. They had to call United to confirm our flight info.

Doug Taft at March 27, 2012 3:03 PM

Caroline gets my vote; FUBAR was also _my_ first thought.

Frankly, travel seems overrated lately. Between the incompetence of the airlines and the active malice of the TSA, airlines can all wither on the vine, as far as I'm concerned. And apparently, my wishes are being granted!

Ken Mitchell at March 30, 2012 9:19 PM

Two years ago I married a Chinese women so I now make frequent trips there. I fly out of Dulles Airport in DC which is a United hub and that makes me captive of United. On my first trip I was routed to JFK in New York on a United flight and then to Beijing on Air China (their hub) and then to Shenyang also on Air China. United printed my boarding passes for all flights, but I was instructed to check-in at the Air China desk at JFK. Air China then discarded the boarding passes printed by United and printed their own boarding passes. Air China always prints their own boarding passes with Chinese characters which is probably why they do not use passes printed in English.

If your bags had made the flight to Beijing, they still would not have made the flight to Nanjing. Because you have entered China at Beijing, you AND YOUR BAGS have to go through customs. You are required to gather your bags (like it was your final destination), proceed through customs, and then redeposit them at an Air China counter just past customs.

Since I did not know that the first time, my bags stayed in Beijing (even though the bag tags showed the intermediate stops at JFK and PEK (remember Beijing used to be called Peking in English) and finally SHE. When notified, Air China did fly my bags to Shenyang and deliver them to our home.

Personally I greatly prefer to fly on Air China over United, everything is better - the planes, the service, and especially the food. The planes on the JFK to PEK are better than used from SFO to PEK; in two weeks I will learn what planes they use from PEK to LAX since that is the way I am routed back to America on my current trip.

Even though you do have to maneuver your bags through the Beijing airport, the bag trolleys are free. In fact I think the bag trolleys are free everywhere in China. If you ever fly to Beijing again with a connecting flight within China, get a trolley, go to the proper carousel, take your bags through customs, and then to the Air China counter - very simple once you know how. Ever since that first trip United has not tried to print boarding passes for the Air China flights; on this current trip United printed two cards that say, "THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS." Air China allows two free check-in bags and United used to honor that, but they have changed their rules; now I had to pay for the second bag when United is the originating flight, but on the return Air China is the originating flight so the second bag is free.

Incidentally, if you have time, I prefer to travel by train within China ... and you get to have have interesting interactions with the Chinese people.

Bob at April 8, 2012 6:05 PM

Hi Kit,
Glad you made it back safely. I was reading the comments after your post and noticed one from Janice Carroll on 3-24. Did you click on her hyperlink "this" and read the story about United breaking guitars? It was hysterical,

then I noticed the 911Song.com and listened to "Everyday Heroes" song and it brought tears to my eyes. It is dedicated to, and honors the service of First Responders like you and Randy. I will now be sharing both stories about United with others especially my new FAVORITE song "Everyday Heroes".

I look forward to more posts about your journey and more ways to get greener. Thanks for sharing.

GJ Bell at April 8, 2012 7:33 PM

Bob, I'd love to travel by train. It does take more time, but the experiences are worth it. That's what traveling is all about -- experiencing the people and culture. Thanks for sharing your China travel experiences. Yes, Air China is a far superior airline to anything we have in the US. BTW, United has discontinued their complimentary cocktails on international flights.

GJ, I'll check out Janice's links. Stay tuned for more articles, both about the trip and getting greener.

One more comment about United Airlines: the staff seems very upset by what's happening. I heard comments from all levels of employee that shared the same dismay I have. The Continental computer system sounds like an absolute dinosaur and disaster. The skies may not be so friendly after all.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 9, 2012 10:57 AM
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