Five days ago I promised a post making the case for why I will continue to remain loyal to United Airlines despite my photo incident and more importantly, despite the dearth of complimentary upgrades, hit-or-miss service, no onboard wi-fi, and the burdensome SHARES platform that can turn even a simple change request into a complex ordeal requiring hours on the phone.
In the meantime, I flew some more on United…
The post is still coming, but to say there are lingering doubts is the understatement of the century. Where shall we begin?
Oh yes, delays. Going back to Philadelphia last week a step cracked on the built-in stairwell on my CRJ-200 flight from Burbank to San Francisco. Despite pleading from the ground staff at Burbank and even an intervention from "the company", the captain was worried about potential lawsuits and cancelled the flight. That left 50 people stranded in little Terminal 2 at Burbank, most with tight connections in SFO.
Ultimately, I was rebooked to go via LAX on US Airways, but that took 45 minutes to complete meaning the taxi driver had to step on it in order to make it. This wasn't the brightest cab driver, by the way. Nothing like trying to take I-405 to LAX when three of the four lanes are closed! Thankfully, I was aware of the roadwork and re-directed him just in time to avoid further disaster. Anyway…
Then my return on Wednesday was delayed an hour due to some sort of baggage issue, but monitors were not updated. Having left the friendly confines of the United Club, I wasted an hour hanging out at the gate waiting to board as the gate agent kept assuring us it would just be a couple more minutes…
Home for a few days then it was on to Tokyo, again on United. I've wanted to take the Micronesia island-hopper for some time, so rather than book a nice non-stop from LAX to NRT with an upgrade, I booked via Honolulu and Guam.
The island-hopper looks like this (click to enlarge)—
Note that though there are six segments, all carry the same flight number and some systems at United (the mobile app for example) do not even note that the flight makes five stops enroute. A FA onboard shared that she consistently runs into passengers boarding in Honolulu who think they are on a non-stop flight to Guam and are shocked when they are informed they are on a 14hr journey with stops in places they cannot even pronounce.
Anyway, complimentary upgrades cleared for LAX-HNL and GUM-HNL right at the window, but not on the HNL-GUM island hopper. Now let's get to the title of this post.
Although United does not have this rule published anywhere, if you are on a "direct" flight with stops, upgrades will not clear in advance unless they can clear on all segments. In my circumstance, there was ample upgrade space available on five of the six flights, with no space on the final flight from Chuuk to Guam.
If you can find the right agent, you can have the segments separated out (and 500-mile minimums are certainly an added bonus on this route if you can get them) as long as your original fare class is available on each flight. I spent four hours on the phone trying to do this, but ultimately failed because my "K" booking class was only available on five of the six flights once again, not on the Chuuk to Guam flight.
Here's the rub—while I knew upgrades would not clear in advance on direct flights if all segments could not be confirmed at once, I was under the impression (confirmed by at least four United res agents from both the ex-Continental and legacy United side) that I was eligible for upgrades on a per-segment basis at the airport. With that assurance, I stopped calling to try to separate out the six segments. That was a bad choice.
At check-in at LAX, I asked about breaking up the segments again and the agent told me not to worry, the agents would be able to process upgrades at Honolulu. So I boarded my flight to Honolulu, where other than the purser complaining that the "Continental" food used to be much better (absolutely true—see this review of Continental's Hawaiian service—but still unprofessional), the next five hours flew by.
In Honolulu, I stopped by the club to again check on the upgrade situation. Now I've found Honolulu-based FAs and telephone reservation agents to be United's best, but the ground staff and particularly the club staff leave much to be desired. Upon inquiry, the agent said, "Oh, I don't work that flight so I don't how the upgrades work." I felt like responding, "Well, you do work for United don't you?" but I instead just verified I was on the upgrade standby list. Indeed I was, number three on the list with the cabin booked only 4/14 two hours before departure.
I arrived at the gate 40 minutes prior to departure. Names were being paged to pick up their upgrades and I went to the podium where I met Carol Beer in person.
Truthfully, she was not rude, but she was totally apathetic, pulling the "computer says no" routine when I inquired about the upgrade. She repeated the stale mantra that it is all or nothing on the upgrades, blaming me for not booking each segment separately. I told her that both res and airport agents promised that the upgrade would be cleared at the gate, but she shook her head and said no.
I had some time so I called the 1K desk where an agent futilely tried to break up the segments before declaring—and I kid you not—"sir, you are actually on a non-stop flight to Guam on a 777." No, I was actually on UA1554 on a 737-800 with six stops. I got a supervisor involved but by that time Carol Beer was breathing down my back, telling me I had to board immediately.
Meanwhile, 10 pass riders (employees traveling non-rev, their family, and friends) were upgraded on the first leg of the journey, a 5 hour, 20 minute trip to Majuro…
I was last to board and the crewmember who greeted me immediately sensed something was wrong, though I volunteered no information until she spoke to me. I explained the problem and she grabbed my boarding pass and said, "That's not right," vowing to fix the problem. I know she tried, but agent Beer refused to budge so I would up with my original seat assignment in seat 12A.
Delta's "never letting the rules overrule common sense” ad campaign is a great one and totally applicable here. No matter what the "computer says", there is something inherently wrong about a passenger eligible for an upgrade on five of six segments denied an upgrade on all five of those segments just because the upgrade on the sixth segment cannot be confirmed.
Had I been the manager on duty, instead of playing Carol Beer I would have sat the passenger in business class, even if I had to cross out 12A and write 2A on his boarding pass. Even at the risk of my job, I would not alienate a passenger because of a broken SHARES system.
But let me tell you, and this gets back to my opening paragraph—I still managed to have a great journey. The crew onboard was great but one FA, Boni, took extra special care of me and I sure did appreciate it.
After Boni's ill-fated attempt to rectify the situation, I noted that someone had already poached my assigned seat and asked her where I should sit. After helping me re-arrange an overhead bin so that I could store my bag, she gave me the "crew row" and told me I could take all three seats on the flight to Majuro, profusely apologizing for the lack of upgrade.
Boni watched out for me throughout the whole 14hr journey and the whole crew was excellent. When the purser heard what happened, his response was simple—"what a bunch of b-s" and that about sums it up.
I'll have more on the flights themselves in a future post, but be warned that it is imperative to avoid direct flights whenever possible. While I "survived" the island-hopper, you have no idea how irksome it was to see empty seats in business class for legs 2-5 with me unable to claim one.
And so now I'm in Singapore, after a great flight on United from Guam to Tokyo followed by a great flight on Singapore Airlines from Tokyo last night. I'll connect to Burma tomorrow and now finally have some time to reflect on the last several days.
Can you appreciate my dilemma? Delayed flights, cancelled flights, no upgrades, apathetic agents like Carol Beer, yet I'll have fond memories of the island hopper for the rest of my life—memories of the new places I was able to see and the wonderful crew who took such good care of me.
This is my world and this is the world of anyone who patronizes the Friendly Skies. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Thanks for flying United.