Matthewonlive and let's fly

United Airlines Island Hopping in Coach: Avoid "Direct" Flights

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)—

united-airlines-island-hopper  

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.

hnl-maj-flight-upgrade-list   

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.

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Comments

#1
A. S. March 13, 2013 at 07:30 am

Matthew,

I'm a huge fan, but it irritates me to no end that you keep apologizing for UA. In every post lately you write -- in the same breath -- how bad UA is and yet how you "had a good time," because some FA took care of you on an "exception" basis (i.e., that's not really the standard that everyone got -- just you). You're like the housewife who gets beat up by her husband every two days and says it's her fault.

I'll still be following your blog with interest, because it's your decision what you do and the flight reports are entertaining, but I can still be a fan and find this quite irritating... :)

#2
ptahcha March 13, 2013 at 09:43 am

Isn't the golden mantra not to book a direct flight unless you can clear in advance?

@ptahcha: In this case, I had no choice, but you are correct.

@A. S. - I really do understand where you are coming from, but I am not apologizing for United! :) Quite the contrary, my experiences over the last 1.5 weeks have been disheartening and I make no bones about it.

But in terms of my Island-hoper flights I would not say the crew took care of me on an "exception" basis but rather they would have taken care of anyone in a similar situation the same way. Remember, I was not going to say anything--they asked me what was wrong. And while I may have been the only one who got a row to himself, the crew was cheerful and attentive throughout the journey to everyone.

Bottom line, what can I say? Even if I only get personal service onboard by saying the right words, I still get good service and I must write about the good, bad, and ugly.

#4
Chuang March 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

@ptahcha In some cases, booking direct flight as separate segments is not possible especially the island hopper. The K fare won't allow you make more then 3 or 4 connection each direction, not to mention you might have connection before and after the island hopper, hence, you must book it as a direct flight in order to get the lower fare.

#5
RA March 13, 2013 at 01:47 pm

Matt,

I read this story with pangs in my heart, because I went through a VERY similar ordeal with the Island Hopper last fall. I was booked GUM-HNL on UA 172, and literally had spent HOURS on the phones before the journey trying to get the upgrade situation completely squared away.

Put simply, it's almost not even worth trying. Basically, United inherited these flights from Continental, and while the routing has always been on SHARES, that hasn't correlated to 100% transparency when it comes to the CPU process, in my opinion. Add the bad blood between UA and CO into the mix, and you really can't expect anything to be guaranteed. United now simply views these routes as money makers for cargo and mail, rather than routes that actually ARE flown by their elite passengers, and they should be treated accordingly. Sadly, this is not the case.

In any event, my hours of frustrations and scheming turned out to be a complete waste of time since, day of travel, my flight from MNL (where my itinerary originated) to GUM was cancelled, and my whole opportunity to fly on the hopper was totally foiled :( glad you got to fly it and looking forward to future posts.

#6
A. S. March 13, 2013 at 02:05 pm

@Matthew: I'm glad you understand my position -- I didn't want to offend you! After all, I'm in your proverbial house and you do as you wish. :) My point, though, is this: a good airline is one that doles out consistently good service, every time, to every passenger. In your case, they seem to slap you on the face and then individuals within the organization (i.e., FAs) make it up to you, whether because they recognize you (cue your post about your return flight from IST), or because they're crushing on your blue eyes (for the record, I have no idea what color your eyes are!!). ;) That's not a good airline. What happens if on your next flight the FA doesn't recognize you or doesn't have a major crush on you? Are you then screwed? You can't just count on getting lucky... That's why I'm saying that if I were in your shoes, getting good service on a case-by-case basis alone would not be grounds for retaining my loyalty.

By the way, that sounds like a pretty interesting Island Hop!! Do you get to disembark and visit these tiny airports? I can see how it would be painful in coach, though...

#7
CentralFlMom March 13, 2013 at 07:17 pm

Matthew, I work for a major airline as a Flight Attendant , and I'll tell you straight up you come across as a complete jackass. It's no wonder you haven't been kicked off more flights. You fly a lot? FA's fly around 1k hours a year (450 k miles) and have to deal with some very stressful and scary situations. It our job and we love it...it's also our workplace and livelyhood; if something makes us feel unsafe we have a right and obligation to ourselves and others to address and neutralize an unruly or suspicious passenger, hopefully on the ground rather than over water at 38k feet. FA's are there to save your life in an emergency. You woud be well advised to be much more polite and courteous to crew members.

@CentralFlMom:

And you, my dear, would be well-advised to retire ASAP so as to spare the flying public from your horrible attitude!

No FA has a right to lie about a passenger and if you think otherwise, you are more than a safety threat...

#9
CentralFLMom March 13, 2013 at 10:25 pm

I love UPGRD.com, but I simply cannot continue to follow you Matt. You are a self righteous little man, with some sort of complex. I hope you mouth off to the wrong FA one of these days and end up in prison. We'll see what your "status" gets you there little man. More fozz, more hunter, less matt on upgrd....at least they aren't pompous.

#10
JayHNL March 14, 2013 at 01:11 am

@CentralFLMom:

Please please please take a flight, as a passenger, on OZ, SQ, NH, etc....Just one time.

#11
PK March 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Thanks for the reference to Carol Beer. I googled it. I'll have to youtube search and watch it!

@CentralFLMom: You're expressing a desire for me to be locked up in prison while maintaining I'm the one with some sort of complex?

Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you...

#13
Chicawgo March 14, 2013 at 03:03 pm

@CentralFLMom: I'm so sick of that standard defense from FA's "We're only there for your safety."

How can you possibly say that with a straight face?? While safety is one part of your job, there are many other parts as well. My guess is that the "Job Duties" section for FA job listings doesn't just read "Help passengers in case of an emergency."

By your logic, hotel front desk agents are only there "in case of an emergency" to evacuate the building. And checking you in or taking a room service order is "above and beyond." And you could say the same for almost ANY JOB ON EARTH.

In fact, I'll bet that your job has LESS actual emergency situations than many others. Think of hotels in places like Bali or Israel who are constantly on alert. That doesn't mean they still can't use common sense and treat customers with respect!!

Your phrase "it (sic) our job and we love it" is laughable in the context of the rest of your comment.

#14
Thom March 15, 2013 at 04:07 pm

@JayHNL... What about Southwest? Albeit the service offered by the WN brand is considerably more laid back than NH, OZ, SQ, etc... their FA's are consistently friendly, seem to love seeing their guests happy, and are still there "primarily for safety" with a smile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3eNFdwn07g.

#15
Les March 15, 2013 at 07:32 pm

A non-stop flight is one that goes from Point A to Point B with no stops.

A direct flight is one that has the same flight number, but makes at least one stop between Point A and Point B.

A connection is when the passenger must change planes somewhere en route between Point A and Point B.

The United app has a box you can tick so that only nonstop flights are displayed.

#16
Annick Benavente March 16, 2013 at 09:09 am

Good job Bonnie, you are a great f/a....like I always say, Honolulu ground staff is horrible, and someone really need to do something about it, yes even supervisors, if they on't like thir job, then quit or replace them, passengers should not have to go thru this.....it is shameful.

#17
Keith March 16, 2013 at 09:44 am

hey Matthew... nice balanced blog. not sure what CentralFLMom was bitching about. sounded like it just came from out on left field somewhere. maybe that's where she should stay. she sounds like one of those that need to retire ASAP. just to let you and your readers know, those FAs that work the island hopper are a Guam-based crew. the Guam base FAs have a a great reputation as one of the friendliest and most accommodating FAs in the US airline industry. they are legacy continental. originally continental micronesia. i used to fly contnenal/united a lot. not much anymore. the customer service emphasis has really suffered and i blame it on the merger and the top executives, among the greediest people i have ever seen. but that's another story. my main point is, the industry can learn much from the Guam based FAs and the professional attitude and great demeanor they bring on to a flight. too bad they got kicked out of working the non-stop GUM-HNL leg (this has to do with the merger not being completed yet). my apologies to some of the United HNL based FAs whom i have had great experiences with (but they seem to be the exception, instead of the rule), but i honestly i try to avoid that route now and take Delta instead, even if i have to go to HNL, via NRT. says a lot about the quality of the Guam based FAs. i used to hear other passengers say, when they entered the plane on that HNL-GUM flight, "I'm home," knowing full well that they will be well taken cared of by the Guam based crew. sadly, i don't hear that any more...

#18
TP March 18, 2013 at 06:27 am

Brings back some memories.

A relative was a pilot at Air Micronesia, then part of Continental, and I took that flight (with him as the pilot) more than thirty years ago.

The plane was an old 727 combi, with just a few seats (there weren't that many passengers), and the rest of the space devoted to freight (there was a huge cargo door on the side of the fuselage).

The Honolulu based crew would fly the island hopper to Guam, spend a week flying Guam-Saipan-Tokyo and back, and then island hop back to Honolulu. All of the airline personnel I met (cockpit, cabin, and ground) really enjoyed their jobs - it was a lot more fun than working on the mainland.

The thing I remember most was the landing at Chuuk (or Truk as it was known then), which I got to observe from the cockpit. The runway at the time was a 4200 foot dirt strip, which demanded an accurate approach.

I guess things have changed a bit since then.

#19
Ethan March 18, 2013 at 06:49 pm

Matt, I feel your dilemma with UA. My fiancee and I got our itineraries split on our flights back EZE-GRU-ORD-SFO. I saw from GRU that I had been upgraded on ORD-SFO, but she hadn't (Plat and Silver). I asked the club agents at GRU if I could get my Y seat back, but they couldn't do anything. Sure enough, by the time we got to ORD the flight was full and my economy seat was gone.

Even though I was willing to take a downgrade to sit together, neither the club nor gate agents were willing to move people around to accommodate us, or upgrade her since she should've been upgraded with me anyway (it was booked 7/8 at the time). Common sense failing over the system all around. But, I still enjoyed the flights, had great crews, and I generally have good experiences.

#20
van March 18, 2013 at 09:12 pm

Most recently , I stumbled across this read and it was quite interesting to see peeps venting about their experience with the airlines "good ,bad and the ugly". I believe I was on that particular flight and although didnt have a more one to one interaction with Mr. Matthew, I recognize you and you didnt seem to come off with the characteristics aforementioned by CentralFLMom. When you work a 14+ hr. flight and a particular passenger is with you throughout this journey,believe me, by the 13 1/2 hour you pretty much have him/her figured out as to what type of passenger they are. And for the record, I believe Boni will recognize you, the next time you fly with us , because thats how we roll out here in Air Mike... And yes, we especially remember the unfavorable ones too ;). Not really sure if Ms. CFLM, had a personal issue with you...but just reading her comments, profiles her into a category of itself. Although "Safety" is the most important part of our job...Common courtesy, respect, and hospitality is right up there just as well...at least it should be! Believe me , every job has their share of bad apples, and occasionally I find myself apologizing for failed expectations but from the get-go it will be all up to the individual to turn a negative experience around. Although I am a F/A, I agree with Chicawgo, so dont go stereo-typing peeps lol@CFLM youre comments are shameful and you are obviously in the wrong profession. @ A S, I enjoyed your comments, well written...you should come try the hopper it is an experience . We welcome you! @ Keith, we thank you for your kind words, If you only knew how much we miss doing the direct flights and seeing our frequent customers as well...Hopefully, with this merger deal still finalizing...it'll get better....in the mean time, be humble and happy we have a job...I AM AIRMIKE...

@van: Really appreciate you weighing in! Even in coach, I truly had a great time on the island hopper. I caught everyone's name but the int'l flight service manager--Boni, Patrick, Gloria, Namiko, and the purser--and you were all wonderful. Which one are you? ;)

@Ethan: who got the upgrade? :)

@TP: Thanks for sharing your memory. Two years ago I flew the HNL-GUM direct route which was then still operated by Micronesia crew. It was a great flight--

http://upgrd.com/matthew/honolulu-to-guam-in-continental-economy-class.html

@PK: Carol Beer is a barrel of laughs!

@A.S.: I would love nothing more than consistent good service on all my United flights, but even with the way I was treated (and others are occasionally treated) on the Istanbul flight, it still makes the most sense for me to fly on United.

@RA: Thanks for your comments. I was able to get off at most stops--my trip report is coming.

#22
boni March 19, 2013 at 03:10 am

Hi Mr. Klint, Holy cow, I had no idea you were so popular! Haha I appreciate your comments about our wonderful island hopper flight. It felt really nice to be appreciated. We did not have Patrick, that was Van who wrote the comment. Glenn was our lead FA. I can only do so much as you saw but I made sure you at least had the window exit. Since our merger it has definitely been a challenge. These things take time to work out all the kinks and I know we have lost some very valuable customers along the way. All I can do is put myself in your shoes and how would I feel. It's called compassion and poor central fl mom might have misplaced hers. I wish you a better experience on your way home and hope you enjoyed your visits as well.

#23
boni March 19, 2013 at 03:29 am

Well apparently I can't spell. So sorry Mr. Klint to have misspelled your name.

Hi Boni,

I fixed it for you. :)

It's Klint with a K.

Thanks again for your great service and smile. I hope we can fly together again.

Regards, Matthew

#25
Tony March 20, 2013 at 01:44 am

Matt, I started reading your blog acouple of months ago, and I like it. However, ever since the the whole photo debacle happened, I'm not too sure why you continue to fly UA. Ever since then you have been meet with horrible service on the ground with agents who do not want to lift a finger to go that extra mile in the name of customer service. The agent in HNL is a prime example, it appears she did not want to help you at all and once she set her mind to it, that is it. Now, I'm not saying that everybody should cringe when they see your name pop up on the manifest, but common courtesy needs to play a role here. IF you have 6 1K's wait listing for a flight, the GA need to do everything they can to get them into the front of the plane. I have to agree with A.S. when he asked, why do you continue to fly UA. We all know that UA now reads your blog and if they TRULY want to make the needed changes they need to be proactive on find these ground staff who refuse to lift a finger to help the passenagers. The agent in the Club who told you, they have never worked the island hopper flight, was the worst comment for them to say, basically that agent, did not care about you at all and didn't want to deal with you, I'm not too sure how much you are willing to take before you just throw your hands up and say, enough is enough, and walk away from CO dba UA. SHARES sucks, it is not geared towards customer service and if this is true, the only way CO dba UA will change is enough people will leave and go to another airline.

I'd rather fly with an airline who's employee are willing to go the extra mile to make me happy then to just say, "sorry our computer sytem does not allow this to happen." This is why airlines like Thai and Singappore always rank high in customer service. Maybe the US based airlines need to fire and hire people who really want to go that extra mile and make people want to fly the airline, as Singappore does...

#26
Jersey March 20, 2013 at 01:45 am

I stumbled across this blog and am mesmerized, especially so by the comments. As someone who has lived on three continents, I find the attitude and work ethic from some who reply to be astonishing (and yes, I was born in the US.) Even more amazing, but not surprising, is that your honest recount of your experiences seems to simply bring out more of their negativity - @CentralFlMom - do you realize that you are in the Customer Service business? As much as flight attendants are there for our safety and security (which I do appreciate), a large and very noticeable part of your job is to provide for the care and comfort of those on the flight. Comments like yours make me think that (perhaps due to a union?) competition for your job is not high and you have therefore become spoiled, lazy, and arrogant. (How else do you honestly tell someone to be "more polite" while being incredibly rude in doing it?) I work for a living. So do many of the flight attendants that I've met. You might try it sometime instead of just dragging your field down.

Great balanced blog posting, btw, Matthew.

#27
lizzie March 28, 2013 at 03:56 am

Are the upgrades complimentary? How does one get upgrades on united international flights? Thanks!!

Upgrades are complimentary on a space available basis, prioritized by fare class and elite status, only on "domestic" aircraft (i.e. no international configurations with lie-flat seats). Another exception is the HNL-GUM direct flight, though a domestic config, is only upgradable with a systemwide upgrade.

Matthew-

So how was your BP issued for this flight? Did you just get one HNL-GUM BP that said "THROUGH PASSENGER?"

If you had managed to get the flight split up into individual segments, do you think you'd have to de-board at each stop so that the GA could scan the BP? Otherwise you'd be in the computer as a "no-show" and they would cancel the rest of the itinerary?

The reason I ask, is that I am looking at booking a revenue ticket on the island hopper and I was hoping to get the segments split for precisely the reason you specify in this post; the upgrades! The additional "as flown" mileage is great too!

Thanks!

It was just a single boarding pass that said HNL-GUM. There were a lot of non-rev, as I mentioned above, who did have to pick them up at each stop. Had I been successful in splitting each flight (and you must do that if you make this trip) I believe I would have had to do the same thing.

Business class would have been so nice and I am fuming again just thinking about it, so learn from my mistake and spend another two or three hours on the phone, if necessary, to get everything split. The problem is going to be the final TKK-GUM flight, which never seems to have low fare class availability.

#31
Ed September 21, 2013 at 09:41 pm

This is much more of a challenge than I thought. I have the Island Hopper in March 2014 and have spent several hours on the phone already.

The last segment, like you said, is a killer as it doesn't have fare availability below H. I was close to having it override but a super intervened and said no. Blah!

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