Thursday, October 20, 2005

Returning to Hong Kong on United

I'm back! Despite the best efforts of United. Before I resume regular service, let me relate my travel experience and pose a question to my cosmopolitan, debonaire audience.

Every time I despair at airfares in this part of the world, please remind me of the chaos that has infected the domestic and international flights of the United States. A quick jaunt on any airline in the US or on a low-cost carrier in Europe may be cheap, but you are in generally for a rough experience and are certainly not guaranteed to arrive at your destination at anytime close to the alleged arrival time - that is considered more a suggestion nowadays, or perhaps more accurately, a product of a wishful imagination.

I was booked on travel from Nashville to Hong Kong via Chicago on United. The flight from Nashville Monday morning was almost on time, and actually got to Chicago early. But the balance was restored to that mind-blowing karmic event by my subsequent connection - UA 895 from Chicago to Hong Kong. When I arrived at the gate at 10:00 am, I thought it was a bad sign that it said 'Honolulu' instead of Hong Kong. Not that I would have minded that destination, particularly, except that other than its first three letters and that fact that Hawai'i is a chain of islands, it has very little indeed to do with Hong Kong. Bad sign #2 was that there was a flight to Beijing that was 6 hours delayed. Bad sign #3 was that the pilots and crew came, went to the desk, and walked back out almost immediately, muttering under their breath things like "Not good!" and "Let's go for a long lunch!", followed by a PA announcement that a 'decision would be made at noon about the prospects for flight UA 895 to Hong Kong.'

Bad sign #4 (the Chinese number that sounds like death - it certainly was the nail in the coffin): an announcement came over the PA that due to mechanical problems, the flight would not take off until tomorrow. They gave us vouchers for the airport hotel, and for breakfast, lunch and dinner (although at $3, $5 and $7 respectively these were not much except minor subsidies). The hapless employees made it all too clear this was not an uncommon occurence.

The hotel was fine, and given that Chicago was the city of my birth, diverting myself there for a few hours was not too difficult. What bowled me over though was that when I returned to the airport the next day and asked for the gate for my cancelled flight, the customer service attendant got stroppy and said: "First of all, the flight was not cancelled - it was just delayed." A 21 hour delay, in our case. Sometimes it seems there is something to be said for the age of the ocean liner. Why, oh why, do I keep going back for more punishment when this sort of thing never ever happens on Cathay?

I realize United is still in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, but I can't help but wonder why it seems their employees, instead of serving customers and turning on the charm, are asking instead for sympathy and pity for performing a Sisyphean task.

As my partner Stefan likes to say, "Why is that America can do so well in the hotel hospitality business, but can't run an airline to save their lives?"

Any ideas?


Simon said...

At least you made it back. The problem with airlines in the US is they've got incentive to cater to their customers as most routes are virtual monopolies.

I recall when I was younger being in Hawaii waiting for a flight back to Australia. The flight was 2 hours late and massively overbooked. Amazingly, the airline actually auctioned off the compensation for leaving the flight - you got a night's accomodation plus some cash, and the cash amount kept going up until the overbooked portion of the flight was removed.

Ah, the olden days.

To think in Japan a train that's a minute late is a major embarassment, yet in Chicago 21 hours is only a "delay".

Spike said...

I don't understand why anyone would fly trans-Pacific on an American airline! I'm an American myself but would never even think about doing it. These sorts of things are commonplace on airlines like United but practically never happen on Cathay or Singapore.

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, I should still consider myself lucky that way.

Repeat after me: "It's cheap for a reason, it's cheap for a reason..."

Anonymous said...

I think what Simon meant to say was that American airlines DON'T have an incentive to cater to their customers.

My uncle's wife had a similar experience to yours. She was booked on UA 895, and her flight ended up being eight hours late. All she was given as compensation were some meal vouchers that could hardly buy anything in an overpriced airport.

My mother's experience on UA was worse. On her New York to Beijing flight, she was served frozen rice. I guess they left out the "r" in "rice".

I won't fly on an American airline again unless I have to.