10:52 PM

The Most Insane System Ever Devised

I am sitting tonight not in my home in beautiful Eugene, Oregon, but in a hotel in Millbrae, California. You see, United Express sold 81 seats in their 70-passenger Regional Jet, and yours truly – despite having a bought-and-paid-for seat – was #11 on the flight's "your screwed" list. Yes, my friends, United Express overbooked my flight big time.

I had been in Oakland to judge the Greater San Francisco Ad Club's ADDY Awards competition, and despite riding BART to and from downtown Oakland from SFO, I am still alive to tell this tale. I am not going to mince words...Oakland is a downright scary place. When your hosts tell you "do not walk two blocks from your hotel or you WILL get shot to death," it is best to believe them.

My gracious hosts bought my ticket via Travelocity, using a perfectly good credit card..so I can only assume United Express will be charging that card for the $408 round-trip fare EUG-SFO and back again. Southbound on that trip, it was a sweet flight, but tonight when I tried to get that ticket home, their completely insane system went quickly to hell:

I immediately smelled a rat when the "Easy Check-in" kiosk spit out not a boarding pass, but a boarding pass-like document that did nothing but tell their system that the eleventh sucker to fall into their evil overbooking trap had arrived at the airport. I ran TSA's gauntlet and breezed through security, and hoofed it for gate 77 Alpha. There, I was told I was not on the last flight home to EUG, despite my holding a PAID Travelocity itinerary and a boarding pass-like document spit out from the kiosk. The gate agent tried really hard to piss me off by having absolutely no concern for my situation. I did not have a seat, period, and she wouldn't tell me why...end of conversation. Well...we'll see about THAT!
So off I bolt to the United Customer Service Counter, and explained my situation to a woman who basically told me it was United Express's problem and not United's. When I began to raise my voice a bit, a supervisor-ish woman showed up to help me. She tapped on her keyboard and found the problem...in 10 seconds. The system didn't have my United Frequent Flyer number...a problem easily fixed, she said. She pulled up my profile, tapped again, and BANG, moved me all the way up to No. 8 on the list of customers who will get screwed this night.

She explained to me that yes, United Express had sold eleven more seats on the flight then they could provide. In the real world, one might call this failure to provide a paid service deplorable, but in the bizarro world of Big Airlines, it is called overbooking. So the Customer Service Agentress tells me that – you know what is coming – if I were willing to give up my seat, they would only have to find ten other fools to do the same, and then the full flight would no longer be overbooked. If I could return to EUG Sunday AM, United Express would spot me dinner ($15), breakfast ($10), a ride in a nice shiny shuttle bus to a swank hotel ($60) and a free round-trip ticket anywhere United flies in the lower 48 states (somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 - $2,000 depending on destination).
As if Howie Mandel was looking me in the eyes and asking "Deal, or NO Deal?"...back at gate seventy-seven alpha, I tell the gate agent DEAL, and take the airline's offer. So instead of simply flying me home on the purchased ticket so they could make a few bucks profit, United will now cough up as much as $2,085! And, if the other 10 bumped pax also take the deal, that's 11 passengers who have been screwed out of their seat, costing the airline as much as $22,935! That is if they – like me – choose to retaliate against this ridiculous overbooking garbage by using their "free round-trip voucher" to book a seat on the most expensive R/T that United flies. Someone PLEASE explain to me how this makes ANY business sense whatsoever!
Bottom line: Tonight I am still a VFR private pilot, with a perfect good cross-country airplane sitting home in Eugene that could have easily carried me to San Francisco for this trip. But the WX was slightly below VFR minimums, so I choose to play airline roulette and attempt to fly commercial, which will not happen once I earn my IFR ticket. Then, Dano Airlines will carry me around the West, and I can guarantee you that Dano Airlines will never EVER promise nine people a seat in my four passenger Cherokee 235.

UPDATE 03.02.08 @ 620A: Now that I've had a few hours to think about it while lounging in my free hotel room, I have devised a plan to take this lemon United handed me last night and make some lemonade. That's because I will need something to wash down all those grilled BRATS I will eat this coming summer when United flies me absolutely FREE to Oshkosh for EAA Airventure 2008. Wow, what a deal, a free ticket to airplane heaven....my cup indeedth is half full after all.

UPDATE 03.02.08 @ 1148A: I have finally made it home, even though United Express tried really hard to prevent such a thing from happening. After a push-back delay at SFO this AM, we were told that because of low ceilings and fog, we might be making an unscheduled diversion to Bend/Redmond if we couldn't get into EUG. But I have to give kudos to the pilots for making the ILS 16R approach look like child's play as they snuck in just about an inch above the 200 ft./one-half mile minimums. The ramp guys also tried to lose my carry-on luggage – which would have been a first, even though it was gate checked. But they couldn't pull that ruse off, and I rushed to the carousel to see my gate checked bag going for a ride in circles.

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