We made a complex trip during the month of December, 2017 which took us to LAX to visit our kids for Christmas, and from LA, a United flight to Hilo, Hawaii on December 29, 2017. All was fine and when it was time to leave on January 19th, we checked in online, boarded flight UA 1706, and all boarding was completed around the estimated time of 9:45pm. We sat at the gate for some time, got in our take off position, then were told there was an electrical problem and we were going back to the gate. Everything that occurred on the plane happened as it should – appropriate periodic updates from the captain, and updates on the united app. Around 11:30pm passengers were told they could deplane to stretch which some did. We declined, hoping that once the plane was serviced, remaining in our seats would facilitate the takeoff process. The next departure estimate was 12:30am. Then at about 12:20am we were notified via app and the pilot that the plane would not be ready for takeoff until 5:30pm the next day. All normal, to be expected. Once we deplaned however, mayhem ensued – much of it preventable by UA staff who were more annoyed at their own inconvenience than that of their passengers. are my based on this experience
Communication broke down after we deplaned:
We were ushered into a line to be rebooked-that part is fine and appropriate, but soon we realized that in order to get a hotel voucher there was another line to manage because a gate agent started walking with a small group of people behind her and I suggested my husband investigate. Luckily we’ve traveled as a pair so split up the two lines. When he returned, he said hotels were booked, they’re offering vouchers for hotels/BNBs and taxis. Great except there are no hotels available and no BNB is going to accept a guest at 1am.
Instead of making a general announcement (we were the only passengers in the otherwise CLOSED airport), staff allowed people to remain in long lines, rumoring about what would be available. An announcement probably wouldn’t have shut up the two very ridiculous women on the phone with reservations acting like they alone will bring down United with their social media accounts and complaints about poor service agents doing what they can with their limited resources, but knowledge is power, and as the time ticked away, options narrowing, and ramp and other staff coming up and having conversations with gate staff who should have been focused on helping passengers.
No one offered the travelers bill of rights or contract for carriage so passengers were updated on what they were and were not entitled to. We’d literally been in the airport since 9pm and on a plane for nearly three hours, if nothing else, it would have been entertainment to read what the airline will and won’t do for you when enexpected things happen.
It might be easier to frame my observations and suggestions from this point on in easier Dos and Don’ts:
Don’t tell people to call customer service when customer services says they can do even less for you, and you should talk to the gate agent. No one likes the runaround, especially at 1:30 in the morning (2:30am California time)
Don’t offer hotel vouchers when there are no hotels available. United agents booked crew FIRST, then 5 passengers/families in the very limited local and regional accommodations available but never bothered communicating that. So people waited in line. They told passengers to call hotels.com or get a BNB. At 2am at this point, what BNB is open? Worse, more than three hours later, staff offered cookies and blankets to passengers – passengers who were still in line trying to figure out what the airline could do for them and where they would sleep – some were traveling with elderly parents.
DON’T blame the passenger. United customer service told me to check with the gate agent to get my rebooked second leg from LAX to SJC on Southwest reimbursed. The United manager on duty actually told me it was my choice (aka FAULT) to book Southwest, and that United has nothing to do with that so won’t cover the extra charge I had to pay to change my flight-the flight I had to rebook at a higher rate because of a United plane mechanical failure.
Don’t allow nonessential/helpful personnel to congregate in the gate area with gate agents when a flight is delayed unless they can help rebook passengers or help in other meaningful ways. There were about 9. United Staff, and only two were actively working on passenger issues. One person traveling as a ‘non-rev staffer’ got onto his laptop to try and help out. The others stood around laughing, joking, agitating an already anxious group of displaced passengers.
Do communicate early and often-the pilot communicated per United’s resolution to provide an update every thirty minutes, even if there was no update, that was communicated. Gate agents didn’t communicate a general message to passengers even ONCE from 12:20am until 2:45am via PA system while we were stranded and trying to seek accommodations.
Do realize that Hilo is a ‘small kine’ airport. If the last flight out is delayed more than an hour, waste the paper and preprint vouchers for passengers before they deplane. Consider making general announcements before passengers deplane so they know what service to expect from gate staff. Although gate staff made announcements, they were not helpful or accurate, contributing to passenger confusion and anxiety. Call passengers to the podium by seat number so there is order to the service process and passengers can be as comfortable as possible instead of waiting in line.
When hotels aren’t available, travelers should receive a cash equivalent resolution. Only 5 passengers were provided with hotels. (Actually 6-one woman arrived at the Hilton before we did and took a cancellation). The rest of us were stranded overnight, TWICE-Friday and Saturday night with meal vouchers only good for the Hilo airport food store which was closed, and taxi vouchers then told the ‘some’ hotels and taxis may not take the vouchers. Not helpful at 2:45am.
As I edit this manifesto, I am sitting in Hilo airport and we are essentially making ridiculous food purchases with less than ten minutes before we board our consolation flight home to the San Francisco Bay Area simply because it is our first opportunity also our last to use them.
DO offer a cash (check) refund/resolution (NOT a travel voucher)to all passengers affected when a backup flight cannot be booked within 24 hours. Empower your station manager to make exceptions when all passengers do not receive the same benefit. I understand that a mechanical error may not normally warrant travel credit/voucher or cash resolution, but when you cannot offer a flight within 24 hours of the originally scheduled flight, exceptions should be made. (And keep in mind our original flight was supposed to leave Friday night. It’s Sunday and fingers crossed, we are headed home today.
Do make an arrangement with Kens House of Pancakes to accept ITO airline meal vouchers, or even better, put those ramp staff to work – have them take an order and bring hot food to people who are stranded overnight.
Do negotiate an agreement with Hawaiian Air to use their Premier Club so passengers can charge their phones, use restrooms, get snacks and wait comfortably. My phone was almost completely dead between calling United customer service, southwest customer service, and hotels to find availability. Extra accommodation is usually appreciated when options are limited. Also, the airport was closed so this wouldn’t have affected premier club members.
Do offer complimentary snack and beverage service every hour on the hour during delays. Boarding was completed on time at 9:45pm and passengers were on the plan until about 12:30. Passengers were offered water twice and a small bag of pretzels on the plane. At 2:40am, it was finally our time to be helped, someone came by and offered blankets and other snacks. At that point, United should’ve offered breakfast or something better than nutter butter and Oreos.
Do designate space in the airport for emergency overnight accommodation -invest in a small number of air beds, particularly for elderly passengers who may have mobility issues, and real blankets for people stranded in the airport.
Do reach out to AirBnB and try to establish emergency housing for irregular ops at ITO. United can champion this and look responsive to its passengers in a real, tangible way. Airbnb would likely be able to help broker those partnerships so they work with the United voucher system. Hosts would receive a message that a flight has been delayed and would need to confirm that they can host an emergency overnight. Taxi vouchers would still work for transportation to the Airbnb host home.
Do escalate complaints when there are more than ten passengers posing something that they feel would be reasonable. Someone with the ability to authorize non-standard accommodations real time should be available within 24 hours of irregular operations to address passenger concerns. It is frustrating to ask UA staff how to escalate an issue and no one seems to understand how or want to share their organizational hierarchy.
It is my hope that other passengers from this fiasco chime in with their solutions and suggestions. I heard many and none of the United folks wanted to contact a decision making authority to strategize solutions. By handling the irregular operations at the station level, United, through its employees showed passengers that it wasn’t willing to offer any creative solutions. THAT, along with appropriate customer service will be the reason that most people who had this experience will not want to fly United again. We typically travel Hawaiian, this was an exception, and the last time we plan to fly United.
Lastly (but lengthy still, it is a manifesto) as a carrier with routes between the islands. Here are some of the principles of Aloha that United needs to make part of its culture if it will successfully compete with other carriers:
Aloha-practice the spirit of loving kindness to everyone and unconditionally. This goes much further than defensiveness and blaming the passenger.
ʻImi ola- “seek the best life” and best outcome for passengers inconvenienced by irregular operations or simply flying your airline-suggestions provided.
Hoʻomau-persevere, persist, don’t give up- escalate issues, even if you can’t do so in the moment so managers and executive leadership see you are working to make your airline the absolute best.
Hoʻokipa-exercise The hospitality of complete giving by treating passengers as guests in the spirit of aloha and ʻohana. No blaming or shutting down passengers who are upset-acknowledge their right to be upset as normal and expected. Be willing to compromise in how you accommodate passengers who have limited options.
Lō kahi-working together to achieve more-examples are working with the other ITO carriers to make irregular operation less stressful for passengers.
Kākou-speak the language of ‘we’ as in all of us. Be collaborative and work to unify,not alienate passengers.
Kuleana and haʻahaʻa taking personal responsibility with humility and respect for passengers. As your organization’s ambassador, assuming responsibility on behalf of your organization is important for good will, especially if you interact with the general public.
Hoʻohanohano honors the dignity of others, and exercising loving kindness especially when customers and passengers are vulnerable.
Alakaʻi, mālama, and pono-serving as a guide for others by channeling leadership and championing their concerns, living in thankfulness for the reciprocal relationship with passengers as revenue generators who need to travel but who contribute to the livelihood of your organization; and finally, integrity, rightness, and balance. Acting in an honorable way for customers, new and longstanding who make your livelihood and that of your organization possible. These principles of Aloha are interpreted based on
my liberal interpretation of these Hawaiian concepts as presented in the Principles of Aloha.
I offer United these suggestions in detail, with the willingness to discuss in further detail these suggestions and my justification. A final comment regarding choice: United execs may read this and decide that the rant of one passenger is not worth investigating, challenging, or changing a practice. But in the spirit of hoʻopono, I hope a deep sense of justice and what is right and fair will guide their decision.
Me ka pono,