A complaint from the “huddled masses yearning to be airborne”

By | September 14th, 2016

Can John Hart’s United Airlines flight be saved? Not that it really needs saving, per se, since he arrived safely at his destination. And more or less on time.

Maybe that’s United’s point — we got you there safely and on the same day, didn’t we?

But Hart expects more, and frankly, so do I. So let’s review what happened, and then maybe you can tell me what — if anything — I should do.

Hart and his partner were scheduled to fly from San Francisco to Chicago on United Airlines flight 1986 on July 28. Here’s the flight, for those of you following along at home. (A subscription to Flightaware may be required to view this information.)

“My partner and I paid over $1,000 for a flight to a family reunion in Chicago,” he says. “That is a premium fare, by the way.”

After boarding, the aircraft waited 20 minutes. The crew remained silent about their reason for the hold-up.

“When they did use the PA to inform the huddled masses yearning to be airborne, they said the aircraft needed more fuel. And they said that meant they had to rejoin the fueling queue,” he says.

The incident “smacks of unprofessionalism by the flight crew,” he says. After all, SFO is a hub for United and “surely, the fuel deficiency could have been detected earlier.”

“Had someone lost the fuel credit card?” he muses.

It took more than an hour for the plane to depart and it touched down at almost 8 p.m., roughly half an hour after its scheduled arrival time.

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The landing was a little rough, says Hart.

“In truth I have experienced softer landings on Aeroflot!” he says. “Not well done, United.”

Then the aircraft rolled to a distant taxiway and switched off the engines. And that’s when the fun really started. I’ll let him explain:


The problem was not revealed by the silent air crew for half an hour. It seems that they had not been in radio contact with Chicago during the flight and were unaware that the gate United hires for arrivals was occupied by another United aircraft bound for London, but which had a mechanical problem which prevented our aircraft from using the assigned gate.

The error was surely avoidable if the United staff responsible and the aircrew simply communicated with Chicago and asked for an alternate gate. One suspects that United was going to have to pay extra for arriving at a noncontracted gate and were simply going to let the passengers on United 1986 stew in their own juices.

We did.

After over two hours the crew restarted the engines and taxied to an alternate gate anyway since the London-bound flight with the mechanical problem was clogging the booked gate.

Now, from where I sit, this looks like any other day on United. Flights are routinely delayed. Gates are occupied. I find it interesting that the flight stats don’t match Hart’s story exactly, but at this point in my career, I don’t really believe anything anyone tells me.

But this I do believe: Hart had a bad flight experience, and no doubt, United could have done better.

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He wants $500 — half of his airfare — refunded.

A review of United’s contract of carriage and customer service plan suggest that no serious violations occurred. They may have broken the “Notify customers of known delays, cancellations and diversions” promise in their “customer commitment,” but so what? There are no penalties for doing so.

So now what? Hart contacted United and is waiting for a response. I doubt he’ll get a $500 refund. I could reach out to the airline, but I don’t think it will do anything more than apologize and throw a few worthless miles into his account.

The bigger problem is this: Why does it have to be so bad?

Why can’t United offer timely announcements, gates for its aircraft, adequate training for its pilots? Yes, they delivered Hart to his destination safely and sorta on time, but it sure didn’t feel that way. And that’s wrong.

Should I take John Hart's case?

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