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Not so friendly skies: The fall of in-flight courtesy

It has always been my understanding that competition forces companies to try harder, offer better services and be more creative. In many cases, competition brings prices down. However, in the case of air travel, it seems quite the opposite. The more I travel, the less I seem to be offered on board. So we gave up food, checking bags, free booze on international flights, but have we also given up common courtesy?

Last week, I returned to Israel on a United Airlines flight from Newark. The plane was almost entirely full, with passengers clambering to find spots for their precious carry-ons in the overheard compartments. For the most part, the flight passed without incident. I was served a strange dinner-like substance and slept until just before the beginning of the descent.

As I woke up, an announcement requesting of passengers to return to their seats was being played. “Passengers will be required to remain in their seats until we have reached the gate,” said the voice. This is one of the perks of flying into Israeli air space, being forced to frantically run to the bathroom a full hour before landing.

At this point, I began to feel ill. As I reached for the barf bag, I knew it was already a bit too late. So, for the first time in my traveling life, I made use of the little paper sac usually found between the Duty Free and Atmosphere magazines. At that point, I pressed the call button.

For over twenty minutes, I sat and watched as flight crew members walked back and forth on the other side of the cabin. No one came to my side of the plane. Then, a passing flight attendant walked by me. I stopped her and before I could say anything, she disgustedly looked at the barf bag and said, “I can’t take that. You’re going to have to put that in the lav yourself.”

I said, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t get up.”

She again glanced at the bag and said, “Well, I can’t take it. That’s not my job.”

Then she walked away and came back with a big plastic bag. She quickly tossed it in my lap and continued on.

I was left with a large plastic bag, inside which I placed the soiled paper bag, stuck in my seat feeling ill. I should mention that I am visibly pregnant.

I left the call button on for the remaining thirty minutes of the flight. At no point did any cabin crewmember return to see why I was requesting assistance or to ask if I needed anything. At the end of the flight, I ran to the washroom to dispose of the bag and get myself together. It took about thirty, nauseous, sickening minutes to get back to my seat from the washroom and deplane.

From the airport, I made my way to the emergency room, where I was treated for severe dehydration.

The next day, having thought over the flight experience, I lodged a complaint online at the United Customer Care interface. I received an automated response stating that someone would contact me at the earliest convenience to follow up.

I went ahead and called United to make sure the complaint would not be lost in the clutter of America’s largest commercial airline. This was the beginning of another humiliating and infuriating journey.

I was told that Customer Care did not use telephones. The only way they communicate is via email. I requested to speak with a supervisor. She assured me that there were no telephones in the Customer Care department.

Thanks to the internet, we were able to find a direct line to the Executive Customer Care. After holding for forty minutes, a woman answered the phone. I told her what had happened with the previous two United representatives and how frustrated I was at the difficulty I had encountered in attempting to file a complaint. She told me that it must have been my fault for not explaining myself clearly to the others. Then she said we should focus on the content of my complaint.

After about twenty minutes on the phone, I heard the following sentences,

“Did you ask for water? If not, how could you expect her to bring it to you?”

“Your expectations were obviously off. The flight attendant did everything she could have.”

“Pregnant women experience these kinds of things all the time, get used to it.”

She then gave me the number of the complaint she had filed. I asked what I should do with this number and she said, “nothing. The number won’t do anything for you. It is only for you to feel like you’ve done something.”

When I asked what the good of that would be she said, “my patience is running very thin with you. You are rude, loud and disrespectful and I am about to hang up the phone.”

I realize that perhaps I had expected too much when I honestly believed I would receive a sincere apology from United. But to be convinced that I was in the wrong by a nasty voice over the phone was too much to handle.

Update, October 18: After days of futile phone calls and filling out unanswered online forms, I decided to post my experience with United here. Within hours of publishing, I received the following response. I must note that the voucher they have extended my way will only insure that I fly with United in the future, and that I will pay them more money, as $250 won’t buy a flight to anywhere from Tel Aviv.

Dear Mrs. Lenkinski,

The Executives Office of United Airlines received an email from our Social Media Team in regards to your recent travel plans, I was asked to contact you on behalf of Corporate Customer Care. I would like to sincerely apologize for the negative impression this situation may have created for you. It is certainly disconcerting to read your comments regarding the experience, and it is unfortunate that you were left with a depreciated opinion of United Airlines.  We strive to have the highest level of professionalism exemplified through our services.

Mrs. Lenkinski, it is apparent our service has not met your expectations, and for that, I sincerely apologize. The situations you described are not reflective of our commitment to providing our customers with the highest level of service, and I apologize for the negative impression our representatives created.  We intend to provide a quality experience, tailored to meet the individual needs of each of our passengers.  Based on your comments we did not meet our goal or your expectations.  I am sharing your comments in detail with our senior management for review and internal action, as we continue our efforts to improve upon the service you can expect to receive.

As a tangible means of acknowledging your disappointment, I have sent via a separate email an Electronic Travel Certificate in the amount of $250.00 for your use on a future trip. This certificate is valid for one year from the date of issue.

Contrary to the impression that we have left with you, we value your business and we look forward to the opportunity to regain your confidence in our service

Kind Regards,

Shaunte’ Baker- Corporate Customer Care

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    1. Mitchell Cohen

      Pretty soon, there will be a slot to deposit money on the door to the bathrooms on the plane (and/or a slot to scan your credit card).

      Be’sha’ah Tova….

      Reply to Comment
      • You aren’t wrong. The other day I was booking a flight from the UK to Tel Aviv, and the airline’s website (Jet2) presented me with a page full of ‘extras’ that I could pay for separately – such as a seat. A SEAT. £7.99 for the standard seat, £24.99 for legroom. Since when has sitting down been an extra?

        Reply to Comment
        • Piotr Berman

          Seats extra? What do thrifty passengers get? A permission to sit on the floor in the aisle? Or there is some section of the plane with a bare floor?

          Reply to Comment
    2. Well, for many years, I and many people have flown whenever and wherever. It’s been getting a bit harder, true, but think about what’ll happen to all of us flight-accustomed folk when it also gets really expensive (again) — due to high cost of aviation fuels, global warming flight-rationing, etc.

      Then there’ll be no politesse at all.

      And after all, you weren’t even a person of Arab name or appearance flying on el-Al!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Philos

      Deplane! Deplane! Deplane! Why? There is no reason for this word! The word that has served the language so well is disembark. Deplane! Deplane! I’m sure the proliferation of these asinine words is connected to the decline in common decency.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mike Carmel

        Wow Philos, get over yourself! It seems you took that one really badly. Be careful not to self-DEstruct…..

        Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      “It’s not my job” to clean up United’s plane for them. After that treatment, I’d have left the bag on the seat. Open.

      And sent them the hospital bill, as the dehydration was their fault for denying water.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mort Weiner

      United’s treatment of its customers is often extraordinarily shabby. Unfortunately, this is consistent with what I have experienced. Bring your own water aboard any United flight, and be prepared for rudeness.

      My recent example: I had an umbilical hernia operation and had to travel two days later. I carried a small wheeled bag with me. I was medically forbidden from lifting. I courteously asked the flight attendent if she could help me. She told me it wasn’t her job, and walked away. Another passenger helped me. Different facts, same scenario.

      Just an example. I could share many, many others, from the start to the finish of the United experience.

      This airline has developed deep problems, including an antipathy to its customers.

      I can’t think of anything that will change it, other than bankruptcy, abrogation of existing labor agreements, new workforce, and new management. OK to keep the planes and the infrastructure, and probably the mechanics and pilots. The rest — not so much.

      Reply to Comment
      • Michael

        I hear you about United. While I haven’t experienced anything quite as bad as described above, I do witness the rudeness and apparent lack of interest from the flight attendants. Its amazing the difference when you fly an international carrier!

        Reply to Comment
    6. Faramarz

      You got money, what more could you want?

      Reply to Comment