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