On July 24th, fresh off of a fantastic vacation in Norway, we were supposed to return home on United flight 71. Little did we know that we’d only be home almost 48 hours later, including over 5 hours on planes that never moved. If it weren’t for the incredible vacation we had just had with our twins, their first time out of the country, the whole thing might have been ruined.
Traveling with one-year-old twins isn’t easy. A lot of planning needs to go into it. Meals must be scheduled, supplies must be picked up, and flights are purposely booked around meal and bed time schedules to prevent tantrums and freakouts. When things go off plan, even a little, it can wreck serious havoc. When things go utterly derailed, horror ensues.
After two weeks in Norway and a day exploring Amsterdam’s craft breweries, we weren’t exactly ready to go back to our normal lives, but we were ready to give the boys some structure back. After proceeding through the airport, security is no easy feat with twins, we got to the gate nice and early. We were delayed boarding the plane as the incoming flight was late getting in. This was pretty understandable as it happens all the time. After this, a series of cascading and escalating events took place, stranding us at the airport and on a non-moving plane for hours with unhappy twin toddlers.
We boarded the plane. After about 15 to 20 minutes waiting after the last passenger arrived, finally the doors were locked. Then nothing happened for some time. At first, we were told we needed to split up our seating as there were not enough oxygen masks in the row for us and the children. This was after we had traveled to Amsterdam on the same plane configuration without issue. We had purposely booked the bulkhead row seats so that we could sit together and have some space for the children on the long flight. To be told at this point, after confirming with an agent on the phone during booking that we would be fine in this row, was unexpected and concerning. Not only was it incredibly inconvenient as no one wanted to swap seats with us, but we would also be separated with a child each. Also, one of us would no longer be in the extra legroom seat or have the bulkhead space for the child. It was concerning that no one had alerted us to the possibly safety issue on the flight out. If something terrible had happened, would one of us or a child be without an oxygen mask?
Then, we sat and we sat and we sat. The only communication from the pilot over the barely audible sound system was that they were “waiting on paperwork”. About 1.5 hours later, a flight attendant informed us that we would be given the opportunity to deplane if we wanted to stretch our legs. Another hour later, we were still waiting on the plane, a total of nearly 2.5 hours on the plane going nowhere with no additional information other than “waiting on paperwork”. Meanwhile, both children had conducted a full tantrum and couldn’t be calmed because we couldn’t leave our seats. We were finally told that we had to deplane and take all of our belongings because the plane was going into maintenance for service. All this time our children were stuck on our laps as the seatbelt sign remained on and we continued to be separated.
We eventually deplaned, only to be stuck in the tunnel of the jetway because no one told the gate we were being deplaned. We then had to wait nearly 30 minutes for the stroller, which had been gate checked, to come back off of the plane. When we finally got back out into the waiting area, the staff there had no information. Finally a gate agent appeared to tell us the flight was delayed another hour (a total 4 hours and 25 minutes) and the new gate was now in the G wing of Schiphol airport. At Schipol, this is over a 30 minute walk and with bags and two children, this isn’t a simple task. While waiting for the stroller, the entire flight passed us, and a huge jumbo jet arrived with several hundred passengers, all of which got past us in the passport line which we now had to wait in because we had to switch terminals. Prior to leaving the gate area, we asked when the crew would “time out” and would not be able to service the flight, and learned this would occur 5 minutes after our new departure time. At this point we knew we weren’t going anywhere as there wasn’t enough time for the crew and all passengers to board. So we asked about getting put on another flight. We was abruptly told there were no possibilities because it was “holiday season”, only before the last possible agent to answer questions disappeared.
We made the hike over to the new gate, having to stop to change diapers for the children. Upon arrival at this gate, there were no airport or United personnel and the sign said gate closed. Everyone was left to wonder and speculate what was going on and if we were in the right place. After about 30 minutes, a United representative arrived to tell us that food would be provided and that information on our flight would be provided shortly. Finally the food arrived. It consisted of potato chips, chocolate bars, and soda. This was not an acceptable form of a meal, especially for two 13 month olds. So, we asked if we could be provided with milk for the boys. We asked three times and were never provided with any milk.
Shortly thereafter, a United representative showed up to notify us that our flight was cancelled and we had all been rebooked on a flight leaving the following morning at 8:30am. We were all booked in a hotel overnight. No additional information was available at the gate, everyone had to make their way back to baggage claim to pick up bags and get signed up for a hotel room, only after collecting their baggage. While no other information was available, the fact that we first had to collect our baggage before we could get any more information was repeated multiple times. When asked when the luggage would be available, an employee waived his arm dismissively and said, “it’ll get here” before walking away.
We finally made it to the hotel at around 4:30pm. By 5pm, we were already notified that our next day’s flight was delayed to by 2 hours, to 10:15am by the United app, though no one present had this information. Before the night was over, the flight would be delayed another 2 hours to 12:15pm. During these notifications of delay, we were informed that the pick-up shuttle would still arrive at 5:30am (almost 7 hours before our flight was scheduled to depart) to take us to the airport.
The next day, getting ourselves and our twins ready, we proceeded downstairs to the lobby for the 5:30am departure time at which point we were informed the buses would not be there until 9am. This was another example of an utter lack of communication and information to us “stranded passengers” as signs in the hotel pointed out.
On the second day at the airport, things didn’t get any better. We all arrived at the gate only to not have any crew present for the flight. It turned out their transportation did not show up on time for pick-up. By the time we were finally boarded and ready for take-off it was closer to 1pm, an additional 45 minute delay. Once we finally started taxiing, the plane came to a stop and we were told that we needed to head back to the gate because our cargo needed to be reloaded. After another 45 minutes on the plane and on the tarmac, we finally took off at almost 2pm.
During the entire experience, we were informed of our “rights” as passengers and the policy for issues. Rather than having this information available, agents simply directed us to printed sheets containing the policy. They wouldn’t utter a word about it. Eventually we came to realize that we had to enter a claim online. We asked for the basic compensation outlined in the policy. We did not ask for additional miles, cash, or upgrades, even with the horrible experience we had. We did not seek recompense for the additional supplies we needed for the boys like diapers and milk. We both ended up missing an extra day of work. Thankfully both of us have forgiving and understanding employers. Two weeks later, we’re still waiting to hear any response from United.
This past experience is the worst experience I have had flying on any airline in my entire experience of flying. The lack of compassion and information from all the United staff, from the crew to the gate agents to the phone representatives is inexcusable. I might not be an “elite” passenger but I, my wife and my 13 month old twins are United customers and have been loyal ones since the early 90s. We choose to fly with United even when other more affordable or convenient options are present because of that loyalty. We are not weekly travelers, but both my wife and I fly frequently for work and pleasure, and this experience has completely ruined our impression and trusting relationship with United. If our experience is an example of the “friendly skies”, that says a lot for the future of United. A smile, a thank you and some compassion goes a long way. They had 200+ passengers with no information trying to get home or get their vacations started and 200+ customers that are going to think long and hard as to who their carrier is. I truly hope this was an exception to the rule. I know that United has recently been in the news for poor customer service including the doctor who was forcibly removed and the mother who was forced to sit with a toddler on her lap when he had a ticket, and that changes are being made to policies to prevent this kind of issue. I hope these changes also include improvements in service like this, incidents that may not be severe enough to make the news, but harm customer trust in the company just as much. And I truly hope that as a customer oriented organization there will be action taken to correct this type of service.