Come Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Photo by Nicky Boogaard | CC BY 2.0

When it comes to air travel, there are airlines, and then there’s United Airlines.  Many people know this from experiences hard earned at the hands of United, including yours truly.

While there are thousands and thousands of complaints to be made about United, (merely) moaning about is futile– United, if anything, is a symptom of something deeper and more pervasive, namely, what happens to a business whose sole raison d’etre is the profit motive, and the accompanying race to the bottom in search of profits.

To be fair, all United’s American competitors embody the same raison, which explains why no American airline has, for decades, ever been in the many published lists of the world’s top airlines.

I should begin by saying that my studies and academic work have taken me to many parts of the world, that my life-span has been divided between 3 continents (Asia (1.5 decades), Europe (2.5 decades), America-US (3 decades), and that largely as a result of this, I’ve flown an estimated 2 million miles since I was a teenager in the 1960s, despite never flying in order to be a tourist.

So, what about United?  For the past 18 years I’ve lived in a rural part of Virginia, and the primary airline serving its small regional airport is United.  It made sense therefore for me to join its frequent-flier “rewards” scheme, which I duly did.

A few years ago, I’d already acquired around 600,000 “lifetime” frequent-flier miles with United.  I had to agree to the fine-print of United’s rewards scheme to join it, and it contained the stipulation that “United reserves the right to adjust your frequent-flier miles in line with its earnings profile” (or something along these lines).

Which United duly did.  I got an email saying 200,000 or so of my supposedly “lifetime” miles were about to vanish with the click of a computer keyboard in such an “adjustment”.  I was aggrieved, and quickly looked up United’s profits for the year before– these were $693m in 2012, according to the US Bureau of Transportation.

By now somewhat pained, I sent a written complaint saying it was hard to see how my “lifetime” frequent-flier miles could be “adjusted” downwards when United was absolutely raking-in the money, so could they please tell me if United was ripping me off by any chance?

I got the expected boilerplate reply: “We always aim to please our customers, and you are a most valued customer, etc, etc, but we ask you to please be informed of the terms of your frequent-flier agreement”.

I researched the possibility of joining another airline’s rewards programme (Lufthansa, Singapore), but encountered two drawbacks:  my United miles could not be transferred to them, and they do not fly domestically in the US.

So, I’m stuck with United, and its downright mediocrity at all levels.

In December 2016 came a hellish United flight from Washington DC to Sydney, where my academic spouse and I were due to attend an international conference.

Our flight from Washington to San Francisco (the first leg to Sydney) took off more than an hour late.  Severe weather in the mid-West was causing an air-traffic back-up into SF, and our flight was held back until the back-up was reduced.

Our plane had to carry more fuel in case it had to be in the air for more than the allotted time, so rows 4-8, in premier economy, had to be emptied to “balance” the aircraft, and I was moved to a regular economy seat.

Fair enough, maybe, except that our seats were in row 4, and at 6’5”/1.98m I needed the extra leg-room in premier economy.  I pleaded my case with the gate agent, who brushed me aside, and said I should ask a flight attendant to deal with my concerns once I was on the plane.

Predictably, I did not fit in the regular seat assigned me, so a sympathetic flight attendant told me to go to the back of the plane, where I could have a row of seats all to myself, which was fine, as long as I sat sideways for the entire five-hour flight. When I complained about this to United later, they gave me 10,000 frequent flier miles in “compensation” for the inconvenience.

While being delayed on the tarmac in Washington, the captain announced that we should expect more delays in the air en route to San Francisco, which meant we were going to miss our flight to Sydney.  A rebooking was in order, and this is what mobile phones are for.

The equivalent flight from SF to Sydney the next day was fully booked, so over her mobile my spouse chose the best alternative– fly to Los Angeles from SF the next day, and catch the LA to Sydney flight later that evening, which had seats available.

In due course, our delayed flight from Washington landed in SF, and having altered our flight plans from the no longer viable SF-Sydney to LA-Sydney, the agent my spouse spoke with on the phone assured her that the baggage service would be instructed to hold our bags on our arrival in SF, and not load them on to the SF-Sydney flight. So, we went to the baggage claim area to pick up our bags.  We waited and waited for our bags, sitting for over 3 hours in the baggage claim area.

The baggage claim area was woefully understaffed, United having outsourced this, and the backlog and rescheduling caused by the severe weather meant that many people were in the same situation as us.  All of us were given the typical round around (“we’re looking for it at X, now, Y, now Z”), until after midnight they told us their computer showed that our bags had been put on the SF-Sydney plane, even though we were not passengers on that flight!

It is an absolute no-no in airline security for unaccompanied luggage to be loaded on to a plane– the Lockerbie air disaster occurred when an unaccompanied bag with a bomb in it was loaded onto the PanAm plane.  Of course, our bags had no bombs in them, but United treated them in exactly the same way as PanAm did the unaccompanied suitcase on that fateful flight.

My written complaint to United about this major lapse of security has received no response.

So, exhausted, we checked into an airport hotel in SF after midnight, with no bags.  Fortunately, airport hotels are accustomed to dealing with passengers let down by their airlines, and toiletries were given us, and from the hotel gift shop I was able to buy a new t-shirt to wear the next day.

We flew to LA the next morning, then on to Sydney, where our unaccompanied luggage was awaiting us in the baggage claim area at Sydney airport.

Is this unsatisfactory flying experience with an American airline atypical?

Alas not.  The last time I flew on Delta was about 20 years ago, on a flight from Atlanta to London. Given my long legs, I offered to pay extra for an exit row seat.  The flight is fully booked, said the check-in agent, ask the flight attendants to help you.  I simply could not fit into my economy seat, so the Delta flight attendants devised a solution.

Flight attendants sit in jump seats on takeoff and landing, so their solution was for me to sit on one of their jump seats, with plenty of leg-room (!), fly across the Atlantic thus, except for takeoff and landing (because the flight attendants would then need to be in their jump seats) — at which point I had of course to sit in the regular seat assigned me, with my legs poking out sideways into the aisle.

I’ve refused to fly Delta ever since.

After United misplaced our bags on the flight to Sydney in December 2016, United has misplaced my bag on a flight from San Francisco to Toronto (last month), and on a flight from Toronto to Washington DC (last week).

The flight from Toronto to Washington takes only an hour on a regional jet, with no stops.  My small carry-on bag was too big for the minuscule overhead bin, so it had to be checked in plane-side, to be picked-up plane-side when we got to Washington.  It was not there when I got off the plane.  According to the baggage handler’s scanner, it had been unloaded, so it disappeared in the couple of minutes before I deplaned. Either another passenger took it by mistake, in which case they’d have to be virtually blind given the numerous stickers I have on it, or… whatever.

We waited a couple of hours in the baggage claim area while United did a “run through” search for my bag.  Nothing showed up, so we checked into our Washington airport hotel without several of my electronics, most of which were in the missing bag.

11 hours after the flight I got an email from United at 2.30 am (I’m a night owl) saying their “deep search” had located it. It was delivered to my hotel later that morning.

I told myself I should look on the bright side of things, and given that United recently dragged a passenger off the plane feet first, I entertained a scenario in which I was delighted not to be roughed-up by United’s goons when I reported my missing bag!

Why is United so dismal?

Only a few wide-bodied jets are capable of undertaking the longest-haul intercontinental flights– Boeing’s 747, 787, and 777, and Airbus’s A380 and A350.  All airlines pretty much fly the same planes on the longest routes, so it is relatively easy to make comparisons between airlines with regard to cabin configurations and levels of service both off and on the aircraft.

I’ve flown with all the top European, Asian, and Middle Eastern carriers, and they all seem to have more cabin crew than United.

Cabin crew to passenger-seat ratios are set by individual countries, and the US FAA requires carriers to have a cabin crew to passenger-seat ratio of 1:50, Canada and the UK have a ratio of 1:40 (Canada with some exemptions allowing a 1:50 ratio), and Australia 1:36 (for aircraft carrying between 36 and 216 passengers, and it is pro-rated upwards if there are more passengers than 216).

The larger this ratio is, the greater the likelihood that cabin crews will be overstretched, and service will suffer accordingly.  No wonder Quantas flight attendants always seem cheerier than their American counterparts!

Another important consideration is flight attendant salaries, and where these are concerned,, says that “our data indicates that the best paid Flight Attendants work for Aloha Airlines at $80,000 annually” (with $38,000 being the annual average for US airlines).

The same website says Lufthansa flight attendants on average earn $50,000 annually.

Emirates pays entry-level flight attendants a basic salary of €976/$1127 a month, with an added hourly flight-time rate of €13/$15 per hour (flight attendants typically fly between 80-100 hours a month).  An Emirates purser makes €1323/$1533 monthly, as well €21/$24 hourly.  Emirates salaries are tax-free, and flight attendants are given a free fully-furnished apartment in Dubai, with all utilities paid for, as well as profit-sharing supplements.

Etihad has a similar salary structure.  After 6 months, its entry-level flight attendants earn (with flying 80 hours a month) €1445/$1700 tax free. Flight attendants are given a free fully-furnished apartment in Abu Dhabi, with all utilities paid for.  Qatar Airways salaries are comparable.

According to the BoardingArea website, Singapore Airlines pays its flight attendants $2600-$4400 a month, with extra allowances for long-haul flights and overseas night stops. There is an annual wage supplement of one month’s salary and a profit-sharing bonus, along with an excellent benefits package.

So how does United stack-up against this competition?  According to, in 2016 the “typical United Airlines Flight Attendant salary is $41,313”.  This of course is not tax-free, and rent-free accommodation is not provided.  The US Census ACS survey reports that US per capita income was $29,979 in 2015, so while United’s flight attendants do well in comparison with other Americans (and with other US flight attendants, whose average salary is $38,000), they lag behind their counterparts working for the major non-American airlines.

If the friendly skies are perhaps not so friendly when one is inside the cabin, the explanation may not be difficult to find. (Though United in my experience does have some highly professional flight attendants, despite relatively poorer pay and having to serve more passengers per attendant than many other airlines.)

Baggage handling also suffers from under-resourcing– when flights are delayed and there is a squeeze in the baggage claim area, United invariably has one or (sometimes) two agents at its missing-luggage counter serving up to10-20 passengers, whereas other airlines always seem to have 3 or 4 agents at the counter during crunch times.

On our mishap-prone flight to Sydney, San Francisco’s baggage-handling system buckled before our eyes– scores of people were looking for their bags, and there were only 2-3 people to help them.  These handlers were running around with bits of paper in each hand, trying to do several things at the same time.

Out of pity for the over-worked handlers, and tired of saying endless times what our bags looked like, I offered to go to the sorting area to search for our bags, but was told by an agent I lacked the legal authorization to enter the area.

American carriers pare everything to the bone to boost their profit margins, and are nowhere near any listing of the world’s top airlines, most of which (surprise, surprise!) are government owned: the government-owned Air New Zealand, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Singapore, Turkish, and Thai Airways nearly always feature on these lists.

As for United, I’m a platinum-level rewards customer, which, allegedly, gives me some clout when problems arise, even though I usually end-up getting the customary run around from United staff.

I shudder to think what it must be like for those with no visible clout when they approach a United counter, and then come across poorly-paid and undertrained staff with no interest whatsoever in dealing with their predicaments.

Getting the customary run around will only be the beginning of their problems.

The solution for United and other US carriers is simple (in principle): ensure that employees’ salaries and benefit packages are on a par with the world’s top airlines, provide employees with decent working-conditions and adequate training (this will cost more of course), resist turning planes into sardine cans (no one should have to fly across the Atlantic sitting in a flight attendant’s jump seat), don’t rip-off your customers just because you think this will augment your profits (e.g. taking away their “lifetime” frequent-flier miles when your profits in the previous year were more than half-a-billion bucks), and never forget that old adage of American capitalism even for the humblest and lowest-paying passenger, namely, “the customer is always right” (to begin with at any rate, and even if the customer is an ill-tempered knuckle-dragger, there are ways of dealing with him or her that are certainly better for all concerned).

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.