You broke it, you should fix it
You’re liable, just admit it
I should’ve flown with someone else
Or gone by car
("United Breaks Guitars," by Dave Carroll)

We interrupt the saga of our Italian adventure to bring you the horrific story of what has been happening as we attempt to finish the trip. Next week, I’ll be back to telling you all about St. Peter’s Basilica and our adventures in the subways of Rome, but I had to stop for a while to tell you about this. Because it’s the worst airport experience I’ve had in almost fifty years of frequent flying.

Thursday

First of all, we arrived at Newark airport way early for our 7pm flight on Thursday, because we had to leave our hotel no later than noon. So we made it to the airport by 1PM, and then checked in and asked for a wheelchair to help me get through security and settled into a lounge to wait.

The wheelchair lady, though doing her best, had massively insufficient staff. So even though we were theoretically third in line for a chair, she had to keep putting other people in front of us because they had much earlier flights than we did. That’s fair; I approve of triage as a concept. I would be fine even if it took me a while to get where I was going, but those people needed to reach their planes, pronto.

So we sat and waited, while people who arrived after us were helped. Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t just something she was doing for a handful of people in a hurry… every later arrival was being put in front of us. I checked this with her and she confirmed apologetically, saying that because there were just so few wheelchair attendants, she had to prioritize by flight even when both they and we had plenty of time.

Since that would mean we sat there for the entire several hours until our flight was near, we decided to give up and walk. I was in relatively decent shape, and we were informed that there was a United Club not far from the security line, so we set out on foot in that direction. We had first class tickets; we could settle in and relax there. If it was anything like Delta’s first class lounge, there might even be enough room between seats that we could let our guard down a little and eat. This was going to be important, since we had a six hour wait followed by a six hour flight. If we weren’t able to eat and drink in any of that time, this was going to be a very long night.

We presented ourselves at the lounge and showed our boarding passes. The attendant looked at us with bemusement. “But you’re traveling to Seattle.”

We agreed that we were.

“I’m sorry. This lounge is only for international passengers, unless you have a day pass.” Well, how do we get a day pass? “You have to buy one. They’re $59 each.”

I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of paying $120 for a better place to sit for four hours. That’s the price of a night at a respectable motel in a lot of places. So we gave up and went to our gate, hoping it would be relatively uncrowded as of yet. Unfortunately, there was an earlier plane there, and there were only a few minutes when I could send J, who was getting very hungry and thirsty, to catch a few bites at the farthest place from other humans and their viruses.

We did find a slightly better place to wait, after an hour or two. Downstairs, near the bathrooms, there was a gate not currently being used, and we sat there and stuffed a few crackers into our mouths. And then I got the announcement that our flight was going to be delayed… by nearly three hours.

This was not merely annoying, it was downright alarming. Time to pay for space, if we were going to have to be here that long. We trudged — still on foot, since I had never gotten that wheelchair help in the first place — back to the lounge.

“I’m sorry,” the attendant explained. “There’s no space left. We aren’t selling day passes anymore tonight.”

Was there anywhere else we could go? We remembered hearing about a second lounge at the other end of the terminal. It was only a pop-up lounge, with fewer amenities, but might at least give us someplace comfortable to sit, and far enough from other passengers that we could eat — our spot by the bathrooms was becoming too crowded, and we had an extra four hours until we could hope to get home. By then it would be more than twelve hours since we’d had a meal.

The attendant from the main lounge called ahead to the pop-up lounge, and confirmed that they were still, barely, selling day passes. She even got him to hold two for us until we could get there. We set off — still on foot, with feet getting wearier with every step — for the faraway other end of the terminal.

We arrived there at last, and he was indeed holding our passes. But one look told us that the lounge held nothing we could use. It was stuffed to the gills with people; there were no free seats and even the folks standing were shoulder to shoulder. We thanked him for his efforts and walked away, frustrated and exhausted.

At least we were in the right end of the terminal this time, because our gate had been changed to one in the arm we were currently in. All well and good, except there were rumors that it was going to be delayed… again. The plane they were intending to use for us hadn’t taken off yet from its previous port of call — it was grounded on the other side of a storm system, in North Carolina. It was currently 7:30PM, we had been in the airport since 1PM, and our flight was still technically scheduled for 9:30, but the scuttlebutt was that it might not leave until after midnight.

In desperation, I called my travel agent. Or at least my travel agency, 58 Stars. Dan, my regular agent there, was on vacation; but his colleague Allan answered me, and said he’d do his best to get us on an earlier flight. There was one — and the 8:29 flight was going out on a plane that was already in the airport with us. That sounded hopeful. Allan couldn’t get us the first class seats we’d paid for on that flight, but by this time it was much more important to get home, by whatever means. So we took coach seats and he secured us a confirmed reservation. It was too close to departure time for Allan to be able to get our seats specified, so he told us to go to the gate for that.

We went to the gate. The agent looked at us in total exasperation.

“Do you see all these people?” she demanded of me. “Every one of them has been rebooked on this flight. I have noplace to put them!! There are no seats on this plane, but they keep booking you all.”

I tried to give her the number for my confirmed reservation, but it got nowhere. There were no seats, no matter what the reservations agent had told Allan. We were not going to be getting on that plane.

Now, we were in deep trouble. We had no seats on the 8:29, and we had given up our seats on the original flight when we thought we had been switched. I called back Allan in a panic. He cautioned me that he had no idea when our original flight would actually take off, but he would try to get us back onto it, for whatever that was worth. A few minutes after the 8:29 took off without us, he called back and assured me that he’d gotten us back on the first plane. He’d even managed to put us back in first class, though in different seats from our initial ones.

I thanked Allan profusely, and we went off to wait for our much-delayed plane. By this time, it was at yet a different gate, which we thought might mean they’d formally delayed it again. And we were right: it was now due to leave just after midnight. J found a place under the stairs where there was a crawlway that nobody seemed to be using, and I bought him dinner that he could eat down there, far away from the other passengers. I still wasn’t keen on unmasking long enough to eat, even down there… but J needed food so badly that I had to take the risk. There was certainly nowhere else away from other passengers — they were everywhere by now, because our flight was far from the only one that was delayed that night. Very little seemed to be getting out, and the desperate passengers were lined up for two whole concourses away from the United customer service desk. We got a little food into us and then went back to the gate to wait for our much-delayed plane.

For a while, it looked not too bad. Our energy was a bit restored by food — I had milk and crackers while J ate a burger; I was too stressed to be hungrier than that but knew I needed something in my stomach in order to function for as long as I would have to. And our plane had finally taken off from its original source in North Carolina. The scheduled departure time had even been pushed forward just a little, from 12:10 to 11:55.

11:55 approached. The plane was cleaned and the flight attendants boarded. We waited for word to board, but all we got was an announcement from the gate attendant that they could not find our pilots. Apparently our original pilots had crossed the line into disqualification: if they took us to Seattle, they would be working for longer than they were legally permitted to stay on shift, for safety’s sake. So they were out. The gate agents were trying to find us others.

So were the gate agents for every other delayed flight in the airport. There were a whole lot of those.

So the flight was delayed again, as they tried to find us a crew. For a while, it was very much catch as catch can all over Newark airport, and our gate attendants weren’t as quick as some of the others at catching loose pilots. The flight time crept back, a few minutes at a time. The ominous word ‘cancellation’ began to be tossed around.

Finally, at 1:30 AM, they threw in the towel. We were all offered rebooking on the next day’s flights and there was a mad rush to grab it. We just barely squeezed in on an 8:30PM flight the following day — or rather, later that same day, since we were well into early morning by this time — in, once again, coach seats. I would need to apply for reimbursement later, I was told, for the difference.

I sighed, took the seats I could get, and asked where I could find a hotel.

The gate agent told me that I could wait in line for the service desk to help me book one — which looked like it would be about three more hours by this point, and that’s if it moved quickly. United wouldn’t pay for it. Apparently they no longer help with expenses if the flight is cancelled due to weather. ‘We couldn’t find you any pilots’ is still considered a weather problem if the shortage of pilots was due to weather delays in the first place. Or, if I wanted to go it alone, I could go down to the baggage claim area, look for the signs that advertised local hotels there, and book my own.

I asked the desk agent if she could call me a wheelchair to get to baggage claim. My legs could not take me another step. She agreed (I think she was glad there was actually something helpful that she could do), and the wheelchair turned up quickly. I plopped exhaustedly into it, and J trundled along behind me. He didn’t mind the walk… he was punch drunk by this point, and turning cartwheels for the fun of it. We set out to look for a hotel.

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. No sign was located where they told me a sign would be located. I was just trying to ask my attendant if she knew any other place I could find out about local hotels, when somebody else from the airline — somebody with authority, though I have no idea what kind — passed us and stopped. And it was right then that the wheelchair worked just a little bit of magic, as they occasionally do.

Whoever the passing authority figure was, she told my attendant at once, “Take her up to the service desk — right to the front of the line. Tell them to give her a hotel, transfers and meal vouchers.”

And that was how, while everyone else waited hours on line for whatever help they could get, I found myself with a pre-paid hotel room, and vouchers for a taxi there and back, and a meal for each of us, within ten minutes of arriving at the desk. I was more than a little embarrassed at this. No, I can’t walk far, but that doesn’t mean I deserved more help or faster help than anyone else there. But I was much too tired to question it, and I had a kid to take care of who was as drained as I was. I took the help gratefully, and the same wheelchair attendant drove me up to the front of the block-long taxi line and got us immediately into a cab. I collapsed into the seat beside my son, and we set out for the East Brunswick Hilton.

We checked into our prepaid room and secured the latest checkout time they were willing to give us — 1PM, which is actually rather better than typical late checkout at most hotels. I was very glad. That would give us the most possible time to rest, and the least possible waiting time back at the airport before our 8:30 flight Friday evening. We crawled upstairs to our room, and went to sleep.

Friday

The next day, we were still at the hotel around 11AM, just starting to get ready to eat and pack, when my phone rang with a message. The 8:30 plane that night had also been cancelled. We were right back to square one.

I called my agency and they went into action again, finding us a 5:30PM Saturday flight. They even got us back into first class seats, and the flight was early enough in the evening that with a 1PM checkout time we wouldn’t be waiting at the airport too long. But the airline wouldn’t pay for another night at the hotel.

They should, frankly. Whatever their reason, if they can’t provide the service for which you have paid, they should be covering the expenses you incur because of their failure. But they don’t, and at that point I was too drained to care that much. If throwing money at the situation would buy us another full day to rest in our hotel room, I would throw it. So I thanked Kathy, Allan’s colleague at 58 Stars, and called down to the hotel desk. They allowed me to extend my stay for one more day at my own expense, and we sat tight in our hotel room all day Friday, recuperating from the ordeal the night before.

Saturday

On Saturday, we went back to the airport and everything seemed absurdly easy by comparison to the last two days. I got a wheelchair almost at once — for the first time in my life, I requested it even before I checked in, because my feet were so sore from all the walking on Thursday. We waited a couple of hours, boarded on time, and our flight went off when it was supposed to. I’m writing this from 30,000 feet in the air, about an hour and a half short of our scheduled arrival in Seattle.

Crossed fingers, toes and eyes, our ordeal is done.

But I’m going to try really hard to avoid Newark, and United, in the future. There were cancellations on every airline and at every airport in the region; it was just a bad weather front. But not all of them cascaded into a horrific adventure of this magnitude. This was largely due to United’s policies — about lounge access, about staffing, about compensation — and partly due to Newark’s. We probably did have to stay on the ground for two extra nights, because of the weather issues, but it didn’t have to be nearly that bad.


Update two days later: On Sunday, we learned that J caught Covid during our marathon ordeal at the airport on Thursday. I don’t seem to have picked it up, despite sharing a hotel room with him for a couple of days. He is isolating and taking anti-virals, and we have every reason to think he’s going to be okay in a few days… but I blame that on United and Newark too.

3 thoughts on “United Breaks Passengers

  1. Naomi says:

    Follow-up: there appear to be a couple of avenues of recourse I can pursue — one reader of this post contacted me and helped walk me through my options. The involuntary denial of boarding on the 8:29 flight should never have happened and I can file a DOT complaint for it — may or may not get compensation, but it might be worth a try. And if I’m remembering correctly which credit card I used to pay for the flight, I may get small amounts of delayed travel coverage through that, which would reimburse me for the extra night’s hotel and related expenses. I’ll keep you all posted on what happens!

  2. Gary McGath says:

    Urgh. Glad you finally made it through. On October 6, 2006, I had a bad experience in Newark Airport coming home from Germany, but it wasn’t a tenth as bad as yours. It involved going through customs, running like crazy to catch my connecting flight, going through the security scan several times before the agent and I figured out I still had a turned-on phone in my pocket, and then waiting for four hours because the flight I ran to catch had been delayed. But I got on the plane I was supposed to get on, so it wasn’t in the same class as your experience. It’s just more evidence that Newark is a pain. (I remember the exact date because it was my girlfriend’s birthday, and I had to fit time to call her into all that.)

    I hope you get some compensation for all that pain.

  3. Alan Thiesen says:

    I’m sorry you were so terribly inconvenienced. I had a problem with United yesterday, but compared to your ordeal, it was trivial.

    United
    You sent my suitcase astray
    United
    to the City by the Bay.
    I flew to Sacramento.
    That’s not where my luggage went. Oh,
    I’d better get my suitcase back by Saturday.
    United sent my luggage astray.

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