Travels with Bob Airline Loyalty Programs, But Who Are They Loyal To?

 Travels with Bob Airline Loyalty Programs, But Who Are They Loyal To?

By Bob Nesoff

Virtually every airline has what they call a “Loyalty Program.” But people are beginning to question to whom those carriers are loyal.

Normally, my column is upbeat about travel, theater, dining and other fun stuff. But I’ve been hearing from some readers and individuals known to me about truly negative experiences that they’ve had with airlines and their loyalty programs. I’m going to detail my experiences with what has been, for years, my favorite airline, United Airlines, and what another couple experienced with United.

Over the years, I have rarely flown any other carrier. United has been my preference and I have accumulated a considerable number of miles. I’ve paid for flights to England, China, Israel, California, Alaska, Europe, domestic and other destinations.

In all that time, I have never filed a complaint. In fact, I’ve written letters commending both gate staff and flight attendants. United Airlines, in response to my only complaint, has simply brushed me off. I’ll go into my experience and will also detail one other from someone else.

I booked first class from Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey to Fairbanks, Alaska for a conference. My driver was late and caused me to miss the flight. The United staff in Newark Liberty immediately booked me on a flight for the next morning. They were courteous and professional and eager to help.

The first leg of the flight to Denver was uneventful, as any flight should be. That’s where it ended. My connection from Denver to Fairbanks kept coming up on the screen as “delayed.” That went on and it became obvious I would not be able to make a connecting flight to Fairbanks via Alaska Air. The connecting flight was finally canceled.

United provided accommodations at a nearby hotel. No vouchers for meals. Just a bed. For two days, the United staff in Denver was unable to rebook me. Again, no meal vouchers. I had to eat for two days, so meals were paid for out of pocket. The staff in Denver did their best, but for whatever reason could not rebook.

With my conference looming, I had no choice but to do the rebook myself on Alaska Air. Long flight, no first class, and all that was available was a crunched-in middle seat. I was a day late in getting to the conference.

I subsequently wrote two letters to United CEO Scott Kirby, never expecting to hear from him, but rather from a customer service representative. I guessed wrong. The only letter I received from Kirby, months later, welcomed me to “Premier Silver Status” for my loyalty to United Airlines.

I subsequently heard from a customer service rep who asked for receipts for the meals. Sorry, but I didn’t keep those receipts for almost a year. They knew I was not accommodated by United as they received the bill from the hotel. Maybe they thought I was on a prolonged religious fast and didn’t eat for two days.

The “customer service rep” informed me that “policy” dictated they could not refund money spent on another airline, even though I booked the entire route through United. There was no choice in the matter. Going from Denver to Fairbanks, Alaska via dog sled was out of the question. They were unable to rebook me, and I was left with no choice, not knowing when they could place me on a United flight.

Policy became United Airlines’ mantra. No apologies. Nada.

Then, for this year’s conference, I booked United from Sarasota, FL, non-stop to Houston. Those flights to and from were canceled and I was put on another flight. Oh, by the way, I had purchased two first-class tickets and was looking forward to an easy flight. Then the outbound and return flights were canceled and replaced with one-stop flights.

Now get this, from a non-stop, my outbound flight from Sarasota flew all the way north to Washington, DC. There was a nearly two-hour layover. Next, the return flight from Houston to Sarasota had a layover in Chicago, even further north. That brought with it a nearly six-hour layover. Fortunately, my United Club Card gives me access to the Club Lounge. Otherwise, we would have had to sit at the gate all that time.

One of the brain trusts at United credited me with 10,000 miles to my frequent flyer account. I have no idea if it was compensation for the Alaska fiasco or the Houston fiasco.

United sent out a post saying, “We’ve got your back,” in boldface. It continued: “That’s our customer promise when you book with United. Whether you need to change your travel plans, travel with little ones, or try to make a tight connection, we’re here for you every step of the journey.” As memes go, “LOL.”

A young couple, Karen and Antony Kwiecinski, had flown on vacation to Key West. On the morning of their return, they checked in with no problem. Not long after that, they were informed their flight had been canceled and United could not get them home for four days. Donna Kelly, “Executive Solutions Manager,” sent regrets, but no solution.

The bushwah United claimed was “weather” and “safety.” The couple checked the weather along their route home, and they said there was no inclement weather.

Her “Executive Solution” was to credit them with $200. But they were still stranded. She quoted “policy,” which seems to be United’s way of saying, “Tough stuff.” Ultimately, they had to fly a circuitous route in order to get home so that Antony could return to work.

Mr. Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO, I will have to reevaluate my loyalty to your loyalty program and your airline. I fly often enough to know that stuff happens and is beyond the airline’s control. I can and have dealt with that over the years. What I find difficult is being dismissed with the comment “It is against our policy.” United’s “policy” appears to be its method of leaving passengers stranded.

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