What happened on my United flight back from Brazil two years ago

The following story is what happened to me on a United flight back to Brazil two years ago. This is a story of an emergency landing in the middle of the Amazon, followed by several customer service mishaps, compounded by more customer service debacles, punctuated by a scary outcome that could happen to you if you are not careful about the way you make a complaint to United.

On Dec 4th my United flight home from Brazil at 11 pm was cancelled for a reason they never specified. They offered to reschedule me on another flight the next early afternoon, but since I was flying into DC I knew that I would probably get stuck in DC for a night and was not sure who would foot that bill, so I called and got on another flight at 11 pm the following night. That flight took off an hour late, and then in the middle of the night around 3 am, we made an emergency landing in Manaus, in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. As you can imagine, pretty scary to be woken up for that announcement. I can only speculate to the issue that had United make this emergency landing, but I do have to wonder if the same issues that kept the plane on the ground the first night were to cause for the second flight’s issues, and whether it was the same plane.

When we landed United staff told us we had two choices to wait until another flight arrived: one, a room in the “nice” hotel with one other person, or two, a room to ourselves in the “not-so-nice” hotel. I chose the second option because we did not arrive into Manaus until about 6 am, and I was exhausted, did not know anyone on the flight and wanted to be alone. When we got to the hotel United staff were told that there were not enough hotel rooms for everyone to be in a single, so we doubled up anyway.

Later in the day we were loaded back to the airport, and United staff gave us a voucher which they told us to fill out when we arrived home. The voucher did not say anything about how this would be handled.

I arrived back to Portland two days late, and multiple meetings cancelled which were facilitated by my business coach for a fee, so there was a real cost to these delays for me. I also found out that I was not able to donate blood at the Red Cross for a full year (I have been donating using Apheresis every six weeks for years) after being in the Amazon because of the Malaria risk, which was definitely not mentioned to me at any point during our time in Manaus, nor were we told to remain in the hotel or take precautions.

Up until this point I actually felt like United employees acted as professional as could be expected given the situation. From here on out, however, the story is one, in my opinion, of utter disregard for a long time customer.

After I arrived home I submitted something to their online customer support link on the United website. I took this action, rather than just fill out the voucher and submit it normally, because my case was different than most of the other people on the flight who had only lost one day. I had lost two full days. I heard nothing for several months, and never received a response indicating that the issue was being handled or even looked at.

I then decided to call United and spoke to an agent who recommended I write a letter and include the voucher. Again, I sent this in, and then never heard back from them.

A year passed. I was at wits end as to what I could do since neither of these avenues yielded a result. I learned that you can file a claim in Oregon small claims court for wrongs committed by corporations by suing an officer in that court, and if they or their lawyer do not attend the proceeding, you win by default. I thought this was worth a try.

I went to the United.com website intending to call someone at their customer service department, and United no longer has phone numbers for customer service. I then looked and found a link to online customer service, and submitted a full description of what had happened, with a request for two round trip tickets, or stated I would sue in small claims court.

I got back a response saying this:

Dear Mr. Dawson:

Thank you for contacting United. Our records show that you first contacted us in June 2008 about this flight and then again in July 2008 where you accepted a travel certificate for $100. At this point United cannot offer additional compensation for this matter and will have to consider this a closed issue.

Although we cannot honor your request, your understanding is appreciated.

Regards, …

I was blown away, first because I had never received this travel certificate (they later claimed it was emailed to me, though I searched my mail and did not find an email with “united $100” in it). Even more insulting was that by giving me $100 I have the option to do nothing beyond spend more money on crummy United service! When I sent in my letter with the voucher I specifically asked that they contact me by a certain date, and I would have assumed a customer service mishap like this would have resulted in more than an email.

I went back and forth with them and they would not budge. As I researched more and more it is apparent that suing United is cost prohibitive, both in terms of money and time.

But there’s a final chilling point to this story! In the final note from them, they said this:

Dear Mr. Dawson:

Thank you for contacting us.

I am sorry that you continue to be unhappy with United. We understand how frustrating your experience was. Ideally we would like to undo the circumstances you experienced, which we cannot do. The travel certificate was intended to provide you with another opportunity to experience the service you deserve. I realize that you do not feel it is meaningful given your circumstances. Nonetheless, I hope you will accept it in the spirit in which we have offered it to you.

United Airlines is committed to providing you the service you expect. I appreciate you giving us a chance to prove it.


Curiously embedded in the email response was this:

“-----Original Message-----

Received: 10/2/2009 12:49:07 PM

Subject: FW: United Airlines GN -Ref#: 7639247

These types of threats aren’t no list, only threats to ctc BBB and DOT are no list.

Please handle. Guest states that he intends to sue an officer of United in court if he does not receive greater compensation. Thanks

YCJ//Bucket 162”

Bolded emphasis is mine. What I believe this to be is that United customer service was searching for a way to “no-list” me based on my complaint. This is frightening because, of course, you read about how these no-lists are notoriously lacking in any kind of public transparency, and while it appears that I was not subject to a no-list issue, the idea that United customer service could be searching and potentially recommend me for a no-list based on a complaint like this boggles the mind. And, it is amazing that their customer service systems, which are now the only way to reach United for a complaint, would allow something like this to get forwarded to me. You can bet I’ll not be flying United any more.