Passenger, employee frustrations flow after United’s rocky week; CEO’s private jet flight adds to consternation

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For A.J. Palzer, flying home from a trip to Houston to visit his girlfriend’s family quickly turned into a travel nightmare.

Palzer, a New Jersey-based attorney, planned to fly back from George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey on Monday. Instead, he faced cancellation after cancellation with United Airlines triggered by the weekend thunderstorms in the Northeast.

“It’s weather-related, and I’m talking to people in Jersey, and they’re like, ‘It’s raining,’” Palzer said. “It’s not a hurricane.”

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Palzer eventually made it back to Newark, but only after three days of waiting to get a return flight. By the time he landed in Newark on Wednesday night, he feared the bags he first checked in Monday were lost.

Fortunately, an agent was able to point Palzer and his girlfriend to their bags, which sat in a sea of unclaimed luggage at baggage claim. Palzer said the baggage claim area was crowded with passengers, many of whom had been waiting hours to find their luggage.

“It was a chaotic line,” Palzer shared.

Palzer’s story is just one of many travelers have shared when flying with the Chicago-based carrier this past week. Airlines across the board faced disruptions due to severe thunderstorms last weekend. However, United has experienced a rockier road than others in returning to normal operations.

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United, which led the pack in cancellations and delays this week, tallied 528 canceled flights and 1,414 delayed ones Thursday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Also, the airports across the country that experienced the most travel disruptions were primarily United’s hubs in Newark, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

By Friday morning, United’s operation was stabilizing — despite more bad weather at some of its hubs — though it still led U.S. airlines in delays and cancellations, according to FlightAware. As of 2:07 p.m. EDT, United had canceled about 229 flights (about 8% of its mainline total for the day) and delayed 534 more. Both numbers were little changed since earlier this morning.

The carrier has cast blame on the shortcomings of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has dealt with staffing shortages during the pandemic. The agency issued ground stops in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas this week due to the weather and equipment issues, which set the stage for cascading delays when repeated stormy weather added to the mix.

In a memo to employees, United’s CEO Scott Kirby said, “The weather we saw in EWR is something that the FAA has historically been able to manage without a severe impact on our operations and customers.”

JetBlue, another carrier that had a slew of cancellations and delays this week, also sang a similar tune, blaming the FAA’s air traffic control shortages for its disruptions ahead of July 4, according to a report from Bloomberg.

However, in an interview with CNN on Wednesday night, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg pushed back on the claims that the FAA bore the brunt of the blame for the week’s travel disruptions.

“Look, United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through,” Buttigieg said on CNN. “They’ve really been struggling this week, even relative to other U.S. airlines.”

Wherever the blame ultimately lands, travelers caught up in the weeklong mess were left exasperated by the experience.

TPG spoke with several United passengers who said they waited hours to get in touch with customer service, lost their bags or ended up stranded at the airport, missing work or family vacations.

As the thunderstorms that roiled the Northeast last weekend subsided by midweek, many passengers were told they didn’t qualify for refunds or accommodation since the disruptions were caused by the weather.

Some questioned whether the weather continued to be the main cause of the cancellations and delays as the week dragged on, instead wondering what role staffing shortages and out-of-place crews were having on their travel plans.

And making matters worse, Kirby flew on a private jet from Teterboro Airport to Denver, amid the widespread travel disruptions United passengers faced this week. Kirby apologized to staffers and travelers for flying on the private jet.

“Taking a private jet was the wrong decision because it was insensitive to our customers who were waiting to get home,” Kirby said in a statement to TPG. “I sincerely apologize to our customers and our team members who have been working around-the-clock for several days — often through severe weather — to take care of our customers.”

For its part, United said it expected cancellations and delays to decline ahead of the busy July 4 travel weekend but said it would continue to monitor possibly stormy weather in Denver and Chicago.

United made no specific mention of the staffing shortages afflicting the carrier or offering additional reimbursements to affected travelers.

“We’re grateful to our customers who have endured a lot of disruptions over the last few days and to our teams who have worked around the clock to care for them,” United said in a statement.

The Chicago-based carrier also said most of the Friday cancellations were made in advance to give passengers time to readjust their schedules.

Calvin Guerrero, a student at the University of Chicago, said he was traveling from Chicago to Costa Rica with his dad Wednesday when they got caught up in the disruption. Their connection to Costa Rica from Houston was delayed multiple times before finally being canceled.

Guerrero felt that the airline seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the disruptions.

“It doesn’t really seem like United has a process for mass cancellations,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero and his dad remained stuck at George Bush Intercontinental Airport as of Friday, booking a hotel and buying new clothes from Walmart since United already checked in their baggage before they received notice of the cancellation. They hope their rescheduled flight from Houston to Costa Rica takes off on Saturday with no hiccups.

It wasn’t only passengers venting about the difficult travel week.

Some United employees took to online forums to air their frustrations.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the union that represents over 25,000 United flight attendants, released a sharper statement Thursday criticizing United’s sluggish recovery following the weekend thunderstorms.

The union said earlier this week that United had been struggling with staffing shortages exacerbated by crew scheduling calls that took over three hours — leaving many crew members waiting for assignments. United is now offering triple pay to flight attendants who pick up extra trips through July 6.

“Every minute wasted in their decision-making is a minute too late for recovery and delivering the public reliable, efficient air travel,” Ken Diaz, the president of United’s AFA chapter, said in a statement.

United’s chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association took aim at CEO Scott Kirby’s messaging on the disruptions.

“While Scott Kirby attempts to deflect blame on the FAA, weather, and everything in between, further flight delays are a direct result of poor planning by United Airlines executives,” Garth Thompson, United’s ALPA Master Executive Council chair, said in a statement.

United’s bumpy recovery also caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington, where aviation-related issues have become a popular topic for Congress members. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is a sponsor for an airline passenger bill of rights bill in Congress, said the airline seemed ready to blame everyone else for its operational woes.

“There should be nothing partisan about insisting that United and all the other airlines treat passengers with decency and respect and also that they are fair to the flight attendants and pilots,” Blumenthal said.

As United deals with the aftermath of the disruptions, thousands of passengers are still stranded at airports or have canceled their July 4 travel plans to avoid any other potential disruptions.

Jenny Thomas, who works in marketing and communications in Washington, D.C., said she’s now missing her niece’s 10th birthday after dealing with the stress of trying to find a flight to San Francisco. Her original flight to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) went through numerous delays before United canceled it.

“It seemed like a nice time to catch up with the family,” Thomas shared. “It kept just getting eaten away.”

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