United Airlines Nightmare — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia India South Asia Trips

United Airlines Nightmare — By Jennifer Shipp

International flights are always a little stressful and flight delays make things infinitely worse.

Flights, Bags, Visas

When we travel, sometimes things happen that I just don’t want to write about. They’re things that I’d rather forget or that involve lots of petty details. Often, these are things that happen en route to our destination. When we transition from here to there, I forget all the details because there are so many of them.

But I don’t ever want to forget the nightmare of traveling domestically with United Airlines and so I’m forcing myself to write down all the grim details now.

When we booked our tickets from Denver to Delhi, there were three legs to our journey. We would go from Denver to Washington D.C. and then from Washington D.C. to Frankfurt, Germany. From Frankfurt we would fly on to Delhi. The two layovers in Washington D.C. and Frankfurt were both only one hour. We were concerned about this, but figured United knew how long it would take for us to get from one gate to the other at each airport. (LOL)

We arrived at the Denver airport at noon. Going through security was easy. We didn’t have to remove our shoes or empty out the contents of our bags. They simply did a skin test to see if we had residues of drugs or explosives or whatnot and scanned our bags. We sat at our gate waiting to board our plane which was scheduled to take off at 3:40 PM. I overheard a large woman with a pony tail nearby on her cell phone:

“Stunned silence is an appropriate response when he emails you out of the blue…yeah…yeah….well, that’s just not how headhunters work…”

She went on to talk about her schedule for the next two weeks and how she was going to take it easy.  “Yeah…yeah….of course….I know…Nancy was the last person I knew there and she called me saying, ‘How do I hire a headhunter because I may have to leave?’”

I wondered if the woman knew I was listening in, wondering about the headhunter and she was leaving me hanging on purpose.

“Yeah, I’m not even a donor anymore…(laughs) Oh NO! AWKward!”


I noticed that John was looking down at his phone with a concerned look on his face.

“What?” I said.

“Our plane’s been delayed.”

I raised my eyebrows, “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” John shrugged.

The flight was delayed 30 minutes so we still had a chance to make it to our connecting flight that would take us to Frankfurt, but John and I sat on pins and needles waiting to board the plane.

A man in a blue and white shirt sat near John, plugged into the recharging station on his cell phone.

“What was he arguin’ about?” He said angrily. “I know, but what did they say?”

Another announcement about bags and security sounded over the intercom.

“Just tell people to keep their mouths shut…” He said.

At 3:15, we boarded the plane, still nervous but very hopeful about making it to our connecting flight. Ten minutes after settling in the pilot announced that both tires our plane were flat. What? Seriously?

It would be 30 minutes before we took off.

I looked over at John across the aisle. “What do we do?”

I knew he didn’t know what to do, but a part of me hoped that he’d pull some trivial fact about airplanes or layovers or flight delays out of his head that would illuminate our situation.

My seat buddy was an aging lawyer who dealt with chemical misuse claims. He spoke glowingly of Scotland and it’s golf courses as I strained to hear the various announcements being made about flight delays. As he Googled Scotland’s golf courses to make me more informed about them, I heard the pilot announce that there was static in the engine.

Fixing this problem would take an additional 45 minutes.

The possibility of us making our connecting flight went from improbable to impossible. I stopped my seat buddy in the midst of his dissertation on Scotland and golf and we gathered our bags and got off the plane. Lydian and I stood right outside the plane with our bags while John went to customer service. Eventually John returned to us with no news. There had been a long line at customer service and the plane was scheduled to take off, so John had returned to us and we all justnreboarded the plane, put our bags back in place and took our seats once again. My seat buddy continued talking about Scotland.

The pilot made additional announcements. There was still hope that we would at least make it to Washington D. C. that night, but the plane was not scheduled to take off at 5:30 PM (roughly two hours late). John and I decided that we would go to customer service in Washington D.C. and reschedule our flights from there.

I offered to take Lydian into the airport to go get coffee for John and juice for us. John would stay with the bags. We asked the attendant what time we needed to be back at the gate.

“5:10.” He said.

At 5:10, Lydian and I returned to the gate but the attendant wouldn’t let us board the plane.  “My husband and all our bags are still on board!” I said. Several other people were gathered around with similar problems.

Moments later, John emerged from the gate, having convinced an attendant to help him carry our bags off the plane.

“The plane isn’t going to take off until 6:00 PM.” He told me. “We need to go talk to someone at customer service.”

We left Lydian at the gate with our pile of carry-ons and hurried to customer service.

At customer service, a United Airlines representative with long blonde hair, purple glasses, and a Wisconsin accent outlined our various options. She typed furiously and twisted up her mouth as she stared at the computer screen. We had only 30 minutes before our plane took off. We needed to decide what to do. I wrote our various flight options on my hand and studied them. The problem was, our checked bags were still on the plane leaving at 6:00. We were concerned that the bags wouldn’t follow us to Delhi if we took a different flight the next day. We could stay in Denver another night to try our flight sequence again the next day or fly to Washington, then to Newark, and then take a direct flight from Newark to Delhi.

We decided that it would be nice to get at least five of our twenty hours of plane travel completed after having spent the entire day at the airport. We go Denver to Washington D.C., Washington D.C. to Newark, and Newark to Delhi.

I ran back to the gate to tell them to wait for John. Lydian had been fishing through the bags trying to find something to quell her anxiety. The electronics bag was partially opened and somewhat disorganized. The customer service lady 300 yards away was still printing our tickets. I waited.

And waited.

I watched for him to come through the crowd.

“He’ll be the one running.” I told the attendant at the gate.

We waited.

And then suddenly, there he was. Running, just as I’d predicted.

We reboarded the plane with different tickets. We got different seats too, which was a relief since I had no desire to hear more about Scotland’s great golf courses.

The plane taxied down the runway. I was hopeful that we’d at least make it to Washington D.C.

“I’m sorry folks, but since we had so many delays, they’ve closed our departure gate.” The pilot announced in an exasperated voice. We would sit there on the runway until another departure gate opened up (roughly 20 minutes).

In Washington D.C. at 1:00 AM, we disembarked from the plane, weary and unnerved. We went directly to customer service to find out if our bags would end up in baggage claim or go on to Newark for our flight the next day. We also needed a hotel for the night. The woman behind the counter told us that our bags would go on to Delhi. There would be no problems at all.

“It’s pretty important that all our bags make it to Delhi.” I said. She mostly didn’t care about my bags. I could tell because she didn’t look at me when I spoke or respond to my concerns with even the slightest inkling of humanity.

John desperately had to use the restroom, so he left Lydian and I with the customer service lady. I looked at her more closely. She was a graying, short-haired woman. On her lapel she wore a gaudy “Christ is Risen” pin that connected to her name tag which was surrounded in fake sapphires. I complimented her on it.

She sneered back at me.

When John returned, I reiterated my concern about our bags, asking for more information and perhaps a more thorough check into the situation. She told me with her nose raised ever-so-slightly that she’d worked for United for a whole month and their baggage logistics were “quite impressive”.

“Oh, they’ll be fine.” She said. And then she gave us directions to the shuttle bus.

We walked away trying to be optimistic about our bags, but we both knew that things were askew. It was a long walk to the bus.

As we neared the the exit from the airport to shuttle bus, we saw baggage claim and John said, “Ya know…we should just go and check to make sure our bags don’t show up there.”

A part of me didn’t want to go. This part wanted to go to the hotel and sleep. But the other part of me said, Wouldn’t it suck if your bags didn’t make it to India?

So we went to baggage claim where the boy scouts were gathering up their blue troop bags.

We took a place right at mouth of the carousel and seconds after we arrived, one of our bags rose up on the conveyor belt and slid down onto the carousel. I grabbed it. “I knew it. I KNEW IT!” John said. We waited. Other bags were still coming out.

“I’m going over to customer service to see where our other bags are.” John was furious. Customer service for baggage claim was within view on the other side of the carousels.

I stayed behind at baggage claim to see if any more of our bags showed up. I watched John disappear into the customer service area and get in line.

Around the time that a customer service representative was telling John that it was just a fluke that one of our bags ended up in baggage claim, a second one of our bags slid down onto the carousel with a plop. I grabbed it and put it with the other one, elated to have two of them! I saw John walk out of customer service 30 yards away and I held up the second bag and two fingers to indicate that this was the second one. He turned immediately on his heels and went back to customer service to let them know that he’d been party to two “flukes” that day.

I stood in hopeful anticipation that our third bag would shoot up through the black plastic flaps and slide down onto the carousel, but the conveyor belt stopped and the other passengers from the plane slowly filed away. It was approaching 2:00 in the morning. John asked the people at customer service to track our third bag, but it had last been seen in Denver.

“You mean, it didn’t make it on this plane?”

“Well, that’s not how it works, sir…” the curly-haired woman said. “Your bags could come on any number of flights that connect to Delhi.”

We had heard so many stories about baggage “logistics” by that time that we weren’t buying any of it. All of the stories were different. One woman had told me that all the baggage was compartmentalized under the plane. Another person said that the baggage often goes on a different flight altogether. This woman was saying that our third bag would arrive on a flight around 5:00 AM…probably. But why did two of our bags take a different route?

We went outside to the shuttle area with our carry-ons and two out of three of our checked bags and stood on the sidewalk at a place that had been designated “2H” and waited for the Sheraton-Westin Hotel shuttle bus. Our hotel room was supposed to be paid for that night by United Airlines. While we waited, John called the United Airlines customer service line. We were very concerned that our third bag was missing in action, never to be recovered.

The night shift customer service reps for United were all working at a customer service center in Delhi. First, he spoke to “Ishmael”.

John talks with Nareesh on the phone and tells him that he’s going to track him down once we get to Delhi if our bag doesn’t show up…

“So, I want to see my bag tomorrow morning with my eyes before I leave Washington D.C. and you’re saying that you know that my bag will be there?” John asked.

“Just trust us…your bag will get there.” Ishmael told John.

“But Ishmael, I have no reason to just trust you because I’ve had three people say that my bags would not be at baggage claim tonight, but two of them were?”

The conversation continued like that until John asked Ishmael to promise that our bags would be there in the morning. That was going too far. Ishmael could not make any promises.

We’d been waiting at 2H for our shuttle bus for 30 minutes. It was 2:10 AM. John called the United Customer Service line yet again. This time he spoke with “Nareesh”.

“You’re in Delhi, right?” John said.

“Yes, Mr. Shipp.”

“Then, if my bag doesn’t show up tomorrow, I’ll track down your call center and make you help me find my bag….because that’s where I’m gonna be tomorrow. Right? Understand?”

John encouraged Nareesh to go above and beyond in searching for our bag.

Around 2:20 AM, the shuttle bus finally arrived to take us to our hotel.

The next day, we got up around 10:00 AM to take a shuttle back to the airport for a plane from Washington to Newark. John got an email early in the morning saying our third bag was in Newark, which was a huge relief. But, after getting through security, while sitting in the airport at our gate, we found out that the Washington to Newark flight would be delayed by three hours. Luckily, we had a five hour layover before we boarded the Newark to New Delhi flight, but on account of our travails the day before, we were concerned that we would once again miss the flight to Delhi.

Shortly after we found out about the delay, I got a U.S. Embassy notification that there had been a shooting in Kathmandu and there was a potential for violent protests. There were no details about this development.

“Maybe we should just go home.” John said.

The Newark flight arrived three hours late and then, after boarding the plane and taking our seats, the pilot announced that the flight would be delayed further due to “mechanical problems”.

I was thoroughly concerned about this flight. So many things had gone wrong up to that point. The Washington to Newark flight was only a little less than two hours long, but midway through the journey the plane started bumping around and the pilot announced, “TSA failed to tell us that there was a storm en route to Newark so we have some turbulence folks.” He sounded irritated about it.

Our third flight to Delhi was also delayed, but this time the excuse was that the plane needed to be “cleaned”. When we heard the announcement, Lydian and I sat down right where we were in line. The flight attendant said, “Flight times can be changed at any time and for any reason” and we knew exactly what that meant.

Eventually, however, we did get on the plane. And after three days of almost no sleep, and only one hot meal, I slept for 10 of the 13 hours and  of the flight. I can honestly say, the international United flight was one of the most comfortable and most pleasant flights I’ve ever taken.

Related Posts:

Platitudes in Purgatory — By Jennifer Shipp

Killing Cadbury in Kathmandu– By Jennifer Shipp

Playing with Fire in the Middle of a Busy Street: India — By Jennifer Shipp

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