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That Time United Made Me Take a Bus

The first half of 2019 has been filled with over 50 flights among various other modes of transportation. Planes, trains, and automobiles as the saying goes. Thanks to United Airlines, I can also add bus to that list.

Now, before I go on, I want you to understand a few things from my perspective otherwise this whole post will sound like I am just whining that something didn't go my way:

Imagine you are on a plane every week. You go out of your way to make that plane be a United plane. This means that you're willing to do a layover through a United hub which adds hours onto a travel day instead of just going nonstop on another airline. You're even willing to overnight somewhere just to stay loyal and catch the next flight out in the morning. You'll even fly into a different airport and rent a car to get to your destination because United doesn't fly there. This also means that from time to time you're willing to pay a higher fare just to keep you on United. You've even gone so far as to fly to Europe on what is known as a "mileage run" just to keep your loyalty status. As we all know, travel often means waking up at ungodly hours to get to the airport. So picture all of this, getting up every week around 3am to catch a flight, and all of the nonsense that comes along with travel these days. I haven't even mentioned how much of your life is spent on an airplane and in airports, but imagine that it's a lot. This is where my mindset is and was on this day.

We can now begin...

This month, I was traveling from Newark to Santa Barbara, connecting through Los Angeles. After landing at LAX, I got a notification on my phone that my seat had changed and that I needed to see a gate agent. I had gotten notified of a first class upgrade the day before, so I thought this was just a different seat assignment within first class. How wrong I was!

I went to the agent in the United Lounge who looked extremely puzzled and told me that the way my reservation was showing it looked like I actually needed to speak to the gate agent at my gate. I cut my time in the lounge short so that I could get to the gate one hour before boarding (when the agents show up).

Walking briskly down the concourse, I began to think that I lost the upgrade and that's what they were notifying me about. "Oh well," I thought, "at least I'll still have a seat. The flight is only 20 minutes."

I stood at the gate desk for about 25 minutes before anyone showed up. A fellow passenger came up and asked if I was waiting to speak to them about a seat. This was my first inclination that something just wasn't right. My second inclination came when the gate agent finally showed up and less-than-pleasantly asked if I was there to speak to her about a seat.

As she looked up my reservation, she told me that the original plane for the flight had been diverted to Portland due to a mechanical issue. Our new plane was much smaller with less seats, therefore not everyone could be accommodated. I was worried, but as a Premier Platinum MileagePlus member and as someone who had previously been upgraded I wasn't too worried. This meant that there weren't that many more people on the flight with higher status than me. I told her I had to be in Santa Barbara for business and she told me to take a seat.

A few minutes later I started hearing the gate agents over the loud speaker finally confirming the situation to everyone.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the new plane is much smaller and therefore we do not have enough seats. We are looking for volunteers (side note: here is where I thought they would say "to go on a later flight") to take a bus that we've arranged to Santa Barbara. We are offering an $800 travel voucher and the bus will leave in 40 minutes."

Laughter broke out in the waiting area - were they joking with this bus business?

One guy eagerly popped up to take the offer, but everyone else sat in their seats waiting to see who in their right mind would take this offer.

Slowly, the gate agents starting calling people up one by one to give out seat assignments. Before I knew it, they were also beginning the boarding process. To my shock, a bunch of people got up and got into their boarding zones. This meant that there were a ton of people who kept their seat assignments.

As the boarding process went on, it became apparent to me that I wasn't getting on the flight. Those of us without seat assignments slowly started crowding in on the gate agent. One young girl had left the boarding area in tears only to be called back up.

"Come on, honey bun," the less-than-pleasant gate agent sweetly called.

The young girl came back up and was miraculously given a seat assignment. Is that what it took? I cursed myself for not being able to cry on demand.

Suddenly, a very bizarre situation unfolded with a young guy standing at the gate with weed print socks up to his mid-calf and all of his belongings in a garbage bag. The United employees were trying to get him to board the plane, but he was insisting that he wanted the travel voucher instead.

A man and woman nearby approached the gate agent to get in on this situation. Very long story short, they were saying that they were with the young kid, but he was saying they were not and he only just met them today. Turns out, they were airport employees who met him earlier and wanted to make sure he was ok. Unfortunately for him, he kept insisting he wanted the travel credit, but the United agents said that because he was a minor (only 17), they could not put him on the bus and that he had to get on the plane to which he refused. Then the airport police showed up.

Cripes, if he didn't want his seat, I would have taken it!!

After the gate agents had made it abundantly clear that there were no more seats on the plane (even though this kid had just forfeited his seat) and that we were all being forced on a bus, enter the straw that broke my back. Charging into the boarding area came a young woman in her early 30s with her fancy carry-on luggage and expensive purse.

She quickly took assessment of the situation and boomed, "NO! I HAVE BEEN TRAVELING FOR 20 HOURS AND MY TICKET COST $4,000. I AM GETTING ON THIS PLANE!!!"

Well, well, wellllllllllll wouldn't you know - they miraculously found a seat for this poor, unfortunate soul! Isn't that just a travel miracle?!? How wonderful for her.

The flames of my anger had been stoked. As a frequent traveler, I've put up with a lot - it just comes with the territory. You won't find me bitching about a mechanical issue, a bad seat mate, or having to gate check my bag. Unfortunately there are certain things we must accept when we decide to travel. But this - THIS was totally unacceptable to me. How does a status holding flier go from a first class seat to none at all?! United, that's just WRONG.

They told us all to meet the bus in baggage claim, but no one could exactly tell us where the bus would be, what the story would be with our luggage and so on. I was the first person at the desk to have my $800 travel voucher (yeah, big deal) processed and - surprise! - I was the last person to have their voucher processed which legit almost made me miss this bus.

The new gate agent who was helping me could not have been nicer but was a bit misinformed.

"What is the criteria for choosing who gets a seat?" I asked him hoping for new information or at least some insights.

"The computer randomly assigns it," he told me smiling.

Those aforementioned flames of anger were now raging.

"So, what then, is the actual point of a loyalty program? Why do I even bother trying to be loyal to you if we are simply at the mercy of the computers?" I said as calmly as I could because I knew he was only trying to be helpful.

He tried to offer up some other reasoning because he saw that what he had said was not the right thing to say at all. He stopped his fumbling mumble by picking up the phone to call a supervisor because he was having trouble processing my voucher. It turned out that because I was a first class passenger and the new plane did not have first class, it wasn't allowing for the voucher to be processed. The hits just kept on coming!

"Truthfully Ms. Casorio, I can't believe this happened to you and we should be doing more for you and you should be getting more of a travel credit than this," he said apologetically. It wasn't his fault, but I appreciated his kindness, something which his fellow employee who handled our boarding process could have learned from.

While this gentleman was on the phone with the supervisor, I asked the agent next to him who was processing vouchers where I would meet the bus. I was starting to get nervous because I was still standing there while everyone else was quickly being processed.

"I'm not sure, I just got here," he said without offering to get more details.

Flames. Anger. Rising.

As the last guy was finishing up getting his voucher, I told him in a desperate voice to not let the bus leave without me.

"No worries!" he called as he headed down the concourse.

I frantically ran to baggage claim hoping to find someone who knew something about this bus. A friendly United employee had a list with all of our names and checked us off and showed me where the bus was. Moments after I hopped on, we pulled away.

While not a flattering photo of yours truly, I share this with you because if you look very closely, you can see the smoke coming out of my ears from the rage flames that burned within:

Quickly surveying the scene, I counted about 16 people on board the motorcoach. I sat towards the back away from everyone which unfortunately was near the bathroom, but fortunately there was a bathroom.

About an hour in to the journey, I looked at Google Maps to see where we were. We were only about 10 miles from the airport, no joke, thanks to the notorious Los Angeles traffic which, as a shock to no one, was awful at 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon.

Here is a real photo of what Google Maps told me. This was over ONE HOUR in:

My anger was rising, but I no longer had the strength to seriously fume, thanks in part to my sheer exhaustion of having gotten up at 3am for a cross-country flight. I felt as depleted as my computer which was at 9% power and my phone which was at 37% (FYI there were no power outlets on the bus).

Thankfully I always have a bottle of water on me and a little snack because, as moms always say, you just never know! You never know when United will stick you on a bus for hours with no water or food. How many hours you wonder? ALMOST FOUR. ALMOST FOUR HOURS TO GET FROM LAX TO SANTA BARBARA.

You can see my condition was quickly deteriorating:

If you follow me on Instagram (@thewanderingash), you may have seen the Instagram Stories that I did throughout this whole ordeal. Many reached out with words of sympathy, while others (ahem, DAD) trolled me:

When we arrived at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to get our luggage, there wasn't even a United agent at the baggage claim area or at the ticketing area. This is one of my favorite and least favorite things about small airports. When there are no flights scheduled to come in, they're a ghost town. All 16 of us scattered out like we were on some weird scavenger hunt to find a human being. We finally found a security guard who told us to pick up the white courtesy phone on the wall and ask for someone.

Eventually, someone showed up and it was a free-for-all because we all just wanted to get on with our lives. With my phone battery on 6%, I prayed to the phone gods to give me enough juice to be able to call an Uber and get to my hotel before it died.

A few days later, I filed a formal complaint online about the whole situation. This was their canned response:

What I learned from this experience:

  1. It doesn't pay to be kind and follow the rules. If you want something, it's better to cause a complete scene. Go ahead, throw tantrums with your fancy purses or just have a complete meltdown! It's all good!

  2. Don't bother to participate in loyalty programs. You'll end up sacrificing a lot by taking layovers instead of nonstop flights on other airlines just to get your mileage. You'll also end up spending more in airfare and if you get nothing in return, then what's the point?

  3. Stop expecting airlines to treat you the way that they say they will. If you notice, every few months there is another "incident" where the airline CEO comes out and says how committed they are to the customer experience. What we're all starting to hear is the voice of the teacher from Charlie Brown that comes over the loudspeaker.

The cherry on top of all of this is that I didn't receive the Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) that the flight would have given me. For those not familiar with airline loyalty programs, there are basically a few different levels of status. Each comes with their own threshold of mileage that must be flown. To a frequent traveler, PQMs are gold. Each one counts and even 100 miles can be the tipping point that will push you into status land. Sure, while a 20 minute flight may not have given me a lot of PQMs, it is the principle of the whole thing. Kick me when I'm down why don't ya, United!

While my anger flames have subsided slightly, this isn't over for me. Stay tuned as I'll be sure to update you all!

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