Can United Airlines fix itself?

It’s hard to find anyone who likes the new United Airlines.

Even at United Airlines.

I spent a day touring the company’s new headquarters in Chicago last week, visiting with managers and executives who oversee customer service initiatives. Most of the meetings began with an apology and a promise: “We can do better.”

But can it? Can United, still wobbly after a difficult merger with Continental Airlines, right itself?

To answer that question, it helps to first understand how bad things are for United’s customers.

In the Transportation Department’s latest air travel report card, the airline recorded the most delays (only 77.2 percent of its flights were punctual). It had the highest rate of lost or mishandled baggage of any mainline carrier (3.50 per thousand). It bumped the most passengers of any major airline (1.73 per 10,000). In a single month, passengers filed 304 complaints with the government, more than twice the grievances of its nearest competitor.

I haven’t seen numbers like this since before US Airways merged with America West.

The stats are reflected by the stories United passengers tell me about ridiculously long delays, being mistreated by indifferent flight attendants, having their luggage lost, and being placed on hold for hours only to speak with someone who doesn’t have a command of the English language and can’t help them, anyway.

And the fees — ah, the fees!

United, some critics and customers claim, is profitable thanks to a windfall of so-called ancillary fees ($5.2 billion worth of them last year) for everything from ticket changes to checked luggage. These extras, they say, have successfully transformed the world’s largest airline into one of the world’s least favorite airlines.

After a blog post in which I described a few of the remarkable things I saw at United, which was roundly criticized as a puff piece, I decided to ask readers if they thought United could straighten up and fly right.

Many customers told me the current problems are the result of a conflict between corporate cultures — on the one side, Continental Airlines, with a reasonably good customer-service reputation, and on the other side, United Airlines, which wasn’t exactly a customer favorite.

“If United adopts the customer service model and attitude of Continental, they’ll do fine,” says Charles Kolb, a million-miler on United.

If they don’t? Not so fine, Kolb predicts.

Paolo Castro, a United passenger who frequently travels between Boston and San Francisco, says practically everything is broken at the new United.

“Their pricing is usually $50 to $150 more than the competition,” he says. “Then they nickel-and-dime you with fees, which adds another $50 to $200 to the cost of the flight. The service is mediocre. There’s no Wi-Fi on the planes.”

Castro also says United’s CEO, Jeff Smisek, shouldn’t have accepted a $4 million merger bonus. “That bonus could have brought back a lot of furloughed pilots,” he says.

Liz Pollock, a corporate benefits administrator, in Wilsonville, Ore., is so fed up with the new United that she refuses to fly it anymore. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was an incident last year, in which she was seated next to a paralyzed passenger and had to climb over him to get into her seat.

United’s crewmembers and customer-service were indifferent to her complaints, she says. They offered her a seat on the next flight the following morning and sent her a form letter when she complained.

“I find it hard to believe United can turn itself around,” she told me.

I’m also skeptical, but I believe the situation isn’t hopeless. United’s service managers openly acknowledged their problems and assured me they have a plan to fix it. For now, they’re working on the basics, like preventing delays and making sure you get a timely refund.

I came away with a sense that United’s managers in downtown Chicago are as exasperated as the customers who complain about the airline’s substandard performance, but for different reasons. If we passengers could only appreciate the complexity of running an airline, they say, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to judge. If we could understand how difficult it is to merge two large airlines, we’d give them a break.

Maybe that’s why their apologies — and there were many — were also tempered with an odd but completely understandable sense of defensiveness. Passengers just don’t know what they’re up against, the managers suggest.

So can United get its act together? Maybe. I liked the folks I met in Chicago, and I believe they’re aware of the urgency of the situation and are up to the job.

But how soon can they do it? And will the improvements be enough, or will they just affect a chosen few super-elites in the front of the plane?

Passengers like Pollock and Castro have already stopped flying United. (Castro prefers newer airlines that can be a little obsessive about service, like Virgin America).

How many more will follow before things improve?

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend