Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
No one wants to spend the night at an airport.
Especially when the cause is a mechanical failure.
Yet last Monday, passengers on a United Airlines flight from Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Portland, Maine -- as well as others on different United flights -- suffered that fate. And how.
The flights were delayed between 10 and 13 hours.
Strategist and consultant Liz Smith, one of the Portland passengers, tweeted some of the highlights.
They weren't very high at all.
It appears United was unable to provide hotels for these passengers. Many might find this disappointing, given these circumstances.
Smith told me that she'd discovered her flight was canceled at 12:30 a.m., which seems an absurdly late hour for the airline to have made the decision.
Could it be that it was cheaper for United not to book hotels, as it might hope that many passengers wouldn't get around either to booking hotels or to file for any compensation?
Or might it be that someone decided that there simply wasn't enough time, given the late hour and the potentially early hours in which the flights might take off?
Smith said that passengers had been given a $10 voucher, but how could they spend it?
"All the shops closed at 10-11 p.m.," she told me.
So out came cots in the corridors of the airports, with a promise from the airline that each passenger would be reimbursed a maximum of $200 for their troubles if they found a hotel.
The cots certainly didn't look comfortable.
Yet there was a further indignity. The passengers were woken at 4 a.m. and told to give the cots back.
Oh, and the airport wanted its blankets back as well.
A mother asked to keep the blanket for her son and was told they were not allowed and were collecting all the blankets.-- Liz Smith (@lizsmithmfa) July 24, 2018
I don't know about you, but I'm not at my finest at 4 a.m., whether I'm still awake or whether I'm being roused from my sleep.
"The problem for me was not about the delay, the mechanical issues, or the overnight stay," she told me. "I'm a very experienced traveler and have handled lots of things with a smile on my face."
More important, she said, was the attitude of the United staff: "I was shocked to see United treat families, kids, and elderly without any concern for their health or safety."
It seems things went fast downhill after the very late hour of the cancellation announcement.
She said the initial gate agent tried their best.
However, she said: "The customer service agent, Steve, arrived and was condescending and rude. Both he and the new gate agent lied repeatedly to questions about hotel rooms and vouchers."
Worse, she told me: "They treated the passengers around them like rabid animals rather than as human beings and customers. It was appalling. Wish I had thought to grab video, but I was kind of scared -- lots of angry passengers and the agents doing nothing to calm the situation."
From her pictures, it looks like scores occupied the cots.
I contacted United to ask for its view. An airline spokesman told me:
We know that excessive delays are frustrating for our customers, and we provided compensation for this inconvenience and have apologized to those affected by the overnight delays on Monday evening in Chicago. We issued hotels vouchers for some customers before area hotels were sold out and others who remained at the airport overnight were provided cots, blankets and pillows, as well as meal vouchers. We are following up with our team at O'Hare to better understand what happened.
Karen Pride, director of media relations for the Chicago Department of Aviation told me:
The Passenger Assistance Program (PAP) is designed to provide comfortable accommodations overnight when flights are delayed or have been canceled by the airlines. Initiated at the request of its airline partners, Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) staff oversees the PAP between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., until the next daily operations resume.
This program has been around for decades.
I understand that the cots are collected at 4 a.m. in order to allow cleaning staff to do their jobs before the airport's day truly begins.
Smith said that the some of the canceled flights were displayed as having been delayed due to the dreaded operational issues.
This, I fear, can mean anything from bad organization to unavailability of crew. (Please feel free to translate unavailability any way you like.)
Smith told me she'd received a, um, blanket email offering a $150 travel voucher.
She rejected the offer. Instead, she's filed a formal complaint with the airline, together with a demand for increased compensation. She told me:
The compensation I have demanded is a flight and seat upgrade refund, and a meal and extra day parking cost reimbursement -- all totaling $528.60. I also asked for the standard $150 compensation for staying overnight in the airport. And I have requested a voucher for future travel and an upgrade to my frequent flyer status, if they want to me to continue to be a Premier member and credit card holder. I've been a United customer for a long time.
Soon after these words wer published, Smith told me United's customer service contacted her and offered her flight vouchers and a VISA gift card. This, she accepted.
It's not nearly what I asked for, but I'm satisfied they have taken care of this terrible experience at this point for me personally. But I hope that they are compensating the other folks on my flight and the other flights as well. And I hope that they follow up directly with the United staff at O'Hare who treated our flight so poorly.