For the last 15 years, I have flown 25,000 or more miles per year, most of which I flew economy. When I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Nicolas Kralev in 2012, everything changed. Nicholas is the author of Decoding Airline Travel, a book designed to take the mystery out of being an airline customer. In this excellent book, Nicholas talks about obtaining status with the airlines and the tremendous benefits. After hearing the interview and buying the book, I later signed up for the course Nicholas taught in Washington DC.
After taking the one-day course, I had time to talk to Nicholas who pointed out, to make the most of airline benefits I needed to choose one that flew out of my closest major airport to the locations I went to most often. That’s when I picked United Airlines . That year I flew 50,000+ miles and learned what it was like to enjoy the benefits that had eluded me.
Over the four years since I made it to United Gold status, there have been some negative stories about United. My experiences have been entirely different from those stories. You may think I fly first class most of the time, but that’s not the case. Most of the time I fly in Economy Plus, in the same cabin as most customers. I find the United employees, from the ticket counter, gate agents, and on-board flight attendants are mostly helpful, efficient, and kind.
A smokey flight
During the last year of traveling on United two situations stand out. I was flying home from an assignment outside of Portland Oregon by way of San Francisco (SFO). It was during this time that the awful Sonoma and Napa County fires were raging. I arrived at the airport early for my 7:30 flight out and saw reported on the television the fires in Sonoma were getting worse. I hoped it wouldn’t affect my flight to SFO or I might be way late getting home. While wandering the terminal, I glanced up at the flight monitor and noticed an earlier flight to SFO. It was leaving in just 15 minutes and was a five-minute walk to that gate from where I was standing. I beat feet to the gate in hopes of getting on the plane and saw the gate area was empty since most passengers had boarded.
I asked the gate agent if I could change flights and she said yes, there was just enough time. I said, “I don’t care if my baggage gets on, I just want to make sure I get home on time.” While she was working on the flight change, I heard the radio next to her between flight operations to gate agents telling them SFO was going to experience delays of up to three hours due to smoke in the Sonoma and Napa area. About that time the agent handed me a boarding pass, and I got on the plane, the last person to do so before the doors closed.
What about the wine
We arrived on time in SFO and out of curiosity I looked at the flight monitor. There it was, my original flight was showing over two hours late. I wouldn’t have made my connection to Baltimore if I hadn’t been able to switch flights. My United Airlines Gold status sometimes allows me to change flights as long as it’s within 24 hours of my original flight, and at no charge. When I landed in Baltimore, I figured since there were less than 10 minutes between me boarding and the plane pulling away from the gate there was no way my baggage made it on the plane. At the baggage carousel, I was amazed when my baggage, including a box of prized wine from Oregon, had made it. Very impressive!
The biggest scare
The biggest memory of the year was just a couple days ago. My wife and I were on a trip to Salzburg Austria. I was in Austria to gather material and photos for a story on Christmas in Salzburg. I lost my passport on December 28th, just the day before flying back home. The first call I made was to the United Airlines Gold hotline where Lois answered the call. I told Lois I lost my passport and asked her “Can I still fly home without it?” Lois said, “I think you should go to the airport and see if they can give you special permission to fly without a passport.”
My next call was to the US Embassy in Vienna where the man at the other end of the line said he had never heard of that option and I’d have to get a replacement passport. The problem was, the New Year’s holiday weekend was almost upon us. The chances of getting to the embassy on time, and getting a replacement passport, was slim-to-none. I took Lois’s advice and hopped the train to Munich Airport the next morning.
All sorts of scenarios clouded my thoughts on the way to the airport. If I couldn’t get out that day on a special exemption, I might be in Germany for several days awaiting an appointment the next week. We arrived at the airport and did a fast walk to the United ticket counter. The person at the cue asked for our passports. When I told her I lost mine she exclaimed, “Oh my god!” Not the thing you want to hear. I explained that Lois told me there might be a chance for an exemption, mainly since I had shot a photo of the passport with my smartphone before leaving the U.S. and she went to talk to her supervisor Pietra. I was told to speak with Stefan K. at Other Services to see what he could do.
Stefan spent the next 30 minutes making several calls. I asked him if there was room on the direct flight to Washington Dulles so we could avoid our original itinerary by way of Frankfurt. He asked to see my passport photo-copy and drivers license. After some 15 minutes he said, I think we can do this, but it might be expensive to switch flights. If so I’ll ask my supervisor to waive the fees.” When Stefan finished he managed to get us on the plane with no additional charges. He also called security upstairs to tell them the situation to aid our passage to the plane. All of this wrangling was done in time for us to make the flight back to the U.S.; against what most people thought possible.
This kind of service is what keeps me loyal to United Airlines. United didn’t pay me to say this, and I’ve never been given any free perks by virtue of being a travel writer. I’m just constantly wowed by their level of service in my four years of flying with them. United employees have helped me out in a big way several times and their assistance makes my job and life easier. Thanks United Airlines, you guys and gals rock.