United Airlines came under harsh criticism from passengers over how the carrier handled a 24-hour stranding that included an overnight stay in the barracks of a remote Canadian military base.
Travelers on the Chicago-to-London flight late on June 12 took to social media to complain about a lack of communication, crew members’ lodgings in hotel rooms and a diversion to New Jersey before continuing on the journey to England. United cited an unspecified mechanical issue for the unscheduled landing.
The airline’s response shows how United’s leadership failed to take care of its fliers, said Jay Sorensen, president of airline consultant IdeaWorksCompany and a former marketing director at Midwest Airlines. United’s reaction suggests a lack of “human culture,” he said.
“What’s stunning to me is the lack of management presence here,” he said. “United relied on strangers to take care of its customers.”
The incident added to a tally of service hiccups at United that included a temporary halt to all takeoffs in the U.S. on June 2 because of what the airline said were computer automation issues. The company ranked last in J.D. Power’s 2015 customer-satisfaction ranking among major U.S. airlines and didn’t make the top 10 North American carriers for on-time performance last year, according to industry data tracker FlightStats.com.
United Flight 958 was bound for London’s Heathrow Airport when the Boeing 767-300 diverted to the military base in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s the easternmost airport in North America capable of accommodating a larger passenger jet.
“We apologize to our customers for the disruption, and we recognize this was a considerable inconvenience, so we will be refunding their tickets to London and providing additional compensation,” United said in a statement. Spokeswoman Mary Ryan said she couldn’t provide details on the extra compensation.
United’s management failed to realize how low cost it would have been to salvage the situation, said Brent Bowen, professor and dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona, campus. The company should admit it messed up and should act fast, he said.
“What happened here makes it look like United is cheaping out on its customers,” Bowen said in an interview.
Passenger strandings have attracted more attention in recent years, in part because social media sites let travelers air their gripes in real time to a global audience. In 2007, JetBlue Airways Corp. marooned 130,000 people on planes and in airports when it was overwhelmed by an ice storm.
Blow to Image
Any blow for United, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc., will be to the carrier’s image, not its finances, said Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general of the Department of Transportation. International air treaties limit the damages passengers can receive, especially when there is no accident.
“If I were their lawyer, we would say, ‘We will take care of your next travel,’ and then make a payment of $5,000 that might exceed their delay damage that they could get,” Schiavo said.
Most of Flight 958’s passengers ended up in military barracks because hotels in Goose Bay were packed due to a large hydroelectric construction project in the area, according to Goronwy Price, the airport’s general manager. United employees were unable to find rooms for the passengers.
However, the 11 crew members were given hotel rooms, which is mandated by rules requiring crew to get at least eight hours rest, a United spokeswoman said.
Also put up in a hotel were two minors, 12- and 14-year-old sisters who were traveling alone, said their father, Dean Baker of Kansas City, Missouri.
“The captain called me directly after the flight was diverted and took full responsibility of watching after my girls,” Baker said in a phone interview Monday. “The customs on the ground at Goose Bay was also very responsive. They handled the situation the best that they could.”
The Canadian Armed Forces provided the passengers with about 200 single rooms with beds, access to a telephone, transportation and food including a hot breakfast and lunch, said Lieutenant Olivier Gallant, a spokesman for the 5 Wing Goose Bay military base.
A Day Later
Still, messages on social media sites such as Twitter lit up United because it wasn’t until the evening of June 13, or almost a full day later, that the carrier got another 767-300 to the remote Canadian airport, boarded the passengers and departed for its hub in Newark, New Jersey.
The plane had to fly to Newark instead of London from Goose Bay because of prohibitions on early-morning landings at Heathrow, United’s Ryan said. Customers arrived in London at 9:28 a.m. New York time on Sunday.
Sorensen, the industry consultant, suggested another airline might have commissioned private jets to get the customers to their final destination as soon as possible.
Ryan said it took time to find a new crew to fly the customers from Goose Bay to Newark and handle processing of the new flight. As for the possibility of private jets, she said United’s policy calls for dispatching a jet comparable to the aircraft with the mechanical failure.
–With assistance from Frederic Tomesco in Montreal.
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