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A Morbidity & Mortality Summary of My United Flight

Dana Corriel, MD dissects her recent ordeal and asks why no one holds airlines accountable for the harm they cause their patients.. err customers.

July 12, 2024

The following is as much a lesson on how NOT to build your customer service, as a company, as it is a story about being treated unfairly by an industry which ties your hands.

Two weekends ago, I had tickets to fly on United Airlines, with my two boys, on a relatively short 2 1/2 hour flight.

Everything started off well – we made it to the airport on time, waiting at the gate for the announcement to board.

But that’s where the downhill trajectory began.

 

It started relatively benign, with an announcement that boarding was delayed because, well, they needed to find a pilot.

I still had a sense of humor this early on in the process, as many of us do when we’re about to board a plane. Gotta keep those spirits light when we’re handing our life over to another human, no?

Problem was, the human I was handing my life over to decided to not show up.

 

Mind you, the airline had been extremely eager to book our seats and take our money –  they had, in fact, overbooked this flight – but had not felt as eager about booking the pilot that would man it.

Minor detail, I know.

I can’t help but think of that Seinfeld episode where there isn’t a car available to rent, even though the rental company made the reservation.

The show always claimed it was “a show about nothing”. But I tell you, that series had substance!

In the episode, Seinfeld says, “So you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation..”

So we get delayed.

 

 

 

Yada yada yada later, they find a pilot.

Everyone claps at the announcement.

Humanity has been restored.

Little do we know that, in reality, it has not been.

The gullible, but also helpless, lot of us board. 

 

"The airline had been extremely eager to book our seats and take our money -  they had, in fact, overbooked this flight - but had not felt as eager about booking the pilot that would man it."
Dana Corriel, MD
doctorsonsocialmedia.com

 

I get squeezed into the back seat. I’m talking the very last row, where the seats don’t recline and you can hear the toilet flushing every time bathrooms are used. I’m not even mentioning the scents.

This wasn’t the airline’s fault. I get stuck there for switching my flight late in the game and refusing to pay double my ticket for a mere few inches of space.

But here’s the thing. The flight doesn’t leave.

We wait for some time, confused. No one knows why.

Then, as luck would have it, the sky doesn’t cooperate. It opens up and pours. A storm.

For 45 minutes, the sky’s lit up.

 

 

But then it stops. Weather is not only back to “fly-able”, but we actually see significant movement. 

The liner right near us pulls out of its gate, in fact.

As we watch in pure jealousy, it heads out to take off. In the distance, we see others go airborne, too, as we stay seated behind our oval windows, standing still.

The pilot starts to repeatedly hop on the intercom system, announcing delay after delay, in increments of “20 minutes or so” to go.

Each time that he does, the crew follows up with “But you’re free to leave the aircraft, you just need to take your stuff with you”.

I realize now, in hindsight, that this serves as a disclaimer. Like in medicine, when legalities force us to add in certain things that a normal human wouldn’t typically say.

It seems they have to mention this legally to passengers, as an option; otherwise, they could be held responsible for keeping us on board for that length of time.

But who, in their right minds, collects their stuff to leave a plane if it’s slotted to leave in 20 minutes?

It takes that long to actually go through the motions, and so I don’t think anybody does. And I don’t think that anybody did. 

 

 

Thirty minutes turn into an hour, then turn into two.

Before we know it, it’s been over three hours on the tarmac.

What’s worse is that I’m squeezed in the back.

Even worse? The back seats have no air! There’s literally nothing coming out of those tiny little vent holes up at the top. Isn’t that the point of them being there? 

I flag down a flight attendant to ask about this, as sweat drips down my forehead, and she confirms my suspicions – they can’t get the air to work.

 

 

The pilot keeps coming on. Another 20. Another 30. Just a bit more, folks.

And as we sit there on the tarmac watching other flights take off, in desperation, the pilot decides to work on some PR and make his way though the cabin.

I’m now in a parade, even though I didn’t sign up for one. I literally just signed up to fly. Please fly me to where I signed up to fly.

The parade’s got a “Queen of England” feel to it, like all of the footage I’ve seen where her highness’ entourage makes its way down the road and fans stand on the sides, waving as her holiness passes by.

His pilot-holiness is helpless, even if he’s all smiles.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think pilots are amazing. Incredible, even,

But I don’t need to see them walking the aisles. I need them at the front, manning the plane. I need them flying us to our destination.

Our pilot had other plans. They did not involved flying our plane.

 

Also in the queen’s procession, aka aisle?

Flight attendants, who soon tell us that we’re now idle because of a crew issue – they’ve apparently hit their work-hour limit and need to be replaced. 

“They found one flight attendant!” one proudly informs us, but then lowers her eyes in shame. “They still need to find 2 more.”

Mind you, we’ve done all of sitting on the tarmac until now, so I’m not quite sure as to what “limit” they’re referring to, except for the 3 hours in the sauna.. err, plane.

I quickly do grade-school math and immediately assume they’ve pulled this crew from a previous job, but that assumption doesn’t make me feel any better.

The pilot comes on the loudspeaker and says more of the same. Except he says we’re waiting for “3 more crew.”

Which one is it, 2 or 3? And are we even getting out? I’m sweating bullets, and as the toilet flushes nearby for the 724th time, I decide to get out. 

 

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As I deplane, I inform the crew that it’s hot in the back, and that there are elderly people there who could get hurt.

Next thing I know, they’re removing everyone.

“We need a new pilot,” they now say.

He, too, has apparently hit his max.

“What is this?” I can’t help but think to myself. I’m a physician, who trained for long hours back in the day, when long hours weren’t considered a thing worth bringing up. No one ever said to me they were concerned about my well-being. Nor clocked me in and out.

Plus, doctors are always compared to pilots. Aren’t we?

 

Outside, flights continue to come and go, and we look on in desperation, from the seating area inside the airport, and wait.

The airline issues everyone two $15 meal vouchers, and instructs us that the flight has not been cancelled.

Hours have passed since initial take-off time, and we’re back at square one – tired, hungry, and with no pilot to be had.

I’m feeling giddy at this point. I’m practically in my own skit of Who’s On First.

There’s no food places open in the airport, of course, as it’s past midnight. Only a dinky Dunkin Donuts remains open, with a line that wraps around several times. I imagine to myself each voucher-yielding passenger walking up, ordering $30-worth of DD goods. In that teenie little bodega, they probably can’t handle the load.

 

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We wait and wait, and then we wait some more.

They finally announce that they found a pilot from Algeria, who’s just flying in, and I cannot help but do the math as to the number of hours he’s just endured flying THAT route.

We need to wait for him to come, and so we wait some more.

But then, as we look out the window, we see a cargo loader snaking its way to the side of the plane, our bags traveling down a conveyor belt on their way out.

We’re horrified as our bags get unloaded, and then taken into the terminal. 

United has yet to give us the word.

 

Finally, United reps at the gate give us the bad news.

Our flight has been cancelled.

Oh, but there’s more.

They’re not rebooking anyone at this time. Not to mention flights are booked anyway, for two days that follow.

Expletives are flying in the air. Passengers are mad.

To add insult to injury, we’re forbidden from getting out luggage. The luggage is there, sure, but they’re going to keep it. Just because.

So we must now fend for ourselves, and figure out what we’re doing, in the middle of the night.

 

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We make our way down to the baggage claim, as instructed, without a flight scheduled, exhausted, tired, and without our bags.

My own belongings, and my children’s, are stowed just a few feet from me, but I am forbidden from getting any of it.

Common sense doesn’t prevail here, as I am told “there are too many flights cancelled” for them to give our belongings back.

How absurd! I think to myself, and even say so. If they can unload an airplane and place those bags on a carousel when we get to a destination, why can’t they do it when they cancel our flight, too?

Make it make sense! My insides are screaming out at them. But no common sense – or humanity – is to be found

Additionally, I’m without toiletries, undergarments, or even medications, for that matter. I had checked in my carry on bag at the last minute, when they said the flight was overbooked and kindly asked if we would be willing to do so, to help out?

 

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My kindness backfired. I can’t help but think of the scene from Meet the Parents, where he is forced to check in his carry-on bag, with the diamond ring he had purchased to propose. I was that schmuck.

The rep solidifies this by saying I should feel ashamed. “A doctor who doesn’t know to keep meds with her!”

Instead of just handing me my luggage, she decides to repeat this mantra and shame me in front of my children, several times.

Well played, United Airlines. Well-played.

 

Sadly, that’s where my story ends.

At the same location I first started out in.

Without a new flight booked. And with none of the luggage or carry-on’s I had started out with in the first place.

A negative-sum game.

But that’s not the worst part of it.

The airline has yet, 2 weeks since this happened, to take ownership, reimburse, or even CONTACT me in any way.

 

"The airline has yet, 2 weeks since this happened, to take ownership, reimburse, or even CONTACT me in any way."
Dana Corriel, MD
doctorsonsocialmedia.com

 

I cannot believe that airlines today get away with this.

They take your money to book a flight (in my case, THREE of us), and don’t seem to care about doing anything after that, esp if the flight never takes off.

Worse than that, they cite “weather” as the cause of cancellation.

This way, they aren’t held responsible for any of their actions. Literally none.

And no one can challenge their reasoning.

Except for me, of course, venting about their actions like a tantrumming child, here in this very article.

 

Why shouldn’t airlines be held accountable?

They absolutely should!

Airlines should be held accountable for any and all of their actions and lies, in the same way that healthcare should.

Dana Corriel, MD

Dana Corriel, MD

“I haven’t LEFT medicine, I’m simply taking time to tackle its issues from a different angle. I’m stepping out of the traditional medicine box.”

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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