Last updateTue, 11 Nov 2014 11am

An unforgettable flight to Guadalajara: Treating passengers worse than guitars?

Writes Reporter contributor John Pint: “In 2008, Canadian singer David Carroll was on a United Airlines flight to Nebraska. During a change of planes at O’Hare airport he and other passengers looked out the window and were shocked to see baggage handlers literally throwing around the guitars that Carroll´s band had checked as luggage. Carroll complained to airline staff but got nowhere. When he found the neck of his 3,500-dollar Taylor guitar broken, he tried to get compensation from United (for nine months), but again to no avail. Finally, in 2009 Carroll wrote a song entitled ‘United Breaks Guitars’ which went viral on YouTube and, to date, has been seen by 14,295,662 people. After the event, adman Laurence Boschetto told CNN that United was learning from the error and was even using the Guitar Song in their personnel training program.”  

The airline apparently still has much to learn. Guadalajara painter Ilse Taylor-Hable (no relation to the guitar maker), a close friend of the Reporter’s “Out & About” columnist, recently had an unforgettable experience on a United flight from Houston to Guadalajara. Pint persuaded her to tell her story. Here it is.

If you fly United, prepare yourself. You may need: A lot of patience, a dash of good humor and, most of all, comfortable shoes.

Fight UA4211 from Houston to Guadalajara on October 10 was scheduled to take off at 9:05 p.m. I had been up for 22 hours and this was to be the last of three flights to get me to my destination.

Wearily, I made my way to Gate B25 where, after a while, it was announced there was a delay because “the crew had not arrived.”
Right. Can happen. Should not, but can, union rules and all. People opened their cell phones and called home.

It was about 10 p.m. when we boarded. Soon after everyone had taken their seats, the captain announced that he was “really sorry” but we had to get off the plane.

“Because of our delay, Miguel Hidalgo airport in Guadalajara will not let us land because they are doing repair work on the landing strip.”

Ok, what can you do? You follow orders and get off the plane.  You take out your cell phone and call home again.

I was halfway back the boarding gate when some of the first passengers who had got off came running back towards us: “Go down to the plane again. We are allowed to fly after all!”

This is easier said than done. The automatic doors we had come through do not open in the other direction. We were warned with big “Do Not Enter” signs on them. But if you have lived in Mexico long enough, you become creative: we waved and made signs to other passengers, who were on their way up, to hurry up, come closer and trigger the door.

Yessss, done! Fifty happy people rushing down the stairs, calling home again, laughing, joking, anticipating a short flight and a good night’s sleep in their own beds.

So everyone boarded for the second time.

After a few minutes, another announcement from the captain – once more we were asked to leave the plane.

“Is this a joke?” some asked. Good thing we had our seat belts fastened, otherwise we would have hit the roof!

No more explanations this time, just: “Please get off.” Customer Service would help us.  

There are 12 work stations at Customer Service. For most of the time, ten were empty and the remaining two were manned by tired, slow agents, visibly unhappy  that they could not go home.

This is where the good shoes come in handy.

There were 50 of us, maybe more, all standing in line, silently, with the typical Mexican patience and equanimity I have become fond of. Nothing, absolutely nothing was moving.

I am Austrian. I dared to say, loud enough to be heard: “We are all very tired, can you please hurry up?” No answer.

Some of stranded bunch started to get know each other, which offered some comfort.

There was the girl who was to be married in Puerto Vallarta next day. She was in tears, understandably. We sent her to the front of the line and told her to fly directly to Vallarta. After a long while, she left with a smile. I guess she got a seat on a plane.

A young mother with a baby in her arms was also sent to the front of the line.

But there would be no plane for the rest of us, not until next day.

It was a long and painful wait, from approximately 10:30 p.m. to after midnight. The two agents dealt with us one by one, finding flights with empty seats or beds in nearby hotels.

Remember those feet of ours? A bed sounded great at this point! A chair would have been nice too, but there was none.

Not everyone’s case was easy. There was the guy who had been in Moscow at a hunters convention and had licensed guns in his luggage. But they were not licensed in the United States. Who knows how they dealt with that, but it took a long time. He, I and others had been flying, or standing in airports, for over 20 hours and were very tired. Nobody from United seemed interested in our plight.

Remember I mentioned patience?

Some of us were assigned a hotel that had no available rooms and we needed to stand in line again to receive a new voucher.  Problem was, at 12:30 a.m. the agents ran out of paper and could not find more to print on. I think it was at this point, that the proverbial Mexican patience started to crumble. After some paper was found, we were dispatched to wait outdoors for the shuttle that would take us to our hotel, the Park Inn. But no shuttle came. The poor UA agents, they must have been tired of us, running inside every five minutes asking where the shuttle was.

At 1:10 a.m. a group of us decided to pay for a cab out of our own pockets. Someone else opted to walk to the nearest hotel and pay for it, rather than wait any longer.

Plenty of shuttles were parked at the hotel entrance when we arrived.

What a relief to take a shower and then be horizontal, if only for four brief hours. Alarm clock set for 6 a.m.

Next morning, our new flight UA 1340, scheduled for a 9 a.m. take off, did not show up on the electronic departure board. Every time we asked we got a different excuse. The weather, the crew, the plane, you name it. We finally departed at 10:45 a.m., with the same crew from the day before, after a faulty hose was fixed.

The flight was eventless and we arrived in Guadalajara in one piece.

It might be of interest to mention that those of us who made a complaint via email got an apology and a voucher for varying amounts of money. Anywhere from 75 to 150 dollars. Mine was the latter. Redeemable for another flight with United.

Hahahaha! This is where the dash of good humor comes in handy!

After the event, United Airlines representative Laura Breen replied to Ilse Taylor: “We will make every effort to leave you with a better impression of our airline next time you fly with us.” In the case of guitarist David Carroll, United eventually donated 3,000 dollars to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as a “gesture of goodwill,” in a rather belated attempt to undo the damage done to its image.