The Travel Adviser: Planes change – values don’t

During flights I saw microcosm of what United passengers, industry insiders have seen – honeymoon over before it started.

El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370 (photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370
(photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
He was a Jew; she was a Catholic. The wedding took place on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas.
The bride & groom and all of the wedding party entered the procession wearing sandals, with the waves lapping on the beach. Standing under the huppa, a smile broke across my face when the Mexican Justice of the Peace pontificated on their union.
Two people, two cultures, merging their heritages. Not an easy road to success, I thought.
Conversely, I had six flights in the 10 days I traversed the United States & Mexico, primarily on United Airlines.
During my flights I experienced a microcosm of what United passengers and industry insiders have already identified – the honeymoon was over before it started.
It’s been almost four months since United and Continental combined in a multi-billion dollar deal to form the world’s largest carrier, and the situation has worsened since they shifted over to a new computer system on March 3.
We were a family of four departing on a warm, humid night from Tel Aviv to Newark and on to Los Angeles.
Having not flown since the merger, I was eager to see how the new arrangement was working out. Two of us in business class, two in economy class.
Their aircraft, a shining Boeing 777, had lie-flat beds in business class, personal video screens throughout the plane and power outlets for my kids in economy class to listen to their music. The crew was attentive, warm and embodied all that I remembered from Continental.
We boarded on time, taxied down the runway and then came to a full stop. A few minutes later the captain announced that someone on board wasn’t well and had elected not to fly. Unfortunately getting him off the plane and finding his luggage in the belly of the plane took over 90 minutes, but one could not fault the airline.
Since I had reserved a four-hour stop in Newark on our way to Los Angeles, I was quite secure we would make the connection. If only I had known.
UP, UP and away. We finally took off, and with all due respect to their well-known scrumptious cuisine, I was asleep in 10 minutes and never tasted a morsel. The flight was uneventful; my kids said their food was palatable, but were more impressed by the vast choice of entertainment on offer. What amused me was the motto written on the napkins proffered every time I was given a drink: “Planes change, values don’t.”
I thought this an apt mission statement for the merged company. Only later did I realize how true it was.
Arriving at Newark airport at the crack of dawn, we sped through passport control, dropped off our bags and meandered through a surprisingly busy United Airlines Terminal with a good hour left before our flight. The boarding passes had been given to us at Ben-Gurion Airport.
We double checked the gate, saw the plane was scheduled to leave on time. Boarding quickly, we took our seats on what appeared to be a rather new Airbus 320. The crew seemed a bit more stern, a little older, but still very professional. No doubt having to be at work at five in the morning for a 7:00 a.m. flight doesn’t thrill everyone.
But what he heard out of the cockpit on this flight, though, was far less reassuring. “There is no way I can fly this plane.”
Not a sentence you ever want to hear on a plane. Fortunately it was followed fairly quickly with the reason: “I can’t move my seat.”
Sitting up close I could see that these mutterings were coming from the co-pilot. Going out to the galley, now in front of my seat, he informed the flight attendants that his seat was locked all the way up and he had no movement whatsoever. He would not sit squeezed against the windshield. Seeing that I was observing the entire incident he came to my seat and explained it would be impossible in such a situation to control the floor pedals in case of an emergency.
The pilot came out and demanded a mechanic be called to fix the seat. Many of us now were standing up, kibitzing. The pilot asked whether we should be deplaned but was told it would be fixed quickly. Acting just like his stereotype, a mechanic came on the plane, bent over, huffed and puffed, and nothing happened.
Ten minutes later he left.
Now the pilot was apoplectic. He told us the plane had landed in Newark Airport last night with the broken chair. That it had been reported and that United had done nothing about it. Several of the road warriors in business class opined that what had rarely occurred with Continental was commonplace with United. Those four simple words rattled again in my brain: Planes change, values don’t.
Querying further, I discovered to my amazement that flight crews have not been merged. You will either get a complete Continental crew, or a United crew. Trust me when I tell you that for the foreseeable future, you will easily be able to spot the difference. Serious and sober best characterizes the United flight attendants. Charisma is not a trait that one can ascribe to them.
The overall warmth that one feels from ex-Continental personnel, on the other hand, appears to be truly genuine. Merging any two companies, with their different cultures, is no easy task. Keeping their flight attendants separate, though, is a sure-fire way to slow down the process.
My United pilot decided he had had enough and elected to have all of us deplaned. He said that United would send us a new plane and told us to go over to the Customer Service desk. That was a colossal waste of time. According to the latest statistics from the US Transportation Department, United is the most complained- about airline in America by far. Tickle me pink and add me to the list.
After a 30-minute wait, I reached the counter. Having counseled clients over the years not to scream, and to remain calm, I simply asked if we could be rebooked for a later flight.
She stared at me as if I had come from another planet.
“Our flights are almost always sold out and there are four of you.”
It need not be a non-stop flight, I meekly suggested; we can fly to Los Angeles from your hub in Chicago or via Houston. “Planes change, values don’t” echoed in my mind. I instantly asked her: was she previously United or Continental? Like a peacock, she answered proudly, “I’m from United.”
After some furtive entries she told me I could either wait six hours for the replacement plane or fly via Chicago and Denver, landing in Los Angeles at 8:00 p.m. She was kind enough to point out that there were no four seats available together and that all of us would be in middle seats. I politely declined her generous offer, and was given four $6 vouchers to feed us. I gave them to my kids and told them to go knock themselves out.
I asked if all four of us could while away the time in their business lounge, and requested a pass for our two nearly grown children. She chided me gently, saying the United Customer Service desk had no connection with the United Club lounge.
So walking over to the lounge we lined up like good passengers and attempted entry. No doubt used to unwarranted attempts to storm their lounge, we were told in no uncertain terms that only two of us could enter their sacred chamber.
My son and I gallantly decided to let the women go in, and we went back to the gate to see what was happening.
After two hours my wife decided she would switch with us and allow us to enjoy the quiet comfort of the United Club. So, heading back to the club, we, with our two passes, were stopped cold in our tracks.
“Where do you think you’re going?” inquired the not-so-empathetic. We dutifully showed our boarding passes.
She asked where Mrs. Feldman was, saying she was the only person permitted to accompany me. When I pointed out that we had earlier used the passes to let my wife and daughter in, she merely replied that under no circumstances could a pass be transferred.
My son backtracked out of there faster than a shooting star, embarrassed to see his father chastised.
“Planes change, values don’t” was now pounding inside my head.
A MERE five hours later, our plane took off. Same crew, same plane, same clients. Again, the flight itself was smooth and this time, knowing it was a pure United flight crew, my expectations were tempered. I made certain my seat was completely upright when we took off and dared not have any electrical devices operating when we landed. In other words, a most compliant passenger.
The rest of our trip was filled with the wedding in Mexico and taking advantage of the weak US dollar and doing our utmost to support the US economy. On our return trip to Tel Aviv we again experienced the split personality which characterizes United; a United Air crew to Newark and an ex-Continental crew to Tel Aviv.
At Newark airport, when we checked in again for the flight to Tel Aviv, the women were so friendly I felt obligated to thank them and ask if they were originally from Continental. Our check-in clerk immediately lit up and with a beaming smile informed me that of course she was ex-Continental and that whenever she worked at Newark airport, she preferred being with other employees of her ilk.
To be equitable to United senior management, which has already integrated personnel, they have a daunting challenge ahead of them. Frequent fliers will no doubt point out that I’m not being completely forthright in what actually appears on their napkins.
“Planes change. values don’t” is followed by: “Your priorities will always be ours.”
Our priorities, you assert, and the priorities of all fliers, are safety, comfort and service. Two out of three, United, isn’t going to cut it. Fliers today have choices. They vote with their feet. Charging $100 for a second suitcase on transatlantic flights when your competitors charge 30% less isn’t going to cut it. While other airlines permit frequent flier members from Silver level up to check a second suitcase for free on transatlantic flights and one free inside the US, United elects not to.
El Al permits eligible passengers to bring one guest with them to their business lounge, United shows no such largesse.
In Israel, we’re fortunate, though. Every single employee of United Airlines is an ex-Continental worker. Their values have not changed. But like one mixed-marriage couple tying the knot, I am optimistic that they have the Right Stuff.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.

For questions & comments, email him at [email protected]