By David Armstrong
Just before take-off on United Airlines, passengers see a video of Jeff Smisek, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., extolling United’s commitment to customer service.
When pre-flight drinks are rolled out, the message is reinforced; paper napkins arrive with these words imprinted: “Planes change. Values don’t. Your priorities will always be ours.”
Smisek told CNNMoney.com last April, “We’re a business-oriented airline. We love all our customers – we just love some more than others, and those are the business travelers.”
Following the retirement of Continental Airlines’ respected CEO Larry Kellner at the end of 2009, Smisek moved up from chief operating officer to take over Kellner’s job. Continental then merged in October 2010 with United Airlines – to form the world’s largest airline by passenger traffic – and Smisek became the CEO of the merged airlines.
I pondered Smisek’s words as I trundled to the United Club lounge (the renamed Red Carpet Club), located just past security in San Francisco International Airport’s International Terminal, on February 5 to catch United flight 863 from San Francisco to Sydney.
United’s First Class lounge, directly beneath United Club, is lovely, but the business-class lounge looks as though it hasn’t been touched-up since it opened in December 2000.
The escalator to the second-floor lounge from the first-floor entrance was out of order, so I took an elevator to the lounge, where the large customer service desk was unstaffed.
There were no hot meals or gourmet morsels. There were complimentary crackers and packaged cheese, a coffee machine, soft drinks, juice and water.
I skimmed a magazine in a commendably quiet, phone-free, muted-TV zone and then took a look around. There were no free-use desktop PCs, as are found in many lounges run by global airlines, but travelers beavered away with their own electronic devices on free Wi-Fi.
Then came an announcement. Our scheduled 22:33 departure would be delayed until midnight because the first officer needed to be replaced and the replacement was “coming from a distance”.
No explanation was forthcoming about what prompted a replacement. I wondered why United, which uses SFO as one of its six global hubs, didn’t have a pilot available nearby to step in.
One of my favorite British slang words came to mind: shambolic – meaning a shambles, chaos, messy, often used in a context implying neglectfulness. Shambolic seemed the perfect word.
Since I now had time to kill, I thought I’d have a glass of wine. Travelers didn’t pour drinks themselves but were served by a bartender. I spied a bottle of Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay, a good California wine, in the lounge bar and asked for a glass.
“Ten dollars,” the bartender said. Beers were free, he explained, but premium wines and most spirits cost extra. I remembered that the fare for my round-trip flight was $10,034.
One red and one white wine were available free. “Uhm, I think I’ll have a glass of …” I began, but before I could finish, the taciturn bartender poured a glass of red.
“What is it” I asked. “Cabernet,” he replied. “Who makes it?” I asked. He pointed to a bottle behind the bar: Twisted. I took one sip.
At 11:00 p.m., the lounge closed. Weary premium customers shuffled to the departure gate. The plane – including, of course, coveted business-class travelers, some of whom probably paid the full $10,000 fare – boarded one hour later. I took my comfortable window seat in the upper deck of our Boeing 747-400.