United Airlines: Dead last in satisfaction, safety, everything

Last update:  September 2021

Many airlines have unhappy customers, but United takes the cake.

Below is a music video by Dave Carroll about how United broke his guitar.  The silver lining for him was that the song skyrocketed in popularity and helped his career.

If you want to share your own bad experience with United, check out GripeVine.

I can't help you with your baggage or other airline problems

The #1 way people find my website these days is by doing a search for "united airlines baggage" — about 14 visitors a day.  United must be losing a lot of baggage if so many people are searching the Internet for how to get their bags back, every day!

Since I posted my lost bag story (below) countless fliers have written to me to tell me of their baggage and other woes with United and ask if I have any special phone numbers or tips to help them.  But it should be obvious that if *I* was unable to get proper service from United, then how would I be able to help youI can't. There's nothing I can do for you.

Amusingly, a fair number of writers think that *I* am United Airlines and they write demanding a resolution to their problems.  How they could draw that conclusion after even a casual glance at this web page is beyond me. Usually these missives from an AOL email address.

One thing that's clear from all the messages I've received isn't just that United loses baggage on a frighteningly regular basis, more importantly they don't care.  Just as with my experience, readers haven't been upset by their baggage loss as much as they've been shocked at how United employees have been unconcerned, rude, and incompetent when the readers made inquiries to try to get their lost bags back.  This underscores what I related in my own experience: United just doesn't care.  It's as simple as that.

Again, I'm sorry that I can't help you. There is no need to write me about your airline woes for any reason.  Good luck.

My own lost bag experience

This is the story of my own bad experience with United, but really, the summary at the top of this page is all you really need to know.

When a company makes a mistake it's easy to forgive them. When they make two, it's harder. When they make dozens, it's impossible. Here is a classic example of poor service from a commercial airline.

Rather than make you read the whole story, let me summarize my experience in brief.

  1. United lost my bag.
  2. The agent who took my report guessed at some of the bag's characteristics rather than asking me, thus describing the bag wrong, thus making it harder for United to find it — though I wouldn't learn about this particular screw-up until later.
  3. When I tried to call United I was subjected to possibly the most lengthy and annoying phone menu system in the world.
  4. The computerized system gave incomplete and inaccurate information about my missing bag.
  5. When I finally got to talk to a rep, I made it a point to complain about the phone system, asking that the complaint be relayed to management, but the rep clearly didn't care and made no effort to apologize for my frustration.
  6. The bag wasn't delivered when United said it should be.
  7. Some of the agents I talked to were simply...stupid.  There is no other way to describe it.  The details are in the story.
  8. United called me at a number I specifically told them not to call me at, rather than the one I had insisted they use, causing me to miss their call.
  9. I left my home to go to another phone to call United again since my phone wasn't working, and when I left I put a prominent note on my front door written in thick, black permanent marker telling the bag courier (if he arrived while I was gone) that I would be back in five minutes.
  10. That 5 minutes turned out to be 10 minutes because of United's absurd telephone system.  Sure enough, the courier arrived while I was gone, and sure enough, he somehow missed the conspicuous note.  He likely knocked right on it.
  11. When the bag was finally delivered, I saw that the handle was broken.  There was no apology, much less any offer at compensation.
  12. I wrote to United, and a manager from my local airport called me and said she'd review the case and would get back to me with some kind of offer of compensation.  I told her I was more concerned with knowing that future United customers wouldn't be treated the way I was, but that I would still entertain her offer.  Naturally, I never heard back from her.
  13. I tried to call United to speak to this manager, but they refused to put me through.  I explained that she had contacted me first, and that I never heard back from her as she'd promised, but they didn't care.

After I first wrote this page in 2004 I lost a bag on another carrier.  My experience that time was completely different. T he customer service agent I dealt with was friendly, helpful, and competent.  Airlines lose baggage, that happens, and it's forgivable.  What matters is how the airline handles it when it happens.

The story

On Nov. 13, 2004 I flew from Chicago to my home in Austin on United Airlines.  My bag did not arrive with me.  I went to the United baggage office at the airport and informed the clerk ("JR").  She immediately started asking me several questions and filling out a form.  During this uncomfortable time I had no idea what was going to happen.  She might have started by saying something both reassuring and helpful such as, "Okay, I'm going to get some information from you so I can locate your bag. It's unusual that a bag is ever lost for good — probably it's still just at the last airport because it didn't make it on the plane somehow. Once it gets here to Austin we'll send a courier to deliver it to your home, probably either later tonight or tomorrow...."  But instead she just asked a bunch of questions, wrote the answers down and fiddled with the computer while I wondered what was going on and what would happen.  She finally told me that the bag was in Chicago because it had been retained by the Transportation Administration for some reason, that they could get it on that evening's last flight to Austin, and that it could probably be delivered to me by midnight.  She said they would call first.

Upon arriving home I realized that United would not be able to call me because my telephone equipment was in my bag.  I went to a neighbor's house to call United to inform them of that, and was disappointed to be greeted with a voice-activated menu system.  Such systems are slow, cumbersome, and annoying — they often hinder rather than help you.  In this case, it was of course impossible for me to describe my problem to a computer and so I needed to talk to a real person, but in their infinite wisdom United decided to force customers to talk to the useless computerized agent instead.  There was no way to bypass it.  I hit the zero key several times but the computerized agent kept telling me it didn't understand my selection.  I had to tell the computer "delayed bag", and then "Austin, Texas", and then my last name, and then confirm that it had gotten my last name right, and then listen to the computer tell me it had no idea where my bag was but that it had the bag on a "priority trace".  This directly conflicts with what JR told me at the airport, which was that the bag was in Chicago. Finally the computer said I could talk to a real person by saying "agent", though when I did so it toyed with me further by saying, "I think you said 'agent'. Is that correct? If yes, then say 'yes'..."

Preventing problems with lost baggage


Carry on anything that's important. Don't put cash, credit cards, jewelry, medicine, business documents, etc. in your checked baggage. Carry it on with you.


Put your name & contact info INSIDE the bag. Write it with a Sharpie on a piece of cardboard at least as large as a sheet of paper. If the tag gets ripped off the outside of your bag then there's still ID inside.


Take a picture of your bag and carry it with you. If your bag is lost then have the agent staple it to the form. That might help if they put the wrong description on the form, like they did with me.


Don't fly United. Not only are they more likely to lose your bag, they don't care if they do.


Don't write to me. Don't write to me for help of any kind with your lost baggage. I'm not an ombudsman or a help desk, and I already have over 5000 messages in my In Box. I can't help you. Don't write.

After being on hold for a while I finally got an agent on the line. The very first thing I did was to tell her that I found the computerized agent to be annoying and unhelpful, and to ask that she relay that information to management. She halfheartedly acknowledged my request without apologizing for my poor experience. This is a classic customer service mistake, because ignoring a customer's complaint just makes them angrier, which I know from my years of working in customer support and training support reps. But this is typical for United -- through the many, many calls I would make United agents never once acknowledged my complaints about poor service even once.

I then explained that I was calling because United wouldn't be able to contact me about delivery since my phone equipment was in my bag. The agent then asked me for all the information I had just given the computerized agent. Their system is so lame that it doesn't even relay the information I already gave.

I asked the agent to replace the phone number they had on file for me with my neighbor's phone number. The agent then said she felt my bag would still arrive later that evening.

It didn't. I went to my neighbor's house after the flight was to have arrived to call United again and I went through the same ordeal as earlier: The computerized agent again forced me to talk to IT rather than to a real person, it told me again that my bag had not been located, I again had to tell it a couple of times that I wanted to talk to a real agent, and it again didn't relay my information to the real agent.

When I got the agent on the line she put me on hold so she could call the Chicago airport. After several minutes she came back and said that Chicago didn't answer. She tried again. When she came back she said she thinks they located the bag but that the tag had been ripped off, and said that Chicago described the contents as including "dress shirts and casual shirts". (Duh.) That the Chicago office would think that that is actually a helpful description rather than a patently retarded description is disappointing.

I informed the agent that I did indeed have casual shirts and dress shirts though I had no idea how that would differentiate my bag from every other bag on the planet. I described the contents in better detail and also the distinctive features on the outside of the bag. I asked what information they had about the description so I could verify it was correct. The agent said that it was listed as a wheelable bag with a retractable handle. This is wrong, and I never described the bag as such. I then looked at the report filled out by the agent in Austin and saw that she took it upon herself to list the bag as having a retractable handle, though she never asked me whether it had a retractable handle and I never volunteered that it did.

I told the agent that my bag didn't have a retractable handle and that the Austin agent must have assumed so when she filled out the report, since she never asked me. The phone agent corrected the information in the system but completely failed to apologize for the fact that the original agent entered the wrong information. This is the First Rule of Customer Service: Apologize for Mistakes, especially when the customer brings it to your attention. But United consistently failed to do this.

Let's separate United's mistakes from the bag being detained in the first place. The fact that my bag was initially delayed might have been out of United's control. They did apologize for the fact that my bag was delayed on my first call, though that doesn't concern me because I presume the initial delay was not caused by United's incompetence. However, when I ran into problems because of United's mishandling of the inquiry, it simply added insult to injury when the fact I received poor service was ignored.

At this point something else became clear: Despite the computerized phone agent's assurance that they had the bag on a "priority trace", it was clear that nobody was taking an active role in trying to locate the bag. Rather, Austin just felt that the bag was in Chicago somewhere and that it would turn up in Austin when Chicago was done with it. I thus consider the phone agent's assurance as outright deception.

The agent said the next flight would hit Austin around 1:00pm the next day and that my bag would likely be located and arrive on that flight.

The next morning I again went to my neighbor's to call United, and was again subjected to the computerized agent which would not let me bypass it, slowly demanded information, falsely told me that my bag had not been located, finally let me talk to a human agent. I spoke with an Indian agent who told me that the bag had been located in Chicago, would arrive on the afternoon flight, and should be delivered to my home by about 2:00pm. She tried to confirm that they should call the phone number they had listed before delivery, and I said no, because that was my neighbor's phone, since I had to call United from my neighbor's house since my telephone equipment was in my bag. The agent asked, "So you want to change the delivery address?" I said, "NO! Please deliver to the same address you have down for me. You just can't call me there because my phone is in my missing bag."

She then asked me to call back about the time the bag was supposed to be delivered. I replied, "I can't do that, because I have to leave my home in order to call you, and I might miss the courier." She said, "I don't understand what you mean. Why would you have to leave your home in order to call?" I paused for several seconds because I was stumped at trying to think of a simpler way to repeat myself, but then she chimed in with, "Oh, you can't call because your phone is in your bag." Bingo! She said they would have the courier deliver it without calling first.

By 3:00pm my bag had still not arrived. My neighbor was not home so I walked to a public telephone to call United.  Before I left I put a bright green note on my front door written with a thick, black marker that said, "Luggage Courier: I will return in five minutes. —M. Bluejay". When I got to the store and called United I was again subjected to the computerized agent which would not let me bypass it, slowly demanded information, falsely told me that my bag had not been located, finally let me talk to a human agent only after a multi-step process, and did not relay the information I had given it to the human agent.

I told the agent that I had expected my bag to arrive an hour ago. She replied that there was a four-hour window for delivery. This was news to me, since no previous agent had mentioned that.  I told her that if that was the case then previous agents failed to mention that important fact.  Typically, the agent did not even acknowledge my concern.

I returned home and waited.

When someone leaves me a voicemail message, the message is emailed to me so I'm able to hear messages even without a phone.  At 4:30pm I received a voicemail message on my email from the courier, John, asking me to call him.  This tells me that United did not change my number to my neighbor's number as I asked, since they would have no way to reach me at my home number.

My neighbor was still not home so I walked back to the public telephone to call the courier.  Thankfully I did not have to go through a computerized agent.  The courier said that he had been at my house but no one answered the door.  The only time I was away was when I had gone to the public telephone earlier for a few minutes to call United, and that must have been when he had been there.  Had United's phone system and representatives handled calls quicker then I wouldn't have been at the pay phone for so long and I likely would not have missed the courier.

I asked the courier if he had not seen the bright green note on the door that said I would return in five minutes?  He said he had not.  Likely he knocked right on it.  I would count this as another, blatant mistake but the courier is independent and not employed directly by United.

I knew United had given him a number I told them not to use, but did they at least give him my neighbor's number too, which I said I wanted to be the contact number?  They did not, they gave him only the bad number.

The courier said he would return at 9:00pm with my bag.

As I write this I am still waiting for my bag.

UPDATE: At 9:20pm, the courier arrived and delivered my bag—with a broken handle.  United must have known the handle was broken before they handed it to the courier, but United made no effort to contact me to offer compensation or replacement.  Perhaps they are hoping that my bad experience in dealing with them will discourage me from continuing this comedy of errors by calling them to file a claim.

P.S. I filed a complaint on United's website, referring them to this page since all the details are here. If United responds to this article, expect them to miss the point by focusing on the fact that my bag was delayed rather than understanding my *real* complaint, which is how they mishandled the problem with my missing bag.

United's Response

On Nov. 17 I received the following email from United:

Dear Mr. Bluejay,

Thank you for contacting us. Customer Relations staff does not have access to other websites, and we are not able to access the url that you provide.

I understand, however, that your comments may related to baggage issues. Given your situation, you will need to contact our Baggage Services staff by calling 1-800-221-6903. Or, you may email them from our Home Page by clicking "Contact United", then under "Post Travel Services", click on "Baggage Services/Lost and Found". Please provide your comments in text form. We appreciate this opportunity to be of assistance and look forward to serving your travel needs.


J. Esmail
United Airlines
Customer Relations

United's Second Response

After I received the notice above I went to United's website and pasted the contents of this web page into their contact form. Below is the response I got.

Above I predicted that if United replied I expected them to miss the point and to focus on the fact that my bag was delayed rather than understanding that my *real* complaint is how they mishandled my inquiries on the matter and how their customer service is lacking.  That's exactly what they did.

Dear Mr. Bluejay,

Thank you for your prompt response dated November 17. Your constructive feedback is appreciated and we welcome hearing from our valued customers.

However, because your concern involves the handling of your baggage, I have forwarded your inquiry to our Central Baggage department, they can best respond to your inquiry.  A representative will be in touch with you as soon as possible.  If you have further questions or feedback, you may reach them by calling 1-800-221-6903 or by emailing them from our Home Page by clicking "Contact United", then under "Post Travel Services" click on "Baggage Services/Lost and Found". Meanwhile, thank you for your patience.

We look forward to serving you.


J. Esmail
United Airlines
Customer Relations

United's Third Response

A few days after this I received voicemail message from a United manager in Austin. I called her back a few days later and she apologized for my experience and, appropriately, seemed to understand that my issue was not that my bag had been delayed so much as it was the way they handled that problem. I had been waiting for the opportunity to talk to United so that if they asked me what it was I wanted, I would say, "Please see the specific grievances listed in my complaint, and make sure that other customers don't have the same experience," -- which is what I did. The manager acknowledged this and also said that she would research my case to see what kind of compensation she could offer me, and then get back to me on that. I explained that I was more interested in United's addressing its customer service problems than in remuneration, but that I would consider any offer they wanted to make.

I never heard back from this manager. Unfortunately I cannot call her because I neglected to record her telephone number or name. My only option at this point is going through United's voicemail hell again. This whole thing is just comical. United has failed every step of the way. Every time they had an opportunity to do something wrong, they took it.

On Dec. 28th, 2004 after over a month of waiting I decided to try to contact the United manager to pick up where we had left off. I thought I would call the Austin office and ask to talk to a manager, but when I picked up the phone book I discovered that United didn't bother to get a listing in the alphabetical white pages -- not even a nationwide customer service number (unlike their competitors, which are listed clearly). I checked the previous year's directory and they're not in there, either. Of course nothing surprises me about United anymore.

I found the customer service number on their website (though inconveniently not on their home page—it was two clicks away from home), 877-228-1327. I dialed and waited the typical ten minutes before I could talk to somebody.  Victor Pedroza answered, I explained that I was left hanging by a manager in Austin, and asked for the phone number of the Austin office.  Mr. Pedroza refused to provide it, saying my only recourse was to write a letter to the Austin office.  I asked whether he thought that was reasonable—after all I've been through, and after being left hanging by United, was this really the best they could do?  If they were going to insist on being stingy with the phone number to the Austin office, could they not leave a message with a manager to get back to me?  Was this really the best they could do?

Yes, this was really the best they could do.

At this point I gave up.  I could spend time printing out and mailing a copy of this page but there's no point.  It's pretty clear that United simply doesn't care.

A reader writes...

Great story. Wish I would have known before I flew United. At least you made it through to an individual on the phone.  I'm still waiting on luggage from a connecting flight in Chicago to Dallas.  I was told it would arrive yesterday between 1:30 p.m. and 12 a.m.  What a window!  Either way I keep playing with Simon their voice activated crap for brains computer.  Maybe my luggage will arrive by Christmas, when I get to head back to Dallas to be with family.
...    ...    ...    ...

Well, after trying to talk to a live human being all day and being hung up on repeatedly because no one was available to talk to me, I was finally transferred to their operator system (I guess).  I waited on hold for 30 min. before I talked to someone, who finally informed me that my luggage had been sitting somewhere in the Killeen airport since 2 p.m. yesterday.

I was quite upset. N ot only because it was now almost 48 hours since my plane arrived, but also because it had been sitting 20-30 minutes away and no one bothered to update the computer or to give me a simple phone call.

The operator tried to contact the Killeen airport but could get no answer.  She suggested the airport might have closed at 6 p.m.  She offered me $50 in travel certificates and I asked if that was supposed to make me trust them with my luggage again.  She seemed a bit flustered and asked me what I wanted her to do. I told her I just wanted my luggage, like I was promised Sunday night at DFW.  Secondly, I added that a free flight might be nice, only if I ever decided to trust her company again after losing my luggage.

She told me she couldn't give me a free flight and added that the airline had not lost my luggage.  I pointed out to her that indeed it had been lost.  Their computer reported to me that it was being delivered to my house (which by the way they had the address wrong) and all along it was sitting in Killeen.  Also as of our phone conversation, she couldn't contact anyone to confirm my bag was even anywhere near where her computer now said it was.  I told her to do what she could and I thanked her for her time.

Luckily the Killeen airport answered when I called, and was still open when I went to pick up the bag.  The bag and contents were just as they were when I left Roanoke Sunday afternoon..

Jonathan B., Dec. 21-22, 2004

Editor's note:

While we're sorry to hear about Mr. Blundell's experience, we can't say we're surprised. Yet again, this goes well beyond the fact that his bag was delayed—the problem was his experience in trying to get it back.

The proper response to a customer's question of "Am I supposed to trust your company again because you're offering me $50?" is simple: "No, we're not offering you the $50 to try to win back your trust, we're offering it because we let you down and this is the best way we have of saying we're sorry.  If you don't want to fly with us again then that's your decision and I would completely understand your feeling that way.  Nevertheless, we still want to try to make it up to you for the bad experience you just had."

Many middle managers would cringe at the above statement because they think it further pushes customers away, and those who think that have a complete lack of understanding about customer service and aren't fit to be managers.  Customers never want to hear excuses or be offered bribes and as long as they're treated that way then they'll never trust you.  The ways to regain a customer's trust—indeed the only ways—are to show that you understand the customer's concern and to offer a genuine apology. Once a customer has been treated poorly, solving the initial problem (e.g., returning a bag) or throwing a consolation prize at them without explaining why it's being offered, is insufficient.

It's a shame that these simple concepts are not blatantly obvious to some companies. Maybe I should go back into training customer service staff....

Please don't write to share your stories about poor experiences with United.  I'm not publishing any more.  If I did that that's all I'd do.  If you had a bad experience with United, I'm sorry that happened to you but I don't need to know about it.


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