I hadn’t flown United in nearly a year, but decided to opt for in on a non-stop flight to SFO from MCO. For some reason, hopefully not my previous complaints, United had since upgraded me to Silver-Elite, which includes a space-available upgrade to first class. Honestly though, planes are so overbooked nowadays that your chances of having space in the first class cabin are slim.
Nonetheless, I booked the flight and had plans to hop on the Internet connection and do office work during the 5-hour flight. Unintelligently, I brought nothing else with me to do. No books, no crosswords.
Once the flight was underway, it became clear that WiFi would again be an issue. The first sign of problems was when I attempted to log in with my United account. This, I was told via the sign-on page, would allow me to swap Internet connectivity between devices. But, it turned out this option was not available. I attempted to sign-on and received an error message (below). They’re sorry for my inconvenience, which as you’ll see later, is a theme at United. Both the sorry part and the inconvenience part.
I was forced to purchase access as a guest, thus presumably losing the ability to switch devices. But as I was to find out, this wouldn’t matter much.
Once online, the connection began to fail. I noticed others who were also having issues. I made my way back to the flight attendants at the rear and asked them whether WiFi was working or not. I was assured it was. As I made my way back to my seat, I did a survey of other passengers and found that their connection was down as well.
So rather than sit down, I made my way to the front of the plane and let that flight attendant know. Apparently, they have to call into the cockpit to have the system reset. The system was reset, but it still didn’t work.
Short version: no Internet for 5 hours and I had to request a refund.
On the way back, I still was not able to log in using my United frequent flyer account, so the second purchase of $14.95 was only for a single device. The connection stayed up this time, but during various points in the trip, it would hang. So I’d lose connectivity for 15 mins and then it would slowly come back. This flight was over the US (not over water), so coverage should have been there.
Finally, unrelated to WiFi, when you purchase meals on United (meal boxes), you don’t get a receipt. You have to go to http://www.united.com/receipts and request them. So I did, and the first problem I encountered was a weird error message that didn’t make sense (see below).
There’s only one travel date entered and yet it complains that the dates (?) are before departure date? I had to submit each segment separately.
When my receipts email came, it did not have my meal receipts. It only showed my ticket and seat upgrade monies paid. Great, how do I get receipts for my meals?
After this flight on United, I flew on American from MCO to DFW. That outbound flight had no WiFi (an old 767) so I guess while frustrating and surprising, I could not attempt to use WiFi. On the way back, the plane (a brand new Airbus) had Wifi through Gogo and worked perfectly.
I am just appalled that United continues to use some custom system and eschews Gogo. If Gogo has attempted to negotiate outrageous terms, I’m all for United kicking them to the curb and using option B. But the replacement should at least be as good as Gogo. It’s as if both the actual technology is bad and the site to sign up for it is bad and the web page to request receipts is bad.
Note: I can say that the United iPhone app is actually well designed and easy to use.
But WiFi has become a commodity on planes. Not having it or not having it work should be the exception. How can it be that the few times I fly United, there is always a problem with WiFi? To me this indicates there is a widespread problem that United needs to address, or they will be losing travelers. Their customer service rating is already in the basement (see link at end of article).
When I Twitter-messaged United about my recurring WiFi issues, they replied that they were sorry.
In a related story:
By the way, I do not have a vendetta against United. It used to be my favorite airline. But I’m a technology guy and I can’t wrap my head around a large corporation like United just not being able to address core technology issues. Thus now I avoid United. However, I’m happy to return to United and provide technology reports back to them (at regular price, I’m not asking for a discount) as long as they make attempts to identify root cause and solve the issues once and for wall.
I also read that there are newer Earth-to-ground Wifi solutions that might improve the connection for all platforms. I can envision a day when the speed is comparable to ground-based WiFi.
Finally, tomorrow I’ll be on Southwest and will provide a follow-up on my experience there.