Get Out There & Live...Sustainably
Dear United Airlines, We Need to Talk

Dear United Airlines, We Need to Talk

To: United Airlines
Re: Flight 5456 SFO to MFR/Ms. Grumpy Knickers
Date: July 5, 2016

United Airlines

Dear United Airlines,

Her name was Ms. Grumpy Knickers. On July 5, I had the unfortunate experience of being in her company on one of your planes. I’m writing, because for a full month I’ve tried to shake off this experience that’s sticking to me like warm gum on the bottom of a hiking boot. United, you have a problem. We need to talk.

Normally, I don’t bother to go out of my way to contact a company unless I’ve had an exceptional encounter. I rather enjoy writing letters extolling rare virtues like the unparalleled service of a person who made herculean efforts to bring me joy. I take pleasure in knowing that someone with a great attitude received kudos from a manager on my behalf.

With the yang comes the yin, I suppose. Generally, I let the mediocre experiences slide, mostly because there are just so darn many, and I simply lack the free time for all that letter writing. In recent years, I’ve even let go of certain bad or negative customer service encounters, especially if they’ve only affected me, personally.

But not this time, dear United. It was an exceptional experience that deserves attention: exceptionally bad, and an entire plane was subjected to one person’s foul mood.

Our journey started much earlier in the day with a walk down toe jam alley on athlete’s foot freeway to the chamber o’radiation. We watched all the TSA pre-check climbers clamor past us privileged to keep their computers in their bags and their clothes on. Nothing quite says I love you like a good TSA frisking. Were I not so preoccupied with what else those gloves have touched, I would’ve asked the agent to give me some pointers to try out later on my husband. Let’s just say security really put me in the mood for the greeting we received on your plane.

Have you ever taken a bite of lemon and the back of your jaw seizes up while your face momentarily freezes in a contortion of discomfort? That’s what her face looked like. A visual of that grimace upon entering your plane should’ve been my first clue, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I mean, what if she just received a text break-up or learned that her kid was kicked out of summer camp for selling meth to 5th graders outside of the latrines? Maybe she had that grimace on her face because she ate a bad Starburst or jawbreaker or she cracked a molar on a Mary’s Gone Cracker or something.

I am totally capable of getting my Zen on and working the “bad moments curdle good people” theory. But later when I overheard her belittle someone for pressing the help me button, my doubts resurfaced. Then, when she stopped to inform me, with a supercilious look down her nose, that my computer could not be kept in the seatback pocket and I had to immediately place it in a bag beneath the seat or in the overhead compartment, I knew precisely what was happening: Cruella DeUnited was running the show. I expected her to pull a dead puppy out of the drink cart. My black bag was camo’d by the dark underbelly of the seat in front of me, so when I reached down to grab it, she acted as if I was faking her out. I got a creepy shiver up then down my spine as she stood there, glaring, watching me take the bag and then struggle to put the computer inside. I cautiously peered up waiting for her head to make a full 360, wondering if the other passengers would start levitating toward the ceiling. Ms. Grumpy Knickers was out to share her pain with the 200 or so people on the plane, and she was succeeding one innocent casualty at a time.

Somehow I let it go. Hell, I had just come from vacation and was eager to get home especially with the newly acquired knowledge that in our (hubby & I) absence, earlier that morning, our dog had diarrhea all over the house and my 91-year old dad-in-law, bless his heart, was unable to get down on the floor to clean it up. Who would expect that on the one day our pooch was left without more nimble supervision? We didn’t. So, yes, we were really looking forward to coming home at 11:30 PM and spending 2+ hours cleaning what ended up being bloody, runny, dog shite spanning the length and width of dad’s apartment carpet, soaking in for no less than 12 hours. And our entire living area upstairs was strewn with this aromatic and tactilely delightful welcome home gift. You see, the pooch was sick and unable to communicate her needs to our dear, old, dad, which renders us feeling like the crappiest dog parents in the world.

So, when I asked for a ginger ale to take home with me knowing we were calling a taxi and would have no chance to go to the store (not that we would’ve wanted to waste any time getting home), I was met with a cold stare. Granted, she didn’t know I was feeling unwell and unsettled. I can give her the benefit of the doubt, again, right?

Not really. Because in addition to telling me she would not give me a ginger ale to take home, she felt compelled to educate and belittle me taking the insult one step further adding in a tone that would’ve given a White Walker chills how I “should have thought about this at the airport before getting on the plane.”

Really. She had a good point. I should have known I was going to feel ill on that plane. I just should have known there was a long night ahead – an upset stomach and the two+ hours cleaning up dog poop. I am literally flogging myself right now for not having had the foresight of knowing all of that in advance. If I hadn’t lost my damn Magic 8-ball, this whole problem would be a nonissue. I only paid about $500 for the plane ticket. I did not deserve a can of ginger ale. It was an utterly absurd request.

Mustering up some compassion with only slight pretense, I said to her, “It seems like you’re having a bad day.” Click the audio link to hear basically how I sounded.

She returned with a pretend, upbeat voice (still, the grimace), “No. I’m having a great day.” Click below to hear, more or less, how her response sounded.

If that was an example of a great day, I shudder to see the likes of a bad one.

“It really doesn’t seem like it,” I replied back, practically channeling Gandhi. Our eyes stealthily glossing over the others’ face. I dare not stare too long lest I turn to stone.

She departed to torture another passenger.

I’m not certain of Ms. Grumpy Knickers’ actual name, but I definitely wouldn’t want to reprimand the other lady who had the regrettable experience of working with MGK. There were two ladies on this flight (well, to be more precise, one lady and one poser). One had a pleasant attitude and curly hair. The other had medium-colored Caucasian skin, straight, shoulder-length, medium-brown hair, and a grimace that would make the Grinch look like Mother Theresa. I think there were snakes coming out of the back of her head.

She’s the one. She’s the one that could benefit from a good talking to. I’m not suggesting a verbal smack down. Just an old-fashioned performance management discussion where she is written up and told to get some therapy.

I don’t expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a flight and be treated like someone who would’ve otherwise ridden stowage on the Titanic. If you’re going to do that, at the very last provide the Irish music and some tables to dance on.

Maybe she was having the worst day of her life. I get how painful life can be. What I don’t get is the utter lack of maturity or emotional intelligence in a person who has to share her pain while on the clock. No one should be acting so ass’ish while on the clock.

You know that scene in An Officer and a Gentleman when Richard Gere swoops in and picks up whatshername and carries her out of the factory to a fairytale life of love and riches? And how all the factory workers are lined up cheering, clapping, and creating that all-around great, tingly feeling, rising above their intense jealously over the fact their lives were still crap? Yeah. Being on your plane was nothing like that.

As a customer service trainer and communication skills expert who has worked with leaders, reps, agents and other service providers for nearly twenty years, I feel it’s my duty to let an organization know when one of their employees is putting their worst foot forward. And MGK was making you all look quite foolish.

Let me know how I can help you help MGK. In the meantime, I look forward to a response from you. A free ticket to make up for this hassle would be an added bonus.

Yours truly in utter disappointment,

Kenda Swartz Pepper


UPDATE: Here is a recent exchange with a United Customer Care Rep:

August 29 (after I sent a formal complaint on August 13) from Customer Care Rep

Dear Ms. Swartz:

I apologize for our delay in responding. We’re experiencing a higher volume of e-mail than normal and we’re working on responding as quickly as possible.

I’m so disappointed to learn about our flight attendants actions onboard United Express flight 5456 on July 5 from San Francisco to Medford.

Please accept my sincere apology. All of our valuable customers should always have a positive experience with United. I am going to send on your feedback to help us improve the way we provide exceptional customer service, with dignity, respect and professionalism. Clearly, this didn’t happen on your trip and, again, I’m sorry.

I appreciate your business and loyalty. We look forward to a future opportunity to provide the service you deserve on United.


G. M. (I withheld her full name as it seems inappropriate to share it publicly).
Customer Care

My Response

Thank you for your message, G.,

I’d like for my husband and I to be reimbursed for that flight, because while an apology is nice, it doesn’t tell me anything will inherently change. And I am still holding onto the distress from that woman’s horrific attitude and abusive behaviors. I will believe that United values their customers when 1) I hear that leaders are taking performance management seriously and creating consequences for flight attendants who make a flight miserable and 2) when customers are treated with respect and valued to the point in which they’re not paying to be abused. In the meantime, my blog post is getting thousands of hits.

I await remuneration.

Thank you,


Customer Care’s Response

Dear Ms. Swartz:

I appreciate the time you’ve taken to discuss this, I believe I can help.

Please know we work hard to correct problems brought to our attention. Although we cannot provide specific details about the internal investigation, we take your concerns very seriously.

Since transportation was taken, I’m unable to honor your reimbursement request, but I am sending you each an Electronic Travel Certificate, which will arrive via email within a few days. I hope you’ll use the certificates to give us another opportunity to provide the service you deserve.

Ms. Swartz, I realize my apologies cannot change your experience onboard flight 5456 and I did not intend to add any frustration. I would like you to give us another chance to show we appreciate you. We are listening more than ever and working hard to be your airlines of choice. Your feedback helps us get there.

I sincerely hope your next trip with United will deliver the experience you deserve.


Customer Care

****We had a couple more exchanges, my thanking her and vice versa. We received $100 in electronic travel certificates each. While I wanted a full reimbursement of our flight, I can live with this outcome.


    1. Kenda

      Good point, but I wouldn’t want that job (besides the fact I get airsick ha ha). I’m sure they deal with some real characters. Usually we meet lovely attendants. MGP, with her nasty attitude, was a rarity.

    1. Kenda

      I like it. I may need you to help me negotiate that stuff, Patrick. Do you think I could get two or three magic 8 balls? For some reason, I set them down and lose them. Once I found it on top of my head after looking for hours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.