NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Do you know how it feels to have spent hundreds of dollars to stand in line for half a day not knowing whether or not all of that time spent with aching feet and a weary head will actually result in getting on a plane?
With only Altoids for lunch, a bathroom faucet the sole source of water, and a lumpy suitcase as a pillow, the hours move slowly as the pain and indignation increase exponentially. This is what I, and thousands of other would-be passengers, were forced to endure for more than seven hours Sunday at the United Airlines ( UAL) terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
Weather problems at two of United's major hubs -- Chicago and Newark -- reportedly sent operations into a tailspin. Thousands of passengers were then required to "rebook" their flights as a result of missed connections, a near impossible task given such heavy volume.
And while United no doubt faced a humdinger of a challenge, communication with customers was scant, and that's the real problem. Just tell us what's happening, United. Communicate.
But informing passengers was apparently not one of United's highest priorities on Sunday. Of the 10 booths available at the 'Additional Services' desk, just two were staffed, resulting in a line of 200 people that stretched through the terminal to the road.
While I'd spent the preceding days strengthening my capacity for patience by visiting Disneyland and Universal Studios -- this was clearly a more demanding exercise.
The line's alternative, a reservations hotline recommended by staff, directed callers to an autobot who advised to ring later before dropping the call. The few staff available on the airport floor had a rather circuitous argument.
"I can't wait for hours," I said.
"You can call the reservations number?" they would say.
"The number isn't working."
"You can wait in the line?"
Their "solutions" made as much sense as ravens and writing desks.
Exactly how glacial was the pace of this line? A boy a few people ahead retrieved a pack of cards and began to play Solitaire. He had won eight games before we moved. As for me, I spent my time writing United a letter (you're reading a rather toned down version, the four-letter words have been redacted.) I've yet to hear back.
Meanwhile, fares were still being sold over their website, particularly an abundance of Business-class seats for inflated costs and rising.
Before I get accused of unfairness (I'll readily admit to bias), weather issues on the East Coast and Midwest had thrown curveballs to all airlines over the last week. But a quick walk through other airlines' terminals revealed a stark contrast in crisis management. I passed several -- Delta, American, Virgin -- and sure, they were busy but customers were moving swiftly through queues, smiles were aplenty, children were playing with their souvenirs rather than sleeping on a dirty floor.
A welcome diversion as perseverance waned, a man who had been waiting for over 8 hours called the local CBS LA news and they arrived promptly with cameras in tow. United sprung to action, rushing to populate all 10 booths and having an employee walk through the crowd to encourage calls to the non-functional hotline. Smile for the cameras. All under control. Nothing to see here.
Speaking with TheStreet, one United spokesperson explained the airline's response to the presence of cameras was coincidence, the result of airport rotations, rather than a calculated PR effort.
"We staff where there is the greatest need. We routinely move staff around the airport every single day based on where there is the greatest need at that moment," he said.
Additional responses from United on the conditions haven't been forthcoming. In a somewhat juvenile attempt to wrest control, I live-tweeted United throughout my agonizing wait, goading them for a response. Still at least 50 people from the front of the line, and with no response, my phone died.
A lot of angry people on this line, @united . You might have a riot soon.KerisAlisonLahiff (@KerisAlison) January 5, 2014
Simple gestures would have made all the difference. Water bottles distributed through the line, sunscreen for those waiting outside, a kind word and a patient ear. This, though, seemed beyond United's grasp.
Safely back in NYC after a nerve-racking standby gamble, I approached a media spokesperson to give greater insight into what the airline's customer service protocols were in times of crisis. Spokesperson Charlie Hobart was swift in initial response but the party line was self-evident.
"Given the weather in the Midwest and East Coast, which has affected all airlines, we have experienced many cancellations and delays impacting multiple hub airports. United crews are working to ensure we can get our customers to their final destinations safely, as quickly as we can," he said.
"We encourage customers to check the status of their flights before leaving for the airport by visiting united.com or the United app on their smartphones," he added, an incongruous statement with what I'd seen. Do they encourage customers to do so via their impenetrable hotline or in the email notification of cancelled flights they don't send?
Of course, even if you had tried to rebook online, it was no guarantee United's website would work as Bloomberg journalist Julianna Goldman found out.
Requests for more information from United, particularly regarding specific crisis management protocols, are still awaiting a response.
So, my advice to United: increased holiday traffic shouldn't come as a surprise and the higher chance of snowstorms over winter is a given. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The attitude that customer service ends once you have our money is a disservice to your brand. Your best marketing could come from customers who felt their needs were being put first. Instead, we were witness to obvious money-grubbing, dehumanizing treatment which had us feeling like another piece of cargo to stow. This is not how you run a business. As the largest American airline you should really know this.
--Written by Keris Alison Lahiff (thankfully back) in New York.