The Uni Experience

Uni is what’s left of United Airlines after you subract Ted, whatever that is (I’ve never flown Ted, but gather it’s the kinda cool pared-down Southwest-like version of United; one shudders at the thought). I’ve flown United for years and years; one of the big things it has going for it is that it has skads of flights between San Francisco and Oakland to O’Hare, and it’s usually cheaper than those alternatives that don’t force you to connect or fly overnight.

To save money and help cut its workforce, Uni (and most of its competitors) push online reservations and checkin. That’s great if you don’t need to check a bag; you print out a boarding pass at home and go directly to the security checkpoint when you get to the airport. If you’re one of those who needs to check bags — more and more of us in the new no-fluids-in-the-cabin era — the check-in process is pretty bad, at least in Oakland.

On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, United’s “Easy Check-In, with Baggage” lines were ridiculous — at 5 a.m. It only took a minute to see why. The scores of people waiting to check bags were being served by three or four clerks. Luckily, I got moved through the line because my flight was only an hour off — only an hour! — and they wanted to get all the baggage on board.

Today, the Easy Check-In, with Baggage line was a lot less intense at first glance. Maybe 15 people in line, some who had already gone through the automatged check-in process and were just waiting for some kind Uni soul to come along and tag their bags so they could go to their gates. This time, though, just one person was working the half-dozen kiosks at the counter. She was doing double duty trying to take care of someone whose flight had been canceled. Another worker was dealing at length with the two people in the first-class line; she wasn’t in a hurry to address the plebeian mini-throng growing at the counter. Meantime, a supervisor type and another worker were standing behind the counter beneath three signs that said “Economy Check In/Position Open.” When I approached them and asked whether I could check in at that counter, the supervisor guy gave me a look like he had caught the scent of dog crap and said, “No.” After a few more minutes of conversation, he went over and talked to the lone worker at the Easy Check-In desk, then said, “See you later,” and sauntered past the people waiting along the counter without a word to them.

In the end, it was really no big deal to me. The reason I have time to sit and write about it now is that my flight to Denver, where I’m going to ride my bike, is two hours late. And the experience was not entirely negative: I admired the patience and aplomb of the single counter worker who managed to deal with a lot of impatient stares without losing her cool; it was pretty impressive. But Uni — what are you trying to do? Make me find another airline?

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