Punish me, United

by Christopher Elliott on August 4, 2003

Q: I recently I booked a flight on United Airlines from Cedar Rapids, IA, to Amsterdam on United Airlines. Anticipating the possibility of war and other uncertainties in my schedule I asked if I could cancel or reschedule the trip if I needed to. I was told by the airline booking agent that I could if I paid a $200 penalty. That was a satisfactory safety net in my mind, so I booked the trip.

Fast forward to this summer – I’ve now decided not to travel to Europe and want to apply the ticket to North America travel. Now United is telling me there’s a $150 penalty and I would receive the difference in ticket prices in United vouchers. Sounded good to me, so I had the agent hold my new reservation.

One hour later I called back to confirm my new reservation. But this time I’m told that I was previously misinformed by both agents. The original $200 was for a change fee only to change the return portion of the trip. The $150 penalty did not exist. And there would be no vouchers.

My option is to book another ticket by the original departure date, for a higher dollar amount for travel within the next 11 months. United is telling me the prior information I received from their agents is irrelevant.

As a United frequent flier, I am shocked to be in this position of potentially losing hundreds of dollars. I consider myself to be a rather savvy traveler, knowing the right questions to ask and how to interpret the rules in general. Not so in this real-world scenario. Of course, now my record is flagged regarding the latest of conversations as to the fare rules.

Can you help me get out of this ticketing dilemma?

– Kim Wilkerson

A: I had to laugh when I read your letter. It’s no understatement to say that the current fare rules are so complicated, so incomprehensible, that not even the ticket agents can make heads or tails of them. United is of course not alone in having such Byzantine restrictions on its tickets – most of the major airlines do, too.

And why? To snag you and let them collect more money. At least that’s how most passengers see it.

I can’t blame you for feeling taken.

I asked United Airlines to explain why it had changed its mind. Much to its credit, the airline got back to me with a prompt and professional response. “First, I would like to offer our sincere apologies for the misinformation which you report receiving from our staff and any inconvenience that may have been caused as a result,” Brent Houltram, a customer relations representative, wrote in an e-mail.

Here’s the scoop: Your original ticket was issued with several “fare basis,” or category of fares. Your outbound travel was booked in what United refers to as “W-class” of service and the return in “H-class” of service. Translation: On some flights you were in economy class; in others you were sitting in business class.

The restrictions on the ticket included a minimum Saturday night stay, a maximum stay of four months, an advance purchase of at least seven days and ticketing within 48 hours. The ticket was non-refundable and any changes to the return portion of the ticket would be assessed a $200 fee. No additional changes were permitted either, according to United.

So does that mean you’re out of luck? No.

“As a Premier customer and a member of our Mileage Plus program since 1988, we want to resolve this situation for you in an acceptable manner,” Houltram continued. “Therefore, in appreciation of your continued loyalty and support of United Airlines, we will honor your ticket to be exchanged, less a $200 service fee and the residual balance refunded in the form of a travel credit.”

Way to go, United.

I’m really impressed by the way the airline handled your complaint. I think it did the right thing, even though it had to bend its own rules to make you happy. Your story illustrates the importance of having a simple fare structure (something United ought to consider) and of playing the frequent flier card when things don’t go your way. Your loyalty to United was an important variable to solving this equation.

I would like to believe United would have fixed this problem even if you weren’t a Mileage Plus member, but there’s no way of telling.

One thing is certain, though. Next time an agent offers you a deal on a ticket change that sounds good, don’t hesitate. Just go for it before he changes his mind.

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