United won’t pay for my hotel

by Christopher Elliott on June 27, 2003

Q: I recently traveled from Washington Dulles to Vancouver on United Airlines with a change of planes in San Francisco. My outbound flight from Washington was delayed by two hours for mechanical reasons, causing me to miss my connecting flight.

When I arrived in San Francisco at around 9 p.m., I was handed a pre-determined re-booking and a hotel voucher for the evening. I immediately notified the gate agent that the arrangements were not acceptable, since I wouldn’t be arriving in Vancouver until noon the following day. I asked to speak with a supervisor, but I was told a supervisor wasn’t available.

So I called the United Airlines 800-number and rebooked myself on a United Airlines flight to Seattle the same night and the first flight to Vancouver in the morning. The agent on the phone told me that this was a common practice and there would not be any problem with switching the arrangements. This revised schedule accommodated my needs and allowed me to make my morning appointment in Vancouver.

I arrived in Seattle after midnight and there was no one at the United Airlines ticket counter to talk to. I paid for my own hotel and asked the airline to reimburse me for the expense, which came to a total of $133.75.

I have spoken with the airline’s customer-service department four times on this matter, only to get the same response: Since I rebooked myself, I no longer qualify for the hotel voucher. Can you please help?

-- David Julias

A: Mechanical delays are a frustrating but necessary part of flying. If airlines simply shrugged off a potential mechanical problem, then air travel wouldn’t be as safe as it is. That’s not much of a consolation when you’re late for a meeting – but I’m sure you’d rather be late than not make it at all.

Your rights to a hotel room are outlined in United Airlines’ contract of carriage, which can either be downloaded from its Web site or obtained free of charge from one of its ticket counters.

Rule 240, section F, paragraph 1, says you will be offered one night’s lodging “or a maximum allowance for one night’s lodging” as established by each location when a scheduling irregularity – in other words, a mechanical delay – forces you to stay somewhere overnight while you’re in transit.

United offered you a room in San Francisco but your new flight didn’t arrive in time for your meeting. I don’t blame you asking for a better flight – United should have worked harder to get you to Vancouver on time – but once you declined its initial offer, all bets were off, according to the airline.

“Although the hotel and travel arrangements that United made for the customer were not satisfactory, because he took the matter into his own hands and made arrangements other than those that were provided for him, he must be responsible for his own hotel charges after that,” United spokesman Jeff McAndrews told me.

United sent you a $75 travel certificate “as a gesture of goodwill,” which, according to McAndrews, you had already received by the time you contacted me. Come on, David, you really should have mentioned that.

When I read United’s Rule 240, I don’t see a “take-it-or-leave-it” provision for offers such as these. My interpretation of the clause is that you should have been reimbursed for whatever Seattle’s “maximum allowance” was for a hotel. If the airline let you change your arrangements and fly to Seattle, it should have also covered whatever part of the hotel it could under your contract.

In a way, it did. The hotel voucher you would have been handed in Seattle if the counter had been open was probably worth the same amount as your travel certificate. Maybe even less. So it really isn’t such a bad deal, after all, and I would probably accept United’s make-good offer.

Next time you make your own plans during a mechanical delay, be sure you ask if your hotel is covered under Rule 240. If the phone agent assures you that it will be taken care of, write down his or her name and station number just in case your claim is later denied.

Don’t assume that any hotel bill would be paid for by an airline under Rule 240. Not by an airline flying under bankruptcy protection, at least.

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