This, United, is Why People Hate Airlines (Tales From the Field)

It’s time for another Cranky Concierge client story, and this one is ugly. It’s a long read, so let me sum it up for you. We had clients going from Mumbai to Toronto. The first flight was canceled, then they were involuntarily bumped twice and given no compensation. United Customer Relations responded to the request for compensation after travel by blaming us for not ticketing it correctly (wrong, and we have proof) and then blaming the passenger for WANTING to make the change (wrong again).

Earlier this year, we booked a group of 9 people to fly from the US and Canada to India to see family with a return scheduled a couple weeks later. The flights out went fine, and part of the group returned without incident. But there were 6 people in the group who returned later than the others. These people, made up of 2 adults, their 2 small children, and 2 of their parents, were scheduled to fly from Mumbai to Newark and then on to Toronto. This was already a tough journey thanks to long flight times and little kids, but United ended up making United Tales from the Fieldit into an awful saga.

It all started when United canceled their original flight from Mumbai to Newark. The airline had been having all kinds of problems with maintenance and crews, and had canceled a couple other flights before. The end result was that three flights were scheduled to go from Mumbai to Newark the following day.

We jumped on the case and found that the first flight to go would be at 730a the next morning (already delayed from 130a). This flight was given flight number 1759, a number they reserve for problems like this and not one that’s regularly scheduled. We rebooked them on that flight along with another connection to Toronto, got them seat assignments and then called United’s Executive Accounts Desk to get the tickets revalidated. They took care of it, we pulled up the tickets and saw that they looked right. All was well. This effectively just meant an overnight delay of about 9 hours. That’s not ideal, but had that been where this ended, this wouldn’t have been post-worthy.

Shortly after, my clients received an email from someone at United in India telling them that they had been put on flight 1759. Here’s the email.

United Cancel Note

That was nice of them. It was followed shortly by a standard email sent from United.com with the new itinerary, ticket numbers, etc. All was well.

Our clients were coming from somewhere else in India so would now have to stay the night in Mumbai. When they arrived, they went to United to get a hotel voucher. They also tried to check in for the flight only to be told by the agent that they were no longer on it. Huh? The agent said it was full. We looked at the tickets in our system and found that someone had exchanged them.

Exchanged Ticket

This looks like garbage to most of you, but it’s how the electronic ticket receipt looks in a reservation system. You can see on line 4, they were on flight 1759, but on the right, you can see the ticket was exchanged (EXCH). That means someone at the airline decided to make a switch, because we hadn’t touched it.

The agent at the airport gave them only one option, and that was to fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong overnight, then United to Chicago and on to Toronto. This made them furious for a couple reasons. First, they were confirmed and ticketed on the original flight, one which would have had only one overnight flight (vs two via Hong Kong) and had them seated together. This new option had them scattered throughout the aircraft all the way to Chicago. What’s worse, the agent in Mumbai gave them what’s called a Flight Interruption Manifest (FIM) on paper. I haven’t seen one of those in a decade. You just don’t often see paper anymore. Here’s the first page (they emailed a photo from the counter in India) which got them to Chicago. (Second page sent them to Toronto from there.)

United FIM

With that piece of paper, it meant that there wasn’t much we could do to get their ticket changed. It was no longer in the system, so all we could do was tell them options and hope someone would help. But in this case, there weren’t any that they could get confirmed.

They begrudgingly took the overnight flight to Hong Kong, still fuming about how they were treated. While they would have liked to demand compensation by this point, they didn’t have any legal right to it. After all, even if they were bumped involuntarily, they would arrive within an hour of the previous schedule. But wait, there’s more.

Soon after they landed in Hong Kong, our concierge pulled up their reservation and saw that they had been bumped once again. The United agents in Hong Kong decided that the flight to Chicago was too full, so they moved them to San Francisco instead, gave them a long layover, and had them arrive in Toronto via Air Canada late into the night with unhappy little children.

When they arrived in Hong Kong and spoke with someone once the United counter opened, they asked to be put on the Air Canada nonstop to Toronto. That flight had plenty of seats, but they were told no. Exhausted and hungry, as a last resort, they asked for an overnight in San Francisco because they had family there. This would allow them to rest and regroup before flying back. The agent in Hong Kong let them do that.

The cherry on top was that United never reissued the FIM so our clients had nothing to give Air Canada for the flight home to Toronto. Fortunately, the Air Canada agent in San Francisco called her counterparts at United and got them squared away without pushing the burden back on to our clients.

The rest of the trip was uneventful other than the usual issues of special meals not being honored, seat assignment problems, etc. But the way we viewed it was that the second bump in Hong Kong, while they were already enroute, was the key. Their arrival was delayed more than 5 hours which, per Department of Transportation rules, meant they were required to pay our clients 400% of the one way fare up to a $1,300 maximum per ticket. The one way base fare was more than $325, so that meant United owed our clients the maximum $1,300 for each person… or so we thought.

We submitted this along with documentation. More than three weeks later, a response came in from United and while a $500 voucher per person was offered for future travel, that was far short of what we thought was really owed. Even worse, the response from the airline was full of outright lies. It was an attempt to blame everyone but United.

We understand you said your travel agent rescheduled your flights on UA 1759; however, the space was not confirmed in our system; therefore, the ticket exchange was not process properly by your travel agency. The rescheduling must be done by the operating airline as we have the true availability, but this was not how your tickets were exchanged and processed.

Oh really? So having a ticket that showed flight 1759 in addition to a reservation with confirmed seat assignments doesn’t count? Getting an email from someone at United along with a confirmation from United.com isn’t enough? Thanks for trying to blame the travel agent, but this was done by your Executive Accounts Desk and it was done correctly. I’m not sure what documentation could even exist above and beyond what had been presented.

We understand you were originally rescheduled from Hong Kong to Chicago; however, our system is noted that we changed your flight to connect through San Francisco per your request as you have family in San Francisco.

Absolute lie! The change to San Francisco was made before they even saw anyone in Hong Kong, and it was done without their permission. When I called the Executive Accounts Desk to sort this out, they said it had been done by the airport in Hong Kong. The agent my clients dealt with refused any option except at the very end permitted them to spend the night in San Francisco instead of going straight home. That was only requested because United was going to get them in so late, not because they really wanted to stay there.

I went back to United and got this escalated further. Finally, my clients received a call from someone in Customer Relations offering them a $650 voucher. This was when United pointed out that DOT rules only apply to departures FROM the US. So even if United was willing to admit this was an involuntary denied boarding, since it occurred outside the US, they didn’t have to pay a dime. The DOT says that some airlines choose to comply with these rules systemwide. Clearly United is not one of those airlines.

My clients weren’t happy with this and called them back asking for more. At this point, United stopped returning calls. Even after calling back and deciding to simply give up and accept the $650 vouchers, United wouldn’t call them back. It took months, but finally, just last week, my clients finally got the person on the phone. She offered them the $650 voucher again, and told them that it would be valid on “some codeshares.” Since my clients live in Toronto and fly Air Canada more often than not, this was important. Of course, it wasn’t true.

The vouchers did come through, but as many of you probably know, they are only good on United and United Express. They’ll find a way to use them, if simply out of spite and nothing else.

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