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

Tales From the Field, United

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 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 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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82 comments on “This, United, is Why People Hate Airlines (Tales From the Field)

  1. Disgusting how much UA/CO customer service has sunk. When any company becomes as large as the megacarriers now are, their service will only be as good as what they empower frontline employees to do. As for the defensive, pass-the-buck reaction, the effort to change culture has to come from the top down.

    Good news is since UA is alienating all the rational customers, there will be more room for nonrevs ;)

  2. This is where DOT enforcement should be placed. Not on dealing with taxes, but ensuring that airlines don’t abuse customers with legitimate complaints. Obviously things happen, but this seems like a terrible response.
    Sadly, we are hearing more and more of these stories, and before anyone jumps at UA, it is happening across the board. Just like the AA guy who lost miles being accused of booking fake tickets when he was just checking a seatmap without ever clicking hold or confirm. Then AA didnt respond to him after a bit of back and forth.
    We need a new way to log complaints and ensure that airlines respond and there is a reasonable escalation path and time limits for responses. It seems in the age of consolidation, when things go well, air travel can be its best – good schedules, more amenities, newer airplanes. But when things go bad, they seem to be even worse.

  3. United customer service, especially after the fact, IS abysmal. I’ve had a couple of complaints get “escalated” and then never heard anything back.

    I’m somewhat taken aback at the poor quality of the written replies from United. I realize that the customer support is coming from overseas, but it still reflects poorly on the airline. But then again, their domestic verbiage isn’t much better. Their check-in kiosks have “dependents” spelled incorrectly in the military luggage fee waiver section, with an “a” where the third “e” should be. I realize it’s nitpicky, but it drives me absolutely nuts to see that kind of error in a business where attention to detail in all aspects of the operation is so critical.

    1. With regards to the sign, though “Dependent” may be used to mean a person (child, spouse) in American English, “Dependant” is also correct and most commonly used worldwide.

  4. To spite United, you should have rerouted them, if possible, via Frankfurt, pain in the rear yes, but the EU actually would take action against United, as EU regulations apply to all flights departing Europe regardless of “origin”, even if a flight is a continuation, EU rules on delays etc would apply and require cash compensation in Euros…and United does want to be able to access the european market…and Europe is pretty unified on consumer protection in the area of aviation….

    This is to say that United would not try to get out of it, they would, but as a consumer you can file your request with United, and the EU commission as well…

    United CS is so bad right now, that is hard to identify with others, as I do not want to even mention my own issues and I travel regularly between US-Europe, US-Asia on United…I should change, but there are other factors at play(who is paying for the ticket)..

    1. MP – I wish we could have. But once they pulled the ticket into a paper FIM, it meant that we had no control over anything. They would have had to get someone in India to reissue the FIM for a different option and they didn’t seem too interested in entertaining that.

  5. Sad to see this… I am hearing continuous tales of woe at United. This is an airline in serious trouble. If Smisek does not turn things around, particularly on the financials, he is going to be out. That is probably what they need. With employee morale so low, they all seem to hate each other and all the customers, I see no way they will improve performance. Time for a new coach

    1. While United remains profitable (most quarters), it is clearly turning in a subpar performance compared to is competitors quarter after quarter. Lower yield. Lower profitability. Higher costs. Lower completion rates and on-time rates. Lower customer satisfaction.

      The excuses from management have gotten tiresome.

      Where is the board in all of this?

      At some point they need to hold management accountable and start to make changes since management hasn’t delivered.

  6. Six people isn’t easy to reassign when something goes wrong so problems are bound to happen. But if the travel is really not at fault for anything, it’s shameful for the airlines(s) to act like nothing was their fault.

    1. David SF – Well, that flight 1759 was an extra section from the original canceled flight. So it was wide open when they were rebooked. It really shouldn’t have been all that hard.

      1. Is there anything air travelers can do to either prevent this sort of thing from happening or to force supervisors at the airport to honor confirmed reservations?

        In regard to the former, is there any way to “lock” reservations?

        In regard to the latter, if you have printouts of confirmations, is there an effective way to escalate at the airport to force the airline to honor the reservation? Surely the airline has audit trails on their computer system to be able to see who made the changes and for what reason.

        It just seems incredible for pax to be completely vulnerable and powerless against arbitrary actions by rogue airport personnel. Surely the company doesn’t want this kind of behavior.

        1. Carl – Not that I know of. When it comes to irregular operations, the airport tends to have carte blanche on how to resolve it. (Of course if they go outside of permitted methods, then they can get in trouble. But in this case, United doesn’t seem to care.)

          1. At some point they have to care about their reputation. Even it today’s management and culture doesn’t seem to care. That’s never been proven to be a profit-maximizing way to treat customers.

  7. CF, I would not be surprised that the cancellations was an example of George Orwell’s dictum that “some animals are more equal than others”. Your crew and your customers did nothing wrong. One or more individuals who were perceived to be of more value to UA or their Mumbai staff and wanted on Flight 1759. So the reservations disappeared and the more important animal was rewarded. Sadly, this favoritism is a basic part of airline travel and deemed essential by the companies to protect their bottom line.

    As insulting as the cancellation was to your customers, it pales in comparison to the aftermath. UA is not practicing customer service but customer dis-service. In this case they may think they have won by avoiding a pay-out but in the end they have lost a repeat customer. More importantly, they have lost possible future customers who hear the story. A short term gain for a long-term loss.

    It is instructive to remember that customer service stories are not always tales of woe and bad attitude. Sometimes, they are examples of inventive problem solving, compassion, and positive outcomes. When the outcome is great service, the customer talks about that too and that attracts future customers.

    1. So very true re. customer service. I just experienced the complete opposite with BA. My 13 year old son was scheduled to fly BA Business from LBA via LHR to EWR on July 5 as an unaccompanied minor. He goes to school in Harrogate in the UK. I made the reservation using my American miles back in April.

      Then we find out that the Tour de France this year starts in…. Harrogate, on July 5. Not only will it bring William and Kate to the town, it also means most of Yorkshire will either be closed (TdF coming through) or clogged (all the visitors and people that need to go places despite the TdF). LBA urges passengers to make alternate arrangements for the 5th and the 6th of July.

      So I called BA on Tuesday with very little hope as I had tried on three earlier occasions to move his flight to a day earlier or two days later with no success (segments unavailable in the class booked, due to it being a miles booking). Each time I was told to keep trying “because you never know”.

      On the phone, I spoke with Ann who did manage to find me a better set of flights on the 4th, having him arrive earlier and at JFK, and also $35 cheaper (woohoo!). She said she had to call me back to confirm. I was dubious, but she did call back as promised.

      She said the flights were confirmed but now she needed to find out if she could get him the unaccompanied minor service which I had booked for his original flights. She wasn’t sure if she could confirm later that day or the following day but she promised me another call.

      And call she did, the next day, as promised, and all was good. Besides helping me out tremendously, she also was a pleasure to talk to.

      All goes to show that indeed a positive customer experience will have a big impact on how you regard the airline.

      1. Awesome story, the important detail here is BA (or does AA handle BA’s customer service in the US?) gave Ann ownership of your issue. Thats a nice win for Ann as well. Having worked in customer service I know I can’t win em all, but when you can, its a great feeling.

        Seems like UA’s people are demoralized beyond belief, and they need some more wins.

  8. I finally left UA this year after 20 very loyal years (started with CO pre merger), the majority of them Gold or higher. No amount of miles and perks are worth it to be treated so poorly, and over the last two years I had horrible experience after horrible experience. Even their twitter team is awful, and my last straw was when they replied to me publicly accusing me of not “accepting their help.” Their idea of help is to tweet me flight schedules, which are readily available online or in app.

    Jumped to Alaska and have been very pleased so far.

  9. Several years ago, I was ejected from an exit row seat because the flight attendant didn’t think I “paid enough attention” to the safety briefing. As a former 27-year TWA flight attendant, safely qualified on the 757, I thought I had it the seat/belt, oxygen mask pretty much figured out. Rather than delay the flight, I agreed to move. Ridiculous. Wrote United and months later got a call from a supervisor who said, “So what do you want me to do about it?” I responded that a simple apology for bad conduct would suffice but had never been offered.
    On other occasions, I write to commend good employees. Those letters are never acknowledged.

    1. I’ve had the opposite experience with their customer services; when complaining to them, I’ve always had a personal response within 48hrs, and normally a small value ($200) travel voucher as compensation within a week. When I’ve sent commendations with regards to either flight crew or ground staff, these have always been acknowledged, with gratitude.

      Consistency and communications – the twin banes of most organisations……

  10. I’d love to say I’m at all surprised by this, but this is just another in a long line of fantastic examples of how United treats their customers and employees. I avoid them like the plague.

  11. Typical UA. They don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. Customer service is non-existent. The passenger pays their salary or did they forget. Unfortunately, we’re a captive audience at EWR. But, for how long!!!!!

  12. When I worked @ UA, the station management would get involved in resolving these types of complaints, and they had a lot of leeway as it was linked to a budget line item for their cost center. Is this no longer how it’s done? Is it all done out of Mumbai or wherever their Indian call center is? I can tell by “Kindly” this and “Kindly” that, that it’s definitely India!

    1. I too am a former employee and took a buyout/retirement package at the end of last year. The day CO (dba UA) Management took full reign was the beginning of this (never-ending) spiral down to the bottom.
      Yes, UAL had problems before the merger, but they were slowly turning in the right direction as far as customer service. At least we always had flexibility and good computer tools and training to fix many problems (some instantly). Once CO dba UA took over, they stripped us of a fast 21st century computer which allowed us to reticket, reprice, exchange, rebook and handle almost any anomaly including international tickets. Then when CO dba UA put us on their SHARES computer, the game was completely over. Agents with decades of experience were “trained” in 5-10 days for ticketing and gate functions, tossed to the lions and expected to suddenly change/ know all of CO’s methods, lingo, policies etc., many very different from United’s. If you’re going to move tens of thousands of (UA) agents onto your horrible computer, at least tell them what they will NO LONGER BE ABLE TO DO. They didn’t dare, they would have had a mutiny ! This, topped off with Jeff Smi-sick’s recent comment that UAL employees were not trained properly (pre-merger), meaning they (UA employees) lacked in every way and CO was not to blame for the current customer service horrors. Totally totally insulting to UA agents who could spin circles around CO’s agents whose only answer to questions were “we don’t know”; “can’t do that” , “don’t do that”….”NO, NO, NO” mantra. All with an arrogance and apathy that STILL exists. So glad I got out !!……and for those CO defenders – think what you wish, they totally ruined a once great airline – and I don’t mean Continental !

      1. If the SHARES system debacle was the only strategic bungle they made, I might still be there, but after 30 years at UA I had finally had way too much and was lucky to land a good spot at SWA and I couldn’t be happier. Having had a position with a deep insight into the operation I can only say that I wish my former employees the best but it will take a lot of work post Smisek and his merry band of devoted followers to fix the numerous problems.

        1. I too am a former sUA CS person who took the early out package, primarily due to the changes at UA…..I worked in the larges hub for UA, long a CO operation, and found the lack of communication from management, and the poor computer system forced down our throats, to be one of the main reasons for morale to sink so quickly….At this point, management culture needs to change,,,,CO dba UA is no longer a regional carrier,,,,it is a major international airline….

  13. I think Smisek’s mantra of the “continuous improvement” in United’s operations documented so reliably every quarter by top brass must have sunk in at the lower levels. So if the continuous embarrassment that is United creates dissonance in that constructed reality, what are the lower levels likely to do? Blame Cranky. Blame the customer. Of course. Good Bye, United.

  14. My late mother was always saying about things she didn’t like: “This is what happens when a place gets so big! Wouldn’t have happened if the old people were still running this!”

    I’m not sure any airline the size of UA or its ilk can deliver real customer service anymore. I’d like to think it’s customers first, employees second, and shareholders third. But, with what a company like UA, I don’t think customers even make the top three.

    Companies all over today love to call things “Customer Care,” or “Solutions,” but deliver neither.

    1. LOL. When things were at their worst with the merger I used to say to my mother (now in her late 80’s) – you could never stomach the workplace today; you simply could not stand it. Her work place in the 1940-1970’s did it right. They cared, they worked with honesty, integrity and efficiency – without computers and cell phones, of course. Every decade had it’s problems but you would think with all the (technological) advancement today that it would make things easier.
      Why not ?… requires human feelings – common sense, empathy and a desire to own the problems instead of foisting them off over and over again (like the above article) to other people, events and things to blame.

      1. While I don’t go that far back in time, I agree that years ago people were trained how to do the job they were paid to do. Now a days a company will not train workers and make it so they only need to type info into a box that pops up in their computer. No thinking needed and if a problem comes up, workers don’t know what to do.

        I’m old school and was trained how to do my job and it drives me crazy that other workers in the company don’t know how to do the basic tasks of their job because the company doesn’t want to pay to train them beyond filling in a box.

        1. What you describe is quite common in many work places today. Withholding important training/ info is the name of the game as a lot of organizations don’t want there employees to think too much. You see thinking may cause someone to do something smart wich may violate something in their corporate policy.

    1. Jim – We were trying to work directly with United but I know the client is now looking at filing a DOT complaint.

      1. Please make sure they do. They mY not get a better resolution/compensation, but any valid complaint counts in the stats.

  15. Why they ever called this a merger is beyond me. It was a hostile take-over by CO of UA. Look at the crews that kept announcing they were “Continental Crews” that even got under the revenue passenger skins. Get over it! Almost all upper UA management has been replaced by CO honchos. So they have either been demoted or have retired.

    As a former employee I too, believe that there could be more of a merging environment, but from the top (Smizek) down, the antagonistic atmosphere prevails. It even seems incited by upper management. Everytime I see a picture of Smizek with that gloating smile, I think, “He must have gotten rid of some more UA employees today” or found another way to screw the retirees.

    1. FIMs are basically paper tickets where the passenger is rerouted differently than what the ticket is. Basically if a passenger has paper tickets for EWR-SFO and now he needs to fly EWR-ORD-SFO, a FIM is written so you can have an additional segment on the paper ticket. I’ve only used them on diverted flights. They are a pain in the butt.

      Wikipedia can probably explain better:

    2. Nick – As Daniel says, it is a way to reroute someone. It used to be a great tool when you couldn’t endorse E tickets over to another airline (or before E tickets existed), but now you can so it’s a largely archaic tool.

  16. Hey, at least the FIM has the new branding. That’s one of the more consistent acts of branding I’ve seen from United in several years. :)

  17. To address the comments about UA not managing because they are now a “mega carrier”, stand alone United was larger at one time. As for customer service and the roll of the CSR, stike #1was getting rid of Apollo resv. system, strike #2 was pitting UA/CO employees against one other “merger” in my memory ever had employees working “for different airlinlines” more than 3 years after the completion.
    Strike #3 is the condescending attitude of current BOD & Smisek, not only towards employees but customers and share holders alike…and this is the service industry?
    Leaving the original UA in 2003 after 34 years was bittersweet. What is left of the
    carrier that once proudly flew around the world, had true premium transcon service
    and employees that had some ability to solve problems; it has hit rock bottom
    . After the struggles, job losses and alienation of customers there needs to be a
    clean sweep from the top down, rebuild the morale of the frontline employees and
    regain the loyalty of ALL travelers. A huge undertaking but not impossible….

  18. Cranky,

    Seems to me, as letter from UA states, “rescheduling must be done by the operating airline” and not by your office, as the former has “true availability[.]” Perhaps, this explains your client’s removal from flight 1759; six seats were not available…

    In other words, could it be that by the time your re-booking “hit” UA’s system, seat “availability” had changed? And if this be true, this, then, makes US’s rebooking policy appear reasonable.

    Unlike other posters, I’m kinda with UA on this one!

    1. Howdy – All I can do is point you back to the post. It was United’s Exec Accounts Desk that revalidated the ticket. And the email was sent from someone at United in India confirming they were on that new flight as well.

  19. I can’t say that I am surprised. My last two trips to Europe on United have been plagued with mechanical problems resulting in long delays, extensive rerouting, and even one unscheduled landing that left me wondering about the reliability of their equipment. And they lost our luggage to top it off. I don’t trust them anymore.

    1. Heard this, too. I am a frequent (and loyal) UA customer, but I’ve heard that they are currently having terrible trouble with the 777 fleet. Multiple mechanical issues. Most of the crews that I’ve chatted with recently would prefer to be on raggedy old 767’s at the moment – at least they know they’re actually gonna get in the air (and, hence, get paid).

      I have no idea what the issue(s) is/are……

  20. Ok, while the post-merger service product leaves a whole lot to be desired. This bashing/blaming on CO is BS…

    I have flown extensively on both airlines pre-merger, and CO was by far the superior product in the CS. If you had a problem, any problem during the course of your journey, they took care of you, in person, their crews were relatively friendly(relative terms as I have done primarily international travel, so the crews are more senior and tend to be a bit grouchier).

    United had good CS, it just was not to the level, mind you i had status on Continental both during its skyteam and star days pre merger, but travelling through ORD was always a PITA, and while there are numerous complaints about Newark, due to its better direct connections with Asia, and a superior product(IFE, BF, Food) on pmCO. I was never impressed with UA, mostly because of personal preferences, but also due to the fact that I did not have always good experiences with them.

    I am not trying to say that Continental crews have not gone out of their way to specify who they are…they have and they still do(to my utter surprise on a PEK-EWR flight) I even pointed it out to a passing FA and they pretty much blamed UA crews, so there is definitely a negative working environment at play that can be blamed solely on Smisek.

    This story is like the cherry on top of the cream, it emphasizes a huge problem, but to say that one party is solely responsible is just not true, for some reason, leadership or lack it, is causing an abject failure in service, and I thought at the time the two airlines would not a good fit, and it is apparently true.

    I hope they clean up their act before every customer leaves…

    1. There are no ex-UA executive VP’s remaining at the new UA, they are all ex-CO. So who do you blame for what is happening today?

  21. For someone who holds yourself out as an expert I’m surprised how little you understand regarding a passenger’s rights under the airline’s Conditions of Carriage. Just because the DOT rule isn’t applicable doesn’t mean you can’t collect damages. If the airline breached it’s agreement with you, sue them in small claims court. It’s quick, easy and painless.

    Your client had a ticket for a flight. UA refused to honor it. That UA, or someone with access to UA’s computer, cancelled it doesn’t absolve UA of the liability.

    And that isn’t the only breach either.

    What you should take away from this is that you need to get yourself educated. This isn’t rocket science. You clients have a contract with the airline. If the airline breaks that contract you have the right to sue them for damages. In my experience United flagrantly breaks its agreements figuring that the average Joe won’t know he has recourse. They’re probably right. But you should know better. People are paying you to know better.

    1. Small claims court, quick, easy, and painless? I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization. Even if you do prevail, enforcing the judgment in many states can require additional money and time to follow-up. Given the total song and dance United has already given CF and his clients on this one, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that United just tries to ignore it away, seems to be their m.o. these days.

    2. Steve – I’ll just forget about your ridiculous condescending tone and actually respond to the points here, because it’s important people don’t waste their time and money as you suggest.

      The only reason to file in small claims court is to recover monetary damages, but there are none here. They did not have to spend any money out of pocket. They stayed with family on the overnight in San Francisco (though ultimately, that overnight was their choice anyway). DOT rules on overbooking payments do not apply, and that is spelled out in United’s contract of carriage. (You seem to be perfectly familiar with every airline’s contract of carriage, but in case you missed it, this is in Rule 25 B.)

      As despicable as it is, United has the right to bump anyone they want if the departure is outside the US/Canada and not pay for it. As long as they get the person to the destination, they have no legal liability other than to pay for meals and hotel if needed. None of that applied here. And good luck trying to prove emotional distress or something less concrete. It’s not going to happen.

      Bottom line: United got the people to their destination and that’s all that the contract requires. So to go to small claims court would be a waste of time and money.

      1. Reference Article
        Actual Rules

        CF, I am not trying to be literal here, but yes, UA can bump a passenger anywhere, but if the departure is from lets, say the European Union, unfortunately, they do have to pay. If the customer is bumped, delayed by an hour, etc.

        It applies to all EU-flag carriers worldwide, and any US-flag carriers flying from Europe and covers the passenger until their destination..

        Quite a bonus if passengers are aware of it, and take advantage of the rules.

        1. MP – Yes, I apologize. I just wasn’t bringing up specifics here because it didn’t matter in this case. But the full text of the rule in United’s contract of carriage is:

          Denied Boarding Non-U.S.A./Canada Flight Origin – Where there is an Oversold UA flight that originates outside the
          U.S.A. or Canada, no compensation will be provided except where required by local or international laws regulating
          Oversold flights.

          Those EU rules can be pretty incredibly lucrative.

  22. I’ve sued UA, won and they paid the judgement ($7,500) in cash immediately. The reason they pay is if they don’t you can attach their assets and UA isn’t going to want to risk a sheriff showing up at the airport slapping a notice on one of their airplanes so it can’t fly.

    UA does show up and when they lose, they pay. So few people sue that this is the cheapest course of action for them. Of course there reason so few people sue is because they don’t know how to enforce their contractual rights, or like you believe that doing so is unlikely to yield success.

    Enforcing a judgement isn’t the hurdle to worry about with a large company, it’s having a good case. In the example we have here there is no question that UA breached its agreement. The facts are not in dispute, the question is really the amount of the damages.

    I’d argue they are the calculable and significant. Assembling the necessary information is already complete so the time required is limited to preparation plus the actual trial itself. And unlike what the passengers have now damages would be payable in cash, not a credit towards a flight.

    Furthermore these lawsuits perform an important public service. If United was sued by more of the passengers they have been breaching their contracts with perhaps it might force a change to the airline’s behavior.

  23. Years ago, my husband and I had the worse ever experience, before or since, flying United to and from Minneapolis MN to Washington DC. both flights were the flights from hell and it would take as long as this article to write. Needless to say, no compensation, no apology and I have refused to fly United since and advise any and all to avoid them.

    Since we ended up in an unplanned stopover that extended into the next day, I now hate O’Hara because of the way we were treated there.

  24. There is a difference between a bad flight and breaching the COCs. You can’t win a lawsuit against an airline just for bad service, nor should you be able to. The recourse in that case is to take your business elsewhere.

    But this case is something different altogether. As described UA refused to honor a valid ticket/reservation the passenger was holding. That is a clear breach of contract and as such the passenger has every right to seek damages from a court.

    1. Steve – Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The contract is that United will get you from point A to point B. It has a million exceptions in the Contract of Carriage explaining why it doesn’t have to do it on the flights that are reserved. In some cases, there are penalties, but in other cases there are not. And if United does not get you to point B, then you are due a refund but nothing more.

      In this case, United got the clients from point A to point B and there was no additional monetary cost to the clients. It can very easily claim that the flights were full and that’s why the clients were denied boarding on the original flight. We have no way to prove otherwise. In that case, United owes the client nothing except to get them to the ultimate destination. They did that. There is no breach, as frustrating as that is.

      If you think there’s a breach, then let’s see where it is. Here’s the contract of carriage for you:

  25. You have my email address. Drop me a line and we can talk if you like. I believe there are at least one and more likely multiple breaches.

    What you say about the COCs is not correct. Getting you from A to B is the minimum, not the maximum an airline has to do. Furthermore the COCs are not the whole picture.

    But to the case at hand. UA admitted they had no record of the reservation. That is the reason they refused to transport the passengers. Full stop. You don’t need to look any further than this. They admitted the facts. You have what they said and you have in writing what they did. Refusing to honor a valid reservation and/or ticket (it only requires one, not both) is enough. They already have told you why they didn’t carry the passengers, you don’t need to prove it. You have your breach.

    Like I said, give a jingle. But just as one example where your “getting you from point A to point B” falls apart imagine an airline that heavily promotes their nonstop between two points. They sell at a premium to connecting service and the airline sells thousands of tickets on the non stop service at the higher price presumably because passengers prefer nonstop service. They then switch those passenger to one, two or even three stop service and then to top it off resell the seats they’ve just freed up to a new batch of customers. Ask yourself, is it actionable? If so under what theory? Does the COCs forbid it? If not, then it must be allowed, right?

    Hint, wrong. The COCs are but a tiny part of the law governing your contract and this kind of activity is blatantly in violation of one if not many of the other parts. So it is with what your people experienced.

    1. Steve – I disagree with your interpretation. At the airport, the passengers were told that the flight was full and that’s why they couldn’t put them on it. The airline has the ability to move people off airplanes if the flight is full. And since this happened in India, then there is no payment required.

      But let’s say you’re interpretation is right for the sake of argument. Just because there’s a breach doesn’t mean you can get compensation. There have to be damages. And in this case, there are no monetary damages. So it’s irrelevant if there’s a breach or not.

      Pointing to your other examples, airlines can, in general, switch people to other flights in advance of travel and there are two options. You can either accept the reaccommodation or you can reject it and get a full refund. You point out the idea that airlines can move people around to maximize revenue, but that simply doesn’t happen. That would be a considered a deceptive practice under the law and would result in major fines. That’s nothing like what happened here. In fact, it’s the opposite. By putting people on another airline, United had to actually share some of the revenue it was going to keep with Cathay Pacific. So it lost money on the change.

  26. united as a whole even in us travel is a nightmare … i tried not to use them but they have a few monopolies .. at certain airports i’m afraid …try going from den to ase to den a 22 minute trip each wasy except when there are events in aspen then it is over$1400 vs $400 should be illegal…government where are u when we need you?>?????

    1. Just a result of supply and demand, which is how Capitalism works. This couldn’t happen under regulation, but the regular flight prices would be much higher if we were still under regulation. So, in the long run we are better off now than in the past.

  27. I started my career with UA IN 1967. It was considered a glamorous career and a wonderful opportunity. Over the years there were many changes and challenges. the PanAm merger being one of them, but I have to say this CO merger is pathetic. The FA’s do their best, but the fact that this merger is not yet complete is out of line. It makes you wonder what the CEO is up to.

    Hawaii flights were the premier flying in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The full 747 multiple times each day proved that we gave good service. Today, CO has chosen to fly the smaller aircraft (sgl aisle) with no food service out of Kona. The flight attendants do turnarounds on these legs and then have to apologize for 5 hours for not being able to provide food options on this long trip.

    I understand that the CEO made the statement to employees that this United is not an airline, but a business. What the hell? Customer service is what makes one airline stand out from the others. Let’s hope the BOD gets this before it’s too late.

  28. CF you are welcome to keep telling me I’m wrong but I’m the guy who has sued, and won, against United for exactly what you are saying I can’t sue and win for.

    Proceed as you see fit but you are giving your clients incorrect advice. Since those clients trust that you know what you are talking about you do them a disservice when you hold yourself out as an expert but are just plain wrong when it comes to the matter of airline liability. You would be far better off to simply say you don’t know and leave it at that. Then at least those who are paying you wouldn’t be mislead.

    I’m sorry to be so hard on you, but really you are beyond the limits of your knowledge and don’t seem to realize it. That’s fine for the guys posting on flytalk because they aren’t charging for their “expertise” but you are.

    My example was to prove the point that the COCs isn’t the only document that governs the passenger’s contract with the airline. You acknowledge that and rightly pick up that what I describe would be a deceptive trade practice (among other things). Now, consider your client’s situation. You claim it is permitted under the COC’s (it isn’t but for now ignore that). What might it violate?

    As for damages they are real and calculable.

    I’ve seen so much nonsense spewed when it comes to these kinds of situation. It’s not true, as you state, that a passengers sole recourse if they are put on a different flight is to accept it or take a refund. It depends on the circumstances. My lawsuit against UA was for exactly this situation btw. According to you I can’t win such a lawsuit, but I did.

    You might find why very interesting. Among other things it hinged on UA’s service guarantee. Have you ever heard of this? Read it? Aware that it is incorporated as a part of their COC’s? I hadn’t until UA took my seats away, sold them to someone else and stuck me on another flight, but they turned out to be pretty important.

    Bottom line. You are speaking in broad strokes and if nothing else this is why you are getting it wrong. Liability hinges on the specifics.

    Since you seem to want to continue to tell me I’m wrong I’ll sign off and leave you to your peace. But remember, I’m the guy who won. You might serve your clients better by learning how to do the same.

    1. Steve, I’ve been following this with interest.. Since you’ve said you’ve won, and lawsuits are public, why not provide a link or at the very least a case number?

      1. I took UA to small claims court. As far as I know while they audio record the proceedings they don’t bother to make a transcript. I might have a copy of the courts order someplace but I can’t remember because once I’d won and received the check from United that was good enough for me. If I can find the case number I’m happy to provide it but I’d think it’s the order showing I won that you want to see if what you’d like to know is whether I’m telling the truth or not. But that isn’t going to tell you any more than that.

        If I can provide you with any information I’d be happy to do so. As I’ve posted if you have been wronged these are pretty straight forward to pursue. You make sure your case is solid by making sure there is no dispute about what happened and then conclusively showing that what happened violates either the COCs, the law or both.

        If you have a situation in which the specifics of my case would be useful to you please feel free to reach out to Cranky for my contact info. I’m happy to help you in any way I can.

  29. Oh my goodness – a red carbon with the new UA logo?

    I was in an IRROP with Air China back in 2010, and they have moved onto carbonless paper in size A4. It was bizarre, handing this giant sheet of paper with the UA BP, with glares from non-rev travelers since I took the last seat.

    Back on topic: UA customer service can be summarized as “We don’t care – we don’t have to.” I’m currently dealing with them on an EU 261 claim on for a double cancellation/48 hour delay on Christmas Eve/Day. The last correspondence basically told me to pound sand and “would not further communicate on this issue”.

    1. cslusarc – FIMs have always been hand-written as far as I know. Not sure why they can’t automate it, but they just haven’t. Makes less sense to automate now since nobody really needs them.

  30. CF,

    So I had a reservations for 4 passengers PDX to SYD via SFO in F. UA reroutes us via LAX. I sue and win an award of $7,500 (the maximum allowed under our state for small claims court).

    According to you this is impossible. Yet it happened. Doesn’t that something happened that you say can’t happen cause you to question the validity of what you are saying?

    Really, I’m a bit astounded. I understand that you have your beliefs, but doesn’t the fact that someone, in fact many people if you check case law, have done what you say they can’t really ought to inspire you to look deeper if for no other reason that to reconcile what you believe to be true in theory with what is really happening in actual lawsuits. What you think or I think doesn’t really matter. It’s what a judge or jury thinks and how they rule. I can tell you how it went in my case and why.

    Where you are going wrong is that the COCs is not the only thing that governs the agreement. Sometimes these other things take precedence. And that is only one of a number of ways that someone in your client’s situation might have recourse.

    At this point I really will leave you to your peace if you don’t wish to explore this further. But consider this. I won, yet by your logic not only is that impossible but even if I had a legitimate claim I had no damages. Except that the court ruled otherwise. By definition they are right. So once again I’d say you need to look deeper to understand the concept of damages because your definition is just wrong (you are taking a very narrow view).

    I apologize for being condescending but its hard not to be when you continue to say that something that happened is impossible. If you had come back with “wow, that’s interesting tell me more” it would have been different but instead you just keep saying over and over I’m wrong that can’t happen even thought it has and has many times in other cases.

    You are correct that its not always true that someone has a legitimate claim but neither is it true as you assert that they never do. Knowing what it takes to have a successful case isn’t rocket science but it does require looking deeper than you have.

    So if you’d like to understand this issue a bit better I’d be happy to get you started. My own knowledge is by no means complete. But I can get you started thinking and on the right track. Frankly its a very interesting field, far more interesting and nuanced that you represent which is what makes it so interesting. It would make a great multipart series.

    Wouldn’t the world be a happier place if passengers knew when they were entitled to something (since they often demand stuff they aren’t entitled to and are upset when it isn’t forthcoming) and when they are (in which case perhaps over time provider would willingly keep their side of the bargain instead of having to be sued to do so)? A good understanding of exactly what the rules are would be of great benefit to any traveler, but particularly frequent ones.

    I hope you decide to dig deeper. What you find will be very interesting intellectually and I can assure you will change your mind. The answer to what airlines have and don’t have to do is much more complex that you make it out to be. The real answer is “it depends.” Knowing what it depends on is therefore the key to knowing what the correct answer is and thereby predicting how a court would very likely rule.

    1. Steve – For someone who purports to be trying to help, you really need to work on using better tactics. Anytime you start off a conversation with attacks on me, as you did originally, I’m going to write you off as a troll.

      Since that time, I and others have asked you for specifics on where you think the breach is and what exactly happened in your case but so far, we haven’t seen any kind of details. All we know now is that you were switched to connect through LA instead of SF. If you want to get serious about this, then send all the details you have. This should be public record, but if for some reason you don’t feel like posting publicly, my email address is no secret (

  31. Enough. I’ve got no need to educate you if you aren’t interested. You have my email address. If you’d like to find out why your advice is simply wrong, drop a line. If not, that’s fine.

    If you reject out of hand what people tell you because you don’t like their tone, you are going to miss a lot in life. Your position was what I was saying was impossible. I proved that wrong and yet you continued to insist that you were right rather than trying to learn something.

    As to the particulars of my case, as I stated (but you apparently don’t comprehend) is that small claims cases don’t, to my knowledge, generate transcripts. Even if they did your replies have been all along the line that I must be lying about something because, I assume if that were true, it would validate what you’ve been saying. I’m not. I’ve got better things to do with my life.

    You have my email. Your site asks for it when I post. If you would genuinely like to learn something I’d be happy to get you started. I offered this in my last post and you ignored the offer.

    You hold yourself out as an expert in this field yet you simply do not understand how contract law works. Feel free to proceed as you have. I’m here if you want to improve your understanding. I can only get you started, but I can at least do that.

    As for posting the details, I’m not going to do that. I will however tell you whatever you want to know if you reach out to me. Up to you. I’ve got no reason to fight with you further. If you want to continue to give misinformation to your paying clients, that is up to you and them.

    1. Children, please stop it on this public forum.

      You both have each other’s email addresses. if you want to continue in private, either of you can do so.

      This exchange reminds me of two big egos in Hollywood who need to have a phone call but neither wants to be the first one on the phone line. Their secretaries have a connection, but neither ego wants to get on the line first to wait for the other. There are people in Hollywood like that. We aren’t in Hollywood.

      1. Carl – There is no ego here, and I agree this is absurd. If what it takes for him to actually share his story is an email from me, then fine. I just sent a quick one-liner.

        I will be sure to post full details here if there’s anything to report.

    2. Steve, as I’ve said I’ve been following this with interest. At the very least there will be a record of the decision if not the transcript. I’d be interested in learning why you think CF’s advise is wrong.

      That being said, I don’t have your email address. You can get mine at (This has a link to Recapatcha which’ll provide my email address to you, its a spam thing, not a personal thing.)

      I look forward to your email.

  32. United is probably the worst airline ever. Sorry about all the problems they created. I would take Jet Airways to go from Mumbai to Toronto, with a change in Brussels. I myself have had so many problems with them, that I just stopped flying with them and advise everyone around me not to book on United. Mix that with Chicago, and you will have the worst time of your life. As I did, when I was flying from CVG to ORD to LHR and back. Bad aircrafts, very bad unhappy cabin crew, bad food and the worst entertainment system ever. Just sad, that so many people have to go through this, mainly because United has some good connections and codeshares. But even then I would rather pay $100 extra, than fly with United.

  33. After 23 years, I loathe United!!!

    So far in 2014, I have clocked 63,282 YTD Premier qualifying miles, and 27 YTD Premier qualifying segments. I am obviously a frequent flier, however, I still have no qualifying status for 2015. Something is amiss. What? “Oh, sorry, Sir, you don’t have enough YTD Premier qualifying dollars.” WTF??

    Right… apparently a new rule in 2014 is you have to purchase X amount of dollars on united tickets through the United website. The trouble is, I work for a non-profit and spend the majority of my time on non-United routes with partners airlines. When posed with this issue to United Customer Service, they told me to book my tickets on United stock 016. Great! So how do I do this on non-United routes? Well, Customer Service suggest I contact IT.

    Why is this an IT issue and not a policy issue? What United is essentially saying is that miles earned through Partner flights are not good enough if the ticket is not purchased through United. If one has no option to purchase a ticket through the United website, then they are screwed.

    In short, United is squeezing out people like me who spend the majority of their time traveling overseas. Did I mention I’ve been a frequent flyer for 23 years?

    I hate United! I hate their Customer Service, I hate the way they focus on their share holders and squeeze out their customers who are the only chance of increasing their bottom line. No worries… after 23 years and increasingly crappy service (no more free alcoholic beverages on international flights – no other airline does this!!), perhaps it’s time to go.

    Anyone else care to join me?


    YTD Premier qualifying miles:

    YTD Premier qualifying segments:

    1. You are right to dislike this change to elite qualifying. Just as bad is the loss in earning redeemable miles that will occur when they start to award miles based on dollars paid, but at a much lower rate for most discounted tickets. In an interesting twist, I think they will continue to award based on mileage flown for partner tickets because they don’t get the fare information.

      However directing your ire at UA is somewhat misplaced. This change was actually launched by DL, as is the change in earnings. UA merely followed DL some months later.

      So far AA has not followed suit, although that could be primarily because they have a lot to do in their merger, and it’s better for them to tackle fewer projects and not upset customers until the merger integration has been completed.

      Nevertheless, you could consider shifting your business to AA

  34. My issues with UAL are all with their Customer (Non)Service. I made a reservation for two of us to fly round trip SEA-EWR, in 1st/Business Class, this coming May. The fare was $1002. Within less than 24 hours of making that reservation, however, something came up which required me to move the date forward exactly two weeks. On the UAL website I saw that the FC fare on the later dates was $792, but knew I had little or no chance of getting them to ticket me at the lower fare. Anyway I called CS and got connected with someone named Abby in the Philippines. She told me I could not change my flight without paying $200 per ticket penalty and that she would not honor the lower fare. I probably spoke with Abby for close to 40 minutes, asked her if UA really wants anyone to fly their airline more than just once, begged for a waive of the change fee, but got nowhere. I finally became totally exasperated, and told her I’d rather eat the entire $2004 than fly United, but that once I got off the phone I would cancel my flight entirely and pay whatever fee was required for cancelling. Instead I simply called the same number I called to Abby and asked for someone in the United States. I was told there are no CS agents in the US. So I asked for anyone but Abby. I got this guy named Jeff who did waive the $400 total in change fees, would not honor the new far, but told me to email customer service, because they are the only ones who ever really do anything. I wrote the mail, and was shocked to get a call from United Airlines, from a woman named Connie Ash. She was very nice and she told me she was sending me vouchers for future travel on UAL for the difference in fare (two $210 vouchers.) OK all was well. Until last night. I received an email from UAL about our upcoming trip regarding a schedule change and saw that our 1st Class tickets had been changed to Economy and we had seats in row 25. I called the number in the email and got someone called Diana. She proceeded to yell at me, interrupt me, talk over me, reiterate UA’s cancellation policy a gazillion times, lied to me that the coach fare on our travel date is $792, and finally told me she’d change our seats to 1st Class if I paid $1.86. I said absolutely not. We’ve already paid $1002 for these tickets and a mistake has been made. She went into her entire policy spiel again, including insisting we’d been ‘refunded’ the fare difference on our flights. I finally told her to be quiet and just listen. That I had saved all of the emails from UAL and had it all in writing. Suddenly she said “You have 1st Class.” No “Sorry I made a mistake” no “sorry WE made a mistake” just acted like she was doing me a big favor. She said she could not assign seats for us (I did that myself after I got off the phone.) I have emailed Connie Ash again apprising her of the latest from her company and told her we will never use those vouchers, that I’d rather ride Amtrak across the country for 3 days that fly United, and that we simply want our Amex card credited with the $420 and cancel the effing vouchers. I grew up in an airline family. My mother worked for Pan Am. Flying used to be a pleasure, and it has devolved into a nightmare. United should rename itself something like Guantanamo in the Sky or something. Thanks for a place to write all of this. United, I’m over you.

  35. I stopped flying five years ago. It is a shame, for me,because I am approaching retirement this year, and my husband and I have the means to fly; but I have had horror story after horror story happen to me when flying, and I just cannot bring myself to get on a plane any more. I am 65. I remember what it was like when flying was a wonderful convenience and pleasure.It is not a pleasure or convenience any more, but setting yourself up on your own penny for a possible horrendous ordeal. I used to fly to see my sister and her children once a year. Now I drive, because of having so very many awful things happen to me. I refuse to be treated like a sack of meat; I refuse to suffer such indignities. I have a grandson who is a Ranger in the army- he is 6’5″ and 265 musclebound pounds. How is he supposed to fit in a seat the size of a laptop computer? Bad enough that “fat” people are targeted for the sake of a buck, by shrinking seat sizes; but he is not fat by any means, just larger than usual, and for a good reason. So when he comes to visit, he also drives. He cannot take a chance he won’t get back in time, and he cannot afford first class.What just happened, with dragging that fellow off a paid- for flight, did not surprise me one bit. You surrender your rights as a human being, when you get on a plane- it is in the fine print. The airlines can do whatever they please, and there is nothing you can do about it. I don’t fly any more, because I don’t like being subjected to the awful discomfort and the inconvenience of it. I would rather drive. All the airlines are alike; they all look at paying customers as inanimate lumps to be hauled from one place to another, not as people who have feelings and who can get ill or who can suffer as a result of what an airline might do.I have plenty of company- I know a lot of people who won’t fly any more. We have choices, we don’t have to.

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