I didn’t like United’s first compensation offer, so I countered it — twice

If at first you don’t succeed, try. And try again, just like Gail Morin.

Here’s what happened when Morin’s 9:15 a.m. flight from Paris to San Francisco was delayed several times because of mechanical problems — first, a glitch with a generator, then a misbehaving heating and cooling system. All told, Morin was delayed four hours.

“We spent an hour at the gate and three hours inside the plane at the gate,” she recalls. “United canceled the flight, then reinstated for the same day, then canceled again until the next day.”

Now, had this flight been domestic, United would have owed her nothing. But since the flight originated in Europe, it was governed by EU 261, the European airline consumer protection rule. Morin knew this, but United didn’t want to pay up.

In the end, they reached a compromise of sorts, thanks to Morin’s negotiating prowess and tenacity. There’s a lesson here for all of us who might be up against an intransigent airline. Persistence often pays a handsome dividend.

After canceling her first flight, United’s problems continued.

“They gave us hotel and meal vouchers, but the first hotel they gave us ran out of rooms,” she remembers. “We arrived at the second hotel at our own expense at around 6:30 p.m. The next day, it was the exact same aircraft. We arrived 15 minutes early at SFO, but had to wait on to one-and-a-half hours to deplane because the gate was occupied.”

So, all told, not the best flight experience. Now, under EU 261, United should have compensated her $1,334 for the delay. Instead, after noting her displeasure post-flight, United offered her 10,000 miles or $200 in travel vouchers. Airlines often do this with potential EU 261 claims because if they can get customers to take the offer, they’re off the hook for the full amount.

Related story:   Why did United cancel my return flight?

Morin wouldn’t let United get away with it.

“I wrote a succinct and polite letter explaining what happened and sent it via United’s online feedback service,” she says.

I’m sort of happy to report that United bumped up her compensation to 25,000 miles or $800 in travel vouchers. She didn’t even have to go through our United Airlines executive contacts.

“I chose the $800 each,” she says.

I say “sort of” because while Morin indicated she’s happy, United owed her cold, hard cash. Instead, it sent her funny money that expires in a year.

Her case underscores the importance of knowing the applicable laws (either EU 261 or federal regulations, if you’re in the States) and not taking “no” for an answer. I’m confident that my advocacy team could have extracted the $1,334 from United, but Morin asked us to stand down, so we will.

But the thing I really like about this one is that Morin wouldn’t just take “no” for an answer, and that’s a valuable takeaway for anyone in a similar situation. Seriously, don’t take “no” for an answer. You never know what an airline — or any other company — might do for you.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Steve Rabin

    Good for Gail for getting something of value. Bad on United for not adhering to the law. They probably got off the hook for most of the passengers on board–I suspect many/most of the US pax don’t know much about 261 since it isn’t an American law (and we’re unfortunately accustomed to being treated like cattle when flying). I fully understand why the airlines don’t like EU261, but that’s too bad–the law is the law.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Voucher value depends on your travel plans. If you’re a relatively frequent UA flyer, $1600 in vouchers could readily have been worth more than $1300 or so (depending on the exchange rate) in cash.

  • Dan

    I wish there were real consequences for failing to pay EU261 compensation automatically. The simple fact is that probably fewer than 25% of passengers complained and/or received any compensation at all

  • fairmont1955

    American did that to me coming back to the US from London, although they gave me *no* vouchers, hotel, food or anything. I didn’t know at the time I was owed, as I was notified before I got to the airport and was able to speak to someone in more detail. The clerk at Heathrow told me it fell under EU261 and I should pursue it. I did, three rounds of “we’re sorry, we can’t control the weather” form letters which finally turned into a $100 voucher. I took all that, packaged it up and sent it to their VP of customer relations and told him that he had a chance to rectify this before I submitted it to a government entity for a violation of law. Two days later his assistance called me and asked if I wanted the money or vouchers. They also didn’t reimburse me for the hotel I paid OOP for, but my company at least did. All these years later I still hold a grudge; they clearly wanted to wait me out and hope I’d drop it. I’m glad this traveler didn’t.

  • Alan Gore

    Of course United knows it has to pay up. It just stalls, stalls, stalls until the pax, like this one, gives up by taking the middling crappy offer instead of the initial really crappy offer. Most people don’t even know they can demand real money instead of vouchers.

  • What

    probably more like 2%.

  • jah6

    This is the second letter about an airline trying to weasel out of the EU261 compensation. I agree with the other commenters on here that they should be fined for it. The law should be the law!

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