Royal flush of customer disservice on United

By | September 9th, 2016

It should have been a routine flight for Linda Blackwood and her two children. They were supposed to fly on United Airlines from Edinburgh, UK, to Huntsville, Alabama, via Newark and Washington-Dulles Airport.

But there was nothing routine about their flight. Her family endured delays, cancellations, a rude customer service agent, missing baggage and stolen property – a royal flush of disservice. And United blew off her complaints with indifference, she says.

Her experience makes her — and our advocates — wonder how much a passenger is supposed to put up with. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t one she wants to hear.

Blackwood’s flight to Newark went off without a hitch, but her flight to Dulles was first delayed and then canceled because of inclement weather. A United customer service agent rerouted Blackwood and her children onto a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. According to Blackwood, this agent treated her rudely. And no sooner was the Charlotte flight booked than Blackwood received a text telling her that this flight was also delayed. It was eventually canceled, this time “for mechanical reasons.”

United then rerouted Blackwood and her children onto a flight to Houston, where, according to its agent, United would “put them up for the night” and fly them to Huntsville the following day. Blackwood asked why United couldn’t put her and her children up for the night in Newark, and was told what she describes as a “cock-and-bull story”: “There was something going on in Newark, and it would be better for me and my children to get the hell out of there while I could.”

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But the second the Houston flight was booked, Blackwood received yet another text notifying her of a delay.

Eventually Blackwood and her children flew out of Newark to Houston, where they got meal vouchers and a hotel room — for three hours. Then it was time for them to depart for Huntsville.

When they arrived in Huntsville, their luggage was missing. They had to wait a day to receive two of their three missing bags; the third arrived six days later with items missing.

Blackwood complained to United, which offered her an apology and three travel vouchers of $250 apiece for her and each of her children as a gesture of goodwill. But after such a terrible experience, Blackwood had no intention of accepting vouchers for future flights on United. She also felt that she should receive compensation under EU 261 because her flights originated in a European Union country (prior to the Brexit).

She contacted United’s Customer Care service to request EU 261 compensation. United refused, claiming that the affected flights were all in the United States.

She then contacted our advocates for assistance. (Company contact information for United Airlines can be found on our website.)

United’s contract of carriage indicates that

UA has the right to cancel reservations (whether or not confirmed) of any Passenger whenever such action is necessary to comply with any governmental regulation, upon any governmental request for emergency transportation in connection with the national defense, or whenever such action is necessary or advisable by reason of weather or other conditions beyond UA’s control, (including, but not limited to acts of God, force majeure events, strikes, civil commotions, embargoes, wars, hostilities, or other disturbances, whether actual, threatened, or reported). …

Schedules are Subject To Change Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time. UA will promptly provide Passengers the best available information regarding known delays, cancellations, misconnections and diversions …

Force Majeure Event – In the event of a Force Majeure Event, UA without notice, may cancel, terminate, divert, postpone, or delay any flight, right of carriage or reservations (whether or not confirmed) and determine if any departure or landing should be made, without any liability on the part of UA. UA may re-accommodate Passengers on another available UA flight or on another carrier or combination of carriers, or via ground transportation, or may refund any unused portions of the Ticket in the form of a travel certificate.

Lodging – UA will provide at its option either one night’s lodging, or, if no lodging is provided and upon the passenger’s request only, reimbursement for one night’s lodging in the form of an electronic travel certificate that may be applied to future travel on UA up to a maximum amount determined by UA when a UA flight on which a Passenger is being transported incurs Irregular Operations and the Passenger incurs a delay that is expected to exceed four hours between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. local time. Where lodging has been offered but not accepted by a Passenger for whatever reason, UA is not liable to reimburse the Passenger for expenses relating to alternative lodging secured independently by the Passenger.

So United’s unwillingness to provide any more compensation to Blackwood is consistent with these terms of use. Blackwood also contacted the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which notified her that EU 261 doesn’t apply to flights originating in the United Kingdom.

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Unfortunately for Blackwood, even after our advocates got involved, all United would agree to were vouchers of slightly higher value than they had originally offered. But Blackwood would have to be willing to travel again on United to use the vouchers — which is highly unlikely in view of her treatment on this flight. For Blackwood, United’s customer service was a royal flush — down the toilet.

Did United offer the Blackwoods enough compensation for its royal flush of disservice?

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  • John Baker

    Key component missing from the story is the date that this occurred. I’ve been stuck in Newark when major weather events are effecting the East Coast and the first thing you want / need to do is get out of Newark or be stuck for the next few days. If that’s the case here, its not a cock and bull story. The airline was doing the right thing.

    All in all, sounds like a string of bad luck brought on by weather on the East Coast.

    Also, EU261 compensation would not apply in the case regardless. The first delay / cancellation was weather based so she would be due Duty to Care, which she received, but no compensation.

  • sirwired

    I am pretty sure that United is correct in stating that EU 261 doesn’t apply. EU 261 is applied on a per-flight basis, not a per-itinerary basis. The delayed flights did not originate in Europe, so she’s not entitled to compensation under that rule.

    On a more general note, when the weather falls apart in the Northeast, this kind of chaos is pretty normal. And I don’t see why the idea that Newark might be running low on hotel rooms is inherently a “cock-and-bull” story. If there’s a convention or big sports event in town, AND there’s bad weather in the area hotel rooms run low. It happens. (I once snagged THE LAST hotel room within 40 miles of PHL; it was a terrible Motel 6 in a sketchy industrial park.) The suggestion to get the *bleep!* out of the Northeast was good advice. And I suspect that the agent may have been frazzled and curt with a long line of passengers to process, and from this letter, it doesn’t exactly sound like the passenger was exactly sweetness and light either.

    And yes, when you get rebooked over and over, it’s unlikely your bags will be traveling with you. This should not be a surprise.

    The only thing out of line here is the missing items; who knows what happened there. She’s certainly due reimbursement for those without a hassle. $250 in vouchers per passenger seems just fine for the rest.

  • Rebecca

    Unfortunately, sometimes life happens and it’s no one’s fault. In this case, life happened in the form of weather. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to how rude the rep was.

    That being said, imagine you are working for an airline at Newark, it’s a busy convention/football weekend, and weather is causing a ton of delays. You’re routing everyone out as fast as you can, there is no end to the line. Everyone is frazzled. As a customer, I would go out of my way to be nice here, because that just sucks for the person behind the counter. It isn’t their fault there’s a storm shutting down most air traffic on the east coast. My guess here is the OP could have been nicer, and the agents could have been nicer too. But cut them some slack.

    She does, however, deserve compensation for the bag that took nearly a week and arrived with missing contents. That’s unacceptable.

  • Michael__K

    EU 261 is applied on a per-flight basis, not a per-itinerary basis.

    Actually, the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) — (who’s rulings are binding on the entire EU) in the Air France vs. Folkerts case says the opposite:

    compensation is payable, on the basis of that article, to a passenger on directly connecting flights who has been delayed at departure for a period below the limits specified in Article 6 of that regulation, but has arrived at the final destination at least three hours later than the scheduled arrival time, given that the compensation in question is not conditional upon there having been a delay at departure and, thus, upon the conditions set out in Article 6 having been met.

    The OP’s case is even more complex because her initial delay was for weather, but then there was a long additional delay for mechanical reasons.

    She has nothing to lose sending her itinerary information to companies which litigate EC-261 claims for a commission (such as RefundMe, AirHelp, EUclaim, GreenClaim, Claimair, orBott&Co) to see if they think her case is worth pursuing.

  • Michael__K

    Also, EU261 compensation would not apply in the case regardless.

    Actually, her case is very complicated. A “weather cancellation” by FAA criteria includes cancellations (e.g. for late arriving aircraft) that would NOT qualify as “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken” under EC 261 and which would therefore be subject to EC 261 compensation.

    Furthermore, we don’t know the exact breakdown of her total delay. A portion of her delay was caused by a flight cancellation for mechanical reasons.

    The OP should contact companies that litigate EC 261 claims for a commission and see if they determine her case is worth pursuing.

  • Michael__K

    Blackwood also contacted the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which notified her that EU 261 doesn’t apply to flights originating in the United Kingdom

    That is absolute nonsense. The UK has yet to formally notify the European Council of its intention to exit the UK under TEU Article 50. Even if they did so, there is a two-year notification/withdrawal/negotiation period. That clock has not even started.

    EU laws including EC Regulation 261 are 100% binding in the UK today and the UK Civil Aviation Authority remains the UK’s National Enforcement Body for this regulation.


    1. This Regulation shall apply:

    (a) to passengers departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies;

  • Jeff W.

    If indeed there was a weather issue on the east coast, then yes, the getting out of Newark would have been the prudent thing to do. The agent was probably quite stressed already (along with the passenger) and when the agent found an option, the passenger balked.

    Were there rooms available around Newark? Probably not that many. If there was an event in the area and the weather not cooperating, these would be filling fast. The agent most likely did not want to be searching for available hotels when an alternate itinerary was found.

    Not knowing what the enhanced offer was, $750 in travel vouchers is nothing to sneeze at. I leave it up to others to address the EU261 rules. There does seem to be disagreement on whether or not they apply. But losing the luggage for that amount of time is worth something. At least the luggage was “lost” on the return and not on the start of trip.

  • sirwired
  • Michael__K

    An article published before the Folkerts case was even decided does not refute the ruling in the Folkerts case…

    Air Help’s chart says her itinerary is covered by the regulation. Her origin was Edinburgh.

  • sirwired

    Look farther down on that page; they have a specific table covering connecting flights.

  • Michael__K

    Maybe AirHelp won’t take on such a case, but I don’t find anything in the CJEU ruling to support such a distinction.

    The opinion makes it clear that the regulation applies to the entire itinerary, and arrival at the final destination (not the connection points) is what matters:

    The concept of ‘final destination’ is defined in Article 2(h) of Regulation No 261/2004 as being the destination on the ticket presented at the check-in counter or, in the case of directly connecting flights, the destination of the last flight.

    It follows that, in the case of directly connecting flights, it is only the delay beyond the scheduled time of arrival at the final destination, understood as the destination of the last flight taken by the passenger concerned, which is relevant for the purposes of the fixed compensation under Article 7 of Regulation No 261/2004.

  • sirwired

    I believe the ruling you refer to directly concerned an itinerary wholly within the EU on an EU carrier (or the connecting flight at least originated in the EU, I can’t remember) and did not address connecting flights wholly outside the EU on non-EU carriers.

  • Michael__K

    No so. Per point # 2 in the ruling:

    Mr and Mrs Folkerts […] held a reservation to fly from Bremen (Germany) to Asunción (Paraguay) via Paris (France) and São Paolo (Brazil).

  • sirwired

    Yes, but on an EU carrier. This itinerary was on United. Different rules apply to non-EU carriers.

  • Michael__K

    You wrote you believed their itinerary was “wholly within the EU”…

    If they satisfy Article 3(a) (“departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies”) then it doesn’t matter if it’s an EU carrier or not.

    And the Folkert opinion (as I read it) says that the end points, not the segment-by-segment connections is what matters when interpreting “departure” and “destination.”.

  • Steve Trizis

    Didn’t see this answered anywhere, and I’m not passing judgement on what the OP wants, and what United offered, but once you say things were “so bad” you never want to fly this airline again, why should they give you anything. So counter productive in my opinion.

  • just me

    EU261 does apply – no discussion!

  • just me

    EU261 does apply. The threshold is delay at the destination! So had she had intermediate delays, but arrived in Huntsville on time – there would be no compensation. But since the arrival in Huntsville was delay beyond EU261 stated limit – the rule applies.

  • just me

    To all. Be careful claiming that “bad weather” excuses is in the EU261 – IT IS NOT.
    Examples are many, but to illustrate:
    (1) the flight from A to B was delayed because the airplane was stuck due to weather in C. The compensation is due.
    (2) the snow storm disabling the airport in Cairo can be accepted as an excuse.
    (3) volcanic ash in the air disrupts all flights – EU261 is applicable and “wealther package” must be covered (all meals and all hotels (even for many days), 2 telephone calls, etc); but no delay compensation. (EU court ruled on that).

  • pauletteb

    Call me a skeptic, but I’m always suspicious of these one-sided “customer service was rude to me” stories. Perhaps the OP’s frustration with the situation made her a little less than polite as well.

  • sirwired

    Well, on further research, it appears this specific point (delayed non-EU flight on non-EU carriers) has not yet been decided in a higher-court decision post-Volkerts. Decisions have been mixed at the lower-court level. There is apparently conflicting language; on the one hand Folkers talks about the final destination delay (although it does not specifically address non-EU carriers); on the other hand, other text within EU 261 (and the larger framework in which it operates) suggests that a flight wholly outside the EU on a non-EU carrier takes it out of the purview of EU 261 entirely. (As in, jurisdiction over the flight no longer exists, so it doesn’t matter what the rest of the regulation states about it.)

    BTW, that internationallawoffice article I cited earlier WAS about a post-Volkerts decision, albeit at a lower-court level. Read the comment at the bottom. And here’s another one:

    And, yes, I did notice that both are defendant atty. offices.

  • sirwired

    Yes, it does, quite specifically. Look at the table specifically labeled “connecting flights”

  • DChamp56

    A law needs to be made that if you pay in cash, you get cash back, not useless coupons for future travel.

  • John Baker
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