I wanted $2,400, but United gave me $38! Is this fair?

By | March 29th, 2017

Arthur Goldberg says he’ll never fly on United Airlines again after his recent trip to Israel. After a trip full of delays and a cancellation, he was offered only $38 and two $100 flight certificates. Goldberg thinks that’s extremely inadequate. But as far as United is concerned, Goldberg’s attitude precludes him from any further consideration.

Unfortunately for Goldberg, because the delays were weather-related, that’s the best he can hope for — especially after taking a very aggressive tone in communicating with United. His story offers a case study in how not to complain to an airline about a customer service problem — especially a weather-related one.

Goldberg charged $2,400 to his American Express card for two tickets on United, booked through Expedia, for himself and his wife Doreen, from Washington, D.C., to Tel Aviv, Israel, via Newark, N.J. The Goldbergs are 74 and 72 years old, respectively.

But weather and bad luck led to a delay or cancellation on every leg of their trip, as well as some rebookings on ExpressJet, Republic Airways and Swiss. And United’s customer service was sorely lacking.

Unfortunately for the Goldbergs, they were entitled only to a refund for the canceled leg of their flight – the Dulles-to-Newark leg, which was $38. But to Goldberg, this was far too little compensation after what he and his wife endured.

Goldberg sent the following letter to an agent of United:

My recent travel of my wife (72) and myself (74) on your airline was horrible:

  1. I was scheduled to fly on six flights on your airline; five were delayed or canceled both outbound and inbound.
  2. You turned a one-stopover international trip into two stopovers and many more travel hours.
  3. You delayed delivery of my baggage in excess of 72 hours.
  4. Your “travel assistance personnel” were inadequately staffed to handle the passengers needing help. Waiting times often exceeded two hours.
  5. You did not offer assistance to incapacitated passengers [traveling] great distances, often with baggage, from gate to “travel assistance” locations.
  6. Your personnel did not communicate the nature and length of delays and cancellations.
  7. At 2 a.m. you ran out of pillows and blankets offered to your stranded passengers.
  8. At 2 a.m. there [were] no food establishments open to use any vouchers issued.
  9. You did not offer overnight lodging for overnight flight delays. Issuance of vouchers [was] very stingy. I am a 74-year-old with health issues. I didn’t get to a hotel until 3 a.m. without your voucher.

I want:

  • Reimbursement for my lodging and food expenses caused by your inadequacies.
  • Reimbursement for my car rental and auto expenses caused by your cancellation of my flight from Newark to Washington D.C. on my return home leg.
  • Reimbursement of the unused flight from Newark to Washington, D.C.
  • Reimbursement for clothing and personal items purchased during delayed baggage delivery.

WHAT A HORROR, SHAME ON YOU


As horrible as the Goldbergs’ travel to Israel and back must have been, they were not entitled to any reimbursement for their troubles, as a United employee responded to this letter:

I’m sorry your travel plans were interrupted by the weather when flight 4410, operated by ExpressJet was delayed, and the rebooked flight 3379, operated by Republic, was delayed on an Air Traffic Control (ATC) hold due to weather. Also, your return was canceled due to ATC.

When weather impacts our flight schedule, according to our Contract of Carriage, which you will find at United.com, we are not required to compensate or reimburse for out-of-pocket expenses, as this is a situation that is beyond our control. As a one-time exception, I have [been] authorized to issue a $100 electronic travel certificate per person via a separate email within 24-48 hours. I have also requested a refund of your unused segments [of your] Newark-to-National [Airport] back to the original form of payment.

I’m very sorry to hear your bags were delayed 72 hours. I can only imagine how frustrating that must have been.

We’ll need you to contact the last carrier on your itinerary to file your baggage claim, which was Swiss Airlines. … I sincerely apologize we aren’t able to process your claim. When your travel plans contain multiple airlines, the final carrier is responsible [for] your baggage concerns.

After the Goldbergs received this response from United, Doreen Goldberg initiated a chargeback on their American Express card. We don’t know if they ever received the promised $100 travel certificates. Goldberg was so insulted by the offer that he swears that he will never fly United again.

However, Expedia questioned the chargeback, claiming that the Goldbergs received the services they paid for. Goldberg then contacted our advocates for help.

It’s possible that United’s agents might have been more sympathetic to Goldberg’s situation had he used our executive contacts to send polite, calm letters to United’s executives, allowing each a week to reply before escalating his case to the next higher-ranking executive.

But by employing an angry, accusatory tone in his letter, including using all caps in an email (the equivalent of shouting), and sending a long list of demands, including full reimbursement for his entire trip, he failed to make any case that he deserved more compensation than United was offering.

Our advocates reached out to United on the Goldbergs’ behalf, but were not successful in persuading United to offer them any more compensation. And while we sympathize with their situation, we don’t believe that they’re entitled to it given that the delays were weather-related. United, after all, has no control over the weather – even when delays result in bad circumstances like the Goldbergs’.

Should United have offered Arthur and Doreen Goldberg more than $38 and two $100 electronic travel certificates?

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  • Alan Gore

    United is technically right in that if all the delays were weather or ATC related, it does not have to provide any compensation. But there is no excuse for the nastiness and lack of compassion it showed to these pax. Any decent carrier should have local hotel discount arrangements standing by for times like this, including knowing where food could be obtained at off hours. An Internet shaming is called for here.

    Irregular operations, as it is called, is the test of a company’s empathy with its customers.

  • sirwired

    I think the answer is “somewhere in the middle”. Is he due a full refund for the entire itinerary? No. But did United perform up to expectations? Also no.

    What United did wrong:
    – Not providing frequent, timely, and accurate updates on the situation.
    – Not summoning somebody to shuttle them to the assistance counter
    – Taking so long for their luggage to catch up to them. (This is an interesting topic in this case… Since they abandoned their trip, is Swiss actually responsible for compensation? We don’t have any reason to think they made any error here; I can guess that it was United that ultimately arranged for delivery. Yes, legally, Swiss is probably on the hook, but that’s going to be a mess… it’d be nice for United to just step up to the plate here and save the customer all that trouble.)
    – Not being better prepared for the weather situation. It’s not as if poor weather is a foreign concept in the greater NYC area.

    What United didn’t do wrong:
    – The long wait times; there’s only so many employees in the airport, and when a busy international hub like NYC gets socked, there’s only so much an airline can do, especially for passengers that want more than just re-routing. (The website or kiosks can handle re-routing easily enough.)
    – Not reimbursing the rental car expenses. I know that sometimes they do offer to do this, but I don’t see them as obligated to do so in the case of a weather cancellation.
    – Cancelling the flight: If ATC delays or cancels the flight, they’ve delayed or cancelled the flight. The airline can’t just take off anyway.

  • Jeff W.

    The experience certainly was not pleasant for them. And the wording on the complaint is not doing them any favors. Could United have been more helpful. Perhaps. But if there were weather-related delays and they occurred in either DC or NY, the whole system would have been gummed up — especially if it was in NY.

    Unless you are an high-level elite person, everyone basically waits in the same line for service. Being older does not mean your first in line.

  • Jeff W.

    Also, complain to the Port Authority in NYC about the restaurants or vendors being closed. It always amazed me that stores close at their regular closing times during those evenings of irregular operations. To me, you have a captive audience and it is an opportunity to make even more money.

    Granted, I know it is a little more complicated. You have to have workers able to work beyond their normal shift. You might not have all the supplies necessary if you prepare food. But having a few places open in a large airport should be required.

  • PsyGuy

    Why is it old people get more whiney as they age? We have a play of the “Age card from the deck of misfortune.
    Look weather happens, and I can only imagine at the time the gate agents were also unaccommodating because of a sourpuss of a PAX who was expecting some kind of white glove treatment, when there are a LOT of PAX who need to be serviced.

  • PsyGuy

    Well passenger assistance could have had some obligation for the disabled, but I bet it was all hands on deck as it was.

  • PsyGuy

    – Well mainly because it’s a complex system (weather and air travel) that depends on factors outside of the airline. ATC doesn’t work for the airline.
    – What makes you believe there was someone to shuttle them around.
    – I don’t see how UA can step up to the plate SA was the airline in possession of the baggage.
    – No, it’s not a foreign concept but it is an unforgiving one. How could they really have been better prepared, ATC but a hold or stop order means no one is flying short of military/government aircraft with a Defense Command order.

    – Actually the websites can get overloaded and with timeouts unreachable. Kiosks are the way to go.
    – ATC doesn’t cancel flights, airlines do. ATC can issue a stop or hold order, but as longa s the airline maintains the validity of the flight it just gets put in the outbound traffic queue.

  • PsyGuy

    I was talking with a bartender last weekend about this and the reason they say they don’t is that no one want’s to be the overwhelmed food service merchant that stays.

  • sirwired

    Every airport has people designated for shuttling disabled passengers around; even tiny places with just a few gates. (At smaller airports it’s somebody pushing a wheelchair, at larger airports it’s somebody with a long golf cart.)

    And since they were coming off an international flight, unless the baggage simply failed to show up in Newark, SA definitely wouldn’t have had the bags any more. (You have to claim bags to clear customs, and then your bags are re-checked for your connecting flight directly with your onward airline.) I expect what happened here was that they re-checked bags after customs, and once that happens, it ranges from difficult to impossible to get them back, even if your flight is canceled.

  • Jeff W.

    Makes sense. Although if the Chili’s Too or McDonald’s does not want to open, then certainly the “newsstand” that sells magazines, bottled water, and snacks can. Sometimes all it takes is some caffeine and chocolate to keep people going.

  • MarkKelling

    When there are numerous weather delays at a location that has a United Club, the club stays open until the final flight either is allowed to depart or is cancelled no matter how late that is. The ticketing agents that are in the club can perform miracles when compared to those you have to deal with out in the concourses.

    Of course this is only useful when you have access to the Club and these passengers probably did not. Sometimes it is worth paying the one time access fee to get into the club and have the assistance available there. (Unfortunately there are limits such as the bar closing at its regular time anyway (usually due to local alcohol laws) and food service usually stopping shortly after that no matter how late the club is actually open. But at least you have comfy seats, free WiFi and clean(er) restrooms in addition to the ticketing help.)

  • MarkKelling

    But having the snack shops/newsstands open would require someone authorizing over time pay to those workers. The workers at those stands don’t have the authority to decide to stay open on their own. :-)

  • MarkKelling

    One, very unfortunate, thing I have noticed about United is that the number of people working the service desks in the airports is indirectly proportional to the demand. In other words, on a fine sunny Tuesday afternoon with all flights on time and no cancellations, every window at every customer service desk is manned. During a weather delay shutting down the entire airport resulting in multiple cancellations and miss connections, you have two people working for the entire airport.

    The secret is to get into the United Club if there is one at that airport. They have multiple dedicated ticketing people working to handle issues for those who are in the club. As mentioned elsewhere, these agents apparently have a higher level of access or override authority and can make things happen those out in the concourse can’t. Pay the visitor pass charge and get your flight issues fixed.

  • LDVinVA

    Wow.

  • yellowbird73

    This assumes pax have the money to pay for access. Many (I would guess the majority) do not.

  • yellowbird73

    If he has health issues and required assistance to the gate, there should most definitely be someone on hand to offer assistance getting them other places. I am assuming this is what he’s talking about, given that he mentions health issues. I know I often need assistance to the gate, and I’d be upset if I were forced to then travel all over the airport without help. I don’t think he wants a personal concierge.

  • yellowbird73

    Again, most people can’t afford this charge.

  • James

    Does $19 per person sound a little cheap for a flight, even a short one from Newark to Washington? I’d be curious how that was calculated.

  • DChamp56

    Where do I sign up for the $19 flight from Newark to Washington!

  • AJPeabody

    If I posted like you, I would be tempted to say that you have already reached maximum whininess, LOL.

  • AAGK

    There is nothing wrong with his letter until the , “SHAME….” part. The rest of the letter was clear, polite, assertive and the rules may entitle him to more than $38. The OP’s problem was that he took the airline’s typical lowball offer as a personal affront rather than the beginning of a negotiation.

  • AJPeabody

    I bet $19 is the cost difference between Washington and final destination and Newark and destination.

  • Rebecca

    A word to the wise:

    You don’t want to be filing large chargebacks like this, where clearly you aren’t entitled to a full refund. It costs money. Someone has to be paid on both ends to handle this. And the credit card company will drop you just like that. They don’t want a customer that files frivolous chargebacks, I have seen lots of credit card accounts closed for exactly this reason. You’re not profitable.

  • Jenny Zopa

    Its comical to insinuate that a calmly worded letter to United would achieve a different result.

  • MarkKelling

    So spending $50 for a club pass to possible get priority service to get on another flight to where you need to be is un affordable? Compared to paying $200 + to spend the night in a crappy hotel near the airport to go and try again the next morning to get on a flight? Or renting a car for who knows how much to drive to your connecting airport in the hopes of getting on a flight there? Or just giving up and going home and losing your entire ticket?

    Things happen. If you are traveling you need to allow for that. If spending a dollar more than what you already spent is beyond your budget then maybe you shouldn’t be flying.

  • Lindabator

    When weather is an issue, good luck FINDING hotel rooms – and they do not have “discounts”, but a voucher system in place for THEIR errors. And the only vouchers for food they CAN offer are for use in the airport, and those hours of operation are not controlled by the airlines. And if he was as nasty in person as he was in the letter, he made no friends wanting to go out of their way to assist, either. Frankly, HE should be shamed for being rude and unreasonable. Should have learned being a curmudgeon gets you nowhere.

  • Lindabator

    1 – they have no “shuttle” service, and can only request wheelchair assistance during regular hours 2 – Swiss WILL not legally give any information to United as it is an internal matter, and no way for United to expedite that 3 – you can only prepare so much, and even then the problems only snowball as the day goes on, as it looks like it happened here 4 – I think he was just as rude at the counter as in his email, and I can guarantee that would not have induced them to go out of their way to give him something he wasn’t entitled to.

  • Lindabator

    but those wheelchair services are only available during regular hours, and are pre-ordered – they don’t just stand around waiting for someone, but are on a tight schedule (the airport owns the wheelchairs, NOT the airline)

  • Lindabator

    then he would have ordered wheelchair service IN ADVANCE. they do not just wait around to see if they are needed, you know

  • Lindabator

    “old” is not a disability

  • Lindabator

    Normal addon rates for an international flight. You are not talking about a point to point fare, but additional leg, and these are generally very low in these cases

  • Lindabator

    fly on an international to Dc thru NYC – this is NOT priced as a point to point, but as an addon segment, and those are generally VERY low

  • Lindabator

    no they priced as addon segment to an international ticket – most close airports run a very low segment fare, as the big rate is to the first big stop

  • John Baker

    Sometimes how you react to the situation drives the result more than the situation itself…
    The Goldbergs won’t ever fly UA again… I wonder if UA would let them.

    I do agree with $38 being way too low. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the airlines would have used in their calculation if the Goldbergs owed them money.

  • Michael__K

    “according to our Contract of Carriage, which you will find at United.com, we are not required to compensate or reimburse for out-of-pocket expenses, as this is a situation that is beyond our control.”

    Sorry United. Israeli law trumps your contract of carriage. And there is a provision for Exemplary (punitive) damages for knowingly not complying.
    http://www.tourism-law.co.il/pdf/AviationServicesLawENG.pdf

  • Michael__K

    The OP found a hotel room on their own and United was obligated by Israeli law to provide this benefit themselves and to provide written notice of their obligation to provide this and other benefits.

  • Michael__K

    You can add to the list:
    United did not comply with Israel’s passenger rights law (which is similar to EC261)

  • sirwired

    Given that Newark Airport operates 24 hours a day, I’m sure a wheelchair could have been summoned as necessary.

    And I’m pretty sure there are exceptions to them being pre-booked. After all, there are gate changes, cancellations, etc. all the time; surely those passengers are not simply left to fend for themselves at the gate.

    I understand that if you haven’t pre-booked, one will not be waiting for you, but that’s very different from one not being available.

  • Jeff W.

    I have been in an O’Hare Red Carpet Club and those clubs do not always stay open when there are delays.

  • Jeff W.

    Not sure where this law would apply to United. It was for a DC to NYC flight (or the reverse). Swiss Air is also listed, so not sure of this itinerary. Since it was booked on Expedia, it could have been quite creative. Did Expedia try to help at all?

    Not that it is the Goldberg’s fault, but I would certainly think there are options to fly direct from DC to Israel. Yes, it is likely to be more expensive. But by adding a connection, on a regional jet no less, you saved money and added risk. And in this case, the savings were nullified.

    Adding a connection, especially in any NYC airport (or O’Hare and a few others) is a risk not worth saving some money.

  • Michael__K

    United flies from EWR to TLV. Those other carriers (e.g. Swiss) were from re-bookings after UA flight(s) were canceled.

    TLV would have been the “Final Destination” on the “Flight Ticket” and the law applies to “Flight Operators”… “transporting [..] passengers and their baggage, for consideration, from, to or within the boundaries of the State of Israel.”

  • Michael__K

    Was Israel the Final Destination on the Flight Ticket and was the Flight Operator “transporting [..] passengers and their baggage, for consideration, from, to or within the boundaries of the State of Israel”?

  • MarkKelling

    I am just stating my recent experiences with the United Clubs (since the merger with Continental0 in about 10 different locations.

    When they were still called Red Carpet Clubs I agree they never stayed open late.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    As far as I am aware, there are no direct flights from DC, Baltimore, or Philly to Israel anymore. All flights must route either through NY or overseas somewhere, so this wasn’t a choice.

    (But weather isn’t the fault of United. Sometimes, you just need to let it go)

  • PsyGuy

    true, but old people are more likely to have conditions and ailments that do qualify as disabilities.

  • PsyGuy

    Maybe but are you sure? I mean I’m dying of life so I have health problems.

  • PsyGuy

    I assumed the bags didn’t show up at all, that’s why the long delay.

  • Donna Gyland

    If the Gores had purchased travel insurance, Weather delays are covered. Airlines are not responsible for weather related travel delays. That being said, United ids often sited for being rude and lacking compassion. Seems they need to do some customer service revamping

  • The Original Joe S

    Dulles-to-Newark leg, which was $38? How can I book a $38 trip to and fro each?

    Weather? PROVE IT! Betcha they are LYING.

    He’s an AK. He’s not nasty; he’s being NORMAL.

    Expedia? Cheep cheep cheep. OTA – whatdya expect?

    Untied – not a good airline…….

  • The Original Joe S

    and I got nosedo – my stomach sticks out farther than my nose do.

  • The Original Joe S

    He isn’t rude. He’s an AK!

  • The Original Joe S

    ability to tolerate horst shirt is inversely proportional to age.

  • The Original Joe S

    another lie by the airlines. to buy it, it’s $200. to get it back, it’s $2.

  • The Original Joe S

    still, it’s horst shirt

  • The Original Joe S

    because airlines are , in general, dirtbags

  • The Original Joe S

    mine always sides with me.

  • The Original Joe S

    RIGHT! $38? ha ha.

    Goldbergs, Icebergs……..

  • The Original Joe S

    they ALWAYS say it’s weather-related. Prove it!

  • The Original Joe S

    I don’t believe the “weather excuse”. That’s what they always say, but they never provide documentation.

  • The Original Joe S

    They are LYING!

  • jah6

    I agree that the answer is somewhere in the middle.

  • Attention All Passengers

    Well you’re not going to get into any club after 9-10 pm. Also getting into a club is no guarantee that you are going to get a knowledgeable or sympathetic person and you still might be standing behind 6 people to get help. I recently was in the EWR United Club and the agent(s) there were about as friendly and smiling as a rock, this on a perfect weather day on a Sunday morning. So what does it take, a bouquet of flowers and a $100 bribe just to get a smile ? Also people shouldn’t have to go to the club to get service, EVERY AGENT

  • PsyGuy

    My philosophy is if you’re not that well you maybe shouldn’t be traveling.

  • The Original Joe S

    come on, work with me a little bit on this, hah? :-)

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t doubt you at all on this. Yes, I find many United agents to be dismissive and borderline rude for no reason at all, especially in Newark and Chicago. Don’t know why. And every agent should have the same level of authority, especially in a weather delay situation, to make things happen for you.

    But I still get better service when I am in the club on most occasions even if it is without a smile.

    I have also been told by one agent specifically at Denver “We don’t do that at the airport, you have to do it online.” What is it they supposedly don’t do? Change you to a different flight even when you are willing to pay the change fee! I checked later with a different agent in the same club and I was moved to the different flight I wanted and upgraded to 1st — no problem no fee.

  • Attention All Passengers

    Sorry you received such horrible “service” at DEN. As a CS agent since the 1970’s, I was trained a long time ago to just (at least) try to help people, pick up the phone and get help from another department if necessary or another “cooperative” coworker.
    Of course there is a limit if one sees the problem is going to take an inordinate amount of time, but 10-15 minutes is usually enough time with a knowledgeable agent. As I said though, long gone are the days when agents were trained and fully capable to meet the challenge of cancelled, delayed, misconnecting flights. You would think here we are in the 21st century, computerized etc., yet 10-20 years ago I was able (and permitted) to think out of the box, use my computer and fix just about any ticketing problem – fast. Now I am just a very rare breed and hard to find in a busy airport setting. These days agents are not trained to handle big issues – they are not “ticket” agents, they are button pushers and finger pointers (“there’s the phone, call the 800#”). Horrible service – this seems to be the “norm” in just about every customer service setting.

  • yellowbird73

    Most people in their 70s who say they have health issues mean just that. There is no need to get snarky.

  • yellowbird73

    He probably did, to the gate. I think his point is probably that there wasn’t anyone to then transport him again, to the other places they were expecting him to go. And, yes, I do know that I request a wheelchair (in advance) to get to the gate, and if there were a significant gate change or if the airline expected me to walk anywhere if any sort of distance due to their changes, I would expect them to find assistance for me—since I *had* requested it in advance.

    And there is really no need to “yell” at me.

  • yellowbird73

    Oh, so we are doing this in the comments section again? I thought this was why it was turned off before. These comments about “if you can’t do X then you shouldn’t be Y” are, in my opinion, classist and unacceptable.

    Yes, people travel when it is sometimes a strain on their budget. They do so for many reasons: because they are poor, because it’s an emergency, because they need to for work & they aren’t the ones footing the bill, or because of reasons they don’t have to justify. They don’t need to be shamed in the comments section of a consumer advocacy website for not being able to afford $50 on a frivolous expense. (And not all hotels are $200. Even near O’Hare, you can get a decent hotel with shuttle service to the airport for under $50; I’ve done it many times.)

    But, sure, go ahead and keep believing only certain people deserve to travel. I just don’t subscribe to that philosophy of life.

  • MarkKelling

    I made a suggestion to try something to get better service that has worked for me and others in the past. It was only a suggestion based on my experiences. I appear to have touched on a sore spot. Apologies.

  • MarkKelling

    And agents like you were and still are appreciated when we can find the few of you left Thanks.

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