Hey, this “award” ticket has a missing leg!

Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com
Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com
Is an “award” ticket a real airline ticket — or something else?

It’s not just me asking; so is Greg Ho, an elite-level United Airlines customer (he’s a 1K, if you must know) who recently discovered a missing flight segment.

He needed our help recovering it.

Ho’s route was a combination of United and Ethiopian Airlines from Portland, Ore., to Seychelles. Both airlines are codeshare partners via the Star Alliance, meaning they share routes, flights and have reciprocal frequent flier benefits.

“All is well until last week when I discovered our last segment — from Addis Ababa to Seychelles — was missing from my United.com itineraries,” he says. “Apparently, Ethiopian canceled their flight and I was not notified by either airline.”

If this were a “real” ticket, United would have to find a replacement flight or offer a full refund. But, since Ho paid for it with miles, are his rights any different? The Transportation Department suggests award tickets should be treated as if they were actual tickets, with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining. Review its helpful Fly Rights brochure, which deals, for example, with denied boarding compensation and award tickets.

But that’s not what happened to Ho.

“I tried to call their elite desk and contacted their corporate and they are all telling me my only option is to cancel the trip or visit somewhere else,” he says.

Ho understands that flights get canceled, but he’s looking for a solution.

“I realize it is Ethiopian Airline’s fault for canceling their flight, but since my ticket is booked on United.com using the miles that I earned from them, I have to think they would step up and get me to my destination even if this means they need to seek other alliances to get us there to fulfill their obligation,” he says.

Related story:   Is this a completely lost cause?

That sounded reasonable to us. While usually we will not get involved with award point disputes, this one was different in several ways. Travel was booked in advance, and the consumer was never notified of the change.

I reached out to my contact at United, and to my surprise, he sent a message back to me almost immediately to let me know he would look into it.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Fast forward two weeks. I received another message from Ho letting me know that no one at United ever contacted him. So I followed up again with my United contact, and once again I got a response saying that he will look into it. But as of today, another two weeks have passed, and Ho has still heard nothing from United.

At this point, I’m not sure what else we can do for Ho. With his travel date quickly approaching, and still has no way to reach his destination, and United ignoring his requests — and apparently, ours — what’s our next move?

What's our next move?

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William Leeper is a fire safety equipment inspector who has been with Elliott.org since 2012. He actively mediates consumer cases and manages internal workflows. William lives with his wife and daughters in rural Western Arkansas.

William Leeper

A supervisor for major facility services company, and owner of his own information technology company. William has been involved with Elliott.org since 2012, and actively advocates cases, serves as a moderator for comments, has served as Managing Editor for commentary, and interim research director.

  • Alan Gore

    The problem is not so much that it’s an award ticket, but that the flight is a codeshare. If anything goes wrong, each carriers just blames the other. So far as they are concerned – problem solved!

  • Bill___A

    I’ve always suspected these so called “alliances” weren’t sound, and this confirms it. They should fix this. They are always talking about how great the Star Alliance is. Let’s see some proof (thank you for your efforts working on this). Good luck.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I used code shares for flying all over Europe on points in First Class. One minor snag in Heathrow on my first trip, but beyond that its been seamless. As long as we have Cabotage laws, bring on the codeshares.

  • Carole Oh

    Contact the airline via Facebook. Publicly. Don’t let them suggest you handle it only by email. Work with them, but keep updating the discussion online. I’ve had two instances in the past six weeks where I only got what I was due by this method. Shame them!

  • TonyA_says

    Dear Mr. Elliott,
    I do not understand why you bring up the issue of Denied Boarding Compensation since this is only relevant when a passenger in BUMPED OFF (involuntary denied boarding) a flight.
    In Mr. Ho’s case, ET simply stopped flying the ADD to SEZ route causing that flight segment to change to NO OP status.
    Since UA had no other feasible routing available, then a simple refund is in order.
    It should behoove anyone wanting to do further reasearch that even PAID UA fares might be in trouble.
    A quick check on UA’s fares routing restriction (Route # 408) for PDX-SEZ requires the last flight segment to be -DOH-UA/QR-SEZ.
    Good luck to anyone who can find a direct flight from Doha to Mahe on UA or QR.
    In other words, today, even a paid fare from UA might be infeasible for this route (not unless you pay a Y/J/F fare with MPM routing.)
    For those insisting on a Star Alliance way to get to Mahe, there is a way via JNB, but that (SA 7210) is on a codeshare with Air Seychelles (HM) which itself is really operated by Etihad (EY).
    Finally, I would have to think that a 1k elite is savvy enough to know the risks involved with a routing to a remote place such as the Seychelles. There are not that many international flights in and out of SEZ and most are really operated by Etihad since they made a huge investment on the local airline. Since EY is not part of Star Alliance then you are quite SOL.

  • TonyA_says

    Really? Without a codeshare, do you know how else you can get a UA award ticket to this destination?

  • William_Leeper

    Who brought up denied boarding? I wrote this, an I don’t mention denied boarding.

  • John Baker

    Boy Chris you’re two for two on my airline pet peeves this week. First we have the “preemptive cancellation” and then we have the “we’ve decide not to operate the flight we sold you so go get stuffed” scenario.

    Unfortunately I think the OP is out of luck. Effectively UA no longer flies to his destination so the only thing he can do is take a “refund” and get his miles and taxes back. I’m sure as a 1K he’s probably already looking at taking an award ticket to a hub where he can then switch to a purchased ticket for his final leg. A disconnected itinerary with all sorts of hazards.

    Personally, I think once a travel provider (cruise line, airline, train) sells seats / spaces on a departure they should have to operate it. Personally its gotten old buying a ticket months in advance so I get the best deal knowing that the odds are almost 0 that the flights will operate as purchased. A direct flight will become a connection or the hour plus connection will become the OJ run through the airport (without the knife) or my 5 o’clock flight will become a 2 o’clock flight. Don’t like it? Here’s your money back and you can pay 2 to 3 times that amount to book a ticket with someone else.

    But if I needed to make a change… here come the change fees….

  • sirwired

    Well, like any other ticket, if the airline no longer travels to where you want to go, you are entitled to a refund upon request. Airlines have never been responsible for finding you another way to your destination… award ticket, codeshare, whatever; makes no difference. I don’t think the outcome would be any different even if this was a “real” UA flight.

  • sirwired

    I think he’s referring to your reference to the Fly Rights brochure.

  • TonyA_says

    @william leeper
    The article has this:

    Review its helpful Fly Rights brochure, which deals, for example, with denied boarding compensation and award tickets.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Notwithstanding these articles, I would be curious to know how often you’ve ended up

    buying a ticket months in advance so I get the best deal knowing that
    the odds are almost 0 that the flights will operate as purchased. A
    direct flight will become a connection or the hour plus connection will
    become the OJ run through the airport (without the knife) or my 5
    o’clock flight will become a 2 o’clock flight.

  • emanon256

    I wonder if your UA contact has gone the way of your Whirlpool contact, and just deletes emails from customers.

    Award or Paid ticket, I have seen the same thing happen here many times. I personally think the airline needs to honor the ticket and find a way to get the OP to his destination at no additional cost or refund him. The problem is, what airline? If there are no more flights, there are no more flights. Also, a UA 1K gets a 100% refund on all award tickets at any time, so he can get a refund even if they didn’t stop operating a segment. It sucks, but if UA or ET can’t route him there, they can’t route him there.

  • Nancy Marine

    My feeling is – if United’s going to sell the ticket, even if it’s a codeshare, they should be the ones to make things right for the flyer. He used UA miles to “buy” the ticket, UA should stop bouncing the ball around and step up to the plate.

  • John Baker

    Trip I’m taking next month…
    Departure time originally 5 o’clock now 4:30 (goes from breathing room getting to the airport to I’m going to have to hit every light to make the cutoff time). 45 min connect became 2 hours. Arrival time moved back 2 1/2 hours. Last flight of the night.

    Return went from a 1 PM departure to 3PM, the connection is now 4 hours and a 6 PM arrival is now 11:30 PM

    Oh and this is the 8th schedule change since I purchased the tickets in June…

    Shall I continue with the DL non-stop flight that was changed to a 30 min connection in ATL.

    Edit: I honestly don’t remember the last time I purchased a ticket more than a month in advance where I didn’t have at least one schedule change.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That sounds like it is working more and more for people. Much easier to ignore messages when the world can’t see you doing it.

  • William_Leeper

    That was use as an example to show that award tickets are in fact tickets.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Wow, sounds like a string of bad luck with flight changes. Curious about the first line of your post… is leaving for the airport earlier not an option for some reason?


    There is not a lot that can be done because the flight to the Seychelles was a codeshare and the flight is no longer operating. Because it is a mileage ticket there are more restrictions on it than on purchased tickets and a reroute may not be possible since UA does not fly there and other partner carriers might not. (I have not looked up routes on the internet for Star Alliance.) And a frequent flyer of his ranking will understand the risks with a codeshare. However, I do think UA dropped the ball by not contacting the customer at all, much less in a timely manner when the flight was cancelled and should offer the OP assistance. But does that mean UA should assume the cost of a ticket to get the OP to his destination? And that is a hard question to answer without knowing how close to his destination UA can get him on his miles before the need to purchase a ticket kicks in.

  • Joe Farrell

    Does ANYONE on the Alliance fly to the Seychelles? Personally as an American I would not set foot in Addis Abbaba right now but hey, others think that being in the transit area of the airport protects them. He used an award ticket – he is bound by the ability to book a flight on United or one of its code share partners. So – the question remains – who flies to Seychelles on the seashore? Would he think that United needs to get him a ticket on American or Southwest? No, so why does United have to get him a ticket on someone not a partner? That make no sense and you should all be ashamed of your logic skills to think that is the case.

  • $16635417

    I’m not seeing the correlation. When using a search for keyword “award”, I’m only seeing the brochure mention tips on how to choose an award program and DBC on an award ticket. What section are you referencing?

  • bodega3

    What do you consider right? With airline tickets, if they stop flying a route, all they have to do is give you back your money or miles, they are not obligated to get you to your destination at that point.

  • bodega3


  • DavidYoung2

    Great idea. It worked with us when Sony ignored us after their $3,200 Bravia quit working. So we turned to social media and — ta da somebody took and interest and resolved the problem.

  • John Baker

    Joe… Family trip and my wife is a teacher so the earliest we can leave is 2:30 PM… Chose these flights because it got use to our destination before midnight (oops not any more). The other connection that night that leaves later no longer has enough seats for the entire family.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Actually, yes. South African Airways is a Star Alliance member. United flies into South Africa, and South African flies from South Africa To Seychelles. I wonder why Mr. Ho doesn’t go this route?

  • Travelnut

    Pretty much every itinerary I’ve booked with Untied since the merger. Granted I fly them once or twice a year, but I usually book in December or at the latest January for my summer trip, and just like Groundhog Day, I can count on them changing my itinerary, usually multiple times, sometimes without ever notifying me, and never for the better. My itinerary carefully chosen months ahead turns to crap every time. I agree that if someone reserved and paid for the flight, it should commence as planned unless something drastic happens.
    If they would pay me a $300 change fee, like they charge me if I am the one wanting to make a change to the itinerary, that wouldn’t be so bad.

  • TonyA_says

    That (SA flight JNB to SEZ) is a codeshare only on HM operated by EY.
    Added: routing via JNB is not in the UA plan either *unless you buy a Y/J/F ticket.

  • TonyA_says

    FYI, a route via ADD was not in UA routing table even in 2013.


  • TonyA_says

    Nancy, the fare you buy may have routing restrictions. Therefore you are not entitled to fly form point A to B any which way you want.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s exactly what happened here.

  • bodega3

    All the airline has to do is get you from point A to point B and if they made a schedule change after you have been ticketed you can:
    Cancel and get a full refund it the new itinerary doesn’t work for you or have them put you on a flight that day does work with no fee to you. On the latter, the same class of service doesn’t have to be even available for them to reaccommodate you.

  • bodega3

    This where the internet for DIY’ers is a dangerous thing!

  • Lindabator

    Thank you! And Ethiopian only operates several days a week, and NOW these are connecting flights with Kenyan Air thru Nairobi (and KQ is NOT a mileage partner). He should see what alternative they can offer him (refund the miles for those flights and just purchase them himself) or check to see a new routing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    What sux is that the airline decision may cost you more money, particularly if the change is relatively close to the departure date.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Because if I contract to sell you 10 widgets and I no longer sell widgets, I don’t get to say sorry, sucks to be you. I am in breach of the contract. I still have to find 10 widgets for you. If I can’t/won’t/don’t you can buy 10 widgets, and if the price is higher, I’m liable for the difference

  • Poley King

    Its not so simple. If this was a revenue ticket and the destination was no longer served by the operating carrier, airline could buy the passenger a seat on another carrier (they are not required to but they usually do).

    With an award ticket, United cannot force its partner to open up more space. The best they can do is open up additional award space on their own metal. In this case there is not a flight on United metal so refund is the only option

  • Poley King

    Most of the low cost carriers automatically refund when the flight is discontinued and you are on your own no if’s, and’s, or buts. Many will reroute you on another carrier. Award tickets are not linked to revenue fare buckets so its a lot more complicated

  • Cybrsk8r

    Good thing I don’t fly UA anymore.

  • Poley King

    Its not a codeshare. The award ticket would have been coded with Ethiopian flight number not UAXXXX operated by Ethiopian

  • Poley King

    Here is what it says in the United Contract of Carriage Rule 24:

    C) Change in Schedule – When a Passenger’s Ticketed flight is affected because of a Change in Schedule, UA will, at its election, arrange one of the following:

    1) Transport the Passenger on its own flights, subject to availability, to the Destination, next Stopover point, or transfer point shown on its portion of the Ticket, without Stopover in the same class of service, at no additional cost to the Passenger;

    2) At UA’s discretion, reroute Passengers over the lines of one or more carriers in an equivalent class of service when a Change in Schedule results in the cancellation of all UA service between two cities;

    3) Advise the Passenger that the value of his or her Ticket may be applied toward future travel on
    United within one year from the date of issue without a change or reissue fee; or

    4) If the Passenger is not transported as provided in C) 1) or 2) above and does not choose to apply the value of his or her Ticket toward future travel as provided in C) 3) above, the Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request. See Rule 27 A).


    1 does not help as UA does not serve the destination.

    2 does not apply since its not a United flight that was discontinued.

    3 works but that requires a change in destination and award space available.

    4 has already been offered

  • Poley King

    You obviously don’t understand UA’s social media strategy. Facebook rep will direct you back to the proper channel. They always do.

  • Poley King

    if you write your contract correctly, you only need to refund the difference

  • Poley King

    Schedule changes happen. I’m not sure what you expect when many airlines let you book as far out as 330-365 days in advance (330 for many US carriers).

    Then you have Southwest and JetBlue (probably a few more carriers I’d never look at) who only release schedules a few months in advance. Sure its nice as there are less schedule changes but its harder to plan far in advance. People complain a lot about so your damned either way.

    I personally love schedule changes. I get refunds out of ticket I no longer need or select better routings that were unaffordable when I booked

  • AH

    boy, and i wondered why my close friend didn’t want to contact united for a 50+hour delay on her flight from seoul to tampa via SFO. flight from seoul to SFO went fine, but it took united over 50 hrs to get her back home to tampa! (not weather delay, they did pay for her hotel and meals, but TWO DAYs delay is totally crazy!)
    she won’t even contact them because all she’s going to get is united “funny money”, and she has absolutely no intention of ever flying united again. (can’t say as i blame her!)

  • TonyA_says

    Exactly, UA never guarantees it will absolutely positively get you to point B.
    Hence the refund.

  • Alan Gore

    If there were no codeshares, people would be more apt to use travel agents for complex itineraries like this one, as God intended. The TA would make a separate booking with each airline, be responsible for doing it properly, and be a central place to field information about cancellations like the one the OP experienced.

    Yes, it would mean that award points would apply only to each airline’s own network. But since the loyalty points concept seems to be circling the aircraft bathroom drain anyway, I would consider it a small price to pay to avoid horror stories like this one.

  • bodega3

    What was the reason for the delay? Was she on a mileage ticket? If so, they can only reaccommodate to flights that have mileage seats available.

  • LFH0

    When I first read, “Ethiopian canceled their flight,” my thought was that the carrier had an operational problem, and the flight on the day intended for travel was annulled. It was not until after reading much further that I realized what was meant to be said was that “Ethiopian canceled their route.” Big difference between the two.

  • TonyA_says

    This is the reason why further research is usually required to make sense of Elliott stories and cases.

  • TonyA_says

    I suspect the flights were full. What were UA’s options? Endorse her to OZ or SQ Star partners, or KE who could also have packed cabins? Re-route her? Maybe she isn’t special :)
    Correction: ICN – SFO was not the problem, SFO-TPA was.

  • Lindabator

    Which would drive the cost up WAY too high for most to be able to afford – which is why code-sharing was begun in the first place. Airlines rarely drop a route like this, but no matter how or with whom it was booked, he would have had the same problem.

  • Lindabator

    ALL the airlines can run into this, NOT just UA.

  • Alan Gore

    Most plebeians don’t book flights to the Seychelles through iffy little African carriers. Trying to book an itinerart like this by oneself is exactly the sort of “brain surgery self-taught” that is the First Big Mistake in so many stories told on this site. Thos OP can clearly afford to have this trip booked through a TA.

    And I strongly suspect that had his Ethiopian flight been booked directly with Ethiopian, someone would have informed him about the canceled segment. Within a codeshare, they probably sent that message to a bad email address or out-of-date cell number passed to them by United. A good TA might also have had that instinct to reconfirm a booking of this nature in time to make fixes.

  • AH

    i don’t know. but i don’t think it was a mileage ticket, just a regular purchased ticket. she was coming down with the flu, so didn’t really say too much about details.
    she’s one of those people who just say the #$%#$% with it, stuff happens; she got home and that’s all that matters.
    sure, she got home safe and sound, but why the 2 day delay?
    (and a funny… her hubby is a pilot, and she’s been flying with him for 20 years, so she noticed that the united pilot didn’t flare on landing – not good.)

  • William_Leeper

    If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.

  • William_Leeper

    Not usually true. In this case, he misinterpreted a direct quote from the consumer. Journalism 101…don’t change or correct quotes. So I didn’t.

  • $16635417

    Again….not DBC scenario.

  • $16635417

    It’s fine to not change a direct quote, but it’s is responsible journalism to clarify the quote for accuracy.

  • bodega3

    I could have been a nonref ticket and you take your chances when flying on those. You can be bumped for days These seems to be more to this than she is may be telling you.

  • TonyA_says

    Alan, a good Travel Consultant /Agent will try to put all your flight segments in ONE ticket to solidify your rights and chances to REACCOMMODATION just in case you miss your connection. If you have separate tickets, you could be stranded in Africa with very little recourse.

    A good TA will always think of providing his/her client with a backup plan. My first question is about the reliability of a route. What happens if it is cancelled, what does my pax have to do. I am paid to derisk my clients’ itineraries so I look at probabilities and options.

    This particular route had few options. Even if he simply interlined an ET flight segment on a UA fare and validated ticket, he still could not make it. So please don’t automatically lambast codesharing as it allows many passengers to travel cheaply to more destinations. Cheers.

  • TonyA_says

    Reminder, this pax used miles to get an award ticket to Mahe. A good TA will probably sell him a ticket :-)
    But that would cost the OP a pretty penny. So he got himself an award ticket and with that you simply entered the UA lottery since you need luck for reward seat availability and reaccommodation.
    Finally, people really need to stop fooling themselves into thinking that 50,000 miles given to simply open a new credit card account is equivalent to CASH when scoring a ticket. Sure the airlines dangle that Business or First Class reward ticket (maybe one or two seats max per route) to keep you hoping or salivating. If the OP had cash, he could simply buy an EY or EK ticket to the Seychelles. But no, he only had points and miles, so he’s SOL and his only recourse was to get his miles back and bitch about it here in Elliott’s blog.

  • TonyA_says

    After re-reading the post, I realized that the ICN to SFO sector was fine. So the problem was not what I originally thought it was. The delay was from SFO to TPA.

    UAs ICN flight gets in at 1125AM. By the time you clear immigration and customs all UA flights to TPA have left.
    So usually UA ICN-SFO is paired with 1225AM flight to TPA via IAH the next day. Regardless, that is a built in 13 hour layover! Note that there is no nonstop SFO-TPA flight. You need to connect or stop somewhere.

    Let’s assume the polar vortex affected IAH and the UA hubs in the East. That would make DEN the only other hub that can take traffic. Probably, it will create a jam for SFO-DEN-XXX. So assuming, passengers had to wait another day then adding 24 hours will make her layover at least 37 hours if she can leave before 1AM. If she was given a flight in the afternoon, then you get the 50 hour layover scenario.

    As you can see, the 50 hour wait looks awful, but if you dig in the data you can see why it ain’t that hard to accomplish :-)

    Now here is the kicker. Given that UA and DL fares are the same for the TPA to ICN market, why would anyone fly UA when DL has an 18 hour return versus UAs 30 hours?

  • sirwired

    Ethiopian is not an “iffy little African carrier”, it’s been around or 68 years, flies 62 planes, and serves 80 passenger destinations.

  • delivron

    This is the airline that coined the phrase “Fly the Friendly Skies of United” but this story sounds like the real phrase should be “Fly the Un-Friendly Skies of United”.

  • AH

    oh, i’m sure there is a lot more. she did mention a crew not available at one point.
    but i’m dismayed to read your comment that with a non-refundable ticket, you can be bumped for days. just because you purchased a ticket that isn’t refundable, you’re treated like you’re nothing if something goes wrong? that isn’t right!
    refundable or non, a passenger purchased a ticket, and deserves to get to his/her destination in a timely fashion…. not left hanging around for days just because someone else may have paid more for the same seat.

  • bodega3

    nonref is nonrevenue. Sorry for the confusion. If she was traveling on an industry free ticket, she can get bumped on any flight.

  • AH

    she bought and paid for her ticket. i know that because she said that any profit united made from her ticket was eaten up by the costs they had to pay for her motel rooms and food.
    (you’re in the TA biz, i’m not…lol. but why isn’t it “nonrev” for nonrevenue, and nonref for non-refundable?)

  • bayareascott

    This has little to do with “alliances,” as you put it. One carrier stopped servicing the route. This happens more frequently than most would think. That carrier should find alternate transportation, but you are talking about a destination with limited options.

  • bodega3

    I disagree. He booked a carrier that doesn’t fly that route any longer. All any airline has to do is refund you your money or miles. That is how things go.

  • BMG4ME

    It seems very odd to me. I can’t imagine why an elite flyer with his status would be having so much trouble. I am 100% certain that if I had a similar issue with American I could get it resolved without having to get you involved. Is United really that bad or did he make a mistake that he’s not admitting? I just can’t believe that United would not fix an issue like this for such a loyal customer. That would probably mean returning some portion of the miles if they and their partners don’t fly that route any more.

  • Joe Farrell

    Not true as to funny money. My wife missed a connection in Denver because it took UA Ops an hour to determine that a Non-Rev needed to be removed to get an RJ under weight for the given temperature. When she arrived in DEN UA tried to tell her that it was ‘weather related’ [it is 95F at 5pm in August in Burbank every single day in August – its not ‘weather’ – it was piss poor flight planning] When I contacted a UAL rep who is listed on this site with the direct facts, in 14 days we had a United check for her hotel room . . . not funny money, a check.

  • Joe Farrell

    Tony, she GOT to SFO – the delay was getting her to Tampa. I dare say that upgrading her to First, or transferring her to another airline would have gotten her to Tampa in less than 2 days. . . .

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