A United Airlines holiday travel story with a happy ending

No one likes having their flight canceled.

Especially in the middle of winter, seated in a plane, waiting for takeoff on the Chicago airport tarmac, a day after Christmas.

Such circumstances can be a wild card looming over any air travel, but Pat Case took the gamble. Case and her spouse were ready to taxi for four hours while waiting for a break in the weather. But no dice.

United Airlines did not get her home to Baltimore because it couldn’t. Case eventually got herself to Philadelphia because she could.

So what’s the good news? You’ll see.

When an airline cancels a flight because of factors outside of its control, it’s obligated to reroute passengers to their destination on the next available flight on any air carrier it deems appropriate, but only when conditions and seat availability allow — and that’s all.

United’s policy appears a bit more open to variation and flexibility than others depending on interpretation.

Unlike when a flight is canceled because of mechanical issues, reimbursement for ancillary expenses such as overnight accommodations and land transportation is at the discretion of the good (or bad) will of the airline agent at hand. And even that may be subject to a myriad of rules and policy complications.

Wait — what if we have to cancel? Never mind. I don’t want to get you started.

Case was aware of the trials and tribulations of planning air travel during the holiday and winter season. While she waited for United to take another crack at getting her back home, the airline found her a seat on an earlier flight to Philadelphia.

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She went for it. No time to care about the loss of economy plus seating or worry about the two-hour drive to Baltimore from Philadelphia.

A two-hour drive? For many, that is not that much more than a drive to their closest airport, and for Case it was better than not going anywhere at all.

But what about the cost of a one-way car rental? Good luck with that.

“Several weeks later, I contacted United via their web page and requested a refund for the economy plus seating we didn’t get and our car rental to get from Philly to Baltimore,” said Case.

The latest U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows that less than 1 percent of United’s cancellations in January 2016 (their most recent winter reporting) resulted from severe weather.

So where does that leave Case? Apparently in the best of air travel hands.

“I received the seat refund promptly,” she went on.

Should she go for the gold and ask again about the car rental?

While some might argue a two-hour drive is close enough to Baltimore to fulfill United’s contractual obligation, Case went for it and received a nice email from Tracy Self in corporate customer care who promised to look into the car rental reimbursement.

“Later, I received a check that covered the car rental expense as well as two generous travel certificates good for 12 months,” she exclaimed. “Way more than I expected!”

Just like that. Even weeks after the fact.

That kind of accommodation shouldn’t be unusual. It should be routine. While we hope other airlines will note this example, maybe we can also accept just a little responsibility when we wonder why this does not happen more often.

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Remember that same DOT Consumer Report? I brought it up for another reason. For January 2016, it also noted we filed 1,257 complaints — and zero compliments. Really?

Perhaps we can encourage behavior like United’s, if as Case did, we take a moment to recognize a good deed — instead of only complaining.

“I recalled a recent comment in your column about United Airlines trying to improve customer service and want to give credit where it is due,” Case added.

This should help.

This one one of our favorite stories when it was first published almost a year ago. Since then, I’m happy to say that United Airlines has made slow and steady progress toward improving its customer service. We look forward to more stories like this.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

  • Kairho

    “When an airline cancels a flight because of factors outside of its control, it’s obligated to reroute passengers to their destination on the next available flight on any air carrier it deems appropriate, but only when conditions and seat availability allow — and that’s all.”

    There is no blanket [U]obligation[/U] to put passengers on a competing airline. The exceptions are if a ticket is marked as ‘endorseable’ as per T&C of the ticketing class, or at the airline’s discretion. Good example is Delta and American, who have cancelled their interline agreement and can thus interline only in exceptional conditions.

  • Doctor Now

    I guess you missed the words “it deems appropriate”! I actually had United put me on a southwest flight last year after they cancelled my flight and couldn’t get me out on another of their flights. It pays to ask nicely! :)

  • Thank you. Asking nicely frequently makes or breaks an outcome.

  • pauletteb

    My daughter and I stayed at the Sheraton Times Square a few weeks ago. Something had triggered an alarm that made all the elevators go to the lobby floor . . . and stay there. Hotel personnel explained the situation, but that didn’t stop people from complaining. My daughter and I just stood out of the way and waited quietly. A few minutes later, a hotel security guard tapped me on the shoulder and asked us to follow him . . . to the service elevator. Why? “You two were the only folks not giving everyone a hard time.” He had to move some laundry bags out of the way, but we got to our room!

  • jsn55

    I’m delighted that someone agrees with me that United Airlines is making a concerted effort to take better care of their passengers. I’ve watched it over many months and things are definitely improving. Thanks for the great story, Andrew, and Merry Christmas!

  • bayareascott

    You must be somewhat mistaken. Southwest is one of the airlines that doesn’t interline with *anybody* so United is unable to put a passenger on them. Might have been a different airline.

  • Carchar

    I had a situation last year when fog rolled in and grounded all commuter flights out of San Francisco. I knew I would be stuck overnight and SFO hotels are usually expensive. I was trying to get to Redmond, OR for my grandson’s piano recital the next day. Without my even asking, United put me on a larger plane that night for Seattle and then on an Alaska flight the next day. I paid for a hotel, which was far less expensive at SEA and got to Redmond in time. United even transferred my checked luggage so I didn’t have to deal with it until reaching Redmond.

    In the above scenario, I would have chosen to take the train between Philadelphia and Baltimore rather than rent a car, probably because I take the Northeast Regional between Newark and BWI quite often.

  • Doctor Now

    Nope, United purchased the ticket on Southwest for us.

  • Thank you for your kind words – and Merry Christmas to you too.

  • bayareascott

    Purchased the ticket? That sounds more plausible, but very strange.

  • Kairho

    Those words were indeed quoted. But all they mean is that any action taken is optional, not obligatory, which was my point.

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