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

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