A United Airlines holiday travel story with a happy ending

By | May 6th, 2016

No one likes having their flight canceled.

Especially in the middle of winter, seated in a plane, waiting for take-off 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 their control, it’s obligated to re-route passengers to their destination on the next available flight on any air carrier they deem appropriate, but only when conditions and seat availability allows — 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, throwing in ancillary expenses such as overnight accommodations and land transportation are 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, they 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 later to Baltimore.

A two-hour drive? For many, that is not that much more than a drive to their closest airport and for Case was no biggy compared to 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 only less than one percent of United’s cancellations in January 2016 (their most recent winter reporting) to be 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.

  • Rebecca

    The OP sounds like such a nice customer. I’m quite certain that’s why she received such a positive response. Instead of being accusatory and complaining, she realized UA couldn’t do anything about the weather. She made the best of a bad situation. So when it came time to request a refund, she took that same nice attitude and look how far it got her. It gets irritating sometimes to listen to people wanting full refunds for no reason and compensation for their time and emotional distress.

    This story goes to show, the customer service reps that handle these requests are people too. If you treat them as such, and have a kind, positive attitude like the OP, things generally go exactly how they’re supposed to. No need to escalate to management or get a consumer advocate involved, except in rare circumstances where there were genuine mistakes. I honestly was just as happy to read about a nice customer as I was to read about good customer service.

  • Michael__K

    the customer service reps that handle these requests are people too. If you treat them as such, and have a kind, positive attitude like the OP, things generally go exactly how they’re supposed to.

    This presumes that CSR agents are actually empowered with the authority to do what it takes to generally make things go exactly how they’re supposed to… With many businesses, unfortunately, we see that even if agents are sympathetic, they simply do not have the authority to agree to these types of requests, no matter how reasonable.

    This story is a positive sign that United is indeed following through on their new CEO’s promise, in his initial letter to employees, to empower them:

    “We’ve heard that you want to be empowered to do good work with effective tools,” Munoz wrote. “We will give you the right tools to deliver the service and reliability I know we are capable of.”


  • MF

    I can’t wait till ACE gets do a collage for a cruise, how about a ‘Boaty Mc Boatface bow on a cruise ship, like he does with the airplane ‘faces’?

  • judyserienagy

    Domestically, I fly United exclusively, just as I did Continental. I can definitely see some real thought given to “the friendly skies” these days. UA people seem much happier, and I think we all have hope that United might lead the parade to bring back some civility to air travel. There’s just something good going on and I am very hopeful for the future. This story lends credence to my feeling.

  • judyserienagy

    I think you’ve put your finger on exactly what is going on and what needs to continue, Michael: employee empowerment. If United can do that, perhaps things will turn around and people won’t be dreading their flights any more. I just heard that Oscar was absolutely inundated with cards, gifts and flowers when he was so ill. I think the guy must be something special. I’m hopeful.

  • 42NYC

    don’t get me wrong, its great that United was willing to go above and beyond for this customer, and I agree that being nice and friendly will probably get you a lot further than being a jerk to the folks at the airline.

    That said, the OP chose to fly to Philadelphia to get in early. UA would have happily sent them to Baltimore on the next available flight (whichever day that was) to this really is UA going the extra mile and not “UA following the rules.”

    Maybe i’m cynical (i know i’m cynical, i’ve waited tables for 6 years and worked at The Gap for 2 Christmas seasons) but UA now runs the risk of setting unreasonable expectations. Next time the OP is in the same situation they will expect the same level of accomodation and if UA can’t/won’t deliver they risk having an upset customer.

    Further, those reading this blog will now have similar expectations of UA.

    Waiting tables in a semi-nice restaurant we’d sometimes comp free drinks, dessert, etc…. sometimes we had an amuse bouche, sometimes we didn’t. Could be for a birthday, anniversary, favor for a frequent patron, apology for a mistake, etc. Customers appreciated the gesture but i’d often face customers complaining that ‘the table next to us got free champagne for their anniversary so we should get a round of free drinks too’ or ‘last time we were here you covered our dessert, why are you charging for it this time?’ This happened often, and it sucked when doing something nice for one customer would later result in someone complaining about you. Would we have been better off never comping drinks? I dont know? But i still remember several of these customers 10 years later.

  • DepartureLevel

    @ 42NYC,
    “Maybe i’m cynical (i know i’m cynical, i’ve waited tables for 6 years and worked at The Gap for 2 Christmas seasons) but UA now runs the risk of setting unreasonable expectations. Next time the OP is in the same situation they will expect the same level of accomodation and if UA can’t/won’t deliver they risk having an upset customer.”
    Right you are. For years my (airline) employer told us never to reimburse car rentals – it’s a choice by the customer versus other alternatives and it’s too costly if they were to reimburse everyone that decided to drive between airports or back home or whatever and then demand reimbursement. My guess is they got a “rogue” agent who decided to give away the store that day. One exception does not make a rule yet someone going the extra mile seems to make it a new rule ground in stone.

  • LonnieC

    I would think that Chris’s list of corporate contacts would be a good place to look. A letter or email to the CEO and/or the chief Customer Relations person would be a good start.

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