After daughter’s death, United makes an “insensitive” offer

When Richard Croce’s daughter dies suddenly while he’s in Venice, Italy, United Airlines asks him to pay $5,880 to get home. In economy class. Is that fair?

Question: Our daughter died suddenly in her sleep last year while we were in Venice, Italy. My wife and I had a first-class ticket with award miles to come home in a few days, but we obviously needed to return as soon as possible.

A United Airlines representative told us there were no award seats available. To leave Venice with one day’s notice, we had to pay $5,880 for economy-class tickets. It was the highest possible rate for an economy-class ticket.

Although United has discontinued its bereavement fares, a booking agent told us that we could contact the customer-care desk and provide proof of our daughter’s death to seek some consideration.

When I contacted United, the response I received was: “Every day United receives thousands of requests for exceptions to corporate policy — we cannot assume the responsibility for deciding which requests might be worthier than others.”

I was shocked and appalled that the sudden death of my daughter would be lumped with all the “thousands of requests” received. The response was truly hurtful and insensitive. I then was referred to a manager, who contacted me after four weeks and said only that United would not do anything. — Richard Croce, El Granada, Calif.

Answer: My condolences on your loss. United should have treated you with the compassion that any person would treat another who is grieving the sudden loss of a child. That clearly didn’t happen.

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It’s true that United, like most of the domestic airlines, doesn’t offer bereavement fares. The only tickets available were the most expensive “walk-up” fares, which are last-minute tickets priced super-high because they’re usually purchased by business travelers on expense accounts.

While it’s true that award tickets are limited (technically, airlines allocate only a few seats per flight, and for internal accounting purposes, they’re considered “non-revenue” seats), United should have treated you better. As a frequent flier, you were a best customer. Instead, you had to pay $5,880 for two small airline seats. So much for loyalty.

I might have appealed this to a United executive. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of United’s customer-service managers on my consumer-advocacy site. One of them might have been able to get you past the insensitive automatic responses.

I was a little surprised to get your complaint. United has been trying to improve its customer service, and should have been eager to help a grieving family that is loyal to the airline.

I contacted United on your behalf. It reviewed your case and agreed to refund the $5,880. It withdrew 250,000 miles from your account for the tickets.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Bonnie_Salt

    SERIOUSLY? UA withdrew yet another 250K miles from his account? I see even that as a slap in the face. They had mileage tickets in FIRST CLASS. They flew home in COACH. Their daughter DIED. The compassionate thing for UA to have done was to suck it up, refund the money and let it go.

  • Rebecca

    I have said this before and I’ll say it again. The death of a customer’s child is something you ALWAYS make exceptions for. Always always always. I’m very surprised this was escalated to a supervisor and wasn’t resolved. Anywhere I have ever worked, and places I’ve just heard about, this is a clear cut policy exception. The employee you speak with just needs to get the person that can override it. I suspect his initial phone call went to an overseas call center, where they are fired if they aren’t robots. How this escalated beyond the initial email with a copy of the death certificate is inexcusable. My condolences to Mr Croce and his wife.

  • jmj

    Firstly, much sympathy and condolences to the Croce family. As a father of a daughter, I can’t imagine the horror of something like that happening.

    But I just want to consider this from UA’s perspective: they get countless exception calls a day (as evidenced by the response of the CSR). How do they figure out which one is legit and which one is a scam by just a phone call? Is it even possible?

    Is it insensitive? Yes. Is there a better way? Probably, and they should probably invest a few bucks into developing a system to handle such things. Maybe they are.

    But I have no idea what that system would be. Do you?

  • Alan Gore

    As we noted in yesterday’s Copa case in Costa Rica, so many airlines seem to no longer care about the customer retention. Be nice to a customer today, and they will come back next year and the year after that.

    I know that as a small businessman, but that’s because I’m the one who sets policy and the one who implements it. At an airline, these two functions are many levels of staff apart. Furthermore, the agent who interfaces with the customer could be underpaid, resentful and itching to take it out on the powerless.

    When Chris pursues a case to higher corporate levels, he has a chance of reaching one of those policy-setters, who will now say “Yes – shoulda handled it a better way!”

  • Lindabator

    Everyone assumes the company should eat each special circumstance — just not a feasible way to run a business, unfortunately

  • Lindabator

    But NO business would remain in business if they waived rules for every case – which is why they have the rules in the first place

  • Lindabator

    Too true – I worked for them, and cannot TELL you how many “exceptions” were expected on a daily basis – they could never STAY in business waiving each instance

  • Rebecca

    I completely agree about people expecting exceptions for everything. I hard line about it and go against the majority all the time. However, I firmly believe the death of a child is one of the very few times an exception should be made. As disturbing as it is, people will lie about things like this (i’ve heard it personally), but with a copy of the death certificate, there’s no excuse. This is the example I normally give when someone that had some sort of medical emergency and didn’t purchase insurance, had a delayed flight and missed their cruise, etc is looking for an exception. That there are circumstances like this one, and only the most severe deserve an exception.

  • Rebecca

    The OP provided a copy of the death certificate. Death certificates, in the US at least, list who your parents are. So it’s easy to verify for the company. Unfortunately, people lie. But a copy of the death certificate should be enough to fix this.

  • jmj

    Maybe I missed it, but I don’t see in Elliott’s post where the Croce’s provided the death certificate.

    Also, Being an emergency, I don’t think it would be possible to have the death certificate at booking, but certainly (100% agree with you) after coming back home, united should certainly refund and fix everything at the presentation of a death certificate.

  • mbods2002

    I think you said it best. What could possibly be worse than a death of a child? There must be exceptions in a case like this. How anyone could group this in with “1000s of requests for exceptions a day” is beyond me.

  • jmj

    They did. Per the OP, UA asked the croce’s for “proof of death”. I’m sure any of these would have qualified.

  • DChamp56

    He already PAID for the tickets with miles, now they take 250K more???? What heartless morons they are. *smh*

  • Rebecca

    I stand corrected. I swore I read it. Yes, you’re correct it couldn’t be instantly provided. Unfortunately, people really do lie about things like this. I say this from experience. Certainly once they returned, it should have been easy to resolve with a copy.

    I agree with you that, unfortunately, there isn’t necessarily anything the airline could do in the first phone call. If I were the representatives boss (and I have managed a large call center), what I would have done was be extremely apologetic, provide my direct phone number and email if there were any problems they encountered at all, and in this particular case probably provided an override to get them home without spending anything. If they had enough miles built up to fly overseas, first class, I can justify that. For any John Doe, depending on company policy, that might not be possible. I may have to wait until they get back to get them a refund. But I would definitely explain as kindly as possible, with my personal contact info, so they could get back to me at their convenience and not have to jump through hoops and explain it over and over again. And follow through on it.

  • jim6555

    Contrast what happened here with my experience on JetBlue. Several years ago, my mother passed away in Boston on a Tuesday evening. My sister informed me that the funeral was scheduled to take place on Thursday afternoon. I bought two round trip tickets for myself and my wife from Tampa to Boston arriving Thursday morning and returning Sunday evening. After the funeral, the rest of the family urged us to stay a few extra days. I called JetBlue to arrange to leave on Wednesday. Somehow, The JetBlue agent realized that this was a trip to attend a funeral. When I told her that it was my mother who had died, she expressed her condolences and offered to waive the change fee. She said “you paid full fare to get to Boston and you shouldn’t have to pay a change fee to get home”.

  • Peter Varhol

    Now 20-some years ago, my father passed away after a long illness, I called US Airways, a predecessor to American, and was offered a 50% off bereavement fare, didn’t even have to ask for it. I was required to provide my father’s name (easy enough, it is also mine), and the funeral home name and address. That was it.

    Yes, there are plenty of people out there who attempt to take advantage of businesses of all types, including airlines. Yes, rules exist for a reason. But if you employ professionals who are expected to act professional, you also trust their judgment.

    That’s the sad part here. Rules are never absolute, and we depend on the people applying them to use best judgment. If the rules are absolute, we don’t need the people behind them; we simply use a bulls*** rejected stamp until it wears out. Seriously, as long as we ask people to interact with others, we must give them the ability to do so.

  • Travelnut

    Honestly, I think it depends on who you get on the phone. A couple of years ago, I had booked a flight on UA round trip to Miami. My sister died and I had to be in Baltimore for the funeral the day before I flew to Miami. UA changed my ticket to fly to BWI instead of MIA for no change fee, no proof of death, no questions asked.

  • DepartureLevel

    Sorry, I have to say it. UA’s refund department is in Houston (post-merger with Continental) so assuredly, their staff are Continental (really Can’tinental) people. The merger was a complete turn-around for pre-merger UA staff having to immediately take on a complete “NO” (we don’t do that, we can’t do that, never did it) mentality. Welcome to my world. United now “gives away the store” to many with unreasonable complaints but not look at the above example as a true exception (with proper documentation as noted). Talk about some low-level clerk making a decision with no common sense or experience, obviously.

  • Nathan Witt

    No one’s arguing this. Why do you think that if UA begins having compassion for the tiny fraction of its customers who *just lost a child,* the obvious next step is letting anyone have anything they want and having to declare bankruptcy? And as to your comment below that we want UA to “eat it?” These people paid for their tickets. Yes, they paid in miles, but they paid. And there were clearly seats available on the flight that day, since UA so generously offered them for a mere $5k+. Had UA agreed to exchange their first-class reservations for coach seats a few days earlier, what would it have lost? They filled empty seats, and regained first-class availability on a later flight. Failing to trade on a family’s grief for a $5k profit is not “eating” it.

  • Peter Varhol

    Delta has such a program, but not for these circumstances. They provide the miles to cancer patients and their families who often have to stay for extended periods far from home.

    Airlines are not ogres; they are much like any other large business (well, I hope most of them are). Providing travel services is truly a unique logistics problem. Between mechanical, weather, and individual customer needs, I believe on the whole they endeavor to do their best under an incredibly wide variety of circumstances. It’s a heavily people-driven business (with both customers and their own people), and people don’t always make the right decisions (although they often do, if you let them).

    That said, airlines are businesses, and they have learned over the past 15 years that they need to be profitable to survive. For well over a decade, most weren’t, and had to go through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is still playing out in Europe, and has yet to get started in other parts of the world (but it will).

    I’m certainly not going to debate business models or level of profitability, but I think that airlines are largely doing what we want them to do – get us from Point A to Point B safely, inexpensively, and on time. Sometimes there are failures, even egregious ones.

    And that’s where Chris and his team come in. They do a superb job of advocating when it is necessary, and I applaud them for it.

  • MarkKelling

    Nope, it isn’t business travelers who buy full walk up fare tickets anymore, it is people who have situations like this which require immediate transportation. Business travelers (at least all of them I know of) buy advance fare tickets to save money. Those that feel the need to make an immediate trip somewhere are only those who can fly on the corporate jet.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, the passengers in this case had already paid or a round trip. Sure, it was miles and not cash, but still the return trip was paid for just on another flight on another day. It’s not like UA was just letting them fly free.

    The plane they ended up on had seats available or they would not have been on it. Do you really think that UA would have filled those seats at the price they wanted with any other travelers? I seriously doubt there would have been any other takers except for those in the same situation as these were.

    But there appears to be a new mind set at UA when it comes to changing flights. Just this weekend a flight that I was on was delayed many hours so I attempted to move to a different flight that was still on time and had dozen open seats and would get me where I need to be sooner than the delayed flight (I had no checked bags). Gate agent said “NO” because there were no seats available in the class I paid for. Not “pay a change fee” or anything else like that, just a flat “NO”. I tried to explain that I was wiling to give up my paid in cash 1st class seat to sit in the last row economy just to get there. Still “NO” with a “we can’t issue fare difference credits at the gate”. News to me, they have done it before many times for me and I wasn’t asking for any credit. So I just ended up late as I watched a half empty plane leave without me. How does this make sense even in twisted airline logic?

  • Cindy Joyce Barthi

    WRONG. This was a family emergency. It was the return portion of the trip only. Daily waiver codes are issued (they change every day) for exactly this purpose! My cousin was on a British Airways tkt having used AA miles when she got word her husband had been hospitalized @ Scripps in San Diego in very grave condition. Barcelona airport counter employees tried the same scam on her for a walk-up fare. When I got an emergency email from her saying she needed help, I jumped on to BA’s reservation center toll free number, asked for a supv. explaining the circumstances. Fortunately, the supv. was in their FLL office and got a hold of Scripps while I was on hold to verify her husband’s condition. Sadly, he had already passed away, when the supv. came back to me. Scripps agreed to rush through a death certificate to fax to the supv. private office. In spite of having not yet received certificate, the waiver code was issued, flights rebooked from Barcelona to LHR to LAX without 1 minute’s hesitation and not one change fee charged. She was only holding a coach ticket and had no elite status with either AA or BA.


  • Mel65

    I am very confused. Is it not possible to do a change and pay a change fee/fare difference when using miles? $5K is a stunning amount of money in light of the family’s circumstances and it sounds like UA didn’t even TRY to work with them or care at all until CE got involved. Heartbreaking. Just… heartbreaking.

  • SierraRose 49

    I agree with you Bonnie. The Croces lost a daughter while they were thousands of miles away. What a punch in the gut. Ask anyone who has lost a child. Then, UA punches them in the gut again, despite the fact Mr. Croce were loyal UA fliers. The Croces had first-class tickets WITH award miles to come home in a few days, but they obviously needed to return as soon as possible. UA probably was able to fill their empty seats on the flight a few days later. And while they got their $5,880 back, UA took ANOTHER 250,000 miles out of Mr. Croce’s account. Yes, UA handled this sad case very poorly.

  • Alan Gore

    Change fees are so last year. Today’s frontier in transport economics is when bad things happen to good people, soaking them for full walkup. Remember when one of the perks of flying F was flexibility?

  • Tom McShane

    Linda, the argument you are making involves the fallacy of the False Choice. An example would be, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrroists.” Obviously is it possible to make another choice.

    The airline does not have to choose between showing compassion to this customer (or any customer in similar circumstances) and staying in business. It can stay in business and show compassion in this case

  • Maxwell Smart

    frequent flyers are such an exclusive club(NOT).

    Re the quote

    Every day United receives thousands of requests for exceptions to corporate policy

    just say no to every email. A computer can do this. There is no way of knowing which claims are genuine & which are dodgy(probably way more dodgy than genuine).
    Think of the manpower it will save.
    Imagine asking the IRS for an exception. I can pay my million dollar tax bill. But am in the Bahamas & won’t be coming home very soon. Can I have 10 years to pay.
    People die every second. What else is new.

  • MarieTD

    I thought you were just being sarcastic until you brought up the IRS scenario.

  • 42NYC

    First and foremost my deepest condolences to the OP, can’t even begin to imagine the devastation of losing a child.

    Secondly, if I ran the airline I would gladly accomodate these travelers. Would have probably charged the walk up fare and noted their file for full reimbursement upon production of a death certificate (sadly there are too many people in this world who would make something up). That said, I can appreciate UA’s statement of “Every day United receives thousands of requests for exceptions to corporate policy — we cannot assume the responsibility for deciding which requests might be worthier than others.” but i think if that’s truly the case they should have told the OP in advance rather than promising consideration then later denying it. As I’ve said before its a slippery slope when you start making exceptions to the rules.

    A quick check for flights tomorrow from Venice to Chicago (no idea where the OP is from so chose a UA hub in the middle of the country) shows one-way flights available starting at $463. While i’m sure the OP just wanted to get home, had they known they’d be forced to pay $5k per ticket they could have at least sought out other options.

  • 42NYC

    I also agree with Bonnie and if I ran UA i’d make an exception too. But it becomes a slippery slope and UA needs to have some enforcement of rules. What if instead of a daughter, it was a parent? Or a cousin? Or a friend? Or a co-worker? What if the daughter was in a serious car accident and was in critial condition? What if the daughter was in a car accident, had some broken bones but was generally fine? What if the friend was in the car accident? What if the daughter was diagnosed with cancer? What if the daughter fell down the stairs and broke an arm? What if the daughter had food poisoning and couldn’t get out of bed for 3 days? What if the daughter had the flu?

    Again, if i ran an airlne I would gladly make an exception (though would probably bill first and offer a full refund upon proof of death) but I can see why UA didnt.

  • Peter

    United had a new pair of First class seats from Venice to LA that opened up which they could sell or offer as a paid upgrade. Wasn’t the OP required to “eat” those and basically donate those seats to United. Does that last of reciprocity meet your definition of fairness or feasibility?

    As far as “special circumstances” go, I hope you never encounter one like this OP did.

    I remember a time when airline staff made attempts to be understanding and to help people in sudden need. The airlines made money when bereavement fares were offered, last I checked, and I read every day about airlines that still try to help passengers. It’s called being human rather than doing the easy and mindless thing of hiding behind rules.

    They could have let them use the miles they originally spent on the First Class seats and applied them to the Economy seats. They could have offered to sell the Economy seats (that were empty at the time) at a more reasonable price. They could have tried to find a standby option at lower price. They did none of these things, instead behaving like puppets with no judgment or compassion.

    If there is one thing I have seen in air travel over the years and decades, it is that rules are made, obeyed, and ignored at the whim of the airline. As a frequent Platinum traveller I see rules bent or broken in special circumstances.

    I can’t speak for Chris or his team, but my interpretation of what they do is to find a middle ground between the few people who feel entitled to free things or game the system, and companies that lack a human spark and say no to everything, and find suitable resolutions for people who have not been treated fairly by the system.

    Maybe we ought to keep in mind that the rules the airlines create are highly complex, frequently changing, and almost always are self-serving. Maybe we ought to occasionally keep the Golden Rule in mind.

    One last thought. For those pure laissez-faire Free Marketeers that would say airlines are private companies and should be able to do as they please, I offer a few last points:

    – Airports are built, maintained and protected by each local government (and anyone who claims landing fees pay for all that ought to start collecting landing fees and try to build JFK for example).

    – The air traffic control system, radar systems, weather prediction, regulation and safety checks and certifications are provided by government. Not the airlines.

    – Jet engine and airframe technology, as well as modern avionics all came out of WWII government funded research.

    The airlines all benefitted and continue to benefit from goverment investment, which is, in the final analysis, our tax dollars. They can afford to show some humanity from time to time.

  • Peter

    Very true. But bear in mind they were in Italy, at an airport with probably very few UA staff, and likely quite junior and poorly trained ones at that (I just flew back from Florence this week, trust me on this).

    But that initial bad judgment in Venice in no way excuses what UA did to them upon return. No possible excuses there.

  • Peter

    That system used to be called a bereavement fare. It existed and worked well for decades.

    Airlines manage to move, feed, entertain and protect millions of people, while they move at 600 mph all around the world every day. Please let’s not argue that they can’t solve the problem of bereavement fares.

  • Peter

    Exactly my point above. Other airlines manage to show compassion without the false choice of going bankrupt.

  • Lee

    Nothing in the airline industry is as it was 20 years ago. Nothing. I was able to get a bereavement fare about 12 years ago but just a few years later when my mother died, no airline offered them anymore (from NYC to LA so there were loads of option of airlines but that particular offer had vanished). Some airlines have certain parts of this country sewn up and know you are stuck pretty much using them so they could give a hoot about good customer service or being empathetic in extraordinary circumstances as happened with this unfortunate family.

    Competition in certain situations (as in airlines) is a good thing but it is pretty much a goner now. Yes, I do think they are heartless and my guess is that they don’t even have enough staff to go through the many requests for exceptions they receive so may well be automatically simply not authorizing said requests without much attention or thought.

    There is nothing good, nice, decent about flying. Especially if one is not in business or first class – the entire thing is an ordeal from start to finish and they don’t care and are eagerly working on ways to make it even less comfortable (ever smaller seats, less services, etc).

    They are a horror and have been since Reagan left them all off the hook all those years ago.

  • Peter

    Oh yes, the IRS. Good point. You mean when they show up to Congress without the answers to their questions? When they delete emails? When their executives stonewall Congressional investigations and try to punish political opponents. Is it that bastion of exceptional integrity, the IRS that you mention?

  • JewelEyed

    I’m in serious doubt that the hospital would have been able to provide that information directly to the airline. Privacy laws about healthcare being what they are, the funeral home would have been the best way to go.

  • just me

    Will you ever stop repeating the legend (was true 30 years ago) that “walk-up” fares, which are last-minute tickets priced super-high because they’re usually purchased by business travelers on expense accounts.”
    All businesses I know have rules prohibiting the purchase of air tickets less than 2-3 weeks in advance. Even international banks now buy tickets at least 1 week in advance.
    Those “walk-up” rates are a direct result of deregulation and misguided conviction that rabid pricing is good for anyone. This is no different than raising price of an old medicine against toxoplasmosis by 10,000% just because one can. How would you like the tax rate you pay to go up automatically by 1000% just a minute before you pay the tax.

  • Robert Delvo

    I am going to put my head on the block. What if Croce’s had taken a Cruise ship from lets say Miami to Venice. If the same situation would have occurred would the Cruise ship been “responsible” to get them back the next day??? (of course no) They would have had to pay for everything out of pocket. Just because an Airline got them to Venice does not change any circumstances. United did what they were “chartered” to do just like the cruise ship in this example. Lindabator is correct. A business has to run on rules and at $5,880 an employee could lose their job for a “wrong” decision. But in the end everyone did the right thing. The Croce’s faced their lose and returned home. United did the correct thing and got the Croce’s home. In the end United did make the proper consideration with the Croce’s after a thoughtful review. As for Bonnie I don’t believe that United took the original 250K miles and then took another 250K; unless I read the letter wrong. and oh……….I can be wrong. Prayers to the Croce family.

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