A “ruined” suitcase, an ignored complaint — is this customer out of luck?

What happens when the bliss of ignorance meets the hard reality of consumer advocacy? You get cases like Roberta Silfen, whose luggage was recently destroyed by United Airlines.

Silfen was flying from Palm Beach, Fla., to Dubai when her suitcase was “completely” ruined, she says.

“All four wheels were broken and a big hole was in the bottom of the bag,” she recalls. “The airline sent someone to pick it up the next day and I was told it would be replaced that day.”

“Good,” she said, because she was supposed to leave for a cruise the following day.

And you can probably guess what happened next, right?

“They never replaced it,” she says. “They never answered phone calls. I had to run out and purchase luggage like the one they ruined.”

Total bill: $182.

She waited until returning to the States to file a luggage claim. Let me stop the story right here to say please, please, please, never do that. When luggage goes missing or is damaged, you have to file a claim right then and there. Most airlines give you 24 hours. And then they ignore you.

Silfen sent United all the information, including photos of the damaged luggage.

“I have not heard from them at all since I sent the papers to them,” she says. That was four months ago.

“Well, send us the papers and we’ll see what we can do,” our advocacy team told her. In fact, we said what we always say about paperwork: Without it, we’ll have a hard time making a case for you.

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To which she said,

I have no emails from the company because they never responded to any of my letters I have sent.

The only paperwork I have is correspondence I have sent to them. No one responded.

I also have the form I filled out and sent to them regarding my claim. No one responded.

In short, I have been ignored. The only way I can send you my correspondence to them is if I scan it and send as an attachment. If you cannot accept that, then there is nothing I can send to you. Please advise.

In short, it appears you are saying, if they ignore me, you can’t help me.

Actually, no. But I’m glad she raised this question.

Some companies — notably wireless carriers — try really hard to prevent customers from creating a paper trail. We know that. When it looks as if customers have done everything in their power to put their case in writing, and that the company refused, we don’t let that stand in our way.

As a side note, I’ve seen the emails between customers and companies, where representatives refuse to put anything in writing and ask the consumer to call. This, of course, puts the company at a huge advantage, because it can record the call for “quality” purposes, but you have no record of the conversation.

In Silfen’s case, we didn’t let the paperwork problem stand in our way. Our lead advocate, Jessica Monsell, contacted United on her behalf.

And that got United talking.

“You are wonderful,” said Silfen. “I received a phone call from them this afternoon. The woman said she had all the information, was sending the paperwork to be processed and that I will receive a check shortly. You have no idea how grateful I am to you after receiving the silent treatment for four months.”

Love that ending.

If nothing else, United owed Silfen an answer — either a “yes” or a “no” — and an explanation of why one of its representatives made a promise that the airline couldn’t keep. A “yes” seems like an easier answer.

Should United have paid Roberta Silfen’s claim?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • cscasi

    The article never stated where it was discovered that the suitcase was basically “ruined”. I assume it was discovered at the airport in Dubai. In any case, when someone the airline sent to collect her suitcase to get it replaced, I think it would have been more than prudent for her to have asked that person give her a receipt for the bag being picked up, have that person annotate on the receipt that the bag was being taken to be replaced that day and ensure it was signed by that person. That, to me, is the kind of proof the airline cannot deny.

  • Éamon deValera

    I thought wheels were never covered by an airline. Rips, indeed and paying her the value of the bag for yanking her around is reasonable.

  • John McDonald

    we always buy cheap luggage these days, as we know it will be destroyed after 3 or 4 trips. When we throw it away & get some new cheap luggage.
    We carry a few small tubes of super glue(think you might call it crazy glue in USA).
    It costs nothing (20 cents a tube) & is great fro stopping tears in nylon from getting any bigger.
    We also fix bags, when we get home, with liquid nails, if not ttotally trashed.

  • judyserienagy

    It boggles the mind that United just ignored her communications. Makes you wonder how they actually do that … ignore 6 or 7 communications? Does someone literally hide them in the bottom of a desk drawer? No, it’s all electronic, isn’t it? So does that mean that someone at United just kept deleting her communication? How does this work? Even if the passenger is incoherent and nobody can understand what she wants, wouldn’t someone reply and ask for a clear explanation?

  • MF

    Although this may be the ‘best’ resolution in a case like this, why is it that the CSR’s get paid to NOT do their job, and the OP just gets made semi-whole by having to invest time & trouble just to get her money back? Fairness & parity are lacking here. Of course I know the answer, but after a certain amount of effort/time with no response, why isn’t she getting compensated for her time/trouble too? Just sayin’

  • MarkKelling

    So United had all the paper work. Why was it not sent for processing until prodded by the team here? Is that now a required step in the process? “Send all of the requested paperwork and then contact a consumer advocate or we do nothing.” I would really like to see the customer service guidelines for airlines. Is there a page in there that says “Do nothing for as long as possible on every complaint or request and maybe the customer will give up.”?

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