United canceled my flight twice, so where is my refund?

United Airlines cancels the Robinsons’ connecting flight — not once, but twice. The reason? Problems with air traffic control. After several requests for a refund, guess what they ended up with?

Question: Our connecting flight on United Airlines from Newark to Pittsburgh was canceled and rebooked for 24 hours later. The rescheduled flight was also canceled the following evening. United cited air traffic control problems as the reason for both cancellations.

It was uncertain as to when the next flight would take place, so we rented a car and drove seven hours home. We arrived about 3:00 a.m. after being up for over 21 hours. The rental car cost us $300 — an expense we had not planned on. It would be nice if United would reimburse us.

We submitted a refund request to United for our canceled flight, but it was denied.

Can you please help us get a refund from United? There were three of us traveling. — Robert Robinson, Hopwood, Pa.

Answer: We would be glad to help. A refund from United is rightfully yours, as stated in United’s policy on flight cancellations.

According to United, here’s how the process works when there’s a flight delay or cancellation: United will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. If the delay is two or more hours (as it was in your case), you have the option of accepting the rebooked flight, finding an alternate United flight, or requesting a full refund for the portion of the unused ticket. The refund would include payment for any added services (like baggage fees), but ticketing fees would be nonrefundable.

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For substantial delays, United offers the option of flying standby, or it may provide a travel waiver for an alternate flight on another date, both without change fees. You can also choose to fly out of a nearby airport if United flights are available. You’d be responsible for getting yourself to the new airport.

You chose the refund option. I don’t understand why it was denied by United.

According to United’s refund policy,

If you decide to no longer travel either because your original flight was canceled or you are delayed two hours or more, you can receive a refund to your original form of payment. Request your refund by going to United.com/refunds.

The two canceled flights resulted in you having to spend more money. The overnight delay that ensued added lodging and meal expenses, and when the second flight canceled, it was stacking up to be another night in a hotel, with more meals. Add to that the $300 (plus gas) for a rental car, a day lost waiting at the airport, and the seven-hour drive home — that’s a lot of expenses and lost time you had not bargained for.

Delays that are out of the airline’s control, like weather conditions or air traffic control problems, usually result in passengers having to pay for these expenses out of their own pocket. However, it never hurts to ask for assistance. You may get a representative who is responsive to your needs.

However, the airlines will not cover the cost of a rental car or for a flight on another airline.

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If the flight delay had been within United Airlines’ control, such as a mechanical issue or a crew shortage, then, according to its policy, it would have covered your expenses (or reimbursed you) for hotel, ground transportation, and meals. You can find this information in United’s terms and conditions.

This case falls into the ever-growing chasm between the airlines and their passengers — specifically, the problems that ensue when things go south.

If passengers miss a flight or need to change their itinerary, they pay a hefty fee, or even forfeit the entire amount they paid for their ticket. But if the airline fails to transport passengers to their destination in a timely manner and can hide behind a force majeure event, guess who pays? The passenger. Again.

The Robinsons lost several hundred dollars and almost two days of their vacation waiting for a flight that never took off.

Flights are delayed and canceled every day — most travelers get that. It becomes a problem when passengers are on the losing end, no matter which party is responsible. It’s like gambling: The cards are stacked in favor of the casino, and the house wins. The airlines have figured out how to rig the game — at the passengers’ expense.

At Elliott.org, we are reducing the risk travelers face by educating them on airline policies and informing them of their rights.

Our advocates were diligent in their follow-up with United Airlines. The initial response was not what we had expected. Rather than issuing you and your family a refund, it gave you three $100 vouchers. Our advocates did not give up and, for the third time, asked for a refund.

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United has now agreed to give you a $68 cash refund per ticket. It’s unclear how it arrived at this amount.

Your response was gracious. “We don’t fly much, but lately we have been trying to enjoy ourselves more and work less! This will work — [it’s] better than nothing.”

Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a published book author and travel columnist with a focus on preparation and protocol. She is committed to helping travelers be informed and avoid potential problems while traveling. Stephanie's most recent book is "Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad". For travel insight when planning your trip, visit Know Before You Go Travel. Along with writing, Stephanie does interior designing. Read more of Stephanie's articles here.

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