Are airlines redefining “year” so they can pocket your money?

What’s a year? If you said 365 days, you obviously don’t work for an airline. Air carriers apparently have another definition, as many passengers learn when they decide to recycle their ticket credit for another flight.

Here’s what happens: You buy a restricted ticket but your plans change. So you call the airline, and a friendly customer service representative says you can re-use the ticket — after paying a change fee — within a year of your travel date.

Ten or eleven months later, you phone the airline only to find out your credit has expired.

What gives?

Turns out the the agent should have said the tickets were valid from a year of their purchase not your flight. Too bad.

That happened to Ronald Di Costanzo a few months ago. Here’s what he wrote to United Airlines about his canceled flight:

I was told at the time of cancellation that I had one year from the date of my flight to rebook my ticket and use the credit. I telephoned again to confirm this date. I was told that that was correct.

But when I called to book a ticket, I was told “sorry” — the ticket expired. They said I had been given incorrect information, and that there is nothing that could be done.

I am sure I didn’t talk with the entire Indian subcontinent, but I came close. First, I asked for a supervisor; next, I was asked if I wanted a supervisor; third, I was passed off automatically to another supervisor.

All said the same thing although in increasingly dogmatic terms. I asked if I could talk to someone who could interpret policy — and not just recite it. No.

Could I talk to someone in Illinois? No, that was not possible. I asked (why not — although I suspected the answer!) if they understood that I was being financially penalized because two United contract employees gave me incorrect information.

No. No one could possibly help. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Di Costanzo sent an e-mail to United, pleading his case. Here’s how it responded:

I apologize for the problems you experienced as you were given incorrect information about the validity of a ticket.

I know that when United fails to deliver the service you anticipate you doubt our desire to be an airline you can count on. You expect a dependable and easy travel experience. And be assured that we will meet this goal as we refine our quality standards and procedures. Your good comments will help us focus on specific areas that will help us to improve our services.

Our employees should provide professional service. I have forwarded your complaint to the Reservations Department for the review as you were not given correct information. I am sorry, as it resulted in your disappointment with our service. Your comments are important to us and will allow the Reservations Department to provide feedback directly to the employee

Additionally, please know that a ticket is valid from the date of issue and I understand you are requesting an exception to the restrictions on your ticket. Most airlines, like United, as a general rule do not extend the expired ticket. As per our policy we can neither refund nor extend your ticket. It has no value left. Your understanding is appreciated.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to respond to your concern. Please continue to fly with United.

Sincerely,

Lata Dixit
Customer Relations

Obviously, this is a form letter. Di Costanzo also received a $25 coupon from United, which doesn’t come close to helping him recoup the $392 he lost.

Di Costanzo sent a letter to the Transportation Department, which is a good step. His grievance will become part of the airline’s permanent record. I think he also should take United to small claims court to recover his lost money.

I get complaints of this nature several times a month. Here’s what seems to be happening. Either the airline employees are not aware of their own company’s policy (and I sincerely want to believe this is a simple misunderstanding) or airlines are instructing their agents to give passengers bad information in the hopes that they won’t have to honor their ticket credit.

Which is it?

Well, do I really have to connect the dots here?

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