Can this trip be saved? Paid twice for a flight home, but they refunded the wrong ticket

Refund cases are in a class by themselves, when it comes to frustration, but this one probably deserves its own category. It comes to us by way of Ann Vaninetti, who recently took a cruise with her husband, Dave, in Brazil.

“Great cruise,” she says. “Until we got to the airport for the return flight.”

She explains,

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United Airlines wasn’t able to print out a boarding pass and wouldn’t honor our tickets purchased by our travel agent through AAA.com to fly home from Sao Paolo to San Francisco. We were then forced to purchase new tickets at a cost of $2,833.

They later asked United for a refund, and it credited their accounts for the wrong tickets. But United refunded the second half of their original roundrip tickets, leaving them holding the bag on the more expensive one-way fare they had to buy at the last minute.

To understand why United might do that, it helps to know a little bit about the circumstances of their cancellation. The tickets had been booked through a travel agent on Mexicana and then transferred to United. When they tried to print a boarding pass, a ticket agent in Sao Paolo said something was wrong.

He said there was a glitch in the system and when we were issued the boarding passes for our first flight from SFO to LAX, it locked the reservation.

He said to be patient and he would fix it – the codes needed to be changed. He then came back about 30 minutes later and said that the travel agency did not cancel the Mexicana portion of the trip and re-issue it under United Airlines. He would re-issue the tickets.

He then came back and said they were having problems (they never had an issue like this before) and were going to call the United Airlines Help Desk in Chicago for assistance.

But the “help” desk couldn’t help them at that hour, and they suggested she call back the next day. But Vaninetti didn’t want to wait.

We were told by the United Agent there were only two flights to the United States a day from Sao Paulo: one to Chicago at 11 pm and one to Washington at 11:50 pm. Since there weren’t any United Airlines Agents at the counter until 7 pm and after already standing and waiting 2 ½ hours, we were not confident that the issue would get resolved the next evening.

So the Vaninettis bought a new ticket. When they arrived in San Francisco, they took up the matter with the airline’s service desk.

They were unable to help us at all and said to contact United Airlines Passenger Refunds. It seems like United Airlines is trying to place the blame for this problem on the travel agency (AAA) saying that they messed up. However, I logged into the United Airlines website several times, and I found the reservations as the travel agent booked them. There was no indication on the United website of any problems with the tickets.

Here’s where things stand: United refunded the wrong tickets. Their credit card company has refused to help them with a dispute. Their travel agent is working with United, but is getting nowhere. The flights took place in January, and United still has their money.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. If you were working in the refunds department, and had the choice of refunding $1,094 — that’s the value of two return segments on the original ticket — or $2,833, which one would you choose?

I would get involved in this right away, but two things make me hesitate. First, they have a travel agent at AAA who is still working on this refund request. And second, it’s United. Since the merger with Continental, they have not given me the time of day. I’m willing to try.

Should I give the agent more time to figure this out, or do I step in now and try to fix this?

Update (4/21): I contacted United, and it has fully refunded the tickets and added 10,000 miles to each of their Mileage Plus accounts as a gesture of goodwill.

(Photo: super ciliousness/Flickr Creative Commons)

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33 thoughts on “Can this trip be saved? Paid twice for a flight home, but they refunded the wrong ticket

  1. This is an early sign that the United Continental merger is going to fail. Was in Miami last week and one counter agent was idle while the rest were busy. I asked the idle one for help and he said he was United and I was flying Continental and would have to wait for one of the busy agents while he took a break.

    1. Yes, it is frustrating but it is my understanding that UA and CO are still using two different systems and they don’t have access to the other system. I went through that when America West purchased US Airways.

      1. I think the MIA agent just didn’t want to bother. I was in HNL and the United reps there had no problem working tickets for both airlines. I got my CO boarding pass from the UA agent without issue. But, yes, this shows the merger is far from completely harmonious.

        1. Mark, you are probably wrong. For the most part the airlines are still operating 100% separate. There may be individual small stations where UA agents can do that for you because in some stations, CO had previously contracted out that work, and UA took over CO responsibilities from vendors in those stations. In airports where both airlines have employees, they cannot do cross-airline work.

    2. There is SABRE and APOLLO [or their stepchildren] now, right? Both UA and CO used the same system – otherwise the merger simply would not work no matter how much money they threw at it

  2. I voted yes. United/Continental/Big Mess of an Airline has so many problems within their OWN flights, I can totally see this being a mess. And, knowing how much the airlines like to take money and not give it back…yeah. Please help these folks, Chris.

  3. I’ve had something similar happen to me with Delta/Northwest in Tokyo – NW told me I had to call (on a pay phone no less) Delta and resolve the problem. Neither rep spoke English and it didn’t get resolved until I forced the reps talk to each other.

  4. I voted no because I think it would be adding another “cook in the kitchen”. If the travel agent can’t fix it then maybe Chris should get involved but for right now let the travel agent try to straighten it out.

  5. I think it’s time that United starts “giving you the time of day”! Sure, she has a travel agent and it would be nice if United and the agent straightened it out. But if United won’t listen to you, I don’t hold out much hope for a travel agent with no significant online platform. Make some noise, Chris!

  6. It wasn’t disclosed in the article expect as “who recently took a cruise” but how long has it been?

    If it has been less than 60 days, let the OP’s travel agent to work it out. If it has been more than 60 days, let Chris mediate.

    1. I was on a conference call when I wrote my original comments but when I reread the article, it has been four months…so Chris should mediate since it seems like the AAA agent isn’t getting anywhere.

  7. I voted to get involved. It is clear the travel agent is getting nowhere, and short of a lawsuit, these people are going to get the shaft. The airline clearly screwed up and couldn’t honor its own tickets that it sold and now wants to leave the customer holding the bag.

  8. as far as i’m concerned, the reason to get involved is because the travel agent, AAA, has not been able to resolve this in 4 months.

  9. I voted no. I think you should give AAA a little longer to work this out. After all, United is in the middle of a merger and is unlikely to get to this right away, it doesn’t matter who’s working on it.

    1. How long should they get? The United/Continental merger could take another year or more to fully integrate their systems if the US Airways/America West merger is any indication. The customer is out $1800 that they do not owe; how long are they expected to let the airline hold on to their money, especially with no sign of progress? AAA has had plenty of time to resolve this also.

      When Home Depot, Walmart, or even a hotel mischarges me or I return something, the refund appears almost instantly. This is a clear case — UA should be able to verify that they received payment for the first ticket (if they didn’t, AAA committed fraud), and that they denied boarding and insisted the customer purchase a replacement ticket to fly on their booked flight. Once that’s established, the replacement ticket price is clearly the amount to refund.

  10. Most of the Larger Travel Agencies have their own “Personal Airline Representative”. Meaning, some agencies still have working relationships with the airlines.

    Therefore, the Travel Agency and the particular office should be working directly with the agencies United Airlines Rep, together on this matter.

    May I suggest you start out by contacting the Travel Agency and see where they are at with this matter, to discover what stage they are at.

    It should not take 4 months to resolve this matter, since everything is computerized.

    IMHO

  11. Sounds to me as though United/Continental is giving this person the run around in the hopes they’ll give up and go away.

    I say mediate and fast. AAA is a pretty heavy hitter in the travel industry. If United is stalling them, they have no intention of ponying up.

    Were I the OP, I’d also look into a new credit card as well. If their credit card company isn’t giving them the support they need, vote with your feet.

  12. The airlines make these ultra complicated tickets with all of these fare rules, then get them locked up so badly that the passenger can’t fly..and then the passenger gets sucked into paying an outrageous fare that they would have probably never have purchased on their own. The airline should have to refund the more expensive fare and in addition, should have to pay a $20,000 compensation to the passengers for stress caused and a $100,000 fine to the FAA for engaging in obnoxious ticketing practices.

    1. Actually, it is the travel agents (and especially online agencies) that create ridiculous itineraries on multiple airlines that create greater problems for travelers.

      What everyone seems to be missing is that these people were originally ticketed on an airline (Mexicana) that went bankrupt and stopped flying! Most likely the problem was originally created by the travel agent in reticketing the original Mexicana tickets to United.

    1. It’s been 4 months since they paid a non-owned amount. I think Chris should put pressure on AAA to at least detail exactly what they’re doing, who they’re working with at UA, what the status is, and what their intentions are for the next steps.

  13. I would definitely get involved — this is a pretty clear cut case, and should have been resolved within days, not months.

    In addition to UA, I’m especially disappointed with both the credit card company (what possible justification did they give for denying the dispute?) and AAA (isn’t this exactly the sort of mixup that using a TA is supposed to prevent, or at least be able to clear up?) Since it sounds like it was at least partly due to the way AAA issued/reissued the tickets, I’d demand through any of their channels that AAA refund and eat the non-owed amount and let wait for the UA refund if it ever comes.

  14. Definitely mediate. The AA agent in Rio obviously fat-fingered the ticket code, and the airline is now hoping to delay away the need to fix the problem.

  15. Of course the lower fare was refunded. Because the OP booked the new higher fare, this cancelled the original reservation in the eyes of the airline since you can’t have 2 reservations for the same flight. This has happened to me a couple times. Now I know never to do that.

  16. This one is pretty clear:

    1. Give the travel agent 10 calendar days to fix it.

    2. If not- have Chris call his United contact- she’s a great person and when she called me back after a total snafu of a day on United and made things better – I kept her in my list of contacts in case that happens again –

    Getting the airline to figure it out is not going to work – you need to prepare an email which states:

    a. date original ticket purchase with ticket #1 for flight A on day X
    b. arrived to fly date X on flight A and was denied travel
    c. bought ticket # 2 for travel on flight A on Day X
    d. Received a refund for a’ above instead of ‘b’ above –
    e. require an additional refund of $Y which is the difference in fare and taxes between a and b above.

    Thats spells is out clearly. Anything else will confuse the already easily confusable . . . . ever notice how so many companies have a test in order to get a job? and then the people they hire are poor at figuring things out on their own that perhaps those companies needs to change the passing ‘range’ for their tests?

  17. I voted No…

    The original tickets were purchased for Mexicana, which ceased to operate. There is not enough information given to be certain, but it sounds like there may have been an issue with the travel agent where the tickets were not properly reissued over to United. Was there an agreement from United to accept Mexicana tickets, or was the agency required to purchase a new United ticket on behalf of the passengers?

    The OP states that she logged onto the United website and saw her reservation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the travel agency had correctly reissued the tickets.

    The OP should deal with the travel agency to find the cause of the ticketing problem. If the travel agency made the error in re-issuing (or not re-issuing) the tickets, they should be held accountable for the difference between the refund and actual cost of the new tickets that had to be puchased.

  18. +1 on getting a new credit card.

    If the credit card fools want to uphold the charge on a technicality (“you DID buy a replacement ticket”) the next step is to dispute the entire original trip amount. It wasn’t delivered as promised, right?

  19. “If you were working in the refunds department, and had the choice of refunding $1,094 — that’s the value of two return segments on the original ticket — or $2,833, which one would you choose?”

    Uh…where’s the “choice”? There *IS* no choice, there’s only what’s right!

  20. Sounds like somebody needs to break this impasse, as the vendors have no incentive to resolve the situation.

  21. Where was this travel agent when the travelers were being jacked up by the airline reps? Surely AAA has a 24 hour number for situations like this.

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