Denied boarding because I didn’t pay a change fee

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By Christopher Elliott

Always read to the end. The very end.

That’s my takeaway from today’s failed case, which involves a woman who was denied boarding on a United Airlines flight because she hadn’t paid a mysterious fee.

Navigating Newark

Kelsey Doorey was flying from Los Angeles to Ancona, Italy, with stops in Newark and Munich, in May. She made it to Newark without incident. But when she tried to board her flight to Germany, she ran into trouble.

She explains,

The agent at gate 74 told me that United had changed my reservation to a later flight in anticipation of me missing my tight connection.

I was told to speak with customer service across the hall change my reservation back to my original flight.

The customer service agent I spoke with was rude and unhelpful. She told me that I was not going to make my flight, despite the gate agent holding the gate open.

She then informed me that I owed $552, but failed to provide any explanation why. I offered my credit card and paid but it was too late for my original flight so she then booked me on a later flight.

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I was flying to Italy for a four-day weekend family obligation and the new flight I was put on resulted in me losing an entire day in Italy. Instead of arriving at 11:20 a.m., I arrived after 5:30 p.m.

That’s as far as I read before I sent a note to my United Airlines contact, asking if he could look into this case. I should have kept reading. (Sorry, United.)

Let me skip to the end: The $552 charge was correct. The agents did the right thing, although they could have been a little nicer about it.

But at that moment, after I got done reading the last line of Doorey’s letter, I thought United had screwed up big-time. Maybe it had something to do with the disastrous cutover. Or maybe it was just overall incompetence, I thought. I was wrong.

Missed connection

The response from United was right to the point:

Our records indicate that you were charged a $250 change fee and a $286.66 fee for the difference in the fare.

This was due to the changes made to your ticket on February 25th. Because these fees were not collected during the change, you were denied boarding until the fees were paid.

Huh? I reviewed the entire document.

Here’s a little detail in the note that I had glossed over: Back in February she had changed her flights. And for some reason — it’s not entirely clear why — United never collected the change fee and fare differential. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

To be fair, that fact was buried near the bottom of the document she sent me.

Had I continued reading, I would have seen a more detailed account about how United mishandled her ticket at Newark. The agents were not that nice. (The part about the ticket change didn’t come until much later.)

After being re-booked on a later flight, I sought out different United Airlines customer service agents.

I spoke with a manager in the Newark ticketing department, who was very upset to hear how I was handled. She reviewed my record and informed me that [the agent] had added supposed quotes from me to my record that I have never said.

She informed me that the LAX ticketing agent who checked me in and printed my boarding passes should have collected the amount due but she never mentioned it at all. I have never heard of an airline flying a passenger with an amount due on their ticket and am surprised that happened.

Fees left unpaid

So the bottom line is that United should have asked her to pay the change fee much, much sooner. And because it didn’t, this passenger got the runaround and a delay. (Related: Where’s the credit for my United Airlines flight?)

Dooley says she’s “extremely” unhappy with that response. After all, she paid more for her flight and lost a day of vacation. Plus, she was treated rudely by an ticket agent in Newark. She’d like her $522 refunded, “at a minimum.”

I don’t see how she might have avoided this, beyond making sure United had her up-to-date credit card information. And even then, there’s no telling if the airline would have billed her.

For me, the lesson is obvious: Read every email until the end, even the ones that ramble a little. I’ll try to do better.

Interestingly, the most scathing comments that appear on this site and on my Facebook page come from folks who don’t read the entire story.

I used to be pretty critical of them, but now I’m one of them.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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