Thank you! United fixes “last vacation” for terminal cancer patient

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By Christopher Elliott

For Thanksgiving, a heartwarming story: James Thomson and a longtime friend, facing flight troubles from San Francisco to Bali. One leg of Thompson’s flight was canceled, which threatened to end his friend’s final vacation.

Despite repeated efforts to contact United Airlines, he was getting nowhere.

Would Thompson’s friend miss his last trip?

Here’s the problem:

A longtime friend and traveling companion has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (medullary thyroid cancer). Traditionally, we take a trip someplace warm during the winter. This year we had planned to go to Bali on what will probably be his last trip.

We each separately booked February 2010 flights on United Airlines using Mileage Plus frequent flier miles. Now one leg of my return flight has been canceled, though my friend’s flights have not been affected.

United Airlines tells me I will have to rebook on a different flight on a different day. This flight has only one available seat, which means my friend and I could not travel together.

My friend and I need to be on the same flights, since he requires some assistance due to his weakened medical condition and side effects from medication. Also, he is participating in a clinical cancer drug trial, and has a limited time window during which he can take this trip.

It was nearly impossible to coordinate our original flights, and now United tells me we have to fly on separate flights. If this is the case, my friend will not be able to go.

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In a situation like this, I would have advised Thompson to send a brief, polite email to United, asking them to resolve the problem. But he already had. (Related: How to make United Airlines keep its promises.)

I have been calling United Airlines every day and have spent hours on the phone trying to solve this problem. Following your advice, I tried emailing United in order to create documentation, but the only way I can find to email them is through their Web site, and the form I submitted bounced back both times I tried.

I purchased this travel through United Airlines, and believe it is their responsibility to solve this problem. They have not done so. I would really like to be able to help my friend go on this one last vacation. Can you please help me?

Now, it’s true that flight schedules can change, and award seats are limited. But once Thompson was confirmed on his flight to Bali, United should have found a way of keeping him on his flight. One problem is that his reservation didn’t appear to be connected to his friend’s, so the airline wouldn’t have known that they were traveling together.

My advocacy team and I contacted United on Thompson’s behalf. Less than 24 hours later, I heard back from him. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

United Airlines contacted me — an amazing event in itself — and told me the problem had been fixed. My original seat on the original flight has been restored so that my friend and I can travel together.

Without your help, I doubt that United Airlines would have fixed the problem so that I could accompany my friend on what may be his last vacation.

I’m grateful to United for helping these customers. The fact that it happened on Thanksgiving makes it all the more meaningful.

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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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