United Airlines promised me two first class tickets — where are they?

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By Christopher Elliott

In the customer service world, a first-class, roundtrip ticket anywhere the airline flies is the ultimate mea culpa — an airline’s way of saying, “We’re really sorry.”

And United Airlines promised Charles Rosenthal and his girlfriend two of them after canceling their flight from Palm Springs, Calif., to Los Angeles recently. But the tickets never arrived, and my inquiries to United have had disappointing results. Do I need to push harder, or let this one go?

The mysterious disappearing flight

Here are a few details. The couple was scheduled to fly back to Portland from Palm Springs on April 23. The first leg of their flight, from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, was United flight 6477, which was operated by United Express and SkyWest.

“When we arrived at the airport, we were informed by the SkyWest representative behind the counter that our flight to Los Angeles did not exist,” he says. “When we asked for clarification, she was unable to give us any. We then asked why we had received no prior notification of such a schedule change. Instead of reconciling the situation, the arrogant service representative blamed us for ‘not checking the flight status prior to departing for the airport.'”

Rosenthal says he politely asked for a supervisor, but none was available.

“Totally baffled, we explained to the representative that we are a working couple and cannot afford to miss another day of work, let alone another night in an expensive Palm Springs hotel,” he says.

Stranded in Palm Springs

The SkyWest representative said she could reroute them through Denver, but with a 20-minute stopover. They’d probably miss their connection to Portland and spend the night in Denver. Rosenthal and his girlfriend chose to remain in Palm Springs for the evening and fly to Portland the next day.

“Upon asking the representative if she could offer us any vouchers for a hotel and food, she informed us that she did not have the authority to issue vouchers, and that we should contact United Airlines directly,” he says. “Not only were we stranded, left to jump through hoops, but were also forced to foot the bill for our food and lodging for an extra 24 hours in Palm Springs. This was not cheap, to say the least.”

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So he phoned United and explained what happened. A sympathetic representative named Rochelle helped him.

Rochelle explained that she could not comp our considerable food and lodging costs, but that she could give us “two, transferable, first-class international or domestic ticket vouchers to anywhere United flies.”

She then clarified that the vouchers are “good for a round-trip flight.” After several minutes of clarification, she had me convinced that the vouchers were legitimate. While she could not send me an email confirmation, she gave me the PIN numbers (982AF78 and 698K194) for each of the vouchers and assured me that they would be mailed to my home address.

Content that United Airlines Customer Service had handled the situation with grace and dignity, I said goodbye to Rochelle.

Canceled United flight, broken promises

Let me add one small observation to this. I’ve been mediating airline cases for a long time, and I’ve heard about the mythical first-class tickets “anywhere the airline flies” but I’ve never actually seen an airline come through with it. I’m sure it happens, but never to one of my cases. Not once.

And wouldn’t you know it, those vouchers never showed up. So Rosenthal called again.

“I was utterly astounded when she told me that each voucher was only good for $100 towards a United Airlines domestic flight,” he says. “$200 in domestic flight vouchers? We had been duped. Not only were we lied to and taken advantage of, but the $200 in vouchers wasn’t even enough to cover our extra night in a Palm Springs hotel, let alone food costs and the missed opportunity cost of not being able to attend work on April 24. What a slap in the face!”

That didn’t sound right to me. If, as Rosenthal says, United canceled his flight, it should have covered his overnight accommodations in Palm Springs and issued meal vouchers. I have written about making United keep their promises. Rescheduling the flight would technically result in a missed flight, offering no entitlement. (Here’s our guide on what to do if your flight gets canceled or delayed.)

My advocacy team and I asked United Airlines to look into his case. A few days later, Rosenthal sent me the following update:

Today, I received an automated form letter via email from United which entitled myself and my travel partner to a further $150 in flight vouchers. This brings the issued grand total of vouchers to $800 ($100+$150+$150=$400 per person).

This falls far short of their promise and the amount of money we lost from the flight bump (not to mention the legal required amount of compensation for an involuntary flight bump.) I replied to the email to let them know that I could not accept the vouchers unless they met their promised amount of compensation.

How do you recommend I proceed? They are clearly not taking my complaints seriously.

The compensation conundrum

I guess I have two options: To push for more compensation or to let this one go. I’m not sure how to proceed.

Journalists may advise and direct United, joining other advocates in the field. I actually saw that happen once with this airline and another newspaper reporter. That’s not how I operate.

I’d be interested in hearing the call center recording. If Rosenthal is correct, then he’s entitled to the first-class vouchers. If it turns out that United just rescheduled his flight, then he’s already received more than he deserves.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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