When a flight’s canceled, who’s responsible?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Cheaptickets.com suddenly and without warning cancels John Rutledge’s itinerary, it offers him a refund. Problem is, a new flight will now cost twice as much as he originally paid. Shouldn’t the online agency do more?

Question

I booked a ticket on United Airlines through Cheaptickets.com from Washington to Colorado Springs, Colo., recently. My reservation even appeared on the United Airlines website (I’m an elite-level customer on United).

All’s good, right? I checked five days before my flight, and the reservation was gone. When I visited Cheaptickets, the website displayed a note stating that my reservation had been canceled. No notification — nothing.

I called Cheaptickets and a representative told me that United had declined to issue a ticket and the reservation was canceled. The original fare was $595, and now it’s $1,246. Cheaptickets is offering a refund only. I think they should honor my reservation.

Have you heard of this happening? What should I do? — John Rutledge, Washington

Answer

This looks like an accidental flight cancellation, a problem I’ve seen a time or two. But the question is, whose accident was it? Did you push the wrong button, did your airline, or did your online agency? (Related: Can this trip be saved? My airline tickets were canceled against my will.)

I’m inclined to rule you out. You’re a frequent flier on United, so it’s unlikely you would have accidentally canceled your reservation. That leaves the airline and your online travel agency. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

Given that Cheaptickets offered a full refund, I’m guessing something happened on its end. Typically, canceling a ticket a few days before your flight is subject to strict rules. If an online agency is offering a full refund, there is likely a glitch that caused the system to void your ticket. (Related: Travelers are breaking this rule for a cheaper flight. Should you?)

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Cheaptickets resolves flight cancellation

The right thing to do, under those circumstances, is to work with the airline to honor your itinerary — even if it means your agency has to rebook the ticket at a higher fare. A refund will just make it your problem. And it isn’t your problem. (Related: If luggage fees are wrong, who pays?)

I can think of several ways you might have resolved this after the sudden cancellation.
You could have directly appealed to United or sent a brief, polite email to a manager at Cheaptickets or Orbitz (both share the same parent company). Links to all of the names and numbers are on my customer service site.

You shouldn’t have to pay an additional $651. My advocacy team and I contacted Cheaptickets on your behalf, and it apologized for the cancellation and rebooked your ticket at no extra cost to you.

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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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