Furious at United because she missed her best friend’s funeral

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By Christopher Elliott

Alicia and Joe Haviland are mad at United Airlines and at me.

They’re furious with United for canceling Alicia’s ticket from Panama City, Panama, to Seattle via Houston and issuing an involuntary refund. As a result, Alicia Haviland missed her best friend’s funeral.

And they’re upset with me because they want me to write about their negative customer service experience and I haven’t — until now.

Yes, the Havilands’ story is another case study in airline disappointment. I’m scheduled to meet with United Airlines in person in a few weeks and I could talk to them about what went wrong with this flight. But it is also a story about how your rage, no matter how justified, can erode your chances of resolving a service dispute.

I haven’t decided what to do next with the Havilands’ issue. For now, I’m filing it under Case Dismissed because I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. But maybe you have some ideas.

Let’s start with Alicia Haviland’s flight

On Jan. 30. She was scheduled to fly from Panama City to Houston on flight 1033 and then connect to flight 425 to Seattle. The ticket was purchased the day before her departure — in airline parlance, a “walk-up” fare, which in general is the most expensive kind. Her return was set for Feb. 10.

I’ll let Joe Haviland pick up the story from there:

My wife arrived at the Tocumen Airport in Panama City, Panama, with an eticket receipt and confirmation in hand for a flight from Panama City, Panama, to Seattle.

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When she went to check in at United, the counter employee for United stated, “Your ticket has been refunded” and gave her a local number to call in Panama.

He didn’t help her further. Imagine that!

She spoke to two women. The first “customer care” person was Gabriela, and when she couldn’t help [my wife] she asked for her supervisor, Mariana P.

Both ladies told us what we already knew, and that was that the ticket I had bought for my wife the day before had been “refunded.” They couldn’t offer a legitimate reason why.

Furthermore, they weren’t eager to help make things right and get my wife on the 3:30 pm UA 1033 flight to Houston with a connection to Seattle for the funeral. They acted like they could care less.

The representative told Haviland that the reservation was canceled because his wife had tried to redeem a $250 electronic travel certificate as part of the reservation. The system automatically refunded the reservation, he was told. (Here is our guide on resolving your consumer problem).

“We find it quite strange,” he says.

I found it quite strange, too

So I contacted United to find out what was going on. In response, Haviland received the following email:

Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the canceled ticket for your wife, Alicia Frank Haviland, for travel from Panama City to Seattle, Washington, originally scheduled to depart on January 30, 2015. The details of your three e-mails have come to the attention of the United Airlines Executive Offices, and I appreciate the opportunity to respond on behalf of our CEO, Mr. Jeff Smisek and Ms. Laura Mandile.

Mr. Haviland, I am sincerely sorry for the confusion surrounding the cancellation of your wife’s ticket to attend her friend’s funeral on January 31. After some research, I learned that a Credit Management representative canceled the ticket due to suspected fraud.

When last-minute reservations are booked, our Credit Management team goes through a number of steps to verify that a requested credit card transaction is valid. In your case, the address you provided matched the address on file with the credit card company, but the phone number you provided did not match.

We tried repeatedly to reach you at that phone number for voice verification but were unable to do so. In addition, your listed address is in Miami, Florida, but the travel originated in Panama City, Panama.

We were also unable to locate any reference to you in either Panama or Seattle, Washington, and there was no MileagePlus account history we could use to verify your personal information since you booked through our website as a guest.

As such, our representative made the decision to refund your wife’s ticket in an attempt to protect you from suspected credit card fraud. I am sincerely sorry that as a result of our efforts to protect your credit card information, your wife was unable to travel.

Because the ticket was paid in part using an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC) you received in 2014, the refund will need to be completed manually. I forwarded the necessary details to our Refunds Accounting team so that you receive $177.40 back to your credit card and an ETC for $250 issued to replace the one that was redeemed. Because the original ETC will expire on April 2, 2015, David Risinger issued you another ETC that will expire in 2016.

I was also able to locate two MileagePlus accounts for you and your wife; if you plan to book future travel, it might be helpful to update these accounts to reflect your most current contact information. I will be glad to assist you to accomplish this; you can contact me directly at [number redacted] weekdays except Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Houston time. Again, I hope you will accept my apologies for your experience.

As MileagePlus members, please know your business and goodwill are never taken for granted by our airline, and we will strive always to meet your expectations of clean, safe and reliable air transportation coupled with exemplary customer service. Your comments have also been forwarded to senior management in our ongoing effort to provide our passengers with the type of service expected from United Airlines. Thank you for including United Airlines in your travel plans, and on behalf of my co-workers, we look forward to welcoming you aboard a future flight.

United’s fraud detection systems seem to be working overtime, and I don’t mean that in a nice way. Remember the monk I helped with a refund a few weeks ago? You know, the one a certain newspaper of record took credit for? Also a fraud issue.

Fraud detection is good when it works. When it doesn’t, you don’t just walk away. You fix it.

Haviland had to buy a new ticket on American Airlines. United could have offered to pay the fare differential, but as far as I can tell, it offered nothing but an apology and a new electronic travel certificate.

That really set Haviland off. And here’s where things went a little sideways. Haviland began sending me regular missives, urging me to write about his case. He also started hammering United’s executives by email. Accused them of being “condescending” and decried their services as “egregiously poor.” He said he was disgusted by the way United had handled his case.

Haviland sent United cartoons mocking bad customer service.

“Still waiting for some kind of satisfaction,” he wrote. “Ain’t got it yet!”

Now, these are all things that we as customers think when we’re going through a difficult customer service dispute. But we don’t articulate them. Why? Because our words, even if they’re true, lessen the chances of a successful resolution.

I mean, imagine how a customer service representative reads statements like those. Do you think they make an employee more likely, or less likely, to find a resolution?

Haviland then took aim at me

Since my involvement in the case didn’t yield the desired result, he believed I was part of the problem. He signed up for my personal email newsletter. In my latest issue, I talked about how we’d had a great month for traffic in February. In an email response, he targeted me directly:

My writing was a BIG waste of time. I probably should have spent the time doing other things.

And you as a resource proved mediocre at best despite your blowing out every record for February. Congrats on that by the way, but what good are all the pageviews and forums if it doesn’t change the way businesses like United conduct their daily business? That’s the BIG question.

CEOs like Smisek could care less and [are] laughing all the way to the bank. There’s no accountability anymore and watchdogs like yours [are] merely a way for people to vent without any significant resolution in the way companies treat their customers in the 21st century. Sorry, but I had to voice my opinion on this.

Well, consider your opinion voiced.

So many mistakes were made here, it’s hard to keep track. United could have certainly done better, not only with its fraud-detection systems, but in its responses. Haviland could have kept all of his contact information up to date, and his correspondence might have been a little more civil.

And perhaps my advocacy team and I should have followed up to United’s form response with a polite request to take one more look at the case. I’m not sure why I haven’t.

Who is most to blame for this case?

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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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