Hey United Airlines, where are my 180,000 frequent flier miles?

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By Christopher Elliott

Although our advocacy team almost never gets involved in loyalty program cases, Nancy Taylor’s was an exception as a United Airlines customer. And even though we tried to help with the frequent flier miles, we came up empty-handed.

So why write about a failed case? As a warning to you and to the airline that stole her miles. If you play the loyalty game, you could get burned. And United Airlines — you’re on notice. Your days of making up the rules and doing whatever you want with your best customers will soon end.

Taylor and her family were flying from San Francisco to Bangkok on United, using their hard-earned frequent flier points. The flights had been booked almost a year in advance, and United twice changed the schedule.

Two weeks before departure, Taylor asked if she could make a change to her ticket.

“I was assured several times by an agent on the phone that there were no additional miles for the change,” she says.

I was wrong

“A month after my return, I received notices that my account was in a deficit and they had deducted 180,000 frequent flier miles from my account, which I did not have at the time of the change,” she says. “I would not have made the change if I had known.”

Just to fill in the gaps here: United Airlines first told her the change would be “free” and reticketed her. Then, when she had a few extra miles in her account, the airline came back and deducted another 180,000 miles.

How strange.

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Taylor appealed the deletion. Here’s how United Airlines responded:

We’re always glad to hear from Premier Gold members like you. Thanks for writing.

The reissued award tickets based on the December 18, 2015 changes did require more miles since the Taipei to San Francisco flight was issued under standard award availability. The original tickets were issued as saver awards which require fewer miles but are more restrictive.

We are unable to refund 180,000 frequent flier miles to your account as requested.

We appreciate you taking the time to contact us.

So clearly, there was a misunderstanding between the United Airlines rep and Taylor. In a situation like this, the next step is clear: Go to the call recording and find out what the agent said to Taylor. If the agent said “no charge” then you can return the 180,000 miles and close the case, right?

No, not really. United Airlines send Taylor another form response. When our advocacy team tried to assist, it simply ignored us.

Now you’re flying the friendly skies!

Cases like this only underscore the fact that airlines create whatever rules they want, when it comes to frequent flier programs. Remember, the miles are technically not even your property. They belong to the airline. The rules can change at any time, for any reason. And you can lose some or all of them for no good reason, as Taylor did.

It’s astonishing to present you with cases of corporate intransigence and to still have the loyalty program apologist whine about the programs being “free” and saying ignorant things like “Taylor doesn’t have to collect frequent flier miles. It’s her choice.”

Taylor paid for those miles when she booked her airline tickets. She earned the rewards. United Airlines simply deducted them. No appeal.

What kind of nonsense is this? When will the bewildered masses wake up and realize they’ve been hoodwinked by an entire industry?

Something tells me Taylor is among the few who has opened her eyes to one of the greatest scams of our generation.

Should United return Nancy Taylor's frequent flier miles?

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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 São Paulo.

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