United is only half sorry for passenger’s brain tumor

After enduring two personal tragedies, Tracy Hamilton found herself amidst a third one involving United Airlines.

In March 2015, Hamilton, a college art professor, booked four tickets on United so she and her family could travel to France, Spain and Italy. Hamilton had saved a long time for this special research trip, on which her family would tag along.

But in June 2015, right before the departure date, Hamilton was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate surgery, making travel impossible. She called United to let them know not to expect the family on board.

Hamilton’s case is a brilliant example of a time when reason should trump rules to accommodate a truly unforeseen crisis and to show compassion for a customer. But it also raises some important questions about what happens when major purchases are made with frequent flier miles, and whether even the most prescient traveler could have avoided being stuck in a similar predicament.

Hamilton’s ticket purchase was made with a combination of 180,000 frequent flier miles and $1,300 cash that she had socked away for years. United told her she had two options. For the three tickets purchased with miles, she could pay a $200 per ticket fee to redeposit the miles to her MileagePlus account. Alternatively, she could place all four tickets on hold, reserving the paid value of the tickets for a year from the date of issue.

Since the second option didn’t require a fee, Hamilton placed the four tickets on hold, knowing that if all went well they would reschedule the trip.

Happily, Hamilton’s surgery was successful. Around the same time, she also had to find a new job, because the college where she was teaching had announced that it was closing. She took a job at the University of Richmond, where the family moved and adapted to their new life. I’ll let Hamilton explain what happened next:

It was an extremely busy year, and my contract was extended for another year. I was also lucky enough to be chosen for a fellowship that would allow me to develop my latest project while in Italy in the spring of 2017. We decided my family would come along, both for the educational benefits, and because being apart for six months was too long.

But when I logged onto the United website to update our travel dates, I found that all of our tickets had disappeared. I called United, which explained that we had needed to update our travel plans by one year from the original booking date, not one year from when the tickets were put on hold, or when the travel had originally been scheduled to occur. And those original booking dates had come and gone.

Ah, yes. The unassailable one-year rule.

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Airlines — all of them — require that nonrefundable tickets must be used within a year from the original issue date. We’ve written about it before, usually when someone encounters a medical problem and doesn’t know when they can travel again, like following a heart attack or the onset of a seizure disorder. It’s one of those troublesome policies that cause air travelers to contact us for help.

Hamilton started out by trying to advocate her case herself, emailing back and forth to United with no success. Then she took a second step — one we also recommend — by filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s office of Aviation Consumer Protection.

When she didn’t get anywhere, she wrote to us for help.

“All I want is for our tickets to be reinstated,” she pleaded. “This is disappointing beyond belief.”

We contacted United on her behalf, and while we waited for a response, Hamilton actually heard from United’s DOT complaint specialist. Here’s what the airline said:

We ask for your understanding that United receives many requests to make exceptions for a wide range of reasons, which is why we have policies in place for our customers to apply for refunds of valid tickets due to various types of unplanned events. Still, I regret the circumstances that prevented you from being aware that fully unused tickets are valid one year from the date of issue to apply to other travel plans. In your case, the tickets were issued in March 2015 and expired in March 2016. While I realize that many customers do not read through all the details of a fare’s rules and restrictions or information on an E-Ticket receipt, information regarding a ticket’s validity is provided to our customers.

With that said and while the tickets are expired, I would like to make an exception and gesture of goodwill to meet you half way. I am depositing 90,000 goodwill miles to your MileagePlus account, where the original miles were drawn, and providing an electronic travel certificate in your name in the amount of $675.00, which is approximately half of your ticket that was $1,350. Please know that we do empathize with the struggles you have been faced with and we wish you continued strength in your recovery and new position in Richmond.

Following this offer, we heard back from our contact at United, who restated the above offer. When I tried to argue that half wasn’t good enough, United told me the exceptional offer was indeed made with due consideration given to Hamilton’s circumstances, and that was all that would be done.

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I made a special request that United make an award ticketing specialist available to Hamilton, so she could maximize the value of her 90,000 miles and $675 voucher. United agreed to provide assistance to Hamilton in the rebooking.

Hamilton’s case will certainly bring out the “rules are rules” commenters who visit our site. And some of you are already shouting “travel insurance” at your screen. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

When you buy tickets using hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles, which is arguably a significant investment, travel insurance will not cover those purchases. No insurance policy would have reimbursed Hamilton for the three tickets bought with miles, because insurers have no way to value them. Even Hamilton admitted in our forum that she would have been better off redepositing the miles for a fee. Of course, she offers that admission “in hindsight,” where everything is always a little clearer.

Hamilton is a busy mom and art professor who survived brain surgery, found a teaching job at a great school and is headed to Italy to research medieval art. She has a few months to come up with the rest of the miles needed to purchase four tickets to Florence.

With a little help from United, I have no doubt she’ll get it done.

Did United offer Tracy Hamilton enough?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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