Even more funny airline math on this downgrade, but is there a solution?

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By Christopher Elliott

United’s frequent flier program, MileagePlus, promises “the best combination of service and rewards for frequent travelers.”

But Thomas Williams says he got neither when he tried to use his hard-earned miles for a flight from Boston to San Francisco.

He’s appealed his case to the Department of Transportation, but has circled back with our advocacy team to ask: Is this a fair resolution?

I’ll let you answer in a moment.

Williams had two confirmed first-class tickets, for which he’d shelled out 100,000 miles. But when he arrived at the gate, he discovered the premium cabin had been overbooked and he’d been bumped to the bleacher seats.

“According to United’s own gate agents, it now is common practice for United to overbook first class whenever any of those seats have been obtained via frequent flier awards,” he says. “If all of those first class fliers do show up for the flight, then those who are flying on frequent flier awards are forced against their will to sit in whatever scattered regular coach seats are available, plus a voucher amount that can be used toward a future United flight.”

But it would be different this time, the gate agent promised. He’d get all his miles back, plus a $500 flight voucher — an exceptionally generous offer.

When United finally got around to making an offer, it turns out something had gotten lost in the translation. They meant to say he’d receive a partial refund of 15,000 miles, or a flight voucher. But not both.

“That means they are telling us we used 70,000 frequent flier points for two regular coach seats, which were not even in the same row, and that if we had booked it that way at the beginning, it only would have cost us 25,000 points. What is even more galling is that they gave these same $500 vouchers to volunteers in coach to take the next flight just two hours later, but they told us that option for first class on the same following flight was unavailable.”

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Yeah, that’s some funny airline math for sure.

I recommended that he appeal this to United’s executives, and, if that didn’t work, to the Department of Transportation.

United’s execs didn’t really do anything, but the DOT got involved.

“United promptly restored 50,000 of the 100,000 frequent flier points I had used,” he reports. “But I still think it’s wrong that they get to decide that I would have used 50,000 points for two regular coach seats, when I definitely would not have. The points-to-benefit return is much higher for first class when they do not then take such seats from you, so I would not use that many points for regular coach.”

All of which brings up an interesting question: Does the airline get to do the math when it comes to refunding points? Does the DOT? Do you?

And depending on your answer, did United do enough here? Not enough? Or maybe, too much?

I asked United five weeks ago to explain the reasoning behind its refund and to clarify its overbooking policy, at least as it relates to this case. No word yet. I will update this point if and when I hear from them.

Did United offer Thomas Williams enough compensation?

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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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