Hey United, there are two Charlestons — learn to tell ’em apart

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By Christopher Elliott

Don’t get your Charlestons confused. United Airlines did, and look at where it got Mo Shah and his family.

I’m not sure if his problem, which involves a series of unfortunate events at the airport leading to an abbreviated anniversary celebration, is fixable. But there’s plenty to learn for those of us watching from the sidelines. (And who knows, maybe the airline will do the right thing?)

If nothing else, Shah’s case shows the need to be very specific when you’re dealing with air travel arrangements. Otherwise you could end up missing your plane. Or flying to the wrong continent.

The “little” thing that stole valuable hours from Shah’s vacation? A seemingly small qualifier — W.Va versus S.C.

Shah, his wife, and two kids were flying from Washington to Charleston, S.C., for the special weekend. They’d secured reservations at an exclusive restaurant that evening.

“We were through security and heading toward the gate well before the scheduled boarding time of 11:50 a.m.,” he says. “The gate in question is at United’s ‘A’ gates, which serve commuter lines. Each gate actually serves up to six flights, so you can imagine the activity at the gate.”

So there they were on a Friday morning at Dulles, ready to go, when …

We noticed on the airport’s board that the flight was delayed to 12:45 p.m.

In addition, at the gate there is a United monitor (not the airport one) that shows the flight (with destination) and also who is on the standby list and the status of boarding. There is one monitor dedicated to each flight (so there were six monitors at the gate).

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This monitor said 12:45 p.m. as well, in parentheses also saying that the aircraft was being serviced. In addition to that, both my wife and I got automated calls from United saying that the flight was delayed.

At about 12:20 p.m., United made an announcement that the Charleston flight was about to board. But when the family tried check in at the gate, the scanner shrieked — they were on the wrong flight. This was the Charleston, West Virginia flight.

“We pointed to the board that showed that Charleston South Carolina was delayed. I swear, as we were pointing this out to the gate agent, the monitor changed and our flight dropped off. The gate agent shrugged,” remembers Shah.

Turns out the other Charleston flight had already left. Shah asked United for help at the “customer service” counter.

“The customer service agents started the usual spiel of how you have to be in the gate area anyway, when other passengers started getting in line after us, also agitated that the flight had left,” he says. “The tone shifted from blame — ‘You must have missed the announcements’ — to one of slight contrition.”

Eventually, United agreed to put the Shahs on the next flight to Charleston. But that didn’t quite fix the problem.

He explains

I ended up spending the bulk of our anniversary in the gate area, balancing a laptop on my knee and trying to watch a DVD with my wife.

We missed the dinner reservations that we were so looking forward to and didn’t get into Charleston until a good six hours after we were supposed to. Not the end of the world, but certainly a really poor way to spend a nice chunk of our much anticipated getaway.

After they returned, United offered both Shah and his wife 2,500 frequent flier miles for their inconvenience. It was the best the airline could do, they told him, because of something called a “compensation matrix.” (Here’s what to do if your flight has been canceled or delayed.)

Shah thinks United can do better. I think so, too. Clearly, United offered these travelers vague, if not erroneous, information which cost them valuable time. Instead of explaining the compensation matrix to these customers, they should take the time to tell them what went wrong, how they intend to fix it, and offering a mutually acceptable solution. (Related: Five fascinating facts about the new United Airlines.)

But strictly speaking, there’s nothing in United’s contract of carriage, its legal agreement with Shah, that obligates it to give this tale of two Charlestons the happy ending he wants. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.

“At this point, better compensation would be nice,” he told me. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

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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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