Airlines always seem to be on the take, but why?


Why do airlines do some of the outrageous things they do? Sometimes, there’s no reasonable explanation, as Mitchell Katz discovered.

He recently gave United Airlines a lot of miles and money for nothing.

Katz, flying from Washington to Cancun, Mexico, was tempted to redeem some of his hard-earned miles for an upgrade to business class on the international flight for himself and his son.

“I thought it might be fun for us to fly up front and be treated like royalty for a few hours,” he says.

I should probably mention that I know Katz personally, and have worked with him in a different capacity in Washington. And although I agreed not to mention his employer in the story, let’s just say Katz is in a very good position to know what good service is — and isn’t.

“I was told that in addition to using 50,000 miles to upgrade one way from coach to business class, I also would have to pay $125 per seat,” he remembers.

That’s a lotta miles and not a small amount of money, but not entirely unexpected. These “co-pays” have been around for a while, and you don’t have to fly often to know they do, and don’t, apply. Whether or not you agree with them is another matter. I think paying to use your points kind of defeats the purpose of a “loyalty” program, but I think I’m outnumbered.

What happened next is a little unusual.

At the last minute, Katz decided to turn down the upgrade and sit in economy class with the rest of his family.

“Then I get my credit card statement for August, and find that despite having turned down the upgrade, United still charged me the fee,” he says. “When I said that they could quickly verify where I actually sat on the flight, they said they could not take complaints or make refunds over the phone, and that I would have to submit the complaint and refund request online.”

Then it occurred to him that if they had his money, they probably also had his miles.

“Of course, United Airlines and United Mileage Plus don’t talk to one another, so I had to call the latter to check the balance on my miles account,” he says. “Sure enough, the miles for the seat upgrade I never used had been deducted from my account.”

Katz isn’t alone. Eric Rosenberg contacted me recently after he paid United an extra $110 so he could sit in Economy “Plus” on a flight from Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga.

“Our flight originally flew Los Angeles-Houston-Savannah, but United canceled those flights and changed the itinerary to Los Angeles-Chicago-Savannah,” he recalls. “This resulted in a change of equipment for the second leg, and that plane did not have any Economy Plus seats available.”

Rosenberg contacted United to ask for a refund on Aug. 21. He was told they would send him his $110 — on Nov. 27th.

The good news is that all of these passengers will get their money back. Eventually.

The bad news? The money shouldn’t have been taken from their accounts in the first place, and United’s slow-as-molasses refund process looks more like a free loan than bureaucracy at its worst.

I asked United to help me understand what was happening behind the scenes. A representative told me that, yes, the airline collects the upgrade co-pay — that would be the money used to redeem the “free” upgrade — at the time of the request.

“The system worked correctly,” the representative said. “In this case, the upgrade processed prior to Mr. Katz’s changing his mind. If he had not been upgraded, or if he had canceled the upgrade request prior to it being processed, the system would have refunded him automatically. In short, Mr. Katz will get his miles and copay refunded and we waived the fee for the redeposit of the miles.

That’s good to know. If you ask for an upgrade, you’re charged immediately, not after the product is confirmed or consumed. So Katz and Rosenberg both were listed as being upgraded, even when they weren’t, and their accounts were charged.

Why does something feel so wrong about all this? These passengers just wanted to get to their destination with a little comfort and dignity — the kind of comfort and dignity all airline passengers used to get — and were subjected to a runaround and then offered the airline the equivalent of an interest-free loan.

I can certainly understand why United is doing this from a business perspective, but this isn’t good customer service. These are not the friendly skies.

Are airlines too quick to take our money?

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