People often mistake this site for one of those concierge services, thinking that I’ll fight every case regardless of its merits. Jim Kerrigan is one of them.
Kerrigan contacted me a few months ago with a problem that I’m sympathetic to. At age 72, he wanted to visit his five-year-old granddaughter in Shanghai. He scraped together the 140,000 miles he needed for a seat in first class, but just before he was scheduled to fly, he suffered a massive right knee infection that required surgery and rehab.
He had to cancel his trip.
United Airlines agreed to waive the $150 fee to redeposit his miles, but rebooking to Shanghai for 140,000 miles proved to be more difficult. The best United could do was tell him to monitor the site for an award seat, or he could pay more than twice the miles for a less restricted seat.
“I have been checking the website since May and no direct First Class Super Saver tickets for any time frame have appeared,” he says. “All I ever wanted was to exchange one ticket in March for another in October while my Chinese visa is still good.”
Kerrigan should have done his due diligence. I’m not a travel agent or an award consultant, and finding a “super saver” ticket is beyond my mandate as a consumer advocate. In fact, I stay away from rewards program issues as much as possible.
What’s more, asking United for a favor on top of a favor — remember, it already waived his $150 fee — wasn’t in the cards. The airline has every right to allocate its award seats in whatever way it wants.
I sent Kerrigan my standard reply, which says I’ll review the case, that I can’t promise I’ll be able to advocate for him, and noted that he’ll hear from me if I can help.
A few weeks ago, I received his angry reply: “Thanks for nothing.”
And that got me thinking. Was this reader upset at me for refusing to be his cranky little concierge and pursue big, bad United Airlines? Or was his anger misdirected, and was he really just furious at a system that sometimes forces customers to jump through endless hoops in order to be treated with a little civility?
Remember, airlines like United took their coach class sections, which used to offer a bearable 34 inches of seat pitch, moved them closer together, and then tried to sell us the two inches back, claiming that comfort was a “choice.”
They also created “loyalty” programs that concentrated the best parts of the flying experience on the most lucrative customers, while slowly depriving the rest of the cabin of basic creature comforts and amenities. And scoring an “award” seat on the day you want it can be almost as difficult as winning the lottery. That’s incredibly frustrating to most air travelers.
By the way, if you think this in-flight caste system represents the free market at its best, then you’re probably living in the wrong era. You’d be far more comfortable in 18th century France, where many of the same arguments were used to justify the pre-revolutionary gap between “haves” and “have-nots.”
Is it any wonder that I’m slammed with requests from people who want a little fairness and equality when they fly? When I can’t help, they go running to one of those travel hacking sites, which employ methods as questionable as those of the airlines to trick a travel company into treating them with a little respect.
It’s all nonsense.
Travel hacks, like security vulnerabilities on your web browser, can be patched by the company. The house usually wins in the end. The solution isn’t to outsmart airlines like United, but to persuade them that the way they’re treating customers is bad for business.
And there are two ways to do that. Passengers like Kerrigan can take their business elsewhere, or simply refuse to fly, which will inflict economic pain on the company. Or they can push for common-sense legislation that sets minimum comfort standards for aircraft interiors.
Don’t know how to contact them? Visit my new forums and we’ll show you how.
Am I a socialist for having the audacity to suggest that everyone should be comfortable on the plane? To be honest, I don’t care what you call me. I think it’s the right thing.
Kerrigan would probably agree with me on that one point.