United Airlines approved his colleague’s refund — but what about his?

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By Christopher Elliott

After a flight delay from Portugal, James Tate’s fellow passenger and colleague receives a $700 check from United Airlines. But why doesn’t he get a United refund as well?

Question

I was supposed to fly from Porto, Portugal, to Washington, D.C., via Newark on United Airlines. My scheduled departure time was 12:55 p.m., but we had an 11-hour delay.

United Airlines gave me meal vouchers but would not provide transportation or accommodations. Instead, the airline offered the option of leaving the next day, but with an eventual arrival into Dulles, rather than Reagan, which I reluctantly accepted. I spent the night in Porto, taking a cab to a hotel.

A colleague, who was on the same flight, accepted a different routing, and spent the night in Newark. United Airlines offered him $738 in compensation under EU 261, the European airline consumer protection regulation.

I cited his case, not mentioning him by name. United told me it had made a “mistake.” I have read the regulation, as well as the experiences of dozens of other travelers, and firmly believe I am due the same $738 compensation. I’ve been polite and professional.

United has offered no fewer than three different — and inaccurate — reasons EU 261 didn’t apply. The airline says the flight was canceled. Then it says it diverted the flight. And finally, it claims the crew needed rest time. United mysteriously emailed me a $500 travel voucher link. To redeem it, I have to click a button that releases the airline of all liability. Can you help me get the $738? — James Tate, Mclean, Va.

Answer

United owes you $738 under EU 261, no two ways about it.

EU 261, sometimes also referred to as EC 261, provides assistance and monetary compensation to airline passengers in events such as overbookings, cancellations or flight delays. The type of assistance and amount of monetary compensation depend on the circumstances. I have details on when EU 261 does, and doesn’t apply, on my advocacy site.

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A careful reading of the regulation suggests United correctly compensated your colleague — and incorrectly denied you.

Here’s the truth about your United refund

I reviewed the paper trail between you and United. And, to be honest, I’m a little baffled by the excuses it generates. You’re absolutely right. The airline incorrectly blamed bad weather and then tried to invoke a clause for “extraordinary circumstances” by saying its crew timed out. Finally, a representative claimed United would fire her for fulfilling a legal obligation to you. (Related: Did United offer me compensation for a rough night in the ballroom?)

Direct quote: “I am not willing to be terminated and end my 17-year career with United, for authorizing a draft under EU261, when in fact the flight is non-compensable. I appreciate your understanding in this matter.”

Come on.

I list the names, numbers and email addresses of the United Airlines customer service managers on my advocacy website. A brief, polite email to one of them might have helped. Otherwise, you handled this correctly. Your requests were cordial and factual. Nicely done!

I contacted United on your behalf. Although it continued to insist it had made a mistake when it compensated your colleague, it cut you a check for $738.

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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 São Paulo.

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