United Airlines canceled my flight after a desynchronization problem. Why can’t I get a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

When United Airlines cancels the last leg of Andy Wilson’s flight to Iceland, he must buy a new ticket. The airline blames a “desynchronization” — but will it cover his extra costs?


I am writing to request a refund for tickets I had to purchase at the last minute, after our international travel had already begun. United canceled part of our international itinerary without notice or remedy.

My wife and I had booked tickets through United.com from Albuquerque, N.M., to Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, with stops in Houston and Frankfurt.  When we checked in at Albuquerque for departure, a United representative told us we couldn’t check in for our flight from Frankfurt to Keflavik because Icelandair was not a United Airlines code-share partner airline. But the representative assured us that this was normal and that we would only need to pick up our luggage in Frankfurt and take it to the Icelandair ticket counter. 

We flew to Houston, and again, we tried to check on the status of our Icelandair reservation. But Icelandair’s website and mobile app could not find our reservation under our confirmation code.

In Houston, Icelandair’s customer service line told us that the tickets were never issued and that the reservation itself had been canceled by the issuing travel agency the day before travel.  Since we bought our tickets on United.com, I presume that United itself was that agency.

We found this out while our flight to Frankfurt was boarding. The United gate agent in Houston could not help.  She told us that she couldn’t even look up our reservation under its confirmation number since, again, Icelandair was not a partner airline.  

We had to repurchase the seats that had allegedly been canceled at a cost of $1,959. It would be appropriate for United to refund that cost to make me whole. Can you help? — Andy Wilson, Albuquerque, N.M.


What a nightmare! You booked your airline ticket through United.com, so it’s responsible for getting you to your destinations. It doesn’t matter if United has a relationship with Icelandair or not. The buck stops with United.

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Normally, you would find out about a problem with your ticket well in advance of your flight. But it looks like United canceled the last leg of your flight just before you left. A last-minute call to Icelandair might have revealed the problem. But if you buy a ticket on United.com, and it sends you a confirmation number, you should be confident that you actually have a reservation for all travel segments. (Related: How to book an airline ticket.)

I don’t think you had much of a choice about buying a new ticket on Icelandair. You could have gone to the United Airlines ticket counter in Frankfurt and explained the problem, but if you had missed your flight, it would have screwed up your entire vacation — car rental, hotel stay, tours.

You were cornered and had to purchase a more expensive, last-minute ticket. And you’re absolutely correct: This was something United should pay for. (Related: Caught between United, Expedia and a useless ticket to Fort Lauderdale.)

You contacted United in writing, and you did an excellent job of keeping a paper trail. In response to your request, the airline offered to refund the unused leg, but nothing more, claiming a “desynchronization of your ticket ” caused the problem. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

“Due to operational changes, we’re unable to guarantee flight times or aircraft type, especially when the flight is operated by another airline,” the representative said.

What is ticket desynchronization and how do you avoid it?

Ticket desynchronization refers a mismatch or inconsistency between flight segments. It happens when the information stored in various systems (such as airline databases, travel agencies, or booking platforms) about a passenger’s flight tickets doesn’t align correctly.

What causes ticket desynchronization?

Several factors can lead to ticket desynchronization. They include manual changes made to your ticket by airline staff or travel agents, system glitches that cause communication databases, and flight changes.

What happens if my ticket is desynchronized?

It’s not good. If the departure time on one ticket doesn’t match the arrival time of the connecting flight, you might miss your connection. You might also receive conflicting information about your itinerary, leading to confusion and inconvenience. And you might be delayed. (Related: Can United Airlines charge me $425 for a canceled flight during the pandemic?)

Note: when a ticket is desynchronized, you may hear someone referring to a minimum connect time. That’s because the second leg of your flight has changed and you can no longer make your connection.

How do I avoid ticket desynchronization?

Always double-check your itinerary, especially when there’s a change in your flight. Pay attention to the minimum connect time and make sure that you have enough time to get to your next flight. The best way to avoid a desynchronization is to avoid a flight with a connection.

How did United Airlines fix this ticket desynchronization?

United apologized and deposited 5,000 “goodwill” miles into your account and refunded the canceled leg.

That’s a good start, but United needed to step up and cover the cost of your new flight. My advocacy team and I contacted the airline on your behalf, and it issued a full refund.

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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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