Should United Airlines pay for its mistake – or should I?

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By Christopher Elliott

A booking error by a United Airlines agent forces Evelyn Jaffe to pay for a new flight to Hawaii. Is she entitled to a refund?


Question

I am writing to you for advice and help regarding a most frustrating experience with booking award travel and the resulting confusion and lack of help from United Airlines.

My husband and I recently bought tickets from San Francisco to Lihue, Hawaii, on United Airlines. I wanted our daughter and granddaughter to fly to Hawaii with us, and since we had enough miles, I decided to book award tickets through the United website. But the site kept crashing before we could complete the transaction, so I called the airline.

I gave a representative my exact dates and specific flight information over the phone. This person was an outsourced agent, for whom English was not a first language, and we were having some trouble communicating. I never received an email confirmation for the award tickets.

When we got to the airport, my daughter and granddaughter did not have tickets. The outsourced agent had booked tickets, but for a week later, and therefore were unusable.

A desk agent found two empty award seats on the outbound leg of the trip and gave them to us. Unfortunately, the airline could not find available award seats in the coach cabin for the return leg. It had two seats in the first-class cabin, but that cost us another 120,000 miles. Can you help me recover the extra miles?

Evelyn Jaffe, Tiburon, Calif.

Answer

United’s records probably show that you used your miles to upgrade your daughter and granddaughter on their return flight from Hawaii, but it doesn’t have any information about the booking error.

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My advocacy team and I think this could have been avoided. When you pay for a ticket, you should receive an email confirmation from the airline. You didn’t have any confirmation for the award tickets booked for your daughter and granddaughter.

Don’t assume that you have a ticket unless you get an email confirmation. Also, you should always take the confirmation number for the ticket, which is also known as a PNR (Passenger Name Record), to the airport with you.

You sent an email to United, which was a good start, but you needed to appeal this to someone at a higher level. I shared a few executive contacts with you, and you sent another email. The response? Another rejection. (Related: United Airlines canceled my flight after a desynchronization problem. Why can’t I get a refund?)

United, like many large companies, records phone calls with customers for “quality assurance purposes.” Your case would be easy to prove — or disprove — simply by reviewing the call. Incidentally, I believe customers should have access to their conversations with any company representative. If you’re being recorded, then you should be able to get a copy. (Related: Can United Airlines fix itself?)

I normally wouldn’t miss an opportunity to rant about the questionable value of frequent flier miles, but in this particular case, your miles bailed you out at the last minute. (Here is our guide on loyalty programs). It’s a shame United didn’t consider your loyalty to the company when it sent you repeated rejections.

I contacted United on your behalf and it returned the extra 120,000 miles you had to spend.

Who should have paid for this mistake?

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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.

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