Why did United cancel my return flight?

When United Airlines cancels Michael Del Medico’s return flight from Washington to Chicago, he goes looking for answers. Can this consumer advocate help him find any?

Question: I recently flew from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Washington National Airport on United Airlines. The gate where I was boarding my flight in Chicago was a shared gate with another United flight leaving at approximately the same time, and there was much confusion boarding both flights with shared gate attendants and ticket scanners.

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When I tried to confirm my return flight home, I found that my confirmation number was no longer valid because United had canceled my return flight, claiming that I did not use my seat from Chicago to Washington.

A United representative told me that my return flight seat had been sold and that if I wanted to return to Chicago, I needed to book another flight, pay a $200 change fee and then attempt to receive a refund from United Airlines for the change fee. Ultimately, United denied me this refund.

All I want is my $200 fee returned and my miles for the Chicago to Washington credited to my United Airlines account since I took my original flight. Can you help? — Michael Del Medico, Park Ridge, Ill.

Answer: United shouldn’t have canceled your return trip. You were on the outbound flight to Washington. You had a roundtrip ticket. You should have been able to fly home. End of story.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. You recall some confusion at the gate, and for whatever reason, United did not have a record of you on your outbound flight.

Canceling the return is a normal — and understandable — industry-wide policy. If you miss your flight, an airline assumes your seat will also fly empty on the return. Canceling the ticket allows it to resell the seat.

When you told United that you were on the flight from Chicago to Washington and offered to show it proof, that should have been an easy fix. But the system isn’t set up like that. After an automatic cancellation, your seat is released back into the airline’s inventory, and you need to go through the booking process again. A $200 change fee is a given. Never mind the fact that these change fees are nothing more than a money grab by the airline. (Does it actually cost the airline $200 to change a ticket? No.)

It’s not clear why United insisted on charging you again and then asking you to go through the refund process. That’s probably a function of its accounting system, as opposed to the way it would handle customer service. I imagine there are United employees who would have wanted to fix this, but their hands were tied.

But remember, there’s always someone higher up the chain of command who can make an exception. I list their names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer advocacy website.

I contacted the airline on your behalf, and it refunded the $200 and credited your miles as it promised it would.

19 thoughts on “Why did United cancel my return flight?

  1. I can understand the confusion at the gate but the UA system should have shown the OP’s boarding pass scanned. If UA did not show that his boarding pass was scanned then they have a major security problem.

    1. yea pretty surprising. Mix ups happen, but in general there is usually a passenger count to at least confirm before door close

    2. Maybe an accounting issue, but no security problem. He was screened by TSA, so doesn’t matter what flight he took. Only matters in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that the plane crashes, in which case they might not be able to promptly inform the next of kin.

    3. I’m always surprised how many peoples passes don’t beep or go red when they board and the gate agents try again and then shrug and wave them on.

      1. Not to mention there is a thing called Weight and Balance that is supposed to be computed and given to the flight deck once all pax and bags are loaded. Hard to believe weight and balance could be accurate if numerous tickets are not scanned and pax not marked as boarding the flight. Definite safety issue.

    4. I really wonder about those scanners and the agents who use them. They’re always in such a rush that I doubt a missed beep would even be noticed.

  2. This is a “customer did absolutely nothing wrong” scenario. Generally, when someone is looking for an exception, the customer isn’t completely innocent. This is an exception to that generalization. I’m sure it is a function of their accounting system, as suggested. But in a “customer did absolutely nothing wrong” scenario like this, where it isn’t even remotely arbitrary, you find someone that can fix it. Absolute worst case, you have the customer pay the $200 (which shouldn’t happen, but let’s say there’s a time crunch) and you personally follow up and fix it. No call center is going to penalize an agent – in the US anyways – for taking the time to help a customer in this scenario.

    One thing I don’t think a lot of people realize is that call center employees will volunteer to do just about anything to not be on the phone. I’m surprised the person he spoke to didn’t offer to help; this is a problem you could kill half a shift with and, as I mentioned, the company won’t fault you for it. It shouldn’t take outside intervention to fix this.

      1. I managed a call center for a few years. The big thing is accounting for your time. In my experience, so long as you provide the info, this is an excused reason to be off the phone and helping someone.

        My experience also was that overseas call centers were very, very stuck to “scripts” and “workflows”.

    1. You are reading my mind, Rebecca. Unless this guy is unable to communicate, he did nothing wrong. United people just couldn’t be bothered to fix this.

  3. Did LW keep his boarding pass, and did he check in any bags for which would still have the standard luggage tag? Can he produce credit card receipts and other banking records indicating presence in Washington, rather than Chicago, after getting off the flight and before presenting at Reagan for the return flight? Any of these would help a lot.

  4. This is just one of the issues that boggles my mind. Either the airline flew a ghost or possibly some terrorist because of a database which is kind of scary, or the airline is just full of it.

  5. UA is total fail on this one. They’ve been having problems scanning boarding passes lately. I was on a flight this week and watched the lady in line ahead of me scan her boarding pass. It beeped and the agent waved her on. At the end of boarding, another person came with the same seat. There was a bunch of confusion…turns out the boarding pass didn’t really scan, they released the seat…fortunately there was another empty one for the standby so there wasn’t a fight or a dragging incident, but UA has some kind of bug with their system right now. Or, y’know human error…but something ain’t right.

  6. While I appreciate the confusion as two gates boarded together, for United not to react favorably to Michael’s first request to just rebook the return flight is sad. You’d think it would take one phone call to a supervisor to get it OK’d. If they couldn’t get around the bureaucracy to do that, the refund of the change fee should have been automatic and he should have received a good number of miles for his inconvenience. There is just no reason to allow the airlines to treat their passengers this way. It has got to stop.

  7. It always amazes me when this happens. As a travel agent we get notices of flight cancellations, usually pertaining to our corporate clients, and we know for sure they took the outbound flight. When this happens we work behind the scenes and more often than not the client never knows they were cancelled.

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