Pay another $166 or your baby stays in Costa Rica

Igor Stepovik/Shutterstock
Igor Stepovik/Shutterstock

When Daniel Weisleder tried to board his return flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Houston with his wife and 10-month-old son recently, a United Airlines ticket agent delivered some bad news: He’d have to pay another $166 to fly home with the baby.

“Someone made a mistake,” the agent said.

That might be an understatement. Weisleder, who directs an educational consulting firm in Pittsburgh and is an elite-level United customer, reluctantly forked over the extra $166 to fly home. But he couldn’t understand the late charge.

“When I booked the reservation, I notified United that I would be traveling with an infant on my lap,” he says. “I was charged $991 for the tickets. We checked-in in Houston without a problem, but when we were coming back, we were told that our baby had to pay an additional ticket.”

He adds, “This, of course, made no sense at all — why would you charge us extra to have a baby on our lap?”

There’s an answer to that question. If you’re a travel industry insider, you probably know it. But you don’t have to be a card-carrying travel agent to understand that United leaves no stone unturned when it comes to making money. Just last week, it raised its change fees on domestic tickets from $150 to $200, meaning that many discounted tickets are essentially unchangeable.

There’s an even bigger question that his experience raises, I’m willing to bet the answer isn’t as certain: Can an airline — can any company for that matter — charge you again long after the final bill is settled? And is that ethical?

“Late” billing lives!

Other travel companies have raised what’s called “late” billing to a fine art. Hotels famously add items to their “final” bills that may have been missed at check-out, including a guest’s breakfast, charges for wireless Internet access or, most notoriously, a “cleaning” fee for having allegedly smoked in the room.

But in the travel industry, car rental companies are the true masters of billing you long after your trip is over. Drivers are routinely late-billed for cleaning, traffic tickets and missed tolls, and often with little or no evidence of the infraction. Damage claims can be made on some rental cars months, and even years after the rental, with customers’ credit cards either being billed directly or a threat that if they don’t pay up quickly, you’ll be reported to a collection agency.

In the overall scheme of things, a $166 bill doesn’t seem so bad. But is it right?

Technically, yes.

United’s policy, which is clearly spelled out on its site, says his son needed a ticket.

“Children under the age of two traveling internationally without a seat are required to purchase a ticket and are subject to infant fares and taxes,” it says. “When making your reservation you should indicate you are traveling with an infant, regardless of your destination.”

But that’s exactly what Weisleder did. He told United he was flying with an infant, and left it to the airline to calculate the correct fare.

It did not.

In an email response to Weisleder, United seemed to shift the blame to him.

“The reason our staff in Costa Rica issued a ticket for your infant is because the infant did not have a ticket,” a representative said, adding, “Before you commit to your ticket online, the screen ‘Review trip itinerary’ displays a fare breakdown showing the ticket price and the taxes. If an infant fare had been included, the details would have been displayed. Clearly in this instance, the fare breakdown did not include the infant ticket. I am sorry that you were not aware you had not purchased it at the time of booking.”

Fare errors that favor the customer

Even if Weisleder had hit the wrong button, the ticket agents in Houston on his outbound flight should have identified the problem and fixed it. But catching it on his return flight seemed tactless and opportunistic, because it looked as if United was holding his baby hostage. The implied threat was: “Either pay up or the kid doesn’t fly.” Its response, in which the airline suggested he’d somehow screwed up his own reservation, is equally implausible. As a 1K-level frequent flier, Weisleder surely knows his way around United.com.

All of which makes me wonder if United should have just let the family fly when it tried to board its flight back to Houston.

In the past, I’ve been critical of passengers who knowingly take advantage of fare errors and then try to shame the airline into honoring the price. And I’ve endured plenty of hate mail from folks who wrongheadely insist a business should honor a quoted price every time, no matter how erroneous the price.

After all, a deal’s a deal.

But actually, a deal is not a deal when you’re traveling. The final price can be re-negotiated and revised. You may have to pay an upcharge, a surcharge or a late fee and what’s worse, you may not even know about it until you get your credit card bill. Such is life on the road.

What matters — and what seems to be missing from the discussion on the dynamic nature of the “final” price — is common sense and compassion and yeah, maybe a little reason.

Common sense would have told the San Jose gate agents that Weisleder was no fare thief, but a new dad trying to get home. Compassion would have moved them to let him, his wife and the lap child board the flight back home without demanding more money. Reason would have informed them that United, which is always looking to maximize its revenues, could have lived without the extra $166 from a customer who has already given the airline his loyalty.

When dealing with miscalculated airfares and late charges, every case has to be evaluated on its own merits. Motives matter and no two cases are exactly alike. A good company empowers its own customers to weigh each billing mistake on its own merits instead of applying a set of arbitrary rules.

No one said this would be easy.

Should an airline be able to charge more for your ticket after you've booked it?

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