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ON THE SPOT / BY CATHARINE HAMM

It's my bad?!

March 04, 2007|CATHARINE HAMM

You call this customer service? I recently booked a flight with United Airlines and immediately realized that I had made a mistake. So instead of canceling, I rebooked the trip and was charged a $100 change fee. The website states that if you cancel a ticket within 24 hours of purchase, you can get a full refund. Why doesn't the same refund policy exist for rebooking, if it's done within 24 hours? To make matters worse, when I called customer relations, I was told to call back after three days, but by then the 24-hour window would have closed. And the customer service people kept giving me false names. Why can't they show a little more understanding?

-- Patricia Lee

Mission Viejo

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Answer: Lee should buy stock in United. I'm not joking. Or, rather, Ron Burley isn't joking.

That's one of the tactics he suggests in his book, "Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For," when you're stuck in customer service Siberia, a term that has become more and more redundant these days.

Burley dreamed up this scheme: Buy some stock, then call investor relations and tell them you're a shareholder who's been treated shabbily. That'll get their attention.

Now, a couple shares of United could cost you more than the $100 change fee once you factor in brokerage fees. Perhaps this will be the hidden cost for dealing with customer service in the future.

Meanwhile, make sure you document every conversation and hold onto every e-mail when you're working your way through the maze, including the customer service person's name and agent number. Then, when you get bounced around, you have a record of whom you spoke with.

But more important than the financial bottom line is the ethical bottom line: Is the website misleading? Can consumers reasonably be expected to differentiate between canceling a ticket and amending it?

Here's what Robin Urbanski, a spokeswoman for United, says, "There is a difference between changing and canceling a reservation, and I apologize if we failed to explain the difference clearly."

Urbanski told me that United has changed the frequently asked questions section of its website "to more easily guide our customers through changing and canceling a reservation."

Let me pose this question: When was the last time you read the FAQs on any website before you proceeded? Consumers are imperfect. They err. For this, they must be punished?

I think not.

The airlines need to think like consumers, who are, after all, the reason they're in business.

Make no mistake about it.

catharine.hamm@latimes.com

Ever been put on the spot? E-mail your experience to travel@latimes.com.

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