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On the Spot: United Airlines owns up to mistake

A customer canceled within 24 hours of purchasing a ticket. The airline had initially refused to also refund the price of the seat upgrade, something it admits was wrong.

May 16, 2010|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • What gives?
What gives? (Mark Shaver / For, Mark Shaver…)

Question: I recently purchased an international ticket on United and paid for an upgrade to economy-plus seating. I changed my mind about the flight and called to cancel the ticket, which I could do without a penalty because it was within 24 hours of the purchase. I assumed that the plus-seating would also be refunded. Lo and behold, my credit card statement showed no refund for the economy-plus seat. I was told that the upgraded seating was nonrefundable. When I argued that the ticket was also nonrefundable, I was told that only the ticket could be refunded within 24 hours of purchase. How can this possibly make sense?

Norma Bragg

Agoura Hills

Answer: I was stumped. So I asked George Hoffer, economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, what would have possessed United to refund the ticket but not the upgrade. Hoffer, who specializes in transportation issues and often can explain what appears to be obtuse and illogical airline economics, was stumped.

And United was stumped.

Yep, that's right. United didn't understand why United didn't give a refund for that seat upgrade.

It should have.

And it will, said Rahsaan Johnson, spokesman for United.

"We made a mistake," he said.

When the words came out of his mouth, I wanted to weep — not because an airline made a mistake but because an airline owned up to an issue it created. This, in my experience with some airlines (and you know who you are), is rare.

Johnson noted that under "Services and Information" on United's website, the pulldown leads to "Our Customer Commitment," where point No. 5 says, "Allow reservations to be canceled."

"In order to allow our customers time to investigate travel options and prices through other channels," it says, "we allow you to cancel reservations without penalty within 24 hours of your purchase." (Not all airlines give the 24-hour cancellation grace period, so check before you book your ticket.)

Johnson says this has been in effect for some years. I must have missed the memo on this 24-hour cancellation rule, but, then, so did United, which also apparently missed rule No. 6 ("Provide prompt ticket refunds") and No. 12 ("Respond quickly, appropriately and courteously to customer questions and complaints"). At least four agents told Bragg they would not give her a refund for the seat upgrade, she said in an e-mail to me.

Still, there are two pieces of good news: Bragg will get her $336 back, and United is merging with Continental, an airline known for customer service. Wouldn't it be incredible if the all-new United became known for breaking away from the mediocrity of the customer service pack instead of just breaking guitars?

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