Business & Tech

Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

A leader in service? United falls short after the storm

It was the day after the “bomb cyclone” storm, and like thousands of others who’d had their travel plans upended, Linda Coyne spent all morning on the phone, arguing with an airline. She had purchased a cut-rate flight to San Francisco on United Airlines months before, the first leg of an Asian tour.

The flight was scrapped that Friday, but she had to get to the West Coast the next day or she would miss her group’s flight to Hong Kong.

But the United representative said there were no flights she could get on, leading Coyne to reluctantly cancel her ticket.

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Still looking for a way to salvage her trip, she went to a website showing all available flights on all airlines. And she found one — on United. She called back and was told she could get on that flight. But because she had canceled — based on questionable information from United — it would now cost her $1,800 — nearly 10 times the $196 she had paid.

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After some complaining and wrangling, United finally agreed to sell her the ticket for $900. Minus the $196 she had already paid, she would still be out $704.

“It was customer service at its worst,” said Bob Coyne, Linda’s husband, who stayed home while his wife went in search of warm weather because of a rare medical condition that makes her hands and feet extremely cold and painful in winter.

“Deplorable,” Bob Coyne said during my visit to their Lexington home. “They mistreated us and then ripped us off for $700. It was unethical.”

I’ve done a little online research, including reading United’s contract with its customers and a helpful air travelers guide posted on the US Department of Transportation website. And I come down heavily on the side of the Coynes.

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When Coyne first called, the United representative should have told her there was a chance she could get on a sold-out United flight to the West Coast the next day because seats sometimes open at the last minute. Further, the airline should have stopped Coyne from canceling her ticket.

And the airline should have told Coyne that, one way or another, it would get the retired business manager to her destination, even if it meant flying her on a rival carrier at United’s expense.

That’s the kind of customer service United promises. “Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers,” United says in its “customer commitment” statement. “We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry.”

But that’s not what went down in this case.

All airlines are flying nearly full planes these days in the drive for profit. That means that when tons of flights are canceled, such as in a major weather event, it is difficult, if not impossible, to re-book people immediately on another flight, on either their airline or another.

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During her first call to United, Linda Coyne was told the airline had nothing available, unless she flew to Newark for a connecting flight to San Jose, Calif. She would have to get herself to San Francisco from there.

‘They mistreated us and then ripped us off for $700. It was unethical.’

— Bob Coyne, United Airlines customer 

But she doubted she could switch planes in Newark in the 33 minutes between flights and worried that her luggage would get lost. That’s why she had booked a nonstop flight in the first place.

Without offering any other alternatives, the United rep asked Coyne if she wanted to cancel her ticket for a refund.

Within minutes of hanging up with United, a determined Coyne went online and found a flight to San Francisco. Either the United rep had overlooked an open seat or one became open between the time it took Coyne to get off the phone and go online. That raises the question: Why didn’t the rep tell Coyne to hold on to her ticket for a few hours to see if a seat opened up?

Coyne was annoyed and grateful at the same time. Sure, United had too quickly abandoned her but at least she now could get out of the snow and cold.

Then Coyne noticed the price: $1,800. Surely, United would give her the same price as her original ticket. When your flight is canceled, you are entitled to the next available flight at no extra charge. That’s what the United contract says. That’s what the government consumer guide says. After all, it wasn’t your fault that a nasty nor’easter blew up the coast and shut down all commercial aviation. (The contract also says United “at its sole discretion” may pay another airline to take a stranded customer to a destination).

When she got back on the phone with United, she learned how mistaken she was.

“I have a ticket for $196,” Coyne said.

“I’m sorry, but you canceled that ticket,” said the United representative (a different one).

“But that was only minutes ago and only because United told me it had nothing available,” Coyne reasoned.

“I’m sorry.”

Coyne worked her way up to a supervisor, who agreed to cut the price in half, to $900. But no further. With time ticking down, Linda and Bob Coyne decided to just do it.

I called United with the details of the Coyne’s plight. A day passed without a response, so I pestered them again. Two hours later, Linda Coyne received an e-mail from United 9,000 miles from home (which she forwarded to me with her notation: “Wow.”).

“I’m sorry to hear that your flight to San Francisco cancelled on January 5th and you incurred expenses as a result of rebooking your flight,” the e-mail began.

United went on about how quickly tickets are bought and refunded by phone and on the Web. (As we have now seen.) Then, attempting to sound magnanimous, United informed Coyne it would make “an exception” to its usual rules by refunding the $704.

Exception? I take exception to that. United’s contract and the government air travel guide say it’s the rule. The only wrinkle here is the ill-advised cancellation, which United never should have allowed.

I put all of that into a slightly indignant-sounding e-mail. And to top it off, I asked this pointed question: “Does United encourage customers to cancel when customers have a ticket at a low price, as in this case?”

United sidestepped that question. “We have apologized to our customer and have reimbursed her.”

As to how the system failed, United said it was “looking into what occurred.”

Yeah, well, keep me posted on that, United. In the meantime, readers: The Internet is a beautiful thing. Use it to get educated when in a dispute with the likes of United Airlines. Or send me an e-mail.

Bob Coyne and his wife, Linda, had epic battle over the phone with United Airlines to get the airline to honor their ticket for a flight to San Francisco.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Bob Coyne and his wife, Linda, had epic battle over the phone with United Airlines to get the airline to honor their ticket for a flight to San Francisco.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.