The Disaster That Was My Recent United Airlines Award Redemption Experience

Take enough flights, stay in enough hotels and a big problem is bound to come your way.  When I first started traveling for a living, I used to get stressed out by every problem.  It didn’t matter how big or small, it was something to be upset about.  I had high expectations.  And, back then, travel was a bit more luxurious, so those expectations weren’t completely unfounded.  

That sort of attitude has a way of wearing you out if you travel constantly.  Over time, I mellowed dramatically and stopped sweating the small stuff.  The things that airlines or hotels did wrong were no less “wrong”, they just weren’t worth the fight.  This is especially true in a world where customer service as a whole just isn’t as robust as it used to be.  

I say all of this as a preface to the fact that I really can’t recall any truly major issues I’ve had that frustrated me as much as a recent issue with United Airlines.  If you follow me on social media or listen to my podcast, you may have heard me discussing some of the highlights.  It’s time for a debrief.  

I don’t expect United to blow my socks off when it comes to service.  They have the most nonstop flights from my home airport, thus earning me the maximum time with my family.  This incident had me questioning even that choice, that maybe I might be better once again flying out of my way to get better service.  

Enough window dressing.  Let’s get into the details.  There will be a lot of them, mostly because I want to detail some of these interactions in case they can help someone else.  I do think there was a computer error that started us down this road.

To be clear, I’ve done my best to write this down as I recollect.  All the details and numbers might not be 100% correct.  But, I believe I’ve recorded it largely as it happened.

The story begins last summer when I managed to score four business class tickets to Sydney, Australia for my family.  I’d been looking forward to a trip like this since I first visited Australia a few years ago.  I just knew how much my family would enjoy Australia.  I couldn’t wait to share it with them.  Saver awards in a premium cabin from the US to Australia are exceedingly rare.  Finding four on the same flight?  Now you’re talking about the unicorn scenarios.  But, we found an itinerary that worked and we were on our way!

Several months after we booked our flights United reduced the service on our overseas leg from Houston (IAH) to Sydney (SYD).  When they did so, the reservation system automatically re-ticketed our family.  Instead of round-trip business class tickets to Sydney from our home airport (with the domestic segments in first class) we had a itinerary completely in coach, with no refund of miles.

These sorts of things happen, and it usually takes a quick phone call to rectify the matter. I’m a 1K member with United, the highest level of status you can earn without an invitation.  That means I have access to a group of agents who are more equipped to solve problems than a normal reservations agent.

However, since United had reduced the frequency of service between IAH and SYD, there wasn’t anything to speak of for award inventory on any of the dates the flight was still operating during our travel time.  Nor were there seats on other routes from the West Coast.  A simple call turned into a complicated one involved a supervisor and well over an hour of my time on the phone.  It’s been a few months since the call, so I don’t recall the exact length of time.  

When the dust settled, we accepted two less than ideal changes to our itinerary in exchange for business class seats from IAH to Sydney.  We changed our departure dates to an earlier date.  This didn’t seem like the end of the world, as we were able to rearrange other plans to make the new dates work.  Extra time in Sydney isn’t the worst thing in the world, but there was a cost involved on our end in changing the dates due to other commitments.  We also accepted a downgrade on our final flight from Houston to home from first class to coach, as there just wasn’t any inventory the supervisor was willing to make available.  

Fast forward a couple of months and it was almost time to head to Australia.  Before we did so, we happened into a detour.  Our son is a huge Star Wars fan.  He’s obsessed.  I admit, I know very little about Star Wars.  My wife is much more familiar and translates for me from time to time.  If you follow along on my blog and podcast, you’ll know that our family are big Disney fans.  We had originally planned to visit the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land opening at Disney World in late August. 

If you read and listen on a regular basis, you also know that my buddy Mommy Points from TPG is a massive Star Wars fan.  She makes my son look like a rookie, she’s so passionate.  Well, Summer was there for opening day of Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland a few weeks ago.  She couldn’t believe how much a non-factor the crowds were.  Leslie from Trips With Tykes is another super-duper-seventh-level Jedi Disney expert who was there for the opening.  She was equally taken aback at how civil it was walking around Galaxy’s Edge.  It seemed though that all of that would change in late June when Disneyland opened the land up to everyone.  Prior to then, you needed a reservation and the only way to get one after an initial public offering was to book one of the Disneyland hotels.  

This plan started to hatch in my head, a surprise for our son to fulfill his ultimate Star Wars dream before the crowds got batty (side note: Disneyland has taken some of the shackles of Galaxy’s Edge and the wait for most activities in the land has doubled or more).  However, the time was short, especially because we had to shift our dates earlier due to United’s schedule change.  Would an agent work with us to change our flights, maybe even taking into account that we rolled with the punches when they changed our flights?  It was time to find out.

I spent a bunch of time researching flight options and then finally called the 1K line.  The agent I spoke with said the changes we were contemplating were ultimately a supervisor’s call, so she transferred me to one straight away.  The first order of business was to rule out the impossible.  Did the supervisor see any saver business class inventory from the west coast to Sydney on United, even wacky routings?  Unsurprisingly, and in line with my own searches, there was no joy there.  Did I mention that business class awards to Australia are incredibly hard to find?

The next step was to try and hack up our existing flights, preserving that flight from IAH to SYD.  I explained to the agent that I knew I was asking for some sort of an exception, though I wasn’t really sure what was permissible and what was an exception.  I also told her that I had no idea what my idea would price out at.  Instead of flying IAD-IAH-SYD, could she route us from DC to Los Angeles first with an overnight, then on to Houston to catch that flight to Sydney in Business Class?  And, if so, how many more miles would it cost?

I already had one first class saver segment in the itinerary between DC and Houston.  I was effectively asking her to “swap” that to something like IAD-LAX or LAX-IAH and then I would pay extra points to add the other segment.  United has made some system changes as of late and award pricing on complex tickets can be kinda haywire.  What I most typically see is a really big number of miles when you try to kludge segments together in a way the computer doesn’t think you should.  But, I can’t say I’ve seen a ton of rhyme or reason.  

I told the agent that I was willing to consider alternate airports to make things happen.  It’s important to be flexible where you can when trying to find something last-minute like this.  Since our dates weren’t flexible, I was hoping that adding departure cities like DCA and BWI as well as other airports around Los Angeles (Long Beach, Orange County, Burbank, etc) would increase the chances the supervisor could help us. 

I told her that as a backup I had found some Southwest flights that were a reasonable way for us to get to California, and so an additional backup scenario was to try to switch our IAD-IAH segment to LAX-IAH and I would just buy the Southwest tickets.  They were about $200 apiece, a price I considered reasonable given the last-minute nature of what we were trying to accomplish.

The agent pleasantly went to work.  She earnestly seemed to want to help, something I can’t say about every agent I speak with.  After quite a bit of time she was able to piece something together.  As she explained it, we could fly to Los Angeles in coach nonstop, hang out there for Star Wars, then continue on in coach to Houston in time to catch our original Sydney flight in business class.  As we were comparing notes, she and I both saw that there were 3 first class seats on one flight from DC to LAX, but not enough for the 4 of us.  

I told her I had no problem with the downgrade for me, but maybe we could put my wife and kids in first?  She said she’d go over pricing with me for both options.  This is probably a good point to stop and clarify that at the time I was having the discussion with the supervisor I only had roughly 9,000 miles in my United account.  I had plenty of Chase Ultimate Rewards points at my disposal, and transfers happen instantly to United from Chase.  Because it’s so quick to transfer I don’t generally transfer points unless I have an immediate need.  Leaving them with Chase gives me more flexibility.  

I don’t recall exactly how many miles, but 9,000 is close enough.  It’s an important part of the story, since it pretty much confirms that I’m not nuts.  At any rate, the supervisor told me that it would cost an extra 2,500 miles for my wife and two children if I wanted to have them sit in first class.  She also said that it would be a refund of miles for my ticket.  I’m 99% sure she told me that the refund would be 17,500.  But, since it wasn’t a ton of miles either way, I wasn’t razor focused on the amount of miles.  Plus, I had enough miles in my account since it was a net credit of miles.  Getting things fixed to spring the surprise for our son was in my sights!

For those who might not be familiar with United’s procedure for booking an award online, the agents have a security step that’s somewhat new over the past couple of years.  Each Mileage Plus member has a series of security questions, like what your favorite color or fruit is.  Agents will ask them to verify you’re really you.  This is another part of the conversation that makes me think I’m not completely nuts.  The supervisor asked me my security questions so she could begin the process of changing our tickets.

The call lasted a bit longer while she put me on hold to get ticketing involved to change our flights.  By the time we were done we had been on the phone for well over an hour.  But, the end result was exactly what we wanted, or at least I thought so at the time.  I verified all the tickets looked correct before I let the supervisor go.  And, I also transferred 200,000 Ultimate Rewards points into my United account.  I needed to tackle another project, booking a return flight home from Europe for a summer trip.  Again, I’m almost 100% sure that the 200,000 mile transfer happened after all the tickets had been reissued.  I’m trying to give United as much benefit of the doubt through this process, since these were all phone calls.  It’s entirely possible I’m recalling something incorrectly, though I think there are enough details that point to that not being the case.

I hung up the phone and dealt with some other tasks, saving that return flight from Europe for later on.  Later that evening, I decided to log back in to my United account and tool around with Europe flights.  When I logged back in I found that I had roughly 45,000 miles in my account instead of the roughly 209,000 I was expecting to see.  I’m guessing you saw that part coming.  As the pit developed in my stomach I dialed up the 1K desk.

The agent I spoke with put me on hold for a long time.  It was almost an hour before she came back on the line and told me that it would be easier if a supervisor explained to me what had gone wrong.  She said something about the miles getting put back into my account, but that the supervisor could better explain.  

The supervisor claimed that when we changed our tickets a few months earlier the miles were redeposited into our account but not withdrawn again.  She claimed that the agent I had spoken with earlier couldn’t possibly have priced an award in the manner I was explaining.  I pointed out to her that I had received an e-mail with (what appeared to be) valid ticket numbers after my call with the first supervisor.  The second supervisor told me that those ticket numbers were invalid.  Honestly, I’ve never had an agent tell me that a ticket number was invalid.  I’m sure it happens, but this whole scenario was bizarre.

I kept pointing out how my balance would have prevented the first supervisor from deducted the 300,000+ miles from my account that the second supervisor said I owed, and that I had received an e-mail just hours before with ticket numbers and the requested changes.  Each time I would calmly lay this out to the supervisor, she would repeat that my tickets were invalid and she was willing to make an exception to help me.  However, she wouldn’t tell me what the exception was, just that she would have to put me on hold to work with her ticketing department to straighten things out.

I wanted to make sure I had a clear understanding of what was going to happen before agreeing to any other changes.  I especially didn’t want to lose the business class seats to Sydney since I know how rare those are.  As the call passed the 90 minute mark, the supervisor started explaining to me for the third time that she was trying to make an exception.  I was tired at this point and really didn’t feel like hearing the entire story a third time.  So, I interrupted her, saying I just wasn’t following what she was trying to propose.  That proved to be a bad idea.

Her voice got sharp and she said, “I’m going to stop talking now because you just interrupted me and that’s rude!”  Unfortunately, she didn’t stop talking.  She proceeded to scold me for interrupting and then told the entire story again about my account essentially being overdrawn and that my tickets were invalid, and that there was no way the first supervisor could have done what she did.  After she got done talking, I waited a few seconds and asked her if she was done speaking.

The agent (who was still on the line) may have sensed my tone had shifted to one of impatience, and she jumped in to try to explain that the supervisor was trying to help me and essentially repeated a condensed version of what the supervisor had said.  Again, I waited a few seconds and asked her if she was done speaking.  Wasn’t about to touch that third rail again.

I then noted that we were almost at the two-hour mark and nobody could tell me exactly what was supposed to happen next.  I noted that I did interrupt her, and apologized, but also noted that the hold times had been brutal and that neither of them could actually tell me what they were going to do, hence my frustration.

The agent asked the supervisor if the supervisor could outline what the changes would look like.  The supervisor said that she needed to put us on hold to do some math.  Fair enough.  When she came back on the line, we were well over the 2-hour mark.  She told me that when the dust settled and she applied the exception for one of the coach segments in saver inventory that I would get back 65,000 miles. I told her that I was fine with that, and that I would follow up with customer service in the morning, as I believed I was still missing about 100,000 miles.

The supervisor decided that it would be good to (again) explain to me that she was doing me a favor by making an exception and I wasn’t entitled to any more miles, let alone the 65,000 she would be returning.  Not wanting to pick another fight with the supervisor, I asked her if she could just fix my tickets in the manner she had laid out.  She told me again that I wasn’t going to get any more miles back.  I told her I really just wanted to have her issue valid ticket numbers and go to bed.  She hauled the soap box out again to tell me that my tickets were invalid and I owed a bunch of miles.  I was barely listening at this point, willing to agree to just about anything just to end the call with a seemingly valid set of ticket numbers.  While I was waiting for her to finish talking, the agent broke in near the end and said, “I think he’s agreeing with you, (supervisor name redacted). He wants you to move forward as you’ve laid out.”  Exactly. I agreed, and yet the supervisor still sounded pissed.  Honestly, if it wasn’t for her comment about the invalid ticket numbers, I would have hung up a long time ago (and probably should have).

The supervisor put us on hold for a while.  We were almost at the 3-hour mark and when came back on to tell us that the ticketing department had fixed things and that I was all set.  I looked up the record online and the flights all looked correct.  I also confirmed that I had an e-mail with ticket numbers, different from the earlier e-mail care of the first supervisor.  Lastly, I checked my mileage balance to see if the miles had been returned to my account.  I said something like, “It looks like my mileage balance hasn’t changed yet, but that might take some time for the miles to come back into my account.”  The supervisor agreed with me.  I refreshed the page again, just about ready to hang up.  With the refresh, my account was now showing 20,000 fewer miles than before the second supervisor made her changes.  This ran counter to her explanation that I would get back 65,000 miles.

I almost have to laugh looking back on this, though I can still recall the pit in my stomach.  When I told her that my account had fewer miles in it, she said, “Well, I told you I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many miles this would cost.  That’s up to ticketing.  We never know how many miles they’re going to charge for something.”

I remember thinking that the conversation was so unlike pretty much any other I’ve had with a 1K customer service representative. They always communicate how many miles something will cost.  Sometimes they need to get their ticketing department to help, but the miles required have always been communicated to me prior to changes.  At this point, even though I should have known better, I asked the agent if she had heard something different from the supervisor than my recollection of a 65,000 mile credit to my account.  She replied that the supervisor had said that she believed I would get miles back, but then proceeded to back up the supervisor, saying that it was up to the discretion of the ticketing department.

I just didn’t have any more fight in me, so I ended the call shortly thereafter.  During the entire 3.5 hours, I never raised my voice or cursed, though there were many times I exhibited frustration.  I was hopeful that a third call would prove fruitful.  As I hung up, I realized I had received not one, but two e-mails 5 minutes apart from each other from United.  Both had the same flights, but different ticket numbers.  Our flights had now been re-ticketed 3 times in the span of a handful of hours.

The following day, I hopped on the phone to call Mileage Plus customer service.  I was hoping they could look at the account in more detail and figure out what happened.  I spent about 30 minutes on the phone with an agent who couldn’t make any headway with the record.  That left only one more department to try, 1K Customer Service.

The agent I spoke with was extremely pleasant.  However, shortly after the call got started, she told me that if my issue had to do with a current reservation (it did) she couldn’t help me.  She offered me 15,000 miles as a recognition of my loyalty and as an apology for the lengthy hold times.  She also told me that I could call customer service back after my flights were completed if I still had an issue. However, she said as I had described the issue to her, there was nothing customer service could do for me other than apologize and offer a small amount of miles for my inconvenience.  She said I needed to speak to someone in Mileage Plus customer service.  I told her I had already spoken to them.  She was certain I needed to speak to them, so she put me on hold while she transferred me.  The agent who picked up the call told me that she was 100% certain she couldn’t solve my problem, but she felt bad that I kept getting transferred.  She asked me to hold while she found a reservations supervisor to speak with me.  After a moderate hold time, I was connected with my third reservations supervisor.

This supervisor was incredibly polite and really wanted to help.  She listened patiently while I gave her as abridged a version as possible.  She put me on hold while she looked through the records.  When she came back on the line she noted that the second supervisor had notated the record about miles not being properly withdrawn. But, she said she couldn’t follow the entire path of what the first and second supervisors had done.  She had no explanation for why I received two different set of ticket numbers in succession the night before.

The good part?  She truly wanted to help.  The bad part?  She really couldn’t.  It was clear that, at least for the foreseeable future, I wasn’t going to get back the 170,000-ish miles I was missing.  I had gotten 15,000 from 1K customer care, but the rest just weren’t going to happen quickly (or ever?).

I noted to the third supervisor that if the first supervisor hadn’t been able to help with the IAD-LAX flight my plan was to purchase tickets on Southwest Airlines and rearrange the rest of the legs with United to get me to Houston after.  Since a few days had passed, the relatively affordable $200 tickets on Southwest had turned into $500 tickets.  Maybe this supervisor could help me find a cheaper flight on United?  She and I set out checking all possible revenue seat options to get our family from the DC area to Los Angeles.  IAD, DCA, BWI to places like Long Beach, John Wayne, Burbank, Ontario, etc.  Try as we might, we couldn’t find an option that would set me back less than $2,000 cash.

The agent really was unbelievably friendly and trying to be helpful.  She was also very clear she couldn’t make the 170,000 miles reappear.  I openly debated with her whether it was better to shell out $2,000 for revenue seats or sacrifice miles I valued at about $3,000 to make the trip happen the way it was currently ticketed.

During the time that she and plowed through all the different options, we noticed that for our IAD-LAX flight a set of 3 seats had opened up beside each other in coach.  One of the reasons why I was initially in favor of having my wife and kids fly in first class was so the kids could sit beside each other.  They’re still at the age where flying next to a stranger isn’t in their wheelhouse.  Since there were seats together open in coach, I asked the third supervisor what sort of refund I might be looking at to downgrade them to coach.  She double-checked and said it would be 17,500 miles per passenger, or a refund of 52,500 miles.  I shared with her my general uneasiness with pulling the trigger again, even though she was beyond wonderful to deal with.

She said that she’d stay with me on the phone after the transaction to wait for the miles to post to my account.  And, she said that if it didn’t happen instantly, she’d put me on hold and find someone who would push it through quickly.  Not sure if that’s a real option, but it wasn’t necessary.  I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers and let her make the changes.  Thankfully, we were able to grab the seats together in coach and return the miles back to my account.  In a final bit of weirdness, the e-mail I received that final time from United had new ticket numbers and a completely different amount of miles listed as the “price” for the change than what the agent told me.  Neither she nor I could figure it out.  But, my account looked correct.  So, it was time to drop it and move on.

As we wrapped up the call, the supervisor mentioned that she was going to reach out to customer care to ask them to give me some more compensation.  She cautioned it probably wouldn’t be much.  I told her I was thankful for her efforts.  Hanging up the call with her, I had crested the 9 hour mark on the phone with various United departments.

The next day, I saw an additional credit of 7,500 miles to my account labeled as “Customer Care Compensation”, the same designation as the 10,000 miles I had received when I called 1K customer service.  Writing this, it reminds me that, oddly, my account also increased roughly 20,000 miles at some point over the weekend.  There wasn’t any notation on my account and still isn’t to this day.  I was only able to piece it together based on screenshots I started taking of my account.

The Resolution

I spoke with a couple of friends that I trust who are familiar with United’s procedures.  They agreed that they’d never seen a set of circumstances like this.  One of them commented that he had seen instances where miles weren’t withdrawn from an account correctly.  I had heard of that happening with other folks as well, just didn’t have any first-hand experience.  Friends I spoke with encouraged me to continue to pursue United to get my miles back.  One friend even offered to put together a spreadsheet on my account activity to help walk an agent through what had happened.  In the end, everyone was still most puzzled by the fact that I had 9,000 miles in my account when these changes happened the first time, something that shouldn’t really have been possible.

The only concrete decision I made after the last phone call was to start moving business away from United Airlines.  I wasn’t going to cut my nose off to spite my face.  United still made a lot of sense for me on nonstop routes from my home airport.  However, between myself and the other employees on my team, we had a number of choices on connecting flights.  Unless there was an obvious reason to choose flights based on price or schedule, we started moving business away from United.

At the end of the day, it really felt like the only concrete move I could make.  Setting aside any further pursuit of my missing miles, it was time to speak with my wallet.  Many of us in the blogging world and plenty of my fellow business travelers complain but don’t actually change our behavior.  Sometimes we’re victims of habit, other times we’re hub captive with only one solid choice out of our home airport.  It seemed like the only proper course of action was to act with my wallet. If I didn’t change my behavior, then I was really just accepting the bad service.  To be clear, I don’t command enough spend to make United change their behavior even one little bit.

Other than moving some business away from United, I guess you could say I made the passive decision to kick the can down the road a bit until after our trip to Sydney.  About a week went by and I kept thinking about the missing miles but I didn’t take the time to call or write United again about the issue.  Part of me was just dreading another call.  Sure, the miles are worth quite a bit of money to me.  But, so is my time.  How much time is enough time to give up?

We won’t know the answer to that.  About a week after my final call to United, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize in Illinois.  I picked it up and the woman asked for me by first and last name.  She introduced herself and said she was calling from the United Airlines corporate office. My issue had ended up in their office because of social media activity.  As I was dealing with the various supervisors and being placed on hold for large chunks of time I tweeted out some of the play-by-play.

A few of the tweets went somewhat viral.  They didn’t get thousands of likes and retweets, but they were mentioned multiple times over multiple days.  Apparently, that was enough to trigger an algorithm where United noted that it seemed like I was still unhappy with something.

The woman who called me allowed me to explain what happened.  I tried to give her the abridged version, but there was just so much detail.  While our conversation was polite, I’m sure I overwhelmed her a bit with the details.  I also told her, in full disclosure, that I had started moving some business away from United.

I also made sure to note multiple times how great I thought the third supervisor was, even though she couldn’t solve my issue.  It’s so important to catch people doing things right, especially in an era when service has eroded.  I shared that third supervisor’s name and asked if the corporate representative could make sure that supervisor was commended.  She assured me she would do so.

At this point, she was quick to point out that they didn’t want to lose my business.  She was extremely apologetic.  I told her openly that I hadn’t gone back and audited my entire account history dating back to last summer, and that it was possible that the second supervisor was right and I owed United miles.  Her answer surprised me a bit.  She told me that at some point, it was United’s responsibility to correctly debit my account and I shouldn’t be liable for something that happened (or didn’t happen) months ago on United’s part.

At that point, she told me she had done her best to go through all the changes and got a bit lost amongst all the changes and ticket numbers as well.  She acknowledged my comments about having such a small balance of miles when all of this happened.  She didn’t go so far as to say I was correct, but we weren’t debating.  It was much more a friendly discussion of a bad situation.

She asked me to summarize how many miles I thought I was missing.  On the one hand, the original “price” I was quoted by the first supervisor had me missing roughly 170,000 miles.  I had taken a voluntary downgrade to coach when I was promised first class.  On the other hand, I had received some miles from customer service as compensation for the inconvenience.  I told her that (assuming my account was debited correctly back in March) I thought the number was either 110,000 or 170,000.  She asked me if 100,000 miles was enough for me to put the issue to rest.  It was.

The Final Two Pennies

When the dust settles, it’s a bit hard to tell where I ended up.  Did I end up shorted by United on those miles?  Maybe.  Is it possible they never withdrew miles to re-ticket us back in March?  I guess, though I think there’s no way I don’t notice a 320,000 change in my account balance.

The only question we really haven’t answered is whether the resolution of 100,000 miles is enough to make the memories of this experience fade.  I’m honestly not sure.  There’s no edict in the company travel policy to book away from United.  It was short-lived for my employees.  With a sample size of exactly two tickets I’ve purchased for myself since the resolution, I booked one flight with United out of habit.  It was a connecting flight.  My return flight was also connecting.  When I didn’t see great connecting times on United I didn’t hesitate booking with Delta.  Maybe I should have started with Google Flights instead of United’s website?

Time will tell if this changes my behavior.  Ultimately, I think it’s death by a thousand cuts when it comes to my relationship with United.  The irrational loyalty that we saw so frequently 10 years ago in the airline industry has eroded.  United is still likely to get the lion’s share of my business because of their nonstop presence out of IAD.  That’s unfortunate since I don’t think they do anything else to earn my business (just take a look at their Wi-Fi stats over the course of the year).

You can argue that United owes me more miles.  Some folks have pointed out I’m due compensation for “pain and suffering”.  While I’m curious how folks will react, I’m satisfied enough with the response.

Well, maybe satisfied isn’t the right word.  It’s safe to say that I don’t want to invest more time pursuing a resolution.  100,000 miles back in my account was enough to convince me it was time to move on.

There you have it.  Almost 6,000 words to detail a completely wacky situation.  There were points where I was pretty frustrated, no doubt.  But, I think the erosion of that irrational loyalty made the whole process seem more transactional than anything.

This situation as wacky enough that I thought it made sense to detail it all in case it helped someone else.  And, I think it emphasizes that honest feedback, not just complaining, via social media can actually make a difference.  At the end of the day, it appears none of my phone calls got a remedy.  It was my Twitter activity and resulting chatter from people who follow me.  You can see the Tweets yourself if you go back through my account.  I believe I kept the Tweets honest and professional, something that can be lacking at times on social media.  If there’s anything to take away from this whole situation, remember the value of constructive feedback on social media as a tool to solve issues.  Some companies are listening.

What’s your opinion?  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

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17 Comments

  1. I think you’re being pretty nice about it. You’re a 1K member and yet you still were treated badly. Not just by the rude supervisor, but with the whole mis-accounting of miles. Either the system screwed up or someone manually screwed up or both. Even if they did make it right it in the end, the whole story just underscores how powerless customers are, even at the top elite level.

    1. +1. The airlines expect loyalty but don’t give any in return. Has it really only been about 5 years since Delta was asking what your loyalty program has done for you lately?

  2. Even by your most conservative estimate you aren’t back to even- much less compensated for the travel booking hell they put you through. I have a sneaky suspicion UA knew 100k miles would be enough to at least keep the debacle out of small claims court. If they actually wanted your business back they’d have gone with 170k miles plus generous compensation for the hours of mess they put you through. At the end of the day a couple thousand dollars is a tiny drop in the UA bucket and I think they screwed up by being so stingy considering how many potential flights you could book with them…. and sheesh. That’s how they treat their 1Ks?!

  3. In the past few years I kept watching United and American and was trying to figure out why they are racing to the bottom and who was winning the race. Lately, it seems that United is ahead by an airplane-length and keeps increasing their lead.

    I haven’t flown United in a little over 2 years (which is not easy at all being that I am based in ORD) and I cannot say that I am missing anything. I’ve got ExPlat with AA now and I’ve had good luck so far. I even believe that AA saver award availability has gotten a bit better, ever since they moved to the dynamic pricing as well.

  4. David, they are better then Delta. Better mileage program, better lounges, better lifetime program. Delta has the oldest fleet and the least desirable hub cities. And obviously SkyMiles is a joke.

  5. Once you get the bad agent, it’s game over. This is unfixable. There is probably a note in your PNR like “customer is unreasonably demanding to pay a low mileage price for a ticket, claims a prior phone call promised him this, I promise it is a lie” and everyone who ever looks at the PNR is going to read that note from that agent and, it’s all over.

    I have only ever had this happen on United but it must happen elsewhere. It’s never been quite this bad — I have a self-preservation instinct that makes me hang up if there is major cost at stake.

    I will only stubbornly stay on a call for an hour to let someone incoherently explain some crazy theory if it’s been at least a year since my last experience, and I never get anything out of it (no one ever realizes they are wrong).

    The absolute highlight was back when you could still call in award flights that had inventory on each segment and piece it together one by one.

    An agent was struggling to manually price one such itinerary and had convinced herself that It Was An Illegal Routing and The Customer Was Trying To Pull One Over On Her.

    She had been telling me that BOS-ORD-TPE-SIN-PER was an invalid routing because “the rate desk told me it can only have 3 connections” and we had been having a conversation about how many connections were involved in that itinerary, first asking how many connections are in BOS-ORD (zero), then how many are in BOS-ORD-TPE (one), then how many are in BOS-ORD-TPE-SIN (two), then how many are in BOS-ORD-TPE-SIN-PER (she refused to answer the question).

    While trying to answer this question, she suddenly stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and pretended the line had been disconnected. I stayed silent too (she had been talking!) and after three tense minutes of near-silence on the line she eventually giving up the subterfuge.

    Meanwhile during her silence I had used the web site to book BOS-SFO-TPE-BKK-PER, and gave her the record locator. I said, “can you tell me how the number of connections in this award ticket differs from the one which you are unable to price?” She put me on hold for 15 minutes then offered some gibbered word salad that might have come from the rate desk.

    It was only hilarious because at the time I had no kids and lots of spare times and there were no consequences to the call (miles and upgrades and confirmed seats were not on the line).

    Good luck with your next airline.

  6. It was sooooo much easier when we could send an email to Scott O’Leary and get a coherent answer…. days gone by…

  7. The airline loyalty world has changed and the long time elites are just now catching up. It’s interesting to read your story and see that your elite status still had you hanging onto old traveling habits, those of us who don’t fly enough for status ditched airline specific loyalty a long time ago. And even with my recent WN Companion Pass acquisition I’m still not solely a WN flyer. I’m glad you’re seeing that price loyalty paired with transferable points is the loyalty of today and tomorrow.

  8. Ed, this is EXACTLY why I left dealing with UA and its BS this year. I was myself a former 1K for many years and more than half way to Million Miles; but after years of poor service, now coupled with DeNada Munoz and Scotch Kirby running this airline into the ground, I dropped to Gold and am so much happier. As a free agent stuck in the occupied area of former Continental (NW Houston/IAH) United was always my go to; given the monopoly there; but now with Delta/Jet Blue and others moving in it only gets better everyday.

  9. Ed, so sorry for all your troubles. 🙁 That this could happen to a savvy traveler like you is unnerving. By the way, Star Wars is fantastic and your son (and Mommy Points) has good taste. I hope it all works out! Alison (formerly of northern Virginia and now in the mountains outside of Denver)

  10. Sorry to hear about the issue, especially with dealing with a rogue agent, and you can’t just HUCA. Since this is a complex situation with multiple tickets and changes, it may make sense to do a reconciliation from the beginning against amount debited/credited to see how many miles you were missing.

    It’s possible that when the first supervisor was trying to reissue the tickets, she quoted the wrong amount, and things went awry and did not get ticketed correctly, so when it reached ticketing for reissuance, they simply deducted more miles (Since now there are more miles in the account) to cover the domestic portion instead of reissuing as a multi-23hour layover international, 3 separate domestic first legs were issued to pay for the detour (the amount deducted plus refund in difference pointed toward that direction). Still, this should not have been a 12 hour saga.

  11. When an airline has schedule changes, they should rebook you into the inventory that you were originally booked. I’m an ex-airline agent from EA/PI/US. That was always our procedure. I’m now an AA Platinum. While AA has many problems, they’ve always rebooked me into the correct inventory on involuntary changes. The “Rules Police” need to get real. When you book an award 11 MO in advance to find a flight, they should respond with “Yes, sir, you’re all set. Sorry for the inconvenience and we appreciate your business.” Where has common sense gone? Can you imagine the stress on these agents to stick-it-to 1K members with rehearsed BS? You are far more forgiving than I.

    1. Tmik, that used to be my experience as well. It’s gotten a lot tougher to get agents to accommodate these sorts of rebookings. It’s unfortunate, especially when the customer didn’t do anything wrong.

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