This is a story about the death of a relationship…with an airline. But it requires me to briefly include the death of my Mom – that’s what I called the grandma who raised me. On May 29, I phoned Mom and for the first time in my life she had no idea who I was. She’d broken her femur a couple of months earlier and medications were increasing her dementia. I called the next day and was relieved she knew who I was again. She asked when I was coming to see her. She was in an LA nursing home, I was in Denver.
This is a story about the death of a relationship…with an airline.
On Friday, May 31, I booked a flight for the earliest day I could get away from other commitments, June 22. My hope was to see Mom again while there was a chance she’d remember me. I never considered booking a compassion fare, because she wasn’t precisely dying. She was 88, so she might live for years or days. I chose United Airlines, because: 1) I’d been a frequent flyer with United for about 14 years, and racking up miles with them earned me occasional free flights, and 2) Denver is their hub, so their flights tend to be reasonably priced.
The following Thursday, my father called to tell me that his mother – my grandma, our Mom – had a blood clot that had stopped circulation in her leg. We decided against amputation, so the doctor said she’d probably pass away in a week to 10 days. That night I bumped up my flight to Saturday.
First I looked online to see if United offers compassion fares. It does. So I called United, explained my situation, and asked to switch my flight to June 8 and make it a compassion fare. The customer service agent explained that my ticket didn’t permit changes. I had to pay a $186 fare difference, plus a $200 change fee. The agent said United would refund the $200 after I provided proof of death.
The $186 fare difference was still a stretch for me, so I asked for a supervisor. When he answered, he spoke so fast I couldn’t understand him. So I said something like, “Excuse me, I didn’t catch that.” He sighed heavily and repeated himself ridiculously loudly with obvious irritation, “I SA-ID, CAN I HELP YOU?” As I explained my situation, he remained impatient. He said he couldn’t bend the rules. “Wow,” I said. “There’s no compassion in your compassion fare.”
Later, I discovered that United’s “Compassion Fare” is only a five-percent discount – around $20 in my case. This possibility hadn’t occurred to me, as Alaska Airlines had booked a compassion fare for me 15 years earlier and it had saved me hundreds of dollars. I now feel stupid for wasting time over $20. On the other hand, it seems even more ridiculous they quibbled over it.
I found an online message board where people said they’d found cheaper flights to attend funerals by using a discount airline rather than a compassion fare. It seems a “compassion fare” is little more than an emotionally-charged marketing phrase that lures upset people desperate for a deal – who often don’t realize they’re paying more.
Over the next three weeks I sat by Mom’s bedside, said goodbye, and attended her memorial. When I returned to LAX to fly home, I tried to show Mom’s proof-of-death documents to a United representative. She said United couldn’t give refunds in person. She suggested I fax everything instead of making my request online, because “sometimes refund requests get lost.” So I paid a copy center $16 to fax my documents.
Two weeks later, I phoned to inquire about my refund. A recording directed me to an online tracking site, which had no record of my request. I phoned again, and customer service verified there was no record of my request. So I snail-mailed the documents.
Along the way, United put $150 into my Visa account – sans explanation. I called the refund office to inquire about the missing $50. I put the phone on speaker during the 36-minute hold time. When someone answered, I switched from speaker to handset, and in that couple of seconds she hung up. I called back and kept the phone to my ear for another half hour.
When another agent answered, she asked for my ticket number.
I asked, “Which one, the one for the original flight or the changed flight?
She turned sarcastic. “Well which one do you want the refund for?”
“The refund is for the change fee, not the flight, so I’m not sure.”
She repeated angrily, “Just give me the one you want the refund for!”
When I suggested we check both, she hung up. I don’t believe it was on purpose, but if this hanging-up thing is a problem at the refund center, maybe they should take people’s names and numbers.
After another five minutes on hold, I asked a third refund agent to take my number in case of another hang-up. Then she politely explained that United refunded me only $150 because of a $50 processing fee.
“Nobody ever mentioned a processing fee,” I said.
“That’s our policy.”
I said I was done with United. She asked if I wanted customer service. Near tears, I said, “No, thank you. I honestly can’t take another minute of this.”
As a world traveler, I’ve spent thousands of dollars with United. Never again. Not because they didn’t give me a compassion fare, but because they advertised one and it was a joke. Not because they made me pay the fare difference, but because their customer service reps were snide although they knew I was grieving. Not because they didn’t refund my entire $200, but because they made me jump through hoops and charged me $50 for the privilege. United doesn’t have customer service. And I’m telling you the story in the hope you’ll wield your power as a traveling consumer, and spend your money at an airline that treats customers with respect – for less.