How United Airlines Handled My Complaint About a Terrible Flight Experience

Last month, I blogged about a bad experience with United Airlines. The short story: due to maintenance issues, United canceled our flight from Tel Aviv to San Francisco at 2am in the morning, triggering a cascade of failures. United had no gate personnel anywhere in the Tel Aviv airport to help us with vouchers or rebooking, gave us incomplete and unhelpful information about our options, eventually gave us a connecting flight which had its own maintenance delays, didn’t properly handle our seat upgrades, and generally displayed zero empathy for us as its system ground us into a pulp. United’s penny-pinching on maintenance essentially cost us a day of our lives, and it was a miserable day at that.

Ordinarily, United Airlines would respond to a customer experience like this with an apathetic shrug and an unconvincing declaration that it cares about customer service and will strive to do better. However, Israel has a mandatory compensation law for flights with long delays due to factors in the airline’s control, like maintenance. As a result, United owed us money for these delays.

Immediately after the flight, United sent us an email from “United Cares” (irony alert!) offering each of us a $200 travel voucher (expires in 1 year) or 10,000 bonus miles. This doesn’t sound too bad until you compare it to the statutory requirements, which makes this a low-ball and borderline-offensive offer. As negotiation theory counsels, you usually should not take the first offer, and I feel bad for anyone who took this deal instead of the mandatory compensation.

On January 12, I sent my four page letter to both the main United “Customer Care” portal and directly to Laura Mandile, United’s head of customer care, whose name I got from the Elliott Advocacy site. Impressively, within 24 hours, I heard back from Ms. Mandile’s office.

This time, if we were willing to forego the mandatory Israeli compensation, United offered each of us a $1,000 travel voucher (again, expiring in 1 year) or 30,000 bonus miles. As you can see, the travel voucher offer was 5x their initial offer. The voucher’s nominal dollar amount actually exceeded the mandatory compensation by a small amount. However, it was completely uninteresting because it meant we’d have to fly United Airlines enough to burn up $1,000 each, and we’re not masochists.

Alternatively, Ms. Mandile’s office promised to pay us the mandatory compensation in cash, which we chose. A couple of weeks later, we received three checks of $897 each.

Ms. Mandile’s office also unilaterally refunded the amounts we had paid to upgrade from cattle-car economy to economy “plus.” We did end up flying economy plus on the return flights. However, we had initially obtained bulkhead seating on the return flight, which had special value to Lisa due to her health. United was not able to provide bulkhead seating on one of the return segments. Despite that, we didn’t ask for the refunds, so (to its credit) United unilaterally offered that. Bizarrely, initially they only initiated refunds on two of the three tickets; I had to go back and ask them to process the third ticket’s refund, which they then did without further hassle. The total value of these refunds was about $550.

So, within a month of my request, United paid/refunded us a total of about $3,250 for canceling its TLV>SFO flight. The glitch on the initially incomplete upgrade refunds was another unforced SNAFU, but in all other respects, United was appropriately responsive to my complaint, both in terms of substance and timeliness.

While the money is nice, it doesn’t adequately compensate us for the lost day of our lives. Still, I derive some satisfaction from knowing that United got feedback–in hard, cold cash–about its dubious maintenance practices. Perhaps that will help encourage them to invest properly in maintenance in the future. As a result, I am now a proponent of mandatory compensation laws for airline delays. It’s a feature in Europe but not here in the US. Maybe we should evaluate that further.

The response from Ms. Mandile’s office also had some flowery language apologizing for our experience and promising to send our feedback up the chain. I imagine the letter’s author actually meant all of that, but United as an entity is quite impervious to customer feedback. So, despite the satisfactory resolution to my complaints, I’ve decided that I will try to avoid flying United again, even when it’s the only game in town. IMO, flying United only makes sense if you’re a global services customer; and even they are vulnerable to United’s suboptimal maintenance program. Everyone else gets rough treatment that degrades with (lack of) status.

As I mentioned in my United letter, I have consolidated my travel on Alaska Airlines, a decision that has worked well for me. The one hitch is that Alaska currently has weak international programs (hence my initial decision to fly United to Israel). However, Alaska just announced that next year they will join the OneWorld alliance, including American Airlines, which will give me much of the international reach I’ve been missing.