Sherpa Note: I wrote this post almost a week ago but wanted to give United a chance to respond first. Their auto-responder email I received back said they would come back within a shocking... SEVEN days! I'm going to say that again, they pledged to respond within 7 days. As of this post they have not responded at all. To be fair to United, it's only been six days and I will be happy to include their response should I receive one, but this is the LONGEST I have ever waited to hear back from any service organization. Maybe United doesn't care to comment on my letter or doesn't think very highly of my opinion - they are entitled to theirs. But no response at all is, well, indicative of their decline in customer service.
Now to the post...
often ever write to Mr. Smisek, and though I copied him into the email as "Jeff.Smisek" it felt a little too personal, but there is an easy reason why I did. First, as to why I am writing to United at all.
I feel there is a very compelling case against the cancellation of those 4 mile tickets, and even the DoT thinks so (see all the way down at the bottom of this post). United came out and did not even entertain honoring the tickets as El Al has done, and many other carriers in a similar position. I don't really think they had the right to cancel (for those reasons stated below) and the longer this goes on the uglier it will be for UAL, mostly because if the DoT does side with consumers, it will be easy to make customers whole if their travel is still to take place. They would just travel as they booked and any refunds would be re-charged. However, for those that had tickets after the dates honored (July 14th-21st), but before the DoT ruled then making those customers whole will be more complicated and that's where I think it could go sour for UAL. I wasn't going to write United regarding the matter, but as I was explaining the DoT response to a Sherpa reader, I noticed the end of the DoT notice:
It would be unfair to not at least approach United first and offer them a chance to meet somewhere in the middle. That's why I sent the letter.
But that doesn't explain why I CCed the CEO himself.
That's really simple. I searched some forums, Google, and I found really just two email addresses. One was for a general mailbox which itself states that it was retired April 7, 2012 (though my message will still go through). The other was for the boss. I wanted to mention that I read Worst to First and was actually a fan of his role in the Continental turnaround, but I doubt he will read it anyway. So why copy him at all? I am really amused when very public CEOs respond to commoners and Mr. Smisek did just last week. All the other links take me here, and no matter how I phrased it Alex just didn't seem to care.
Without further ado...
United Customer Relations, Mr. Smisek:
I am sure that your staff is tired of dealing with the issue of Hong Kong based tickets sold for four miles plus taxes and fees. I can appreciate that, and though your department may not have caused the "error" it's certainly had to deal with it - I'm sure it's been frustrating but I may have a way to help.
There are a number of compelling reasons why I believe the cancellation is not the right decision, and why I believe United should consider reinstating the tickets, though perhaps not as they are currently booked.
1.) Honoring some but not others - Allowing some consumers to fly but not others has a practical implication for United as a business (how do you not honor a ticket that began travel before the problem was realized?), but one could certainly lay claim that it should not be honored for some and not for others. I can't imagine that a court would agree this would be acceptable. The only reason a ticket was honored was due to it's imminent departure, but not on the merit of the ticket, but this means that for some it was okay and not for others - that's not a "fair" practice.
2.) Delayed response. Waiting more than three days to finally issue a statement directly to ticketed customers is unfair for a simple reason. If I, as a consumer, book a ticket and within 24 hours need to make a change including cancellation, I am allowed to do so penalty-free. The airline should have the same right., it should be fair for both of us. But if I were to call three days after I book and realize I had confused London, Ontario with London, England, I would incur change fees, fare differences, maybe even a telephone charge if a ticket was reissued. Fair means playing by the rules we both agree on, consumer and business. If United had cancelled within 24 hours and stated there was a massive mistake, fair enough. But three days later United can cancel penalty free, and consumers cannot, and that is an "unfair" practice.
3.) I am aware there was a response issued on a frequent flyer website(s) forum, but if I posted on an internet forum that I accidentally booked a ticket, would United waive my cancellation fees three days later?
4.) In United's cancellation letter, they indicated that the price of the journey was available on the award chart and at stages throughout the booking process. That's true, but then within two weeks following the incident United offered a discount on mileage award tickets, but did not alter their award chart. Clearly the award chart is not a static price sheet. Additionally, while the rate was incredibly low, other airlines that same week had offered digital "Easter eggs" on their website (American offered 50,000 miles if you found a 737 on their website) and US Airways offered very low fares as part of a promotion (30 days/DC). It would not be unreasonable for a consumer to believe that this could be a similar offering.
5.) Cancellation for non-payment. The total price stated "4 miles and taxes and fees". Consumers paid what was required (taxes and fees), a ticket was issued (with no additional balance due), and though you have called it a mistake increasing beyond the price agreed and tickets is raising the price - which as United is well aware know is a violation of new DoT statutes. Other airlines (tickets originating in RGN, El Al just yesterday) have honored mistake fares since the new DoT regulation has been in place. It seems that precedence would go against United's decision.
I think even a small claim's judge would have to at least suggest that consumers who participated in this have a case.
It's been widely reported that DoT complaints have been filed, and if the DoT decides against United, it could be as much as a $27,500 fine per ticket issued. The fine is especially likely for those consumers who would not have an option to travel as the travel date was outside the 21st of July but before the DoT had ruled. That could be expensive.
Would United consider some alternatives to mitigate their risk? If the airline offered conditional honoring of the tickets as I will highlight they could both avoid issues listed above and remove the headache of the DoT, at the same time, coming out looking the the good guy! Here are some ways to minimize United's outlay.
- Many consumers booked multiple tickets for dates they may not even be able to travel. As a condition of accepting an alternative offer from United, they must cancel itineraries for which they cannot travel. If segments go vacant, blacklist the consumer from the MileagePlus program or the airline itself. - Prohibit any date changes to solve the same problem as above. - Those that booked in a higher award class would swap the tickets for lowest economy as part of the alternative solution. - Any consumers that filed DoT claims and settled with this alternative offer, would retract their complaint and forfeit any compensation if the DoT investigation proved United violated the law in cancelling the tickets. All that accepted would also have to agree not to pursue United legally as part of the deal. - Consumers must accept the terms within 24 hours or the tickets remain cancelled, without another opportunity to accept an alternative.
That seems fair to me. United may have had a technical error as they have stated, but the law is very clear, even singling out "mistake fares" as requiring no increases from the final agreed price once a ticket has been issued. This requires consumers to be fair to United as well, take the lowest possible seat available, only travel dates they actually can, and if they do accept the deal, drop the DoT claims as they would have agreed they've been made whole.
Is this something United would consider?
Below is the original original response in it's entirety from United followed by the response from the DoT. But what do you think? I am out of my mind? Do I have a case? Will United alter their response? Will the DoT? Will Smisek? Comment below people!