United Airlines Shakedown?

Jul 24, 2015 by

United Airlines airliner

How many passengers on this flight do you suppose got screwed on their fare?

Here’s a short, real-life story, with an important lesson at the end!

I Choose a United Airlines Flight

I’m planning a late August trip from where I live on the west coast of Canada to Illinois. I’d settled on a round trip flight between Vancouver, B.C. and O’Hare with a total fare, as quoted by United.com, of $614 (all prices in this article are in Canadian dollars.)

United.com Errors Out

A few days ago, I attempted several times (six, as it turns out) to buy the ticket through United.com. Each time I got an error screen at the last step—confirming the purchase. Talking to airline customer service is about as much fun for me as finding space for a legal bag in overhead storage when I’m among the last to board a flight, but finally I conceded I had no choice.

My Interaction with United’s Telephone Agent

To my amazement, I was kept on hold for only a couple of minutes. The agent who took my call was helpful. She could see I’d tried six times to buy the ticket through United.com. She could also see the fare I’d been quoted: $614. She said she’d take care of everything, but then a bit later excused herself to consult with “support.” When she returned, she dropped a bit of bombshell: The fare I’d been quoted on United.com was wrong, and the “real” fare was $643. I felt my blood pressure rise a couple of points, but I figured I must have misunderstood. Nope, I’d heard right: I would have to pay $643 for the round trip I’d picked out.

Sensing a brewing battle I suspect, the agent began offering other flight combinations that would be (slightly) cheaper, all of which with timing inferior to the pair of flights I’d chosen. Our conversation went downhill from there. (The dialogue below captures the essence of the exchange—it’s not verbatim, as I didn’t record it.)

ME: I was quoted $614 by your website, United.com. Do you want me to send you a screenshot?

UNITED AGENT: I don’t need a screenshot. I can see that was the fare you were quoted. But the actual fare is $643.

ME: How can your own website quote a price, and then United Airlines refuses to honor it? That sounds like it could even be illegal!

UNITED AGENT: I do apologize; this is why we’re rebuilding our website right now. The technology has problems.

ME: I must tell you: learning that an airline company’s technology has problems is more than a bit unnerving. But why should I pay a price for your website’s problems? Why should I bother going to United.com to search for flights if the fare I’m quoted may not be the real fare? (Interesting sidebar here: generally, United Airlines charges a hefty fee if you buy a ticket by phoning one of its agents instead of through United.com.)

UNITED AGENT: If you want those flights, the fare is $643.

ME: This is as if I go to a car dealer, see the sticker price on a car in the lot, walk in and say I want to buy that car for that price, and the salesperson says, “oh, sorry, that’s not the real price.” At my grocery store, if a price rings up at check-out other than an item’s marked price, the store gives me the item for free. Maybe I should get this flight for free?

The agent politely, but stubbornly refused to budge from what evidently is United Airlines’ party line in such situations. She continued to blame the company’s flawed technology. I just hope the flaws do not extend to company’s planes’ software too.

Talk to a Supervisor!

Seeing I would get nowhere with the agent, I wrapped up our chat by insisting she immediately do one of two things: give me the flight for $614 or connect me with a supervisor. She quickly chose the latter; I doubt the former was within her power.

I did not have to wait long for a supervisor, and in 20 seconds I ran through the situation and demanded I get the flight for $614 unless he could point out some fine print on United.com disclaiming something to the effect of ‘fares quoted may not be the real fare.’ I think when the supervisor came on the line he’d already decided to give in. He listened quietly and then offered no counter argument or excuse; he just began booking the flight for me, and at $612 for some reason.

Am I Crazy, or Was This Outrageous?

A fare quoted by United.com is equivalent to the sticker or shelf price in a retail store, right? I mean, through United.com is the way United Airlines communicates the price of its product to potential customers. Imagine taking an item off a retail shelf, then being told by a straight-faced cashier that the shelf price was incorrect, and, due to technical problems with the store’s software, the actual price you’d have to pay is $5 more than the shelf price. You’re joking, right? I think would be the instant reaction of all of us. And we’d consider outrageous, even bizarre, learning that there was no joke. Even if the weirdness were resolved in our favor, we’d never visit the store again.

In the end, United did the right thing. But how many customers would have accepted the agent’s technology story and paid, even begrudgingly, $643?

Lessons Learned

For me, this experience reinforced these two important lessons:

  • When a business is screwing you, scream like hell. To you, the business may feel powerful and you may feel weak in comparison, but you still DO NOT have to take it!
  • Don’t waste too much energy debating with lower level employees. Insist on speaking to a managerial decision maker if you’ve been wronged.

Don’t be intimidated by powerful corporations! If you don’t get satisfaction (and maybe even if you do), you can file a FTC complaint (which I may yet do on this matter to help prevent future screwings of less assertive United Airlines customers), expose the treatment on social media, or even write and publish a blog post documenting your experience! 🙂

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