Our First Year in Korea

United Airlines: Rhapsody in Blues & Commas


Update: Apparently this post was picked up by Reddit, so my blog views have shot through the roof. However, I've updated the post below to clarify some of the (rude) questions posed on Reddit.  

An Open Letter to Thomas O'Toole, President, United MileagePlus Marketing & Loyalty; and David Gold, General Manager of Partnership Marketing, Chase Card Services:

Over the past 14+ years, the Two Crabs have been loyal United Mileage Plus members. Mr. Crab has racked up hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles (FFM) on United Airlines. I often earn enough miles to maintain silver elite status. We have used FFM to upgrade to business class for business & pleasure, a welcome luxury when flying 14+ hours to & from our current and last post in the Foreign Service.

Despite all the naysayers and negative reviews about United, I had been known to defend them from even the most vocal critics, even when others are starting websites like this, or this Facebook page.  I liked United, especially since I'm originally from Washington DC area (Washington Dulles is a major United hub).  I never seemed to have a big problem upgrading or earning enough miles to upgrade. 

As part of my loyalty for United, we also have a United MileagePlus Visa credit card, issued by JPMorgan Chase. I've had the same card for over 10 years. We buy everything on this card, from groceries and gasoline to airline tickets and hotels, racking up the miles in the process. This specific card is no longer even offered by Chase, but we were grandfathered in, so we enjoy a few perks that new members don't get. One of those perks is an annual "Companion Travel Certificate" which is essentially a 'buy one, get one free' flight coupon. We've never had the opportunity to use the coupon, until now.

In July, I received our annual certificate attached to a letter dated June 16, 2014. This time, we decided to cash in the ticket to meet family members in Hawaii. Four adults are traveling, so we figured we could at least get one ticket for free. Two adults would be traveling from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) to Honolulu (HNL). 

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch. So I carefully studied all the Terms and Conditions on the back of the coupon (see enlargement). We picked specific dates that were not in conflict with the blackout dates, and ensured we were only flying United flights. Next, I read and re-read all the restrictions.

If you click on the enlargements, you'll notice the front of the coupon clearly states: "Valid for one (1) roundtrip United Economy* companion ticket within the 50 United States or from the 50 United States to Canada, with the purchase of an eligible published adult roundtrip ticket." Ok, no problem. Last time I checked, both Baltimore and Honolulu are located within the 50 United States.

On the back of the coupon is the small print. This case boils down to the placement of a comma in Restriction 3(a), which reads, verbatim:

"Travel must originate from the 48 contiguous United States, Alaska, or Hawaii to the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, or Canada."

Ok, sounds great! Again, I am departing from the 48 contiguous states to Hawaii and back, from BWI to HNL via SFO. Dream holiday to Hawaii, here we go! 

So following the instructions on the back of the coupon, I called 1-800-United-1.  What followed was a 2 hour nightmare call with United that turned into a laughable argument over grammar rules.

Firstly, the United Agent could not find the Promotion Reference (GG UEA2) or the Promotion Code (13UEA2) listed in the coupon. I was put on hold for at least 20-30 minutes while the agent searched and checked with her supervisor. The agent periodically returned to the phone, asking me to read the coupon and explain where I got it. At long last, the promotion was found. The booking process started. Then for no apparant reason, the call was cut off!

Called back and had to explain the entire story over again to the new agent who answered. At least the previous agent had saved her case notes so the new agent was able to pick up right were our call was dropped. Booking was completed. The agent quoted us a price of $1,062 per ticket (same price as quoted on United.com), meaning we would pay $1,062 for Passenger A, and $0.00 for Passenger B. Not a bad deal!

But then, the agent said her computer wasn't allowing her to get the free flight. So she searched and searched and searched. She sounded perplexed, as everything seemed kosher on paper. She finally asked to put me on hold. And I should note the agent was very friendly and put up with my increasing impatience. 

I was on hold at least 20 minutes, listening to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" several times over, before she returned and said she had to get a supervisor involved to figure out why they could not give a free flight. I figured it was probably just a glitch, I have an old United card and they probably dont get many of these coupons anymore. So I continue to hold.

And hold..

And hold...

I was on hold so long that the Gershwin stopped tickling the ivories and the hold was replaced by silence. I feared I was cut off but my phone showed I was still connected.

After more than 40 some minutes, the agent and her supervisor both came on the line. "I'm afraid we have some bad news" they started. The agent then explained to me that the coupon does NOT allow travel from the 48 states to Hawaii.

According to the rules as was explained to the agent, the COMMA -- yes, a freaking comma -- in Restriction 3(a) is meant to separate three specific travel regions from each other. So in reality, according to the agent and supervisor, the coupon could only be used for:

1. travel from the 48 continguous states to the 48 states, or

2. travel from Hawaii to the 48 states and back to Hawaii, or

3. travel from Alaska to the 48 states and back to Alaska.

It was unclear how Canada fits into that mix, but the agent & supervisor believes it means somebody can travel from either of those 3 groups to Canada and back to their origin point. 

I was absolutely gobsmacked. Even the agent agreed that her personal definition of Restriction 3(a) was the same as our definition - that a person can use the coupon to fly FROM the mainland to Hawaii or Alaska or Canada, and return TO their originating point. They kept arguing that I needed to pay attention to the comma. Here's the sentence again:

"Travel must originate from the 48 contiguous United States, Alaska, or Hawaii to the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, or Canada." 

We debated (argued) about the language and comma placement. If the original drafters of the coupon had actually intended that meaning, why does the front of the coupon clearly state "within the 50 United States or from the 50 United States to Canada"? Isn't Hawaii within the 50 United States? They had no answer for that. I asked to speak to the next higher supervisor. They declined and said the word was final.

The agent and her supervisor then suggested that I use the coupon to fly from BWI to San Francisco, then pay for the second leg from SFO to HNL. The price for one roundtrip ticket between SFO and HNL was $843.60. For two people, that would be $1,687.20...or about $625 more than I was originally going to pay to only go half the distance. 

The conversation went downhill from there. I declined their offer. Thanked them for nothing, and hung up.

This was a classic bait & switch. And I said so, calling it what it is. Several times. BAIT. AND. SWITCH.

(NOTE: I later showed the letter to several former journalism colleagues, including copy editors. They all agreed with my interpretation of the letter, and that United should have honored a ticket from the mainland to Hawaii and back. End note). 

At this point I was livid. I called back again and pretty much got the same answers. I also complained to United on their Twitter feed, and they asked me to write back with details. I never heard back from them again. 

I will never give United another penny if I can help it. So instead of giving United another penny of our hard-earned money, we cashed out all our frequent flier miles and traded them for two tickets to Hawaii. The miles aren't worth saving anyway as a result of United's horrible new price-based loyalty program. We're also getting rid of the Chase MileagePlus credit card, since one of its advertised perks doesn't actually exist if you want to fly from the mainland to Hawaii or Alaska.  

There was a time when United Airlines lived up to its old slogan, "Fly the Friendly Skies". But United's customer service and respect for its customers -- especially long-time loyal Mileage Plus members -- has flown the way of the dodo bird. This bait & switch deal is just the latest in a string of fiasco we've experienced with United, including our dealings with United's PetSafe program that we detailed in this blog post. It's probably no surprise that most of these incidents occured after United merged with Continental and make one bloated mess. 

After having flown so many great international airlines in recent years - from Korean Air and KLM to Emirates and Etihad, United (and most U.S.-based carriers) don't even come close in quality and service. 

No more.

The Two Crabs are done with United. It's a sad but long overdue breakup. 

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