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United decides to tell customers, “F*** your refund”

Traveling is an inherently stressful endeavor. During the holidays, more so. We just took a lovely trip to beautiful Denver, Colorado from our home airport of Philadelphia, PA. Outbound flight was on United, return was on a “partner airline”, US Airways.

To our chagrin, two days before our return flight, my 3-year-old daughter came down with the chicken pox. To answer your intitial questions (Are you a bad parent? Why didn’t you vaccinate?):

  • We selectively vaccinate our kids. Chicken pox is not life-threatening until you are older, and …
  • If you get the vaccine, it’s not lifetime immunity: You have to get a booster when you’re seventeen, and you can still get chicken pox, even with the vaccine.
  • If you actually get the actual disease, you never get it again and never need a booster shot.
  • For each of our children we’ve either gotten it by accident, or went to “chicken pox” parties where you choose to give your child the disease.
  • That said, some friends of ours children had it and we thought she may have been exposed, but you can never tell.
  • This trip was a combination of Thanksgiving with the family, and my brothers’ 40 birthday party, so we didn’t want to miss it. We warned them that she may get it while there. They knew and said no problem if we had to stay over.

The important thing to realize is that if you get chicken pox as an adult, it can be fatal. Hence we didn’t want to parade our 3-year-old down to the airport and make her an accessory to murder.

And also, let’s preface this with the fact that on our outbound flight, I read about (I think in the airline magazine) how the airlines will reschedule your flight for free if you have swine flu. You’d think the same for chicken pox, too, eh? (And, what’s up with naming these diseases after farm animals?)

So, on Sunday before we left I spent an hour on the phone with US Airways, who apparently has the policy that you should show up to the airport with a communicible disease so you can be turned away at the gate. I kid you not, this is what she told me to do.

Which prompts a few retorts:

  • Have you been through check-in and security with three small children?
  • Is it the policy of US Airways to invite people with deadly diseases into the airport to infect everyone else? If I have swine flu, do I just show up first to be turned away?
  • No really, have you been through check-in and security with three small children? It’s like juggling toxic monkeys.

After I worked with the agent on the phone (Please don’t make my child an accessory to murder, she’s only three) I managed to get her to work out the appropriate procedure (after being put on hold for … ever):

  • Get a doctor’s note which indicates that:
    • The disease is contagious
    • She is a risk to other passenger’s health, and
    • There is no way to mitigate the risk
  • Cancel the flight
  • Reschedule the flight when she’s ready, and show the doctor’s note at check-in to avoid the $150 per-passenger change fee.

Whew. So, the next day we visited my brother’s family doctor, got our doctor’s note, and cancelled the flight.

Thankfully, after about 7 days, she was cleared and we went back through the procedure.

SNAFU number one was when we tried to reschedule through US Airways, the flight was actually with United. Oops. I had talked with US Airways.

So, I spent an hour on the phone with United this time and it turns out they charge you first, then make you apply for a refund.

United doesn’t give refunds at the airport, or anywhere, for that matter. You have to apply for a refund. I’m sorry, what?

You heard it: Apply for a refund. There’s a mysterious black box (literally, keep reading) where you throw your documents into it and hope to get your money back.

Which brings me to the crux of this article. In addition to the $150 dollar change fee per ticket (there’s 5 of us, which is $750), there’s another random fee for $25. So, for the price of two additional round-trip tickets and saving the lives of the adults on our return flight who hadn’t had chicken pox, we were penalized $875. Ouch.

And to add insult to injury, when I checked my bags I accidentally paid for an additional bag for $30. Have you ever tried to check-in at the airport with 3 small children? It’s like being hit on the head with a wok repeatedly. I flagged down the single agent (everyone else was baggage handlers) who politely told me, they don’t give refunds, go online to get a refund. Thanks.

So, in the airport, using my handy iPhone, I applied for the first of my refunds for the baggage, assuming that was easy enough to handle.

I receive a lovely note back from United:Screen shot 2009-12-07 at 12.37.19 PM

Ahh. Sigh of relief. That part wasn’t too bad.

Until I received this email shortly thereafter:

Date: 5 Dec 2009 17:27:36 -0000
From: MAILER-DAEMON@mx02.mail.united.com
To: kent@XXXXXXXXXX
Subject: failure notice
Message-Id: <20091205172736.B8828544DC@friskymail-mx2.g.dreamhost.com>

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at mx02.mail.united.com.
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

:
165.212.65.113 does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 550 Access Denied
Giving up on 165.212.65.113.

--- Below this line is a copy of the message.

Return-Path:
Received: (qmail 13492 invoked from network); 5 Dec 2009 17:27:35 -0000
Received: from prdual01.uls-prod.com (209.87.120.184)
  by mx02.mail.united.com with SMTP; 5 Dec 2009 17:27:34 -0000
Received: from prdual01.uls-prod.com (localhost [127.0.0.1])
	by prdual01.uls-prod.com (8.13.8+Sun/8.13.8) with ESMTP id nB5HRYqs027902
	for ; Sat, 5 Dec 2009 11:27:34 -0600 (CST)
Date: Sat, 5 Dec 2009 11:27:34 -0600 (CST)
From: kent@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
To: web-refunds-tvlopt@united.com
Message-ID: <26544236.591260034054888.JavaMail.wladmin@prdual01.uls-prod.com>
Subject: Prepay Bags refund request received
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: multipart/mixed;
	boundary="----=_Part_59_21561305.1260034054886"

------=_Part_59_21561305.1260034054886
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit

United.com Prepay Bags refund request

--Passenger and Reservation info--
	Name: Kent M Davidson
	Phone: 610256XXXX
	Email: kent@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
	Receipt #: 0164511397168
	Ticket #: 0163102485547
	Travel date: 12/05/2009
	Flight: 264
	Flight Origin: DIA
	Flight Destination: PHL

--Refund Info-
	Refund reason: NO BAG
	Additional Comments: I accidentally checked 2 bags, only 1 was checked (ski bag).
        The agent at the checkin cancelled the 2nd bag. I am owed a $30 refund.
------=_Part_59_21561305.1260034054886--

Say, what? First of all, United, a multi-billion-dollar airline company uses an email remailer to handle refunds? Some poor schmuck has to read each of these and answer them individually?

And second, it bounced! Meaning no one received the message at all. And this means that United won’t refund anyone’s money who applied online?

Next time, I’m taking Southwest.

Stay tuned: Watch the fiasco trying to get back our money for the changed flight!

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6 Comments

  1. luz m rios wrote:

    I am so frustrated with United that i will not flight United again. I will look for a another airline. I paid $49.oo for my seat to get there and find out that it did not recline. I paid for by baggage online when I got to the airport to find out that I had not. However I got charged for it. I am very unhappy with the service. Now I am told to go through the computer to get a refund. I have had it with United.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  2. david coulson wrote:

    I along with other travelling companions were on United Feb. 19 2011 and were cancelled at the gate..at 5am….no other arrangements could be made…asked for a refund….were jerked around on the phone by their computer until connected to people in the Philippines who were unable to help…to add insult to injury we had to go to United’s web site twice , once to request a refund of the ticket and then again to get money back for the bags…a most disappointing experience…NOTE..I will never consider flying with United or their affiliates again…..Too bad Southwest doesn’t fly everywhere……

    Monday, February 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Steve wrote:

    Please-we are going through the same thing now w. those SOB’s. DId you ever get satisfaction?

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  4. kent wrote:

    @Steve; I’m sorry, it completely sucks. But, I admit, in the end we got all of our money back. We got a doctors note, and the bag fee was refunded despite the rejected email because I contacted them separately. (I can be tenacious when things feel unfair…) If you were not so lucky, let me know.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Blair wrote:

    @kent: Same thing happened to me, and I called customer service then they tell me to submit the form or email them. I got notified that email didn’t deliver. Could you tell me how you contact them and get the problem solved? thank you.

    Friday, April 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  6. ken greaves wrote:

    Seems like the airline that really cares only cares about money. I have been trying for 2 months to get a refund on tickets toi St Martin since my wife was diagosed with lung cancer and cannot travel due to threapy. Sent in all required documents and finally just receieved this back.

    Your message
    To: refunds
    Subject: FW: Your Refund Request
    Sent: Thu, 24 May 2012 12:44:56 -0600

    was deleted without being read on Thu, 24 May 2012 14:06:08 -0600
    So they don’t even bother to read your emails. Any ideas on the CEO’s email address, but i heard that does no good either.

    Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink