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In February, my parents flew down to South America to join me for a trip in Rio de Janiero, followed by a week spent in Buenos Aires, the location I call home for at least half the year.

I booked them in United Business between Charleston, SC and Rio de Janiero using United miles, and LATAM Business between Buenos Aires and Miami using American Airlines miles. They purchased a cheap economy flight between Miami and Charleston on their Barclaycard Arrival Plus for the final leg home since there was no economy Saver award space the day their flight arrived into Miami.

My parents’ outbound flight was supposed to depart on February 9, 2017, at 7:40 PM from Charleston International Airport. Due to technical issues, they experienced a delay on their first leg between Charleston and Washington, D.C. that caused them to miss their Washington, D.C. to São Paulo flight and forced them to overnight in Washington, D.C.

Not only did the delay take away a whole day of their vacation in Rio, how United handled the customer service during travel wasn’t acceptable in my opinion and merited a request for compensation. Below is the discourse between my parents and United and how the issue was resolved.

The Letters

Here is the complaint letter my father sent to United, relating the course of events over February 9 and 10:

On February 9 my wife and I were scheduled to fly from CHS (United 3633) to IAD and connect from IAD on United 861 to GRU Sao Paulo, Brazil.  We were informed at the CHS gate that flight 3633 would be late leaving.  I spoke to two different United gate agents at different points during our delay about the increasingly close connection time we would have at IAD for the Sao Paulo (GRU) flight. I asked the CHS gate agents if they could alert the gate agents at IAD about our rescheduled arrival times, apparently to no avail.

We landed at IAD at the far end of D Concourse, and United 861 left from the far end of C Concourse.  My wife and I ran, as best we were able (we both have back issues and aren’t able to run like people with healthy backs).  No one at our arrival gate seemed aware of our tight connection.  No cart was offered to transport us down the length of the D/C Concourse despite my request to the CHS gate agents to alert the IAD gate agents.  

I was at about Gate C20 when a United ground staff member asked if I was running to the Sao Paulo flight.  I told him I was.  He informed me that the plane had already left the gate and I need to return to the United Customer Service desk I had just ran past in order to rebook.

As I stepped up to the customer service desk I looked at my flight information and found, to my surprise, that United 861 had left the gate 5 minutes early.  The customer service agent heard this and asked if anyone at our arrival gate on Concourse D had said anything to us. I told her that no one had done so or offered us any help or information.

Because we were flying business class were we comp’ed a hotel room for the night which was appreciated.  But we spent the entire next day waiting for the 10:10 PM departure on Friday, February 10 to Sao Paulo, losing a full day of our vacation with our daughter who lives in Argentina, that we never see, who was meeting us in Rio de Janeiro. The trip was only 6 days long so you can imagine the disappointment losing a whole day.  Further, our original flight plan had us arriving at GRU, with a layover that allowed us to fly from Sao Paulo out of VCP – Viracopos.  We had booked a transfer from GRU to VCP which, of course, we missed, and because the cancellation was made within 48 hours of the transfer our transfer fee was non-refundable–$115 down the drain.

I am upset about the delays, the way the delays were handled on a customer service level, and the time and money it cost us on our vacation. What can you do to make this right?

He also attached the email + receipt from the transfer company about the no-show charge, to show proof of the money lost. There’s a section at the bottom of the complaint form page that allows you to do this.

If you’re going to send a complaint to an airline, I’d normally recommend a briefer communication than the one above. Scott shared a good example in United Compensation for a Delayed Flight. In my parents case however, the course of events that unfolded merited a detailed explanation as they built upon each other.

I think a key part of the transcript above is the final paragraph, which I added before he emailed United. I recommend echoing a similar sentiment if you find yourself in a similar situation. List exactly what it was that upset you regarding the experience with the airline, and what you felt it cost you. Then ask, out right, how they can make it up to you.

This was United’s response:

Dear Mr. Maxwell: 
I’m sorry we couldn’t get you to IAD on-time to make your connection to GRU. I can imagine your frustration and disappointment with our delay.
I’m sending you and your wife a $200 Electronic Travel Certificate, which
should arrive via email in the next few business days. We’re constantly
looking at how we can improve when handling these situations. Once
again, I apologize for any inconvenience. I regret we weren’t able to hold your connecting flight. I truly understand this might have been very upsetting to you. Security checks are done when a flight has been closed, so we aren’t able to board additional customers. I realize we didn’t fulfill your expectations and I’m sorry we left you with an unfavorable impression.
I am happy that my colleagues were able to assist you with your travel plans and provide a hotel room for your unexpected overnight stay.Thank you, Mr. Maxwell, for your business and loyalty.
We hope you enjoyed your visit with your daughter. We look forward to offering you and your wife a better experience on your next United flight.
The kind response and offer was appreciated, but I figured they could do better considering the circumstances. I instructed my father to request 20,000 miles instead of the $200 travel voucher, which I value at about $320 (1.6 cents per United mile). United was fine with this and deposited the miles in his account.

Bottom Line

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It’s best to submit complaints right after an incident occurs, but even if you forget for a while or are just too busy, late is better than never. My father submitted his complaint about a month after the whole debacle, and the response from United was still swift and I felt, after some prodding, appropriate.

Here is where you can submit a complaint with United online.

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