chris elliott.

United Airlines canceled his flight, so why can’t he get a refund?

When United Airlines cancels the last leg of Andy Wilson’s flight to Iceland, he must buy a new ticket. The airline blames a “desynchronization,” but will it cover his extra costs?

  • By Wire Service
  • Saturday, March 30, 2024 1:30am
  • Life

By Christopher Elliott

Q: I am writing to request a refund for tickets I had to purchase at the last minute after our international travel had already begun. United canceled part of our international itinerary without notice or remedy.

My wife and I had booked tickets through United.com from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, with stops in Houston and Frankfurt, Germany. When we checked in at Albuquerque for our departure, a United representative told us that we couldn’t check in for our flight from Frankfurt to Keflavik because Icelandair was not a United code-share partner airline. But the representative assured us that this was normal, and we would only need to pick up our luggage in Frankfurt and take it to the Icelandair ticket counter.

We flew to Houston, and again, we tried to check on the status of our Icelandair reservation. But Icelandair’s website and mobile app could not find our reservation under our confirmation code. In Houston, Icelandair’s customer service line told us that the tickets were never issued and that the reservation itself had been canceled by the issuing travel agency the day before travel. Since we bought our tickets on United.com, I presume that United itself was the agency.

We found this out while our flight to Frankfurt was boarding. The United gate agent in Houston could not help. She told us that she couldn’t even look up our reservation under its confirmation number since, again, Icelandair was not a partner airline.

We had to repurchase the seats that had allegedly been canceled at a cost of $1,959. It would be appropriate for United to refund that cost to make me whole. Can you help? — Andy Wilson, Albuquerque, New Mexico

A: What a nightmare! You booked your airline tickets through United.com, so it’s responsible for getting you to your destination. It doesn’t matter if United has a relationship with Icelandair or not. The buck stops with United.

Normally, you would find out about a problem with your ticket well in advance of your flight. But it looks like United canceled the last leg of your flight just before you left. A last-minute call to Icelandair might have revealed the problem. But if you buy a ticket on United.com, and it sends you a confirmation number, you should be confident that you actually have a reservation for all the travel segments.

I don’t think you had much of a choice about buying a new ticket on Icelandair. You could have gone to the United ticket counter in Frankfurt and explained the problem, but if you had missed your flight, it would have screwed up your entire vacation — car rental, hotel stay, tours, etc. You were cornered and had to purchase a more expensive, last-minute ticket. And you’re absolutely correct: This was something United should pay for.

You contacted United in writing and did an excellent job of keeping a paper trail. In response to your request, the airline offered to refund the unused leg but nothing more, claiming a “desynchronization of your ticket” caused the problem.

“Due to operational changes, we’re unable to guarantee flight times or aircraft types, especially when the flight is operated by another airline,” the representative said. United apologized and deposited 5,000 “goodwill” miles into your account and refunded the canceled leg. That’s a good start, but United needed to step up and cover the cost of your new flight. I contacted the airline on your behalf, and it issued a full refund.

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy (elliottadvocacy.org), a nonprofit organization that helps consumers solve their problems. Email him at chris@elliott.org or get help by contacting him at elliottadvocacy.org/help/.

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