A Tale of Playing With Fire and Winding Up Upgraded on United Airlines

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In September, I had an insane ticketing experience using United miles for a Swiss Airlines business class flight Miami-Zurich-Nice. In the end I was denied boarding due to inexplicable “United ticketing issues,” and since then I’ve contacted United on numerous occasions – formal complaints, emails to senior management, correspondence with their social media team via Twitter, and even asking MileagePlus senior leaders in person at the Star Mega Do. I have yet to get a single response about what happened and whether I’m due any compensation since I had to burn AA miles for a British Airways First Class flight that came with ~$400 in fees. As maddening as the situation has been, I am still a fan of United miles because they are extremely valuable and I now have United Platinum (due to a status match), which means I have supreme flexibility when booking and changing awards.

Few Choices
So you’d think I’d learn my lesson with United award tickets and not mess with them, right? Well, last week I flew Newark to Dublin with a good friend. I purchased a “cheap” business class ticket with coach return for $1,400, which I thought was a good deal. Flat bed on the overnight flight and Economy Plus on the return, plus a boatload of redeemable and elite miles along the way.

Economy flights were expensive and we only needed a one-way ticket, so I burned 55,000 United miles for an economy class award for my friend (as a Platinum member I got to select him seat 7A, which is probably the best Economy Plus seat in the bulkhead with tons of legroom). I was hoping that either a Business Saver (50,000 mile) or Economy Saver (30,000 mile) award would open up before departure. Since I am United Platinum, I’d be able to re-ticket and get the miles back for free – a risk I was willing to take, especially since my friend didn’t have the cash to fork out for the pricy coach ticket and I really wanted him to come on this trip.

I set ExpertFlyer alerts for the saver level award space and crossed my fingers, but felt confident since United does release a lot of saver availability in the days and hours leading up to departure. No saver seats opened up, but I noticed coach was packed to the gills and there were 5+ business class seats available, so at the minimum I was hoping for an operational upgrade for him to business class in case it was oversold. At the kiosk at check-in it asked him if he wanted to volunteer to get bumped and we went to the gate to see what was up. The gate agent told us she wouldn’t need volunteers, but she did ask for our boarding passes so she could verify our passports.

Last-Minute Changes
With about an hour left before departure, we headed to the United Club when I got a great email from ExpertFlyer: Economy saver level inventory just became available! For a split second I thought “I really shouldn’t mess with this”, but the thought of passing up 25,000 United miles (which I value at about $500), was just too much to not try and get them back.  I called up the Platinum line and got a friendly rep who said she’d be able to reticket at the Saver level as long as we had no check luggage (which we didn’t). I told her we had the best coach seat and absolutely did not want to lose it and she assured me she’d get a supervisor to make sure nothing went wrong and I’d get the miles back in my account. A major win for me and even for my friend who felt good knowing I used less miles than I originally planned for his ticket. Before the agent put me on hold, I asked her again to make sure that we would be able to not only board the flight, but also that his seat would be honored. She told me not to worry and she’d get it taken care of in a jiffy. Okay then.

However, in typical United fashion, things started to go downhill quickly. I was put on hold for a solid 10 minutes, at which point I heard the boarding announcement for our flight. When the agent came back, she sounded a little frantic and said she was still on hold for a supervisor! Explaining that we had to head to the gate, she urged me to stay on the line and wait until things could be sorted. I told my friend to go to the agent at the Club to make sure his boarding pass was still valid. Negative and his seat assignment was gone. Great.

Boys weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh was in peril!
Boys weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh was in peril!

I instructed him to go to the gate and explain the situation and I’d be there shortly once I got done with the phone agent. Apparently the phone agent messed around with the ticket and since it was so close to departure, she couldn’t reassign the seat or do anything for that matter. When she started to blame me for playing around with it too close to departure, I just about lost my mind. However, I  kept my cool because getting angry doesn’t usually solve situations. She seemed pretty powerless, so I told her to do whatever she could to make sure it was ticketed correctly and we would handle it at the gate. She apologized and told me she notated the account and that I should email United customer service (ha!) and ask for the 25,000 miles to be manually added to my account.

The Gatekeeper
Things got really fun once we got to the gate and started dealing with one of the surliest gate agents I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve flown a lot out of NYC, so I know how to handle the power-hungry battle ax, no-nonsense New Yorker!). The agent basically told us “tough luck” and gave my friend a middle seat in row 41. This was the same agent who verified our boarding passes and passports and knew we had seat 7A reserved. We were very calm and asked if there was any way they could help us get that seat back since the lucky person who got it assigned last minute probably didn’t even have elite status and certainly didn’t have it reserved or paid in advance.

She told us “no” and that we were lucky she was helping us at all. We asked if there was anything in business class and she said “Yes and it will be $5,000 if you’d like to buy a last-minute ticket. Please give me your credit card– after all if you wanted business class all along you should have paid for it.”

Comput-ah says nooooo.. I felt like I was smack dab in the middle of a Little Britain episode!
Comput-ah says nooooo.. I felt like I was smack dab in the middle of a Little Britain episode!

My blood pressure started to rise and I realized I hit a brick wall with her – she even taunted us that she could easily put him in business class, but “she wanted to work the next day.” I explained that this was all due to a United Airlines error and that we actually used more miles for coach than a saver level business award and that all we wanted was a non-middle back-of-the-bus seat. At this point I decided to escalate beyond her and I walked over to another gate where I found a customer service leader in a red coat and quickly, but politely explained the situation. I calmly explained that the United Platinum customer service line royally messed up our ticket and is there anything he could do to make the situation right for a loyal customer?

He fumbled around on the computer and read through the notes on the reservation. He printed something up, which I thought was a boarding pass, and then highlighted “This ticket is not subject to complimentary elite upgrades” and showed it to me. I tried explaining that we knew that – we weren’t asking for a Premier domestic upgrade (it was an international flight after all), simply a better seat, and if none were available, if they’d be able to give him one of the empty business class seats since it was a United error that led to him losing his awesome coach seat. He did see that the reservation was notated with “Extend all courtesy possible,” which seemed to be enough for him and he gave my friend one of the open business class seats. Major, major kudos to him- I firmly believe he did the right thing, but it was hair-raising getting to that point.

While we were boarding, the nasty gate agent was at the forward boarding door and pretty much assaulted me with “So WHAT HAPPENED?!” I was as nice as I possibly could be “Thank you so, so much for your help. We’re good.” as my friend slid into seat 2D. I could tell she was livid, which made my pre-departure beverage all the more enjoyable.

Lessons Learned
1) Don’t mess with United tickets unless you absolutely have to (in my case, 25,000 miles or $500 in value was worth it).
2) United elite phone agents aren’t as good as you think they are
3) Don’t expect United to make the right customer service decision unless absolutely prodded and pleaded with.
4) Never get angry. If you run into a roadblock, get resourceful and try to find a willing employee to help you.
5) When airlines hand you lemons, make an ice cold pre-departure cocktail.

Stay tuned for the actual BusinessFirst Newark-Dublin flight review. I’m curious, though, if anyone else has been in a similar situation and whether I was totally crazy to try and reticket the reservation to save some miles.

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