The airline brand suffers big, when big spenders get frustrated with hidden fees: true story (United Airlines)


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I was reading through a popular airline forum this morning and was shocked the read the story of a United Airlines frequent flier, who was extremely frustrated by “hidden fees” the airline had imposed on him, and was desperately seeking advice on how to resolve the matter without further aggravation. Here’s Phil’s story (reproduced with permission):

“I purchased a ticket to Amsterdam last weekend with my miles. I booked over the internet and paid a $100.00 booking fee, along with the taxes on the flight.

I had to change my plans because of my mother’s surgery this week. So I called United and they said that I can do one of two things, hold my ticket without returning my miles -OR- pay an additional $150 to have my miles returned to my account.

Oh yeah, just to get the miles put back into my account and forget the hell about all of this, it’s an addition $150.00. I don’t get it, those are mine! And all they have to do is hit a button on a computer and wham, they are back into my account. God, I’m so mad. I don’t get frustrated with airlines that much, but this is ridiculous!

So I opted to save my itinerary. I was told on the phone that I could use my ticket to Amsterdam anytime I wanted, and there would be no fees charged as long as I used the same itinerary.

Well, problem with that is, their award tickets only come with certain seats and flying OKC-ORD-IAD-AMS and return the same way, is difficult to find.

I DID however manage to find, (after searching through tons of blackout dates) I found the same routing, with the available dates for me.

Now, they want to charge me $150.00 booking fee, for a change in itinerary (which was originally promised to not happen) and on top of that they want to charge me a $100.00 transaction fee, or something, not sure what that is.

The tax on this ticket was $125.00 of which “so kindly” they said they would waive for me on the new booking.

In total, I would have spent $400,00 on what was supposed to be a “free ticket.”

Now here comes the weird part, in my exploration to find new dates that weren’t blacked out, I called United several times….but I have a hard time understanding some of them (call center employees), and I’m usually good at it, and they weren’t understanding this entire predicament.

First, I was told that they would waive the $100.00 fee, but I would still have to pay an additional $150.00 fee, then I called back, and they would not waive the fee. It just got so frustrating that I hung up.

Does anyone work with UA that can either 1. Help me with this, or 2. Explain this to me?

I’ve spent so much money on United in the past year, and while I’m not anything but Elite status, it’s a lot for me. All my travel with them has either been in First Class or Business, to SE Asia (Bangkok) and Hawaii.”

There were ample replies to this appeal, some suggesting that Phil speaks “nicely” to the call center staff to get a fee waiver, or that he personally goes down to the airport to speak with a United Airlines agent in-person, to strike a better understanding and may be something can be done about it. As expected, some urged the passenger to read the fine print, where all of this fee is stated within twenty pages, in 8-point font.

But here’s what sums up the sentiments of a number of frustrated fliers today:

“Understand that airlines that are going broke, or close to it, the customer is the enemy. If you get that in your head, it will make what happens understandable. You are not a valued customer. Your are the foe.”

How sad it that?

Penny wise, pound foolish

Here’s a frequent flier who has probably spent something in excess of $20,000 with United Airlines in the past year alone, and probably would have spent a similar amount in the coming year. But because the airline tried to nickle and dime even the big-spenders, they’re likely to lose these customers. Brand loyalty? What brand loyalty?

Why not learn from RyanAir? Be transparent.

I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that most airlines around the world learn how to earn ancillary income from RyanAir. Fine. But at least learn it fully! Despite all the “cheap tactics”, something RyanAir does very well is that it comes clean on all its charges on its website. There’s a simple table of charges that customers can browse through, to get an idea of additional charges they might encounter. On most US “full-service” carriers, these exists somewhere within the 10,000 word agreement that the passenger “ticks” before booking the flight. I don’t think even the United Airlines’ sales reps have read it!

A lot of frustration can be prevented by being transparent about these charges. And transparency is something large US airlines lack. For a start, why not just have a simple table of charges on the website? So that even a 65 year old can understand it?

But before anything, I think United Airlines in particular needs to get its act together and figure out what it stands for. Is it a budget airline? Or a full-service carrier? If it’s the latter (as it claims to be), then why are even frequent fliers treated like this? I wonder.

What do you think? How can this situation be improved? What can airlines do to not upset their most cherished customers through these charges? Do you have any experiences to share that might be of help to Phil?

If you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe SimpliFlying by email or RSS so that you can get the updates from the convenience of your inbox.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is the Founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the world’s largest aviation marketing firms working with over 85 aviation clients in the last ten years. Nigam is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior executives globally, from Chile to China. Nigam’s impassioned and honest perspectives on airline marketing have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and into leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He writes a dedicated monthly column in Flight’s Airline Business, challenging the typical assumptions about airline marketing. His new book on airline marketing, SOAR, is an Amazon bestseller that’s shaking up the industry and inspiring other industries to learn from the best airlines. Born in India, raised in Singapore, he now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Toronto.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 10 comments
  • Steve Winduss

    The problem is that Ryanair is building no customer loyalty, no cushion, no extra fat around the corporate model. The margins and the goodwill are so slim that a little twitch here or there could mark the end.

    And such a twitch might be the point at which customers realise that Ryanair don’t seek profits by maximising customer service but by eliminating it altogether.

  • Philip G

    RE: The Airline Suffers Big, When Big Spenders Get Frustrated With Hidden Fees: True Story (United Airlines)

    One of the options that one US based agent, a guy after all of these fees, started pressuring me to get a United Mileage Plus visa as a solution to my problem, and by pressure, I mean high sales pressure. I’m very aware of “high pressure sales techniques, having worked in an industry which employed them. I had forgotten about him trying to pawn that off to me. After all, I did call United about fifteen times!

    First of all, this WOULD NOT fix my current situation, it might help in the future as he stated that a seat would be reserved for me on any flight, but the last thing I need, or want, is another credit card. There is an offer for it on, but he stated that I would not get the same offer as he was giving me on the credit card. I’m not sure what he meant by that, and I don’t know if he gets some sort of commission for me applying over the phone, which honestly, I don’t like doing as that information is personal. After 3 or 4 times of me saying I didn’t want it, he finally gave up, or I was going to hang up if he didn’t.

    Personally after my experiences flying to Thailand recently, the business class on their 747-400’s is a complete disaster. They say that more than 50% of their 747’s have been converted to the new business class, but it seriously is almost the SAME seat as the domestic first on widebodies. On the United Website, the workhorse of the fleet, the 777’s are NOT being retrofitted with the new Business Class at the moment, as they are concentrating on the new Economy class seat. This is ironic as the 777 is usually used as the MOST premium aircraft on the most lucrative routes such as London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Dubai, Kuwait, etc. There is a graphic somewhere on that shows the fleet progress, but I believe it to be untrue. The 767’s are getting priority over premium aircraft, however, their 767’s fly to more leisure destinations, other than Moscow, and they are used on some London Heathrow routes. I’m not sure what United is trying to cater to at this point, but it’s not appealing to me whatsoever.

    The PVT’s in international business and domestic first are no bigger than economy, (although PTV’s don’t exist on 747-400”s in economy, which is odd as I don’t believe any carrier in the US continues to not provide PTV’s in economy on the 747, and certainly not any of the international carries. It’s sort of an industry standard now). I felt bad for those passengers back there, no AVOD, nothing. My footrest on the NRT-BKK flight broke, and there was no other seat offered to me…which I guess I understand as the flight was sold out, but the business seats really are a disgrace. Don’t expect lie-flat seats. Or even slanted 180 degree recline seats.

    It reminds me of when everyone was complaining about Northwest Airlines being the most terrible airline in the US in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and perhaps the western world. Northwest has cleaned up their act, and after I expend my miles, I’m switching back to American or Continental. O’Hare has become somewhat of a hassle, especially through customs, leaving the international terminal, getting on the train, which is OUTSIDE the airport and again passing through security at the United Terminal, is not a fun experience.

    I recently flew American, and their 777’s look so my cleaner, fresh, and very business-like. While not the incredible luxury of airlines like Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which is a totally different market, it’s much better than United. The new Business seats on American are a great addition, and the cabin was bright and airy, and most of all, CLEAN! Also, American airlines has taken over, for the most part, International Terminal D at DFW airport, which in my opinion, is probably the best terminal in the United States at this point, and other than American, the addition of KLM services to DFW is a testament….

    AA is even using it for domestic flights as well, especially in the evenings, and lets just be frank, the flight for me from Oklahoma City to Chicago is about 2 hours, as opposed to a 23 minute flight to DFW, which is an international gateway, with KLM, British Airways, Korean Air, and Lufthansa and AA hosting huge amounts of flights to Europe, Asia, and South America.


    24 Hours Later and about 5 Hours on the Phone with United Mileage Plus Premier:

    The Solution Found Finally After 20+ Calls to United Plus (And it does help if you are a Premier Elite Member)

    Well, I tried several times with United to get the fees waived, and finally, I got my mother’s doctor information, date of surgery, and hospital details to United. They waived all of the fees.

    My mistake however, was having them credit the miles back to the account, which takes 72 hours, or 3 business days. I FINALLY got through to someone in Chicago who was WONDERFUL! He worked to get my miles, free of charge, re-credited to my account immediately. I requested this because their 40,000 mile promotions are ending within the next week, so I really couldn’t wait for them any longer. He understood, and while I had to hold forever, he came back and told me it was noted on my account, however, he got disconnected from his “resources” twice, and when he tried back the second time, they were closed. Not sure who he was talking to, but he said if I call back at 7AM, the notes were in my account and they would be credit immediately.

    I guess trying 20 plus times gets you somewhere. Stayed very nice, but almost begged him, but it was worth it. Still, I’m probably taking my business elsewhere, but keeping my fingers crossed they get credited, which he assured me they would. So not a bad day and HOURS on the phone with United. Thank god for 1-800 numbers!

    Phil G

  • Patrick

    I have been flying United for over 20 years now. I occasionally fly other brands but always come back to UA. The one big key in getting them to do what you need is your status in the FF program. In the years when I make 1K, you can get anything you ask for. Refunds, fees waived, etc. As a Premier Exec, it takes talking to just the right person, so presistance pays off. Below PE, it’s a crapshoot. Again, totally depends on who you talk to.

    Having said all that, I’ve never gotten any better treatment from any other US or UK airline. They are all at least as bad and in some cases worse. I’ve been a high premier member on AA at various times and have never felt like it meant a thing. I recently tried Virgin from LA to Nairobi, Kenya and it was a disaster.

  • Raul

    Why fly UA when DL/NW fly to BKK?

  • bmvaughn

    Sounds like Phil won’t be happy whatever he gets. And I have a tough time believing that anyone who doesn’t have Premier Exec status on United “flies a lot”.

    • Shashank Nigam

      @bmvaughn: I think Phil has a fair reason to be dis-satisfied….20 phone calls to get HIS miles reclaimed back…I think that’s a bit too much, and shows United needs to put more focus on their customers.

  • Planecrazzy

    @ PhilG – Dealing with corporate customer service can indeed be a frustrating event. Even more frustrating is the fact that so many companies have outsourced the CSR function to low cost overseas 3rd parties that are most times inexperienced, follow written guidelines and have no idea what they can and can’t do. It pays to keep a cool head, be friendly, professional and persistent when dealing with any customer service organization. Eventually you’ll get to the right person, although I do agree that making 20 calls is a bit over the top. By-the-way, I am not an airline employee or a customer service rep but I do know from my own experience how to work the customer service system.

  • Philip G


    It all depends on what you call flying a lot, and who and what pays for it. For a person who is flying on their company’s ticket, free of charge for themselves, it’s very easy to “fly a lot” by your definition. Everything from their hotels and airfare are paid for.

    I purchase my tickets through my own funds, full fare usually. It’s the fact that I had to call 20 times and practically cry to them to make this happen when these really are my miles.

    I’m an avid aviation fan, someone that understands the airline industry quite well, and has also seen the decline in service and especially customer service. Airline employees do not like their jobs, or at least that is what it seems. And I can honestly agree with them. As they get frustrated, passengers get frustrated, and heads collide.

    Every flight for me is pure joy. I love flying and grew up in a Cessna 335 twin of my dad’s going back and forth from his house to my mom’s after my parents divorce. Therefore, I’m not in anyway “never getting what I want” or always “won’t be happy whatever I get.”

    In fact, I’ve seen many people who couldn’t tell a 747-400 from a 757-200 to save their lives throw a fit about missing their flight because they were 10 min too late for check-in and start yelling at the ticket agent. It’s sad really.

    Do I not like United? Not at the moment, no. But, they are really just not up to industry standards in quality and customer service. Go to any Asian carrier and it’s simply a delight to fly no matter what class of service you are seated in.

    I know United is modernizing their fleet with new amenities, but even the first class seats on the 777’s are worn out. They are the last US major airline to start upgrading, but most US airlines are not up to par with the amenities that are supplied on other carriers outside the US either.

    I think it’s just the sad state of affairs with the Airline industry and all part of why you see them collapsing and merging so much. Southwest airlines for example is one of the most profitable airlines in the world, and also rated No. 1 in customer service. I don’t like flying them that much because I prefer to choose my seat and have premium space available such as Business and First and they do not fly international, which is my usual travel, but they are ALWAYS friendly, and they never make you go through so many menus on the phone system. They pick up immediately and go from there.

    I wish we had a large international carrier with large modern aircraft that operated like southwest, but with service classes.

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