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United Airlines switched us to another airline. Can we get a refund instead?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

United Airlines surprised one family after it canceled their flight – an automatic switch to another airline. But the new itinerary on the new carrier didn’t resemble the original and the passengers didn’t want it. So why did UA make the option of a refund seem impossible? (Updated reprint)

In late May 2020, Maria Gatchalian was still hoping to vacation in Greece in July with her family. But United Airlines had already canceled their nonstop and put them on a connecting flight on another airline — without notice. After Gatchalian accidentally discovered the surprising news, things went from bad to worse. When she tried to cancel the trip, United Airlines told her she would need to make any changes through Lufthansa.

With nearly $5,000 at stake, Gatchalian contacted me to find out if United Airlines could really arbitrarily put her family on another airline and then refuse to assist further.

Airline shenanigans were strong during the early days of the pandemic. In this case, United Airlines hoped the Gatchalians didn’t know the regulations that protect travelers when an airline cancels a flight. But Gatchalian is a regular reader of my column — and she knew where to turn for help.

Booking United Airlines nonstop to Greece to celebrate

Just before the pandemic began,  the Gatchalians asked their daughter Kristin how she would like to celebrate her Sweet 16. Would she prefer a big party or a special family vacation? If she chose option number two, she could also invite a friend. Kristin mulled it over and soon decided on a summer adventure.

“We thought it would be a great way to celebrate Kristin’s birthday,” Gatchalian recalled. “She was sold on the idea when we told her that she could bring Amelie.”

Full disclosure: Kristin is one of my youngest daughter’s best friends. So Amelie was soon included in the family vacation. The group excitedly made all the arrangements to visit Athens and Santorini. And for the next several months the girls busied themselves with planning their wardrobe and activities for their big trip.

Then came March — and the coronavirus entered the picture. That’s when a dark cloud began to roll over the girls’ hopes for the summer trip to Greece. United Airlines had not canceled the nonstop flight from Newark to Athens — yet. But with each passing day, it seemed more unlikely that the trip would happen.

United Airlines: Do you want to cancel your flight?

In April, United Airlines sent an email to the family asking if their plans had changed. If so, the message went on to say, they could cancel their United Airlines flight without penalty. The group would receive a future flight credit, good for two years.

The communication didn’t mention whether the coronavirus would cause United Airlines to cancel the flight, or if it already had canceled it. But the email certainly read as if the airline was providing a unique opportunity for the family.

It wasn’t.

The email didn’t surprise Gatchalian. She had already read several of my articles warning travelers against canceling flights too soon during the coronavirus crisis. In fact, she had been expecting this form letter, which meant to entice passengers into canceling their flights before the pandemic forced United Airlines to do so. 

Gatchalian wasn’t going to fall for it. Besides, she still hoped the coronavirus might recede by July. There was still a chance they might soon be relaxing on the beach in Greece, celebrating Kristin’s Sweet 16.

Gatchalian disregarded United’s attempt to get her to cancel the flight. But it seems that the airline had one more trick up its sleeve.

Your flight isn’t canceled, it’s just “modified” 

In May, the girls started to be a bit optimistic that the trip might happen.

But it wasn’t to be.

“Michelle, I just signed into our United Airlines account, and it looks like the airline canceled our flight,” Gatchalian told me. “But it says modified (not canceled), and United Airlines seems to have put us on another airline — Lufthansa. Can they do that?”

When I looked at the new flight, it bore no resemblance to the original itinerary the family had booked. Now, instead of a 9-hour nonstop flight from Newark to Athens, United Airlines had put them on a Lufthansa flight. That itinerary had a connection in Germany and added over 7 hours of traveling time. Not exactly what the family had in mind for their summer vacation to Greece.

The Gatchalians made a decision: Greece was not in their future for this summer. But now a different dilemma faced them. United Airlines provided no way to reject the new flight on Lufthansa. In fact, when Gatchalian tried to cancel and request a refund, she found no tool in her account to do so.

The message said that if she wanted to cancel, she would need to contact her carrier.

Her carrier was, of course, United Airlines — but the information in her account now indicated it was Lufthansa. This, even though the Gatchalians had never had any contract or agreement with Lufthansa. And unfortunately, at that time many European airlines were opting only to provide vouchers during the coronavirus crisis – even when the airline canceled the passenger’s flight.

In fact, several European countries even enacted temporary regulations that allowed this practice. So I knew the Gatchalians needed to be able to fix this problem with United Airlines — not Lufthansa.

It was time to find out from United Airlines what was going on here.

Asking United Airlines to review this switch

I reached out to our contact at United Airlines to find out how the airline unilaterally put this family on another airline and then seemed to reject all involvement.

I have another strange United Airlines case here. Aris Gatchalian had a nonstop flight scheduled on United for July 8 from Newark to Athens. United Airlines has now changed the itinerary to a connecting flight on Lufthansa through Germany. The family does not want this new flight, which is quite inconvenient and adds at least 7 hours to their journey one way. They’ve called United to reject this new itinerary and request a refund, and they keep being sent on an endless loop through chatbots and links on your site.

They gave me all their login credentials, and I tried to get the refund processed. There are absolutely no mechanisms that allow for a refund request for this itinerary. The buttons are inoperable — except for the one that says that they must contact Lufthansa to request the cancellation and refund. As you can imagine, the family is a bit aggravated since this reservation had nothing to do with Lufthansa. That is until United Airlines unilaterally canceled their United flight and transferred them to this other itinerary on another carrier.

I’ve now been on a chat hold for an hour trying to get their refund processed, and the message that keeps refreshing is, “we’re sorry your request is taking longer than expected.” I’ve also called United and been sent to a refund form that does not work since it seems that now United has transferred the ticket to Lufthansa. Can you help?

Michelle to United Airlines

And within hours came the good news: Our executive contact at United Airlines had confirmed that the airline would process a full refund.

Post publication update: About a year after I originally published this article, after the pandemic had subsided a bit, the family (and Amelie) traveled to Aruba for a belated Sweet 16 birthday celebration.

What to do if an airline cancels your flight and puts you on another carrier

  1. Do not click on the accept button: Even if it’s the only option, do not click on the “accept” or “proceed” button. Once you do that, you’ll be locked into the new itinerary. When I attempted to process the refund for the Gatchalians, the the only option on the page was to accept. Resist the urge to click on that button to proceed to the next screen. Instead, move on to the next step…
  2. Reach out to the airline directly and reject the switch: Sign into your account with the airline and formally reject the switch to the alternative carrier. You can do that via email or chat, but make sure to keep a copy of the conversation. If you need an executive contact at United Airlines (or any other company) Consumer Rescue’s Research Valet, Meera Sundram, can provide you with the name and email of someone who we know can help you.   
  3. The Department of Transportation rules: Keep in mind, the Department of Transportation requires an airline to refund a passenger if it cancels the flight. If your airline cancels your flight and puts you on another airline, you’re under no obligation to accept this change. Also, keep in mind if the airline changes your flight so that it significantly alters your arrival or departure time – or includes wacky ground connections via unrelated airports   – you can also cancel for a refund. If you’ve reached a brick wall with your airline and you know it owes you a refund, you can file a complaint with the DOT here.
  4. Aircraft swaps within the same airline: I sometimes receive requests for help from passengers who want compensation when an airline switches their aircraft to one they consider inferior.  If an airline swaps your plane with another from its own fleet as happened recently to one disappointed Points Guy reader, you aren’t entitled to a refund or cancellation. That is unless that switch forces you to be downgraded to a different cabin. Always keep in mind when you buy an airline ticket, you’re buying transportation from Point A to Point B on a particular airline in a specific cabin class. You’re not buying a specific seat or transportation in a specific aircraft.
  5. Warning about bookings made via third-party agents: One last thing to remember, the Department of Transportation does not directly govern third-party bookings. So, although you might save a few bucks using an online booking site, you won’t have the DOT protections in the end. Unfortunately, many passengers found that out the hard way during the pandemic. But pandemic or not, it’s always best to book directly with the airline.

The Consumer Rescue advocacy team is always here for you. If need help fixing your consumer problem, send your request to our team and we’ll be happy to rescue you, too. Our assistance is always friendly and always free!! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.