D. J. Bernstein

United Airlines sucks (part 22)

Friday 10 February 2006 02:44:30 GMT: United's computer confirms, both on a web page and by email, that I'm holding a reservation from Copenhagen to Tucson on 6 March 2006 (via Frankfurt and Chicago, with a stopover in Chicago), returning on 16 March 2006. ``Purchase by 12:00 am (midnight) Central Time on February 11 to avoid cancellation,'' United says. ``Airfare on your held ticket is guaranteed provided all fare rules are met.''

I send email to my Tucson contacts. They confirm later in the day that the schedule is fine.

Friday 10 February 2006 19:07:07 GMT: ``We can't book this itinerary,'' United's computer says, after I provide my credit-card number and attempt to purchase the allegedly guaranteed tickets. ``Unknown error code 105. Please try double checking all your information, and/or rebuilding your itinerary. If you continue to have problems, please let us know.''

Friday 10 February 2006 19:17:58 GMT: After several more tries on the computer, I send email through United's online ``contact'' system. United never responds, except for sending automated email confirming receipt of my message.

Saturday 11 February 2006 11:47:43 GMT: ``Purchase by 12:00 am (midnight) Central Time on February 11 to avoid cancellation,'' United says again. ``Your airfare is guaranteed until this time provided all fare rules, such as advance purchase requirements, continue to be met.'' But the computer no longer offers me a Purchase button.

I spend a long time on the phone with various United representatives. None of them have any idea why my 10 February 2006 purchase attempt produced ``error code 105.'' They all seem to agree that the reservation was automatically cancelled on the night of 10 February 2006; none of them have any idea why the reservation was cancelled 24 hours earlier than United originally promised.

One representative offers to sell me the same tickets for twice as much money. He says the original booking classes aren't available, but he refuses to tell me which of the six flights are sold out. Another representative points to two of the flights as the problem, finds alternate flights on a somewhat different schedule for approximately the original price (without the 1000-frequent-flier-mile bonus for booking online), and claims that he's holding a new reservation for me.

Saturday 11 February 2006 13:04:26 GMT: I've found flights online, for a tolerable schedule and exactly the original price.

Saturday 11 February 2006 13:07:17 GMT: Having once again provided my credit-card information, address, etc., I attempt to purchase the new ticket.

``Your ticket has not been issued,'' United's computer says. ``Please call us immediately to complete your purchase.''

I spend an even longer time on the phone with various United representatives. One of them says there's a credit-card address problem (even though I've previously had no trouble buying United tickets using exactly the same card, address, etc.), and spends more than ten minutes calling the credit-card company; I have no idea what happens as a result, since my phone connection to United is dropped.

The next representative says that my credit-card information looks fine but that the ticket is not eligible for electronic ticketing. He says that a printed ticket will be sent to me two weeks before the flight.

I ask why the ticket is not eligible for electronic ticketing. The representative has no idea. I point out that I'm calling from Denmark, and that a ticket sent to me two weeks before the flight probably won't be forwarded to me in time. The representative says that there are two faster options, namely mailing in seven to ten days and mailing in two days. Two days, I say. The representative confirms that my ticket will be mailed by Tuesday 14 February 2006 at the latest.

Saturday 18 February 2006: Having received no confirmation from my forwarding services that a ticket has actually been mailed, I call United again, and again spend a long time on the phone.

One representative says that the ticket has not been mailed, that United's ticket offices in the United States can't actually issue a ticket for this trip (but could issue a ticket for a trip starting with a direct flight from Copenhagen to Chicago), and that the itinerary has been cancelled.

The next representative eventually manages to reinstate the itinerary. She says that the ticket was issued at 18:49 GMT and that it will be mailed to me by Tuesday 21 February at the latest.

Friday 3 March 2006: The ticket still hasn't shown up. I spend another fairly useless hour on the phone with United, and then spend $679.56 with United's partner airline SAS for the least expensive seat still available on the same Copenhagen-to-Frankfurt flight.

Monday 27 March 2006: I send a letter to my credit-card company (MBNA) reporting the facts and asking for United's charge to be reduced by $679.56.

Friday 21 July 2006: I send another letter to my credit-card company demanding that United's charge be reduced by $679.56.

Tuesday 5 September 2006: I send the following letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency:

This is a complaint under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. United Airlines charged $1338.77 to my MBNA credit-card account [number here] but provided only $659.21 in services. I have repeatedly written to United and MBNA reporting the facts and demanding that the fraudulent $1338.77 charge be reduced to the correct $659.21. United, in violation of contract law, has refused to comply. MBNA, in violation of the Fair Credit Billing Act, has also refused to comply.

I am writing to you to request that you force MBNA to correct United's fraudulent charge, as required by the Fair Credit Billing Act. I also request that you also take all available measures to punish MBNA for its violations of the Fair Credit Billing Act.

Here are the details of what occurred. On 11 February 2006, I purchased from United a $1338.77 round-trip airplane ticket from Copenhagen via Frankfurt and Chicago to Tucson. After I purchased the ticket, United told me that it was unable to issue an electronic ticket but would mail a printed ticket to me by 14 February 2006 at the latest.

I contacted United again on 18 February 2006. United told me that it had not, in fact, mailed the ticket. United claimed that the ticket would be mailed to me by 21 February at the latest. I now know that United did not mail the ticket until 22 February, eight days after its original promise. I have kept the sealed envelope from United with the 22 February postmark.

Because of United's failure to issue an electronic ticket and failure to promptly mail a printed ticket, I was forced to buy a last-minute ticket for $679.56 from United's partner SAS for a seat on exactly the same Copenhagen-Frankfurt plane for which United had already sold me a seat. Both United and SAS told me that this $679.56 was the lowest possible cost for a ticket that could get me to Frankfurt on time to catch my plane to Chicago.

The original ticket still had not arrived in Copenhagen by the time I left for the airport on 6 March 2006. At Frankfurt I was finally able to pick up a replacement ticket from United for the rest of the trip, after an hour of arguing with a United employee who claimed that the ticket had been mailed on 18 February.

To summarize: United entered into a $1338.77 contract to transport me from Copenhagen via Frankfurt and Chicago to Tucson and back. United then massively breached the contract, forcing me to pay an extra $679.56 to United's partner SAS to receive the transportation to Frankfurt that United had promised. Evidently United failed to provide $679.56 of its $1338.77 in promised services. A $679.56 correction will undo United's theft of my money, although I don't consider it to be adequate compensation for all the time I lost and all the stress I suffered.

MBNA sent me a bill for United's $1338.77 charge. In response, on 27 March 2006, I wrote to MBNA. My letter was clearly identified as a complaint under the Fair Credit Billing Act: ``This is a complaint under the Fair Credit Billing Act regarding the charge `02/21 02/18 8328 AX C UNITED-TKT BY MAIL TKT BY MAIL MI' for `03/06 CPH/FRA ONEWAY TUS/CHI' for $1338.77 to my account [number here] The correct charge is $659.21.'' My complaint included ample details regarding United's breach of contract.

At this point MBNA was required to investigate United's fradulent charge, and, in the absence of any dispute, to correct the charge. There is no dispute regarding the facts: United stole $679.56 from me. United promised to give me an electronic ticket and failed to do so, United promised to mail a printed ticket by 14 February and failed to do so, United promised to mail a printed ticket by 21 February and failed to do so, and in the end I had no choice but to pay $679.56 to United's partner SAS for the Copenhagen-Frankfurt transportation that United had already sold to me. There is also no dispute regarding the timeliness of my complaint: MBNA received all necessary information well within the Fair Credit Billing Act deadlines. Unfortunately, MBNA did nothing to correct United's theft of my money.

I complained to United in the meantime. United asked me to send the original SAS receipt to United for reimbursement. I did so. United eventually offered to reimburse a small fraction of the stolen $679.56, but I'm not willing to give in to fraud; I want all of my money back.

Later MBNA asked me to send the original SAS receipt to MBNA. That was no longer possible; I had sent the receipt to United. MBNA's lack of access to this document is obviously not an excuse for MBNA to shirk its responsibilities under the Fair Credit Billing Act: the payment facts had already been reported in my original complaint. It was MBNA's job to verify that United was not disputing any of those facts, and then to correct United's fraudulent charge.

On 21 July 2006 I received a letter from United refusing to give back my stolen $679.56. United explained that it had requested the money back from its partner SAS, but that SAS ``did not honor our ticket fare'' and had ``denied'' United's request, since my $679.56 ticket was in a different ``class'' from the ticket that I had purchased originally. Apparently these thieves are under the impression that, after selling me a seat on their airplane, they were free to sell the same seat to someone else and to force me under duress to pay an unlimited amount of money for another seat.

The bottom line is that, after promising me transportation from Copenhagen to Frankfurt (and beyond), United refused to actually transport me to Frankfurt unless I coughed up a last-minute $679.56 to United's co-conspirators. I wrote to MBNA immediately on 21 July 2006, demanding once again that MBNA reduce United's charge by exactly this $679.56.

MBNA wrote back in a letter dated 9 August 2006. (I received the letter only yesterday, on 4 September 2006, in part because MBNA's internal mail system is slow and in part because I have been on many long trips.) MBNA refused to take further action regarding my complaint. Why? Because MBNA ``did not receive the requested information within the time frame specified.''

This is patently absurd. All of the facts were reported in my original complaint to MBNA near the end of March, well within the Fair Credit Billing Act deadline. MBNA never requested any additional information; what MBNA requested was an SAS receipt that I had already sent to United, saying nothing beyond the information that I had already sent to MBNA and that MBNA could easily confirm with United.

It is clear to me at this point that MBNA has no intention of correcting United's fraudulent charge, even though this correction is clearly required by the Fair Credit Billing Act. That's why I'm writing to you.

Thanks in advance for your assistance.