The Travel Adviser: United becoming untied

"Your frustration with the delay is vented at everyone involved, but does little to provide true compensation."

Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ben Gurion Airport
(photo credit: REUTERS)
United Airlines Inc., more commonly referred to as “United” is one of the largest American airlines with its headquarters in Chicago. The company employs over 88,000 people and flew over 16 million passengers in 2014. From Israel it flies twice daily, using a Boeing 777 nonstop to Newark.
United Airlines Israel managing-director Avi Friedman has put together a first class team with employees working 24/7 to service the whims and desires of travel professionals and beleaguered passengers on a level that routinely rates as one of the best run airlines in the country. Overcoming the huge snafus relating from the merger with Continental Airlines nearly five years ago, Friedman’s team has been at the forefront weathering obstacles put in their way such as Operation Protective Edge, but recent events have left them impotent as factors far beyond their control chip away at the sterling reputation he so carefully cultivated.
There’s a mirror site, designed to look exactly like the true United site, filled with a litany of both consumer and customer complaints. No doubt an embarrassment to senior executives ensconced in their not so ivory tower in Chicago, the site trumpets loudly that United has sued to take it down.
Unfortunately the last few weeks have added fuel to the fire, and the stain of failure is spreading slowly throughout the day to day operations.
The following unedited exchanges illustrate the dilemma:
Dear Customer Service, I am a 1K passenger and fly very frequently on your metal. I have been following the news in the last couple of weeks and I am a bit worried about the issues there have been with United.
As you may know there have been serious issues that occurred in Belfast and in the Goose Bay – (all within one week) in the way United treated those passengers. United didn’t arrange any accommodation for anyone during both instances – only for the flight crew.
Furthermore a number of United Airlines flights to and from Israel have been plagued by disruptions and cancellations over the past month.
I personally know some people in Israel that have cancelled their upcoming flights with United because of these events.
I would like to ask you how you can assure me to keep on trusting you. Believe me, I want to continue to fly with United, but I am very disappointed about all the negative news about United lately.
Kind regards,
Myron Heartfelt
With both honesty and humor it elicited the following reply:
United flight 958 landed safely after diverting to Goose Bay, Canada, Friday night due to a maintenance issue.
Hotel space in Goose Bay was not available, so we accommodated customers at a local military base and provided meals. We flew the customers to Newark Saturday night where they connected to London, and arrived at 2:28 p.m. local time Sunday. Customers will receive partial refunds and goodwill.
We are doing a number of things to improve our reliability to make sure our planes can fly their routes, including adjusting our schedule and refining our maintenance practices – this is a continuous fine-tuning process. The safety and well-being of our passengers must always be our first priority so some flight irregularities are unavoidable.
Thank you for your loyalty as an elite 1K MileagePlus member. We look forward to welcoming and taking care of you on a future United Airlines flight.
Kathy Myles
Corporate Customer Care
Take note of that sentence: Customers will receive partial refunds and goodwill.
What can be expected? What are your rights? Why are so many planes being delayed and canceled of late? Let’s start with the latter – Global warming aside, most of the world’s cities, this time of year, are not plagued with huge snowstorms or volcanic ash. Yet United planes are being delayed throughout the world, be it in Hong Kong or Washington or Tel Aviv or London. The unifying thread has far more to do with a simple yet impressive number: $1.97 billion. UA had a full year net income in 2014 of nearly $2b. This is an increase of 89 percent from the previous year. The CEO of United Airlines, Jeff Smisek, who oversaw the merger with Continental Airlines, received a 39% increase in compensation to more than $11.3 million. Its stock price alone in 2014 appreciated 77%. Still not enough of these radiant numbers have trickled down to the blue collar workers at the airline.
When I see day after day planes being delayed for flight crew irregularities and customer care letters emphasizing delays due to maintenance and safety issues, I’m certain that union employees are pulling the strings.
It may have started earlier this year when United informed union employees at 28 airports that their work may be contracted out. Workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, were given notice that their jobs are on the line. This is the latest in a series of maneuvers by the airline to control costs by cutting labor expenses.
Union members took to social media to express their concern, pointing out that with the company now making billions of dollars off the backs of workers; management has decided to outsource their jobs, while giving themselves pay raises.
Social media outbursts are converted into facts on the ground, possibly by taking far longer to do routine maintenance on planes, creating the constant delays that are swirling in the United orbit. That’s the underlying reason for so many of these delays, but what is your recourse? To begin, one must realize that both Israeli and European fliers are at a huge advantage over their American counterparts regarding flight delays. In fact, US airlines have no legal obligation to provide delayed passengers with compensation. This includes vouchers for hotels and food. That’s not to say US travelers get nothing, just don’t count on it. What UA and all airlines will do for you is everything in their power to get you on the next available flight – in many cases, even a competitor’s. That is an airline’s main obligation to passengers. If delays or cancellations have made a trip impossible and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation; even for non-refundable tickets as well as ancillary fees, such as bags or premium seats. In most cases, you must file a claim to get these refunds.
An airline’s contract of carriage is the legal document posted to websites that spells out exactly what a carrier will and will not do for passengers. These documents are hard to follow as they are filled with legalese and conditions.
Unfortunately, the answer, not just for United, but for most US carriers is that United doesn’t owe a passenger anything for a delayed or canceled flight, apart from either getting the passenger to the destination on the next available flight, or refunding the trip. Perusing their Contract of Carriage it avoids using the word compensation.
United and other airlines are very careful to never refer to offers as compensation, which would imply obligation; instead these offers are referred to as “goodwill gestures.” So that’s what you should call it too, when you write or call United.
Goodwill gestures are not created equal. You’ll typically be offered more United miles, or a higher value e-certificate voucher good toward United Travel if you’re a United 1K or Global Services member flying United on a long haul flight, rather than a passenger with no United status on a short haul flight in economy, even if in both cases the delay was eight hours. Note, though, the gesture is in the form of a voucher toward a flight on the same airline that caused you so much consternation; no cash amount proffered.
Goodwill gestures aside, where your UA flight is scheduled to originate matters greatly when it comes to compensation. Let’s start first with passengers departing Israeli airports with a law that can boldly be described as a “Bill of Rights” The law applies to scheduled airlines as well as charter flights. The flight was canceled or departed several hours later than the original departure time. What’s your compensation?
Cash compensation
It depends on the length of the delay and is contingent upon when you received notice of the delay. If you were informed less than 14 days before the flight (which is the norm in most delays) and the departure or new flight was moved between five and eight hours, you are eligible for cash compensation based on the length of the flight.
For example, you would receive NIS 3,000 if the flight is more than 4,500 km. The distance on the flight to and from Newark to Tel Aviv is 5,666 km. To reiterate, on any United (as well as all airlines) flight from Israel to the US whose flight is delayed from five hours is eligible for NIS 3,000 ($780) cash.
Email them at or fill out the form on their site. Make sure to include your United MileagePlus number, all of your contact information, details including ticket number, flight number, origin, destination and date. While it may be tempting to cover all the excruciating ramifications of your delay or cancellation, it’s best to keep your statement succinct and stick to the facts. Don’t forget to make a copy of this Customer Care Form for your records.
Flight delays between two and five hours entitle the customer to food and drink and communication with family and friends via phone calls or emails, but no cash compensation.
If your UA flight originates in Europe than all airlines fall under the European Union’s regulations and they require hard cash to be distributed to the aggrieved flyer.
The EU regulation applies if: • Your flight is departing from an airport located in an EU member state OR • Traveling to an EU member state • You have a confirmed reservation on the flight and arrived in time for check-in.
There are three components of compensation: cash compensation, rerouting or refunding, and refreshments/ communication/accommodation.
Cash compensation for cancellations or delays that result in arriving more than three hours later than scheduled depends on the length of your flight: • Flight of less than 1,500 km.: €250 • Flight within the EU greater than 1,500 km.; OR any flight greater than 1,500 km. but less than 3,500 km.: €400 • Flight not within the EU greater than 3,500 km.: €600 One added bonus, you’re flying Frankfurt to Newark and connecting to Boston. Even if the initial flight from Frankfurt was not delayed and only your connecting flight to Boston was delayed resulting in a delay over three hours, you would still be eligible.
Rerouting or refunding
The passenger may choose one of these three options:
• Airline reimburses the cost of the unused flight tickets, and for used tickets where the flight taken no longer serves any purpose for the passenger’s original travel plan. In the latter case, the airline must provide a flight back to the original point of departure at the earliest opportunity.
• Airline reroutes passenger under similar conditions to the intended final destination at the earliest opportunity.
• Airline reroutes passenger under similar conditions to the intended final destination at the passenger’s leisure, subject to the availability of seats.
Refreshments, communication and accommodation
The airline is required to provide to delayed passengers, free of charge:
• Meals and refreshments in proportion to waiting time
• Two phone calls or emails
• Hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and hotel, if a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary The airline may only reduce or withdraw these entitlements if offering them would delay the flight further.
Keep in mind, that these laws encompass all the airlines; my focus on United is its pattern of delays requires a clarion call from consumers. Do not expect to be offered this compensation; in fact if you don’t ask for it under the existing legislation in your request, you most likely will not receive it.
Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge. Your desire to fly with UA is why they made nearly $2b. Your frustration with the delay is vented at everyone involved, but does little to provide true compensation. It’s this knowledge that will provide some solace to what transpired and hopefully nudge UA to solving their problems as quickly as possible.
The author is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email: