Q: I have an extremely complicated and unique situation involving an airline ticket. Basically, circumstances beyond my control caused me to miss a flight and rebook another, and the airline refuses to refund me.
Last year, I volunteered for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most remote islands in the world. Midway is accessible only by chartered flights from Honolulu, which run once every two or three weeks. Volunteers are expected to get to Honolulu on their own, and then the company that FWS contracts to make flights to Midway will fly them to Midway and back once their stint is over.
I knew the exact time period I would be on Midway, so I booked a four-part, round-trip ticket through a travel agency from Baltimore to Honolulu with a stop in Los Angeles. Then, four months later, from Honolulu back to Baltimore via Seattle. I was planning on visiting some friends in Seattle, so I had built in a five-day layover there. The ticket was purchased from United, although the return flights were on Alaska Airlines.
My return flight from Midway to Honolulu was delayed five days, causing me to miss my flight to Seattle. I called United to let it know I would miss my leg from Honolulu to Seattle and that I planned to buy a one-way ticket from Honolulu to Seattle.
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But when I got to Seattle, my travel agent called to tell me that the portion of my ticket from Seattle to Baltimore had been canceled, despite my explicit assertion to the United agent on the phone that I still would need that flight and that I still would be able to make that flight. So I then had to purchase another one-way ticket from Seattle to Baltimore with a different carrier.
I called United’s refunds department and explained what happened. The woman on the phone said that the best option for me would be to complain via United’s customer-care feedback form online. I filled out the form, but United denied my refund, saying I was traveling on a restricted fare.
What can I do at this point?
Eric Dale, Alexandria, Va.
A: United is right, but the agent you spoke with when you called to cancel your ticket should have told you what would happen. When you miss one segment, an airline will cancel the entire trip. That’s an industry policy. If your ticket isn’t refundable, the airline gets to keep your fare.
If I’d made arrangements with United to catch the second leg of my return flight, I would have asked for written confirmation. Because – and you wouldn’t know this unless you’re an airline insider or a travel agent – the airline is going to cancel your entire flight.
I’m not sure what the United agent told you, but you were left with the impression that you could catch the flight to Baltimore. It’s not clear to me if that was an assumption you made or if the agent offered you a verbal reassurance.
You could have appealed this to a customer-service executive at United Airlines. I publish their names on http://elliott.org/company-contacts/united-airlines/.
I contacted United on your behalf. After some back and forth, United agreed to issue a travel voucher equivalent to the value of the canceled flights.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email email@example.com.