Did I get hosed by United? An interesting flight delay and accommodation conundrum

We had been sitting in the lounge for far too long, waiting out the overnight prior to our scheduled 5:15 am flight when the first TripAlert email from United Airlines rolled in: Our flight from Singapore to Hong Kong was going to be delayed approximately 45 minutes. With just over two hours on the connection that wasn’t catastrophic, but we soon realized that the 45 minute estimate was a pipe dream. And that was ultimately a bigger problem than not.

The transfer desk opened eventually and we went to get our boarding passes. It was then we were informed that our flights had all been changed and that we were now getting home about 5 hours late. Not the end of the world, to be sure, but when the plan was originally that we’d be home for dinner that was not such great news. Perhaps there was a better option available, one which would get us home closer to on time? It turns out that there was but United did not want us to have it. And I’m not so sure they were correct on that move.

My first try was to get us rebooked on the non-stop flight operated by Singapore Airlines. That was clearly a long shot and I didn’t expect them to agree to it. They didn’t. But at least they had a decent reason and they intimated that they would had our delay been more significant. All of the other options involved connections in Tokyo. Not awful as a routing, but the flights which got us  home on time (or close to it) were not available. Well, they were, but not in coach and the folks at United were not willing to oversell the back or confirm us in business. Their view was that the five hour delay was acceptable even though there were seats on the plane and the delay was their fault.

Another in our group is flying to Houston. His upgrade on Hong Kong – Chicago had cleared well in advance. And there were business class seats for sale on Narita – Houston. But the rebooking engine skipped the natural, non-stop flight in favor of an extra connection which got in later and which had a 50 minute connection in SFO (not sure that meets the MCT, much less is reasonable). That wasn’t even a case of having to change the booking cabin. Fortunately that one was resolved pretty quickly on the phone.

And this is where the conundrum comes into play. I called in to the Global Services desk to try to get on those flights and was given a somewhat perplexing option. It actually was possible for them to force the seats available without a fare difference; I just had to redeem a GPU (f/k/a SWU). Even though the upgrade inventory wasn’t there the agent would be willing to force that open for me (pending approval by a supervisor). But they would not just do it on their own. In other words, I could either accept the 5 hour delay, getting home close to midnight, or pay up for the upgrade to force the issue. Which brings me to the crux of the issue: should I have accepted the "extortion" to get home on time or should it have been free?

Ultimately it worked in that I scrounged up the GPU and got the rebooking completed. And, yes, I’m going to be riding upstairs on the 747 rather than likely in a middle seat down the back somewhere. So I did realize value from the transaction. But I’m still not so sure that it was a choice I should have been forced in to or that the realized value of redeeming the GPU for the flight was what it should have been. Getting listed for the Singapore – Tokyo segment was not possible even though I was now redeeming the upgrade, and several passengers ended up clearing into both business and first on the segment. Assuming the next connection actually is on time I’ll still make it home for dinner, albeit an hour later than planned. But it came with a personal cost that I’m not so sure was reasonable.

And the ultimate irony is that the SIN-HKG flight ended up getting to HKG early enough that we probably would have made the connection anyways. Smart not to gamble on that, I think, but annoying when it cost us GPUs.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. My post is going to annoy you Seth, but I think it needs to be posted.

    I find it offensive that you are writing about this.

    You are ALWAYS taking up for COdbaUA and now you want to whine.

    Plus you throw in everyone’s faces that you called Global Services. What a laugh. Remember you did NOT earn GS – it was given to you so you would say nice things about COdbaUA or at least thats what’s said.

    You give a lot of good advice and I respect you a lot for it. But this post is ludicrous. You are now getting a taste of what all of us lowly overentitled folks are getting from UA. They should not have done that for you. In all fairness, they should have required you to buy a full fare ticket to return home. Isn’t that ‘What SMI/J Would Do?’

  2. leaving out the personal bias…

    I would say that 5 hours seems like a very long delay, especially if other options are available.

    However, they can only send you on a flight with seats! A free confirmed upgrade is a little unreasonable, especially for such a long flight. Not sure about overselling coach and how that works with elites, upgrades, and stuff (not sure of your status)…but the prospect of you being stuck in a 3rd country is likely not appealing. I think its a little dirty for them to force you to use a SWU, and maybe this warrants a letter, but it sounds like until that point, they did make a good faith effort to find another routing for you…

    But yea, lets hate on UA because they are the worst! If only Jetblue or Southwest would start long-haul, Delta wouldn’t dilute the ranks of elites, AA would spend $1 on their product….blah blah blah

  3. There does seem to be a disconnect in what’s reasonable in these circumstances.

    As a customer, if I’m late for a flight (assuming I’m on a restricted fare and ignoring the flat tire rule which may or may not be available), I’m hosed. If the airline is late, whether it’s the airline’s fault or not, there seem to be few repercussions.

    I’m totally realistic in that I’m aware that stuff happens, that aeroplanes or seats cannot be produced out of thin air and that making alternative arrangements for 300 passengers does not happen immediately. However airlines generally, and UA specifically, seem to operate on the assumption that it’s ok to inconvenience passengers and it’s ok to make little or no effort to address the situation.

    In most circumstances where there is a delay on a major route, there are plenty of flights going out on a range of airlines. I have no idea of what the arrangements are between airlines, whether partners or not, but I do know that an empty seat is essentially valueless. There has to be a way in which such seats can be exchanged at a sensible price between airlines. Likewise, there has to be an algorithm where they can prioritise who gets what – a combination of fare paid, potential delay and airline status, no doubt.

    As the airlines become worse at this, I am reluctantly drawn to the conclusion that some form of consumer charter is called for. I generally dislike such things, but they are justifiable in one-sided contracts such as those thrust at consumers who have effectively no choice. The EU has a perfectly workable solution under which the compensation an airline pays to its passengers rises with the delays – to my mind if IATA won’t act, then it’s up to governments to do so.

  4. I’m only surprised they didn’t try for the buy-up $$$ option (pay the difference in fare class to get to Z and we’ll give you the seat).

  5. I think you did pretty well – better than this lowly 1K would have done as they would not have opened up space for me. Glad it worked out for you = ‘hosed’? not by a long shot.

  6. Yes, you got hosed. Status or not…same day trip delays take priority over other upgrades. It’s published all over the info around upgrade priority. I regularly take bumps for overbooking and demand upgrades + vouchers with DL. Officially they say supervisor approval is required, but I’ve never had a gate agent speak to anyone to confirm. If the delay was UA’s fault, they should have rebooked you in a higher fare with no cost to you without question.

  7. I ended up in J on the non-stop NRT-EWR flight that they refused to overbook us into Y on but that they magically made one J seat available on in exchange for a GPU. The aircraft left with empty seats in the back.

    The cause of this was operational, and entirely United’s fault. Yet, they were extremely reluctant to put passengers onto anything other than what they had been auto-rebooked onto. We and the other passengers who were unhappy (we only saw a few as we were at the transit desk) were not asking for anything unreasonable. We’d have been fine flying in coach. UA clearly had a seat open on the NRT-EWR flight I was on, for example, but they wouldn’t release it without compensation. Sorry — that was just plain wrong.

    1. Chris & KL: I find the rather misinformed stance you’ve taken on my GS status rather unfortunate. It isn’t for life and it wasn’t given quid pro quo in exchange for my writing about United. I’m actually not stupid enough to accept such a minimal comp in exchange for working PR for them.

      As for the “free upgrade” thought, yeah, I think they should have given it to me for free if that was the only way to get me home at a reasonable time. Once you start having operational issues which prevent you from getting the customer to their destination reasonably close to the scheduled time I believe that most of the rules should go out the window. Obviously the SIN-EWR flight shouldn’t be used, especially for a customer booked in coach, but I figured I’d ask. But asking them to make their own seats available seems completely reasonable. I would have been happy to have them oversell Y for me and then OpUp someone else if that’s what it would take to be consistent with the internal revenue policies and I suggested that as well. They wouldn’t pursue that option. They clearly had plenty of extra seats on NRT-SFO today and they were happy to fill that aircraft up rather than consider the impact to passengers of forcing that connection. But they also had seats on the flights they accommodated us on. They just didn’t want to use them unless I was willing to pay.

      This was not a 4 mile award, Debbie. I did have one of those booked but, like nearly everyone else, mine was canceled.

      TripAlert was the old name for the system under the CO brand. I think the new version is called EasyAlert but I’m not certain. The sign-up page is here: https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/account/FlightStatusNotificationFAQ.aspx.

  8. I’ve had times when my upgrade has cleared (on AA); it went mechanical and swapped for a smaller plane and I had to be put in coach so I wouldn’t arrive five hours late.

    Hard to imagine that you got in an hour late and upgraded (in a situation where it would never had cleared) and think you were hosed. Really? What were you saving the upgrades for?

    I would be thanking my lucky stars if that happened to me.

  9. Seth.

    To set the record straight, how did you obtain GS status, and what commitment did you make to secure it?

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