If you though your last trip was bad, you might want to talk with James Liu before complaining about it.
He just had an frustrating experience with United Airlines, which started in Columbia, SC, and was to have ended in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But he never made it that far. In Chicago, a United representative told him he couldn’t continue to China because he didn’t have the right transit visa.
But it turns out his paperwork was in order. And although Liu was eventually sent back to Columbia, his luggage took a different route — first flying to China and then taking its time getting back to the States. United offered a half-hearted apology and some compensation. But is it enough?
Problems like Liu’s are relatively rare, and they aren’t specifically addressed anywhere in United’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. Airlines can be held responsible for allowing passengers to board an international flight when they don’t have the right paperwork, so gate agents often err on the side of caution when determining who can, and who can’t, fly.
Unfortunately, airlines don’t always have the most up-do-date information about visas in their system. In Liu’s case, the most authoritative information came from the Chinese embassy, which confirmed he was, indeed, good to go.
So let’s fast-forward to the confrontation with United’s employees in Chicago.
At the help desk next to the terminal, United agents told me that my information was inaccurate, and I was denied boarding.
United put a cancellation on my ticket and gave me a receipt and an understanding that I may at least be able to receive a partial refund for my unused flights. They also advised me to inform the agents in charge of boarding that my luggage needs to be pulled off so they do not have to unload in order to find my luggage.
I also understand that United’s policy also states that a passenger’s luggage is not to be on an international flight without the passenger on the plane. After informing the agents of my situation, I was told that informing them was unnecessary, it was their policy to remove my luggage and it would be done automatically without my intervention, and what I needed to do was wait by baggage claim for my luggage to come out so I can be on my way.
Actually, making sure your bags fly with you is a standard security protocol, often referred to as Positive Passenger Baggage Match. Liu was sent back to Columbia after spending several hours waiting in vain for his luggage, and eventually offered a refund on the unused part of his ticket. But the bags … well, that’s another story.
The following day, I called United baggage claim to check the status of my luggage, since their website showed that my baggage claim number was invalid.
The representative informed me that their records show that the last scan of my luggage was in Beijing. I demanded an explanation as to why or even how my luggage got to Beijing, especially considering I waited partly due to the fact that I received confirmation stating that yes my luggage was indeed pulled off from the plane.
I spoke to a supervisor about the situation and was still provided with no explanation, no compensation, only an assurance that United is looking for my luggage and they would contact me by phone as soon as they found any updates of any sort regarding my luggage.
Liu sent multiple emails to United, asking it to address two problems. First, the fact that he was denied boarding because of a bogus visa problem. And second, that his luggage went to China without him, and in violation of its own policies and security protocol.
United’s response? It offered him either a $400 dollar travel voucher and 10,000 miles or 25,000 miles.
Is this enough compensation? A survey of more than 1,000 readers this morning says: no.
(Photo: Santa Fe Media/Flickr Creative Commons)