United is ready for takeoff? / Photo by John Rogers – Flickr Creative Commons

For the better part of the last year, I’ve thought United Airlines was a lost cause. The Continental Airlines merger couldn’t have gone worse, from a customer service perspective, and as much as I liked many of the people now working at the new United, it was difficult to say anything nice about the airline — let alone write anything positive.

But then I heard from Steve Allen, who reads the Travel Troubleshooter in the San Francisco Chronicle. His story gives me hope, and I think it will give you reason to believe that United may have turned a corner in its customer service department.

This summer, Allen booked a ticket on United.com to fly from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in October. But when his wife reviewed the itinerary, she noticed that he’d made a mistake on their travel dates.

“I had booked the return flight for October 25, and it should have been October 27,” he says. “Hotel bookings had already been made until that date.”

When I called United’s customer service number about my error, I was told that in order to make this change I would have to pay a change fee.

I thought that this was reasonable, since it had been my error. However, she then told me that the change fee would be $150 per ticket, which I thought was clearly unreasonable to change a flight three months in the future a few days after the initial booking.

When I expressed incredulity, I was told that this is standard United Airlines policy for any change.

Allen was unhappy, so he visited this site, found the email address for Anne Seeley, the point-person for customer service at United, and sent her an email. He also copied me and mentioned that he would be telling me about the fee.

Now, to be clear, United isn’t the only airline with a $150 change fee. It’s common among legacy carriers. Is it absurd? Yes, from a customer’s perspective it is, no matter how eloquently you explain the airline’s position. (Throwing around terms like “perishable commodity” doesn’t help.)

I totally understand Allen’s perspective. His two tickets to Mexico cost $686, and United wanted him to pay $300 to fix them. It could be worse. I sometimes get complaints about a ticket with negative value, once you factor in the change fee. That’s truly absurd.

Allen explains what happened next:

I had actually not expected much of a response, but to my surprise I recently received a phone call from a representative of Anne Seely’s office.

She first explained to me that if I had caught the error within 24 hours, I could have made the change with no penalty (which I knew, and also knew that they are required by law to do this).

She also said that this $150 per ticket change fee is their clearly stated policy, and that it is “standard across the industry.”

I mentioned that Southwest charges $35, and she said, “Well, Southwest is a whole different animal.”

However, she then totally surprised me and said that as a courtesy to me, they would be refunding the change fees! I have just checked my credit card statement and confirmed that I have actually received the refund.

Was this a random act of kindness, or is it evidence of a “new” new United — yeah, with two “news”? It will take a few more of these for me to declare that United is heading in a new direction. But I’m optimistic.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to negotiate an exception to a company’s policy, I explain it in the video below.

For the last two years, I’ve heard nothing but complaints about United. It’s hard to imagine the Continental merger going any worse, at least from the service perspective. Allen’s story is a glimmer of hope that better days could be ahead for the world’s largest airline.

Nothing would make me happier.