United is only half sorry for passenger’s brain tumor

By | September 12th, 2016

After enduring two personal tragedies, Tracy Hamilton found herself amidst a third one involving United Airlines.

In March 2015, Hamilton, a college art professor, booked four tickets on United so she and her family could travel to France, Spain and Italy. Hamilton had saved a long time for this special research trip, on which her family would tag along.

But in June 2015, right before the departure date, Hamilton was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate surgery, making travel impossible. She called United to let them know not to expect the family on board.

Hamilton’s case is a brilliant example of a time when reason should trump rules to accommodate a truly unforeseen crisis and to show compassion for a customer. But it also raises some important questions about what happens when major purchases are made with frequent flier miles, and whether even the most prescient traveler could have avoided being stuck in a similar predicament.

Hamilton’s ticket purchase was made with a combination of 180,000 frequent flier miles and $1,300 cash that she had socked away for years. United told her she had two options. For the three tickets purchased with miles, she could pay a $200 per ticket fee to redeposit the miles to her MileagePlus account. Alternatively, she could place all four tickets on hold, reserving the paid value of the tickets for a year from the date of issue.

Since the second option didn’t require a fee, Hamilton placed the four tickets on hold, knowing that if all went well they would reschedule the trip.

Happily, Hamilton’s surgery was successful. Around the same time, she also had to find a new job, because the college where she was teaching had announced that it was closing. She took a job at the University of Richmond, where the family moved and adapted to their new life. I’ll let Hamilton explain what happened next:

It was an extremely busy year, and my contract was extended for another year. I was also lucky enough to be chosen for a fellowship that would allow me to develop my latest project while in Italy in the spring of 2017. We decided my family would come along, both for the educational benefits, and because being apart for six months was too long.

But when I logged onto the United website to update our travel dates, I found that all of our tickets had disappeared. I called United, which explained that we had needed to update our travel plans by one year from the original booking date, not one year from when the tickets were put on hold, or when the travel had originally been scheduled to occur. And those original booking dates had come and gone.

Ah, yes. The unassailable one-year rule.

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Airlines — all of them — require that nonrefundable tickets must be used within a year from the original issue date. We’ve written about it before, usually when someone encounters a medical problem and doesn’t know when they can travel again, like following a heart attack or the onset of a seizure disorder. It’s one of those troublesome policies that cause air travelers to contact us for help.


Hamilton started out by trying to advocate her case herself, emailing back and forth to United with no success. Then she took a second step — one we also recommend — by filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s office of Aviation Consumer Protection.

When she didn’t get anywhere, she wrote to us for help.

“All I want is for our tickets to be reinstated,” she pleaded. “This is disappointing beyond belief.”

We contacted United on her behalf, and while we waited for a response, Hamilton actually heard from United’s DOT complaint specialist. Here’s what the airline said:

We ask for your understanding that United receives many requests to make exceptions for a wide range of reasons, which is why we have policies in place for our customers to apply for refunds of valid tickets due to various types of unplanned events. Still, I regret the circumstances that prevented you from being aware that fully unused tickets are valid one year from the date of issue to apply to other travel plans. In your case, the tickets were issued in March 2015 and expired in March 2016. While I realize that many customers do not read through all the details of a fare’s rules and restrictions or information on an E-Ticket receipt, information regarding a ticket’s validity is provided to our customers.

With that said and while the tickets are expired, I would like to make an exception and gesture of goodwill to meet you half way. I am depositing 90,000 goodwill miles to your MileagePlus account, where the original miles were drawn, and providing an electronic travel certificate in your name in the amount of $675.00, which is approximately half of your ticket that was $1,350. Please know that we do empathize with the struggles you have been faced with and we wish you continued strength in your recovery and new position in Richmond.

Following this offer, we heard back from our contact at United, who restated the above offer. When I tried to argue that half wasn’t good enough, United told me the exceptional offer was indeed made with due consideration given to Hamilton’s circumstances, and that was all that would be done.

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I made a special request that United make an award ticketing specialist available to Hamilton, so she could maximize the value of her 90,000 miles and $675 voucher. United agreed to provide assistance to Hamilton in the rebooking.

Hamilton’s case will certainly bring out the “rules are rules” commenters who visit our site. And some of you are already shouting “travel insurance” at your screen. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

When you buy tickets using hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles, which is arguably a significant investment, travel insurance will not cover those purchases. No insurance policy would have reimbursed Hamilton for the three tickets bought with miles, because insurers have no way to value them. Even Hamilton admitted in our forum that she would have been better off redepositing the miles for a fee. Of course, she offers that admission “in hindsight,” where everything is always a little clearer.

Hamilton is a busy mom and art professor who survived brain surgery, found a teaching job at a great school and is headed to Italy to research medieval art. She has a few months to come up with the rest of the miles needed to purchase four tickets to Florence.

With a little help from United, I have no doubt she’ll get it done.

Did United offer Tracy Hamilton enough?

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  • AJPeabody

    Met her half way, both with miles and dollars, and wrote a non-form letter, and will help her reschedule. Enough, I think.

  • sirwired

    “No insurance policy would have reimbursed Hamilton for the three tickets bought with miles, because insurers have no way to value them.”

    This is NOT correct; many trip insurance policies explicitly include the mileage re-deposit fee as part of their coverage, so taking out trip insurance WOULD likely have been useful.

    Where policyholders get in trouble is when they are on cash travel, and then use FF miles to fix things when the trip needs fixing. THAT is when the insurance company won’t reimburse, because of the valuation problem.

    On another note, why would a DOT complaint be the recommended next step? The DOT can be very useful when there’s a clear rule/contract violation, but for things you simply don’t like? Seems like that’s just going to route you back to the same customer service organization that already refused to make an exception.

    On the one-year rule. I agree that one year from the original date of travel would be reasonable, but it’s a valid business decision to choose one year from the date of booking instead. (Unused tickets show up on the airline’s balance sheet as a liability, and there’s a pretty strong incentive to get that cleared off as soon as possible.)

  • Alan Gore

    The one-year rule has to go. That a more usable credit lifetime wouldn’t break the bank is evidenced by Southwest’s fee of $50 for extending the time. That is the monetized cost, with profit, of allowing more time.

    Other airlines, all together now: “Curses, evil Southwest!”

  • Jeff W.

    I think the headline does a disservice to what United did for her.

    When Ms. Hamilton found out about her brain tumor, United offered her two options. A) redeposit the miles for a fee or B) place the tickets on hold for a year. She chose B and it turned out to be the wrong choice. So United gave her an option C a year later . They were willing to bend the rules and offered a partial credit after she chose option B. Is she whole? No. But neither was United.

    It is rather likely that the four tickets went unused. Not sure of the demand for last minute tickets to Europe from wherever she was flying from. Also possible United sold them at last-minute walk-up rates too — that is possible as well.

    You want to see a human touch and compassion from your travel companies. Here is an example of it and it is dismissed because it isn’t enough. The rules were bent so she wasn’t completely out of luck.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    As someone who doesn’t fly often, my question is, on these ‘one-year’ extensions, how forward are the airlines in explaining that the extension is from the day of purchase, not date of scheduled flight?

    Is this usually a matter of customers hearing only what they want to hear, CSR’s being lazy in explanation, or airlines being purposefully vague?

  • Rebecca

    I don’t understand why the offer United made is so awful? They sent a very reasonable, non-form letter explanation. They gave her more than she was entitled to. While the circumstances suck, and I don’t mean this harshly, everyone has their burdens. The only times an exception should be made are truly devastating events, otherwise there’s nowhere to draw the line.

    As others have pointed out, are miles evil or not? Apparently the OP isn’t a frequent flyer. So the miles are almost certainly from an affinity credit card. How can they be hard earned miles that she’s entitled to, yet mileage is evil and shouldn’t exist? And a “specialist” needs to be called in to maximize them? Can’t have it both ways.

  • Bill___A

    There should be two options when a flight can’t be taken. Either the flights are changed with a reasonable change fee, or airlines should just charge a reasonable cancellation fee and refund tickets when they are not changed or used, and not “store” them. I currently have about $550 “stored” with an airline since March and since that airline has both record load factors and limited flights, that ultra cheap fare I found and couldn’t use in March seems like less and less of a bargain.

    I don’t know why anyone would think that a company should be allowed to “keep” the money for later use AND charge a cancellation fee. Although I am not in favor of re-regulating the airline industry, I don’t think any business should be allowed to do this.

  • sirwired

    I think the structure that would make the most sense is a change fee that escalates as the date of the flight approaches. Start with a nominal fee (if anything), more than, say, 90 days out, and then go to 25% of the fare, all the way up to 100%, say, seven days before the flight, where the risk to the airline of a loss is greatest.

    As far as “stored value” goes; that’s a business decision. Issuing a credit (either partial or full) instead of a refund is hardly unique to the travel industry.

    I don’t know what you are referring to with a “cancellation fee”; are you referring to the change fee?

  • AAGK

    I would have liked to see the airline give Ms Hamilton another chance to accept its original offer- redeposit the miles for 200/ticket. She could fly and the airline would get some more cash.
    I don’t blame her for not getting insurance. She was traveling for a job. She didn’t plan on missing this trip. A brain tumor was hardly expected.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “No insurance policy would have reimbursed Hamilton for the three tickets bought with miles, because insurers have no way to value them.”

    This is a bold statement to make since there are many travel insurance policies that pay covers the costs to redeposit miles into your FF account.
    It is my opinion that a traveler should purchase travel insurance when taking an international trip.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agreed…some people want no risks but all of the rewards.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I have received credits, etc. and .every time, I was told that I had one year from the date of initial date of issue to book travel, to start my travel, to complete my travel, etc. depending upon the rules of the airline.

  • Barthel

    She could have sued them in small claims court for the $1350. There is a chance that United would just pay up and not fight for this relatively small amount.

  • Rebecca

    I agree completely about refunds scaled to time of cancelation. The cruise lines do this, and it works very well. It’s the most fair, equitable way to do it.

  • sirwired

    It’s not particularly moral to use the justice system (which has limited resources) to convince somebody to pay you money that they do not, in any way, legally owe you. That’s not what the courts are for. (And, of course, if they do show up, you will have blown a day of your own time to fight a losing battle.)

  • Michael__K

    Which ‘initial date of issue?’ The way it’s normally stated is ambiguous and many people understand that they have 1-year from the “initial date” the >credit< was issued.

    What they should say is that you have until 'March 15, 2016' (or whatever the deadline is) to use the credit. But then their agents wouldn't be able to quick-read a hard script.

  • Barthel

    The fight is a lot of fun, even if you lose.

  • sirwired

    It’s not that great for those with actual legal disputes who have to wait longer for a date because you want to have “fun” in small claims court.

  • Barthel

    I enjoy it. If the courts are so jammed up, why do we allow years of appeals for those on death row? At one time, execution usually took place within a few weeks or less of the sentence being pronounced. People were also less inclined to commit crimes in those days.

  • MarkKelling

    Every credit of this type I have received from airlines has a “Must book and fly before: MM/DD/YYYY” statement (or similar words) clearly shown on the form. Hard to miss.

    This is one reason I don’t book way early for my flights. If I booked something last October for a flight this September and I have to cancel, I basically have zero time to use the credit. For me, booking closer to the actual travel dates removes a lot of the possibility I will have to reschedule which in turn saves me money over booking early.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    I think that even with a reasonable cancelation fee, there would be just as many people asking to have it waived. And then you’d also have people claiming that they couldn’t cancel with in 90 or 30 or 7 days because of the same reasons they expect full refunds of nonrefundable fares now. I just don’t see where there’s any incentive for the airlines to offer this. People are booking with the rules that are in place now.

  • Annie M

    Almost every cruise line has such s cancellation policy in effect and it work. The further our a cancellation occurs, the more opportunity the cruise line has to resell that cabin. The airlines could do the same.

  • Annie M

    I am one that you criticize because I recommend travel insurance so you will probably drop dead to hear this but I am glad you advocated for this consumer.

    I would imagine that being diagnosed with brain tumor, the writer just wasn’t understanding the difference in the two alternatives. She probably did not realize the one year implication and I think if I were in her shoes I would have considered what she did.

    Thank you for advocating and getting a better outcome for her.

  • Lindabator

    Well, you bought a nonrefundable ticket, so why expect money back? They could go to what a lot of European carriers have done, which is nonchangeable and nonrefundable fares – so go or lose – not an option I think most people would like

  • Lindabator

    precisely – only opens the door to even MORE problems, like arguing about the 90 or 91st day, etc

  • Jeff W.

    The miles are definitely earned via credit card. If a person earned that many miles via flying, the “natural laws of travel” would guarantee the the OP would have a flight change or cancellation and would be familiar with the rules of travel credits. Or she should invest in lottery tickets as she would be the luckiest person in the world.

    But these are not hard earned miles. Doesn’t make them less miles less valuable, though. They were just in the hands of someone who did not know all the strings attached.

  • jim6555

    When a Southwest Airlines ticket is purchased using miles and plans change, the miles can be redeposited at no charge. They can then be used whenever and however the customer chooses to use them. I realize that Southwest does not fly to places that are not in the US, Mexico or the Caribbean. Perhaps some day an international carrier will see the benefit of adopting this humane way of treating their frequent travelers as valued customers.

  • Rebecca

    I didn’t mean she didn’t “earn them”. I was pointing out that normally, this site trumpets miles as evil, but when a consumer has a problem with said miles, then all of a sudden they’re hard earned. United Visa, from what I remember, has a $150 yearly fee. So I would agree that she earned them. I would also suggest she switch to a credit card with no annual fee, that gives cash back. And use it as a consequence of purchases you would make anyways. If you happen to get cash, great. If not, you’re not out anything. Cards with annual fees very rarely pay off. The only people that can actually make money off of them are the people for whom $150 isn’t worth stopping to pick up if they drop it. And yes, I know there are some people that collect miles and points as a full time job. Yes, they may get more than $150 in “rewards” back, but I would argue they spent more time than its worth.

  • Carchar

    Last year, I took an international trip using miles for my airfare. When I took out travel insurance, in a timely fashion so as to include a precondition waiver, I also kept adding coverage as I added to my trip. I was sure to include coverage for the miles redeposit fee, right after I secured my flight.

  • Jeff W.

    I have the United card and it is $95 a year. It is usually free for most people the first year, although one might have to spend X to qualify for it. And you might also get some free miles when you sign up initially.

    And I agree that most people should get a cash card, with no fee too. But I travel quite heavily on UA, so this pays for itself. The moment my job no longer requires me to travel, this card is gone.

    I only use this card for my business travel. All of my other cards are the no-fee kind that give cash back or generic points.

  • Annie M

    Traveling for work does not preclude the fact you could get sick and not be able to go. It doesn’t matter why you are flying. If you can’t afford to lose what you paid for your travel, you need to consider travel insurance.

  • Annie M

    I don’t know about you but I don’t have consumers complaining about the tiered cancellation policies. As long as they have the dates, what is there to complain about?

  • sirwired

    Yes, death penalty appeals are totally the same thing as a frivolous small-claims action. How could I not notice the similarity.

  • Barthel

    You need an attitude adjustment.

  • cscasi

    The initial date you purchased the ticket and it was issued. If you decide to change it three times, for whatever reasons, it still goes back to the date it was originally purchased and issued. That ‘s not hard to understand and the airlines are very good at stating that to people changing their tickets. All one has to do is ask questions to be sure he or she fully understands; rather than complain months or a year later that they did not understand.

  • Michael__K

    “On the form?” I gather your experiences weren’t over the phone.

  • Michael__K

    If it’s not hard to understand, why don’t phone agents simply recite the actual expiration date?

    In my experience, they speed-read a script which is easy to understand to mean 1-year from the date of the credit they are in the process of issuing. And the unsophisticated passenger doesn’t ask any questions, because they believe they understood the script correctly.

  • MarkKelling

    Regardless of how the initial change was done (phone, in person at the airport, on the internet), I received either a paper copy of the credit note in the mail (way back when) or an email of the same form (in more recent years).

    I don’t see where there would be a difference in how the credit is initially granted and what documentation the airline should send to you. You need something to prove you have a credit when rebooking at a later date.

  • Michael__K

    It’s been several years since I’ve gone through this but I still have the email and there is nothing on the email notification (“Flight Booking Cancellation”) that says anything about the expiration of the credit.

    Reservation, [******], was cancelled and the value of your ticket can be applied to future travel […]. Please note the confirmation number for your reservation. When you are ready to travel again, return to this cancelled reservation in Manage Reservations to make changes for a future trip.

  • MarkKelling

    Which airline?

    I know Southwest requires you to keep track of your reservation number.

    I am referring to United and Continental before the merger. They have always given me a credit voucher in these situations looking something like this one I got last week (redacted elements by me). The expiration date is clearly indicated and there is some text I did not include stating that all flights froths credit must be completed by the expiration date.

    ELECTRONIC TRAVEL CERTIFICATE

    CUSTOMER ISSUANCE INFORMATION

    Customer Promotion Code Certificate PIN Issue Date Expiration Date Total Value

    MARK******* KELLING 16***A 64E44U***X 2/**/201* 2/**/201* $6000.00

    Notes:

    Each certificate listed is valid towards the purchase of one electronic airline ticket, where eligible, on United up to the value stated.

    This certificate is not a ticket.

    RELEASE OF LIABILITY

    By accepting this travel certificate you release United; the operating carrier, and their respective employees, agents and representatives from any and all liability, claims or damages resulting or arising from the matters relating to your flight, compensation therefore or any related complaint.

  • Michael__K

    The email I quoted from was from CO/UA. I did not receive an email like the one you reference.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe they just like being wordy with me? :-)

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